Written By: Helen Cutts, Kingston Association of Museums Visitor in Residence
I love looking at vintage photographs in Kingston and area museums, especially scenes with horse-drawn wagons and carriages. While the scenes look peaceful, anyone who knows horses knows the potential for chaos to be unleashed. In the 1850s when Kingston’s streets were filled with horse-drawn wagons, an unexpected noise could spook a horse. If this happened just when the deliveryman was away from his wagon, you could expect to see something resembling a comedy from the silent movie era.
According to an article by Alvin Armstrong, “Horse power”, written as part of a series on Kingston’s history for the Whig Standard, a spooked horse would cause havoc, scaring people and chickens alike, until some brave soul could grab the horse’s bridle and heroically bring the runaway to a standstill. If there were a team of horses in breakaway mode, you might see a young man running behind the wagon. He’d fling himself aboard and gradually move forward and grab the reins. Sometimes he’d have to step onto the wagon tongue and jump onto one of the horses to gain control.
Armstrong explained that a spooked horse could travel very quickly and if it took a corner too sharply, it could tip the wagon and spill the goods. If the wagon crashed into a wooden post, it would break apart and send pieces flying in all directions. Hardly a serene image.
Yet, for the most part, deliveries went smoothly. People could count on horse-drawn vehicles for delivery of goods such as bread, milk, salt pork and coal. Wealthier families had ice delivered, and businesses depended on horses for delivery of all manner of commercial goods. At the Museum of Lennox and Addington, I saw a fascinating photo of horse-drawn sleighs delivering bicycles in crates to the Normile Bicycle Works in Napanee. In addition, horses were essential to farmers, not only to work the farms, but also to bring their produce to market.
As early as 1788, there was a market in Kingston at the same site as today’s market on King Street behind City Hall. At that time, there was no town – only a small village surrounded by forests. It was in this decade that the British started making land grants to refugees from the United States. On May 21, 1784, the first party of 109 refugees loyal to the British, the Loyalists, arrived in Cataraqui (as it was known then), having endured a difficult trip up the St. Lawrence River, where supplies had to be carried over portage routes and boats had to be dragged over the rocks and rapids. At nightfall they had camped along the shoreline and gathered around campfires. Once they were assigned land in the Cataraqui area, they were given tents for use until they could make log huts from the trees they cut down. Each family was given seed allowances and farming tools and every two families received a plow and a cow to share. From these beginnings, today’s public market was born.
The Kingston Public Market was granted official status in 1801, thirty three years before Kingston was incorporated as a town. The goods available for purchase differed greatly from what is now on offer. Hunters and fisherman sold venison, game birds and fish caught locally, while other vendors sold wood for home heating, hay for livestock, wool for making clothes and iron nails for construction. The market was initially a collection of wooden stalls, but when a huge fire in 1840 destroyed 40 downtown buildings, plans were set in motion for a large, stone building. It was built as a wing of the newly constructed City Hall, completed in 1844. The ground floor was occupied by farmers who raised cattle, hogs and sheep, while “hucksters” sold their goods on the lower floor.
Today the term huckster has a negative connotation, but in the middle of the 19th century, huckster was a neutral term denoting a middleman. The hucksters did not produce agricultural goods themselves; rather, they bought wholesale and sold retail, usually at the Kingston Public Market but sometimes by going door to door.
For local residents, the market was a good place to purchase meats; for the farmers, it was a vital source of income. As more farmers turned to raising hogs, a new problem emerged: there was too much pork to be absorbed by local families. The initial solution was to sell the surplus to the military garrison but there was still too much supply. By the middle of the 19th century, local farmers began to rely on another middleman: merchants who would ship salt pork in barrels to Montreal.
Trade was so lucrative that one Kingstonian, Andrew McLean, set up his own business in about 1849 to sell salt pork. His pork-packing business was located at 272-280 Ontario Street. In addition to selling pork, the company also had a thriving business in wholesale groceries. An indication of the company’s size was the fact that it employed two travelling salesmen.
 “Horse power” by Alvin Armstrong, Whig Standard History Series, Part 157. This was an article in Armstrong’s year-long series in 1973, marking 300 years since the founding of Fort Frontenac.
 “Settlers arrive” by Alvin Armstrong, Whig Standard History Series, Part 27, 1973.
 “The shambles” by Alvin Armstrong. Whig Standard History Series, Part 155, 1973.
 “Export trade” by Alvin Armstrong. Whig Standard History Series, Part 160, 1973