David Fife’s Discovery

The outside of the Fife’s cabin at Lang Pioneer Village.

The Link, Winter 2017
| by Joanne Culley |

There is a long tradition of agriculture in the Peterborough and the Kawarthas regions. The earliest farmers were the First Nations peoples. The Iroquoians cleared the earth to grow vegetables such as squash, beans and corn, known as the ‘Three Sisters.’ Along with Anishnaabe they also hunted animals, caught fish, collected berries, roots and herbs, tapped maple trees for sap to make syrup and harvested wild rice in the lakes.

When settlers arrived in the early 19th century, they cleared the forests and harvested the logs, using human power, axes, saws and horses, if they had them. They burned the undergrowth, then cultivated the soil to plant crops. They brought with them the seeds, plants and agricultural traditions that had flourished in their home countries, with varying degrees of success. Major grains in the mid-19th century were oats and wheat which were milled locally.

“…credited with helping to open up the prairies for agriculture.”

Born in Kincardine, Scotland in 1805, David Fife came over to Canada by ship with his parents in 1820 when he was 15 years old. His family settled on land in the Otonabee Township along the Indian River, just outside of what is now Peterborough. In 1825 he started to farm independently, built a one-room log home and married Jane Beckett a year later. They eventually had eight children.

A replica of the inside of the Fife’s cabin at Lang Pioneer Village.

“David Fife, similar to other farmers at that time, planted seeds that he brought over with him but soon realized they were not suited to the climate and conditions in Canada,” says Julia Gregory, Museum Educator at Lang Pioneer Village. “He was frustrated by the low yields and susceptibility to rust of the wheat he was cultivating, so he decided to try something different.”

Fife experimented with some spring and fall samples that a friend had sent him from a Baltic ship from Danzig, or Gdansk, Poland that had docked at Glasgow, Scotland. Fife planted the seeds in the spring of 1841 and he observed that the spring sample survived and flourished better than the fall variety. The resulting grain was more resistant to rust, was of better threshing quality, had a higher yield and produced better flour than previous varieties. He shared the seeds with other members of his family and neighbours who also had success with the grain.

Fife’s wheat became the predominant strain in Ontario by 1851. Word of its quality spread to the United States and in about 1870 it was planted in Manitoba. Red Fife wheat, as it became known, was the standard of hard-spring wheat from 1860 to 1900. It was the most cultivated wheat grown on prairie farms at that time due to its early maturation time, high yield and supreme quality after being milled and baked. It is credited with helping to open up the prairies for agriculture. Later, the Red Fife variety was improved further by agriculturalist Charles Saunders, to become Marquis wheat.

David Fife is also credited with operating the first experimental farm in Canada. Part of David and Jane Fife’s first log cabin on the fourth concession of the Otonabee Township was moved to Lang Pioneer Village Museum, just a few kilometres from the original site. It was added on to there, to depict a typical one-room cabin that early settlers built. Inside are implements from that time, including a settle bed, spinning wheel and a rustic table and chairs.

“David Fife was a very humble man,” continues Gregory. “When his children travelled by train out west and people learned their last name, they asked if they were related to the famous David Fife. His children were amazed that their father was so well-known as he didn’t talk about his accomplishments.”

David Fife died in 1877. A historical plaque and stone cairn honouring him were erected in 1961 on Highway 7, unveiled by his great-grandson Donald Fife. This cairn was later moved to Lang Pioneer Village Museum.

With the resurgence of interest in ancient grains, Red Fife wheat has once again become very popular.

Sources:

Canadian Encyclopedia, entry by Martin McNicholl

At the Foot of the Rapids: The Story of Peterborough, by Jane Bow, City of Peterborough, 2000

Peterborough: The Electric City, by Elwood Jones and Bruce Dyer, Windsor Publications, 1967

The Kawartha Scene, no. 7, Lang Pioneer Village Museum
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Fife

Joanne Culley is an award-winning writer and documentary producer from Peterborough. Her work has appeared in The Globe and Mail, Peterborough Examiner, and Our Canada magazine.

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