When a good rhyme is worth a ticket … A poem to pay for a boat trip
By Robin Hilborn – Bruce County Historical Society
You’ve heard of “singing for your supper”. How about “composing a poem to pay for your boat trip”? One enterprising fellow at the start of the 20th century proved there was profit in poetry.
In October 1954, local historian Bruce Krug interviewed Bert MacDonald at Goderich harbour. Bert’s father owned the schooner J.G. Kolfage. For 20 years she hauled the season’s cut of lumber from the McVicar sawmill at Johnston’s Harbour on the Bruce Peninsula, down to Chatham.
For example, on April 23, 1903 the Goderich Signal reported, “Capt. John MacDonald has been waiting for favourable weather since the middle of last week to take out the Kolfage. She takes mill supplies to Johnston’s Harbour and loads lumber there for Chatham.”
Bert recalled the time that his father was taking Kolfage out of Chatham to pick up another load of lumber. Two men asked if they could ride along on the ship to Johnston’s Harbour. His father agreed to give them a ride, and their board, if they would help in loading lumber at their destination.
When the Kolfage arrived at Johnston’s Harbour, one of the men found after handling a few boards that he couldn’t do the work. It wasn’t that he was all thumbs, but rather that he lacked thumbs entirely. He begged the captain to excuse him from handling lumber, promising that, in return for his fare, he would write poetry all the way back to Chatham.
Bert MacDonald said that by the time the ship returned to Chatham the thumbless man, whose name was John McCuish, had written 23 verses. The poem starts, “We shipped on board the Kolfage at Chatham County Kent, / The fourth day of October for Johnston’s Harbor bent.”
Capt. John MacDonald took the poem to the Chatham Planet, where it was printed. This would be about 1904. The editor of the newspaper said that he would like to hire a writer like this, but McCuish disappeared soon after the ship docked in Chatham. People said he’d been on the lam and had travelled on the ship to Johnston’s Harbour in order to dodge a police pursuit.
A trip on the Schooner Kolfage
By John McCuish
We shipped on board the Kolfage at Chatham County Kent,
The fourth day of October for Johnston’s Harbor bent.
Commanded by MacDonald who always fast time makes,
On board the Schr. Kolfage Columbia of the Lakes.
The Lake tug Vick took us in tow at nine o’clock at night,
And down the Thames we floated ’mid moonbeams sombre light.
And when we reached the Lake St. Clair the wind was dead ahead
So the Captain ordered anchor down and we went off to bed.
Next morning, when we hoisted sail the wind came from the west,
And the Kolfage ploughed the Lake St. Clair while the water frothed like yeast.
We were heading for the St. Clair cut with all our sails unfurled,
With a bending mast, we certainly smashed the record of the world.
Just then a steamer came abreast and we ran neck and neck
The cut was not far distant and our speed we could not check.
We ran into the steamer to keep her off the bank
The fenders rubbed, both sides we scrubbed of course we got a yank.
We reached the town of Sarnia the afternoon that day,
The wind, once more contrary we anchored in the bay.
We were towed out next morning in the lake a mile or so,
With the Cataract and Vianna from Lake Ontario.
All three then stripped for action for a race it was to be,
For the Lake Ontario clippers claimed the supremacy.
With every stitch of canvass stretched we ran north like a steer.
And when that night the sun went down They were hopelessly in the rear.
Next day we reached Southampton and anchored off the shore,
Just inside the harbor while the waves outside did roar
And the good ship Schooner Fulton inside the harbor found
In a waterlogged condition and also run aground.
At dawn we raised our anchor, and hoisted sail once more
And headed out into lake away from the rocky shore
We then sailed North along the Cape before the south west breeze
We run her into a little bay among lumber piles and trees.
We hauled in all our canvass and tied up to the dock
And seven men came walking out along the ridge of rock
We then did eat our dinner for we were feeling lank
And shortly got introduced to a twenty-two foot plank.
But before we started at the plank oat bags we had to toat
And haul thirty barrels of flour from the bosom of the boat.
We hoisted at the flour till our fingers began to swell
But I’d gladly haul the flour if the planks they were in h——.
So now the boat is loaded and we are on the shore
Resolved to never handle plank or lumber any more
And as the Kolfage rounds the bend and disappears from view
Good-bye Capt. MacDonald here’s our respects to you
After the poem appeared in the Planet, sailors all over the Great Lakes started to recite “A trip on the schooner Kolfage”. It can be read in the Archives at the Bruce County Museum & Cultural Centre (BCM&CC). There are two versions, one with 11 stanzas, another with 12. Source: BCM&CC, Bruce Krug Manuscripts, A2014.003.0561, and Weichel Binder 48.