Energy on the John Orser Farm and Alnwick, Northumberland County, Ontario

Figure 1a. Terminus of the Cobourg & Peterborough Railroad at Harwood, Ontario, 1865. Cobourg and District Images collection of the Cobourg Public Library. Used with permission. Note the stacked cordwood on the dock that was fuel for the steamships plying Rice Lake. Click to enlarge.

The Orser Farm in Ontario’s Northumberland County is an example of a Forest Product Farm with Supporting Livestock and Crops. John Orser (b. 1808/ d. 1877) reported owning 220.5 acres, or 89.2 hectares, on “Orser’s Island, Rice Lake,” in 1871.[1] Orser’s Island was likely an early name for what is now White’s Island. Orser married Lucy Ann White April 1, 1836.[2] By 1871, the couple had four children: William age 29, David age 27, Martha age 24, and Gilbert age 22. A fifth child, 11-year-old Lucy White whom they had adopted, also lived with them.[3] Lucy was the daughter of Lucy Ann’s brother George White and George’s wife Marabah (nee Sickles).[4] Lucy was, therefore, Lucy Ann’s niece.[5] Her parents George and Marabah had recently relocated to Wiikwemikong on Manitoulin Island. The move was likely because particularly harsh weather of 1866 resulted in crop failures, and they chose Manitoulin in part because Maribah had band membership.[6] However, whereas John and Lucy Ann’s children were all in their 20s by 1871, George and Marabah’s children were all young (Figure 1b).[7] It may be that George and Marabah did not have enough help on the farm for it to be productive. After a few years at Wiikwemikong, George and Marabah relocated to Ten Mile Point, Manitoulin Island, and George timbered cedar and tamarack from the surrounding area. He supplied many of the squared railway ties for the Algoma Eastern Railway.[8]

Figure 1b. Maribah (nee Sickles) and George White and their sons Darius who is standing and William Norman who is sitting on his mother’s lap. This photograph, ca. 1866, is attributed to the Ten Mile Point Collection, courtesy of Harry Robbins. Ancestry Family Trees,

The focus of this profile is on John and Lucy Ann Orser, the family that remained on Orser’s (White’s) Island. Like his brother-in-law, John mixed farming and forestry. In 1871, he reported 200 census standard pine logs, 20 census standard spruce or other logs, and 200 cords of firewood. This was the largest amount of logs and firewood reported by a landowner in Alnwick, in 1871.[9] Orser likely sold the firewood as fuel for the small steamships that plied Rice Lake (Figure 1a). It may be that he supplied cord wood to Zack (Zaccheus) White, his wife Lucy Ann’s cousin, to fuel Zack’s steamship The Firefly.[10] Orser also reported in the 1871 census that he owned two town building lots, two houses, three barns or stables, two cars, wagons, or sleds, five ploughs or cultivators, one thrashing machine, one fanning mill, and four of his own boats (described by the census only as pleasure or common boats).

Figure 1c. Clip showing location of White’s Island, previously Orser’s Island, Township of Alnwick. Illustrated Atlas of the Dominion of Canada, Containing All the Provinces, the Northwest Territories and the Island of Newfoundland. Toronto: H. Belden & Co., 1880. The Canadian County Atlas Digital Project,

Figure 1d. Google Map of Alnwick, Northumberland County, Ontario.

Farm Energy Funds*

At 89.2 ha, John Orser’s farm was more than double the average-sized farm in Alnwick (41.7 ha). As well, 77 percent of Orser’s land was cleared, compared to 40 percent of the Alnwick Census Subdivision (CSD). Additionally, his farm had five times more land in pasture and hay (37.2 ha) than did the average farm in the Alnwick CSD (7.3 ha). The livestock consuming these resources amounted to 23.4 units per square kilometer (LU/km2), with a grazing intensity of .66 ruminant units per hectare of pasture. In contrast, the Alnwick CSD contained 16.2 LU/km2 and a grazing intensity of 1.09 ruminants per hectare of pasture. Orser’s grazing intensity was a little lower than another Eastern Ontario farm profiled here (see the Yuill farm in Lanark County). This suggests that the island’s pastures, like the Yuill farm, were less productive than pastures in other parts of the country.

Figure 2a. Area Visualization of John Orser’s farm, in 1871. Note that approximately 23 percent (20.4 ha) of his land was either woodland or unimproved land and that approximately 30 percent (27.1 ha) was in pasture,11 percent (10.1 ha) in hay, and less than one percent (0.6 ha) in orchard and garden, leaving approximately 35 percent (30.8 ha) in potatoes, wheat and other crops. Clearly, Orser’s focus was on pasture and hay for his herd.
Figure 2b. Area Visualization of all the farms in Alnwick CSD, West Northumberland, Ontario. Approximately 35 percent of the land was either woodland or unimproved land, 23 percent was pasture, hay, orchard and gardens, or marsh, and 42 percent was potatoes, wheat, or other crops. This is a contrast to the Orser farm that had more land in pasture and hay but less land in woodland and unimproved land, as well as less land in potatoes, wheat, and other crops.

Farm Energy Flows*

With his relatively large wood production, Orser’s farm was an example of agri-forestry. In contrast to Orser’s 200 cords of firewood, the Alnwick CSD had 4,846 cords, or approximately 24 cords of firewood per farm. The wood he produced almost certainly came from forests beyond his own 20 hectares on the island. The Alnwick CSD contained another 2,364 hectares of woodland on farm holdings alone, plus a good deal of forest in non-agricultural holdings. In winter, when Rice Lake was frozen and men turned their attention to work in the woodlands, it was relatively easy to transport wood over ice by sleigh pulled by oxen or draught horses.

Both Orser and the greater Alnwick CSD had feed and litter deficits. In terms of energy, Orser’s feed deficit was 567,772 MJ and his litter deficit was 148,583 MJ. For the Alnwick CSD, it was 38,442,555 MJ and 10,786,178 MJ respectively, which was a 194,154 MJ feed deficit and a 54,476 MJ litter deficit per farm. Both Orser’s farm and the Alnwick CSD had residues from fodder crops and pasture, but the deficits meant that Orser and his neighbours had to bring in feed and litter to satisfy the requirements of their livestock. The railway that terminated at Harwood, which was just south-west of Orser’s, or White’s, Island plus the steamboats that plied Rice Lake, must have transported feed and litter to the Alnwick area, as well as transported farm products from Alnwick to larger centres.

In 1871, John Orser’s farm produced 180 bu spring wheat, 150 bu fall wheat, 100 bu oats, 300 bu peas, 200 bu potatoes, and 6 bu pears, plums, and other fruit. He also had two beehives. The Alnwick CSD produced the same crops, plus farmers from the area reported barley, rye, beans, buckwheat, corn, turnips, mangel-wurtzel, carrots, and other root crops. There were 34 beehives reported in total, which was approximately one hive for every six farms.

In 1871, Orser reported having two horses over three years old, six oxen, two milchers, fourteen other horned cattle, twelve sheep, and six swine. He slaughtered four each of cattle, sheep, and swine. He had 200 pounds of butter and 50 pounds of wool. For each of these categories the Orser farm exceeded the average farm in the Alnwick CSD. Most  notable was the number of livestock Orser had compared to the average farm in the area. For example, where Orser had six oxen, the average farm had .61 of an ox, and where Orser had 14 other horned cattle, the average farm had 3.62. The energy of the 12 animals Orser slaughtered (four each of cattle, swine, and sheep) was 8,200 MJ. In contrast, the energy of slaughtered cattle, swine, and sheep for the Alnwick CDS was 1,128,800 MJ, which averaged 5,701 MJ per farm.


John Orser’s farm was large and prosperous compared to the average farm in the Alnwick CSD. His adult children–three sons, William, David, and Gilbert, plus his daughter Martha and adopted daughter Lucy–provided labour on the farm. His sons must have also assisted Orser with the forestry that he undertook in winter. The six oxen kept by Orser, which amounted to three teams of two, allowed Orser and his sons to draw logs out of the forest and transport them to the Orser farm for storage. Although the 1871 Canada Census does not distinguish the breeds of any livestock, it may be that the two horses over the age of three reported by Orser were draught horses and that, therefore, they constituted a fourth team. By having pasture, hay, and other vital feed for his livestock, such as oats for his horses, and peas for his oxen, Orser’s farm supported his wintertime work in forestry.

* For an explanation of terms in this profile, see the farm energy profiles project home page.

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[1] “John Orser,” 1871 Canada Census, RG31, C-9984, Library and Archives Canada (LAC), Ottawa.The enumerator noted that Orser was located on Orser Island, Rice Lake. The largest island in Rice Lake, White’s Island is approximately 99 ha. Possibly, ten hectares of White’s Island was owned by another person.

[2] “John Orser,” Ontario, Canada, Marriages, 1785-1935,

[3] “John Orser,” 1871, LAC.The enumerator also noted that Lucy White was an adopted child.

[4] “Maribah Sickles,” Ancestry Family Trees,

[5] “George White,” 1861 Canada Census, C-1054, LAC. In 1861, George and Marabah White had four children, all girls. One-year-old Lucy was the youngest.  George’s mother and father, Martha and David, aged 66 and 77 respectively, were also living with them. Martha died about the time the census was taken, and David died in 1865.

[6] Michelle Caesar, “White family history letter a delight to read,” Manitoulin Express, June 27, 2018, The 1871 Canada Census for Alnwick shows that there were many Indigenous people (designated “Indian”) enumerated as well as settlers whose origins were put down by the enumerator as, for example, Scotch, Dutch, and English. Wiikewemkong is a First Nation located on Manitoulin Island. It is unceded territory. The enumerator also noted in schedule 3 of the 1871 census that one farm located in the same division as the John Orser farm had suffered from crop failure.

[7] “White,” 1861, LAC; and “George White,” 1881 Canada Census, C-13281, LAC. George White and his family are missing from the 1871 Canada Census, possibly because they were located on Wiikwemikong at the time. However, by combining the results of the 1861 and 1881 censuses, it is apparent that George and Marabah had several children by 1866, the eldest, Martha, was aged 13, and the youngest, William Norman was aged one. Marabah’s widowed father William Sickles was living with them in 1881 at the age of 90.

[8] Ibid.

[9] “John Orser,” 1871, LAC.

[10] Mary Jane Muskratte Simpson, “The Story of a Lake,” A History of the Rice Lake Indians,, An investigation using databases linked to shows that Lucy Ann and her brother George were descended from David G. White (b. 1784/ d. 1865) and that Zaccheus was descended from David’s younger brother Joseph C. White (b. 1786/ d. 1850). Both David and Joseph were born in the United States but had immigrated to Alnwick in the early nineteenth century. databases also indicate that Zack White was a “mariner.” See “Zacheus White,” Ontario, Canada, Deaths and Deaths Overseas, 1869-1948, databases further show that Zack White’s father, also named Zaccheus, was involved in forestry. He is put down on his son Zack’s birth registration as a “lumber merchant.” See “Zacchens Ostrum,” Ontario, Canada Births, 1832-1915. s.v. “Zaccheus White,” Zack’s mother’s maiden name was Ostrum. There has obviously been trouble transcribing this database so that some items are misspelled and others appear on the wrong line.