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Bees, Frolics and Building Houses

In her study of United Empire Loyalists of Scottish extraction, Hazel C. Mathews makes a connection between the terms "bee" and "frolic":

The American counterpart of that old Scottish institution, the "frolic" which was a gathering of neighbours to unite their labours for the benefit of one of their number, was a "bee". Those giving assistance expected only a return in kind, one day a season being considered sufficient for any individual. "The New Englanders", wrote a Scottish traveller, after asserting that they would work only for hire, "sometimes give their assistance for the sake of the Frolic -- dinner and drink etc. -- which takes place in the afternoon, but if they can persuade a man to give the dinner early they are off presently".[i]

The notion of serving dinner, drink and entertainment to the group of workers on the lowland Scottish fermtoun was part of the culture of the cooperative eighteenth century rural economy. That a task was performed by neighbours together was completely consistent with the very nature of their cooperative / communal existence. It was not at all a coincidence that merrymaking followed the completion of a task -- it was an important part of their culture. Based on the sources used in this study, the word "frolic" would appear to have been used in connection with the merrymaking. By cultural and historic association with the performance of a task by a group of neighbours, it is easy to understand how "frolic" could be equated with "bee" in the North American context.

The early Scot's "house-raising bee" in Upper Canada has an important connection with the nature of the tenant / dwelling relationship in the old country. In at least some parts of Scotland -- and perhaps more universally at an earlier period -- the tenant actually took the timber members of the roof with him when he surrendered his tenancy. Some Kincardineshire tenants in 1705 had evidently made a habit of taking more construction materials than authorized:

That no tenant or cottar removing from their respective farms shall pull down any of their house walls more than free their timber.[ii]

The new tenant was thus required to rebuild the house roof structure with his own timbers -- the cycle, of course, would continue. In addition, over time, the effects of the weather on the roof members required that they be repaired or the roof replaced altogether. Doubtless, the neighbours would assist with such work and enjoy the frolic afterwards.

Robert Hamilton, a weaver from Lesmahagow via Glasgow, arrived in Scarborough, Upper Canada, on May 16, 1830. He was one who had evidently joined the temperance movement and was quick to point out that:

I see no fear of a person getting a good living here if he be industrious and sober but if a man wants to be a drinker here, the drink is so cheap he is very apt to fall into the snare.[iii]

Hamilton was:

the pioneer total abstinence advocate in the Township. On the occasion of his first "raising" he absolutely refused to provide whiskey, and those who came to assist refused just as positively to touch a stick on this account. The dead-lock was overcome by his giving the boss carpenter authority to manage the business as he pleased, and the exercise of this pleasure brought the work to a successful termination.[iv]

Rev. William Proudfoot was preaching temporarily at St. Andrew's, the Scotch Kirk in Scarborough , because "they are wishing to have a minister to themselves, and are wishing me to settle amongst them". On Saturday, December 1, 1832, he recorded in his diary:

Mr. Craig come into York today to take me out on horse back to Scarborough, and shewed me all such kindness as is wont to be shewn to ministers in Scotland . On my way, called at the house of Mr. Brownlee, a Scotchman from Lesmahago, to warm our feet, who also served us a Scotch hospitality. Intended to lodge this evening with Mr. David Thomson, but when we got to his house we found them all tipsy. Mr. Thomson had had a bee on Wednesday, and they had been drinking ever since. Scarborough folks are noted drinkers. In consequence of the disordered state of the house, I proceeded to Mr. Johnson's, my old quarters, where I received a most hearty welcome, and where Mr. Craig and I spent the evening in a very comfortable manner.[v]

  Fights were common-place at bees in early Scottish settlements:

When I became a magistrate, I used to go away to the woods when I heard there was a fight at a bee, and keep away till the blood cooled down, and that generally ended the matter.[vi]

There were other occasions for receiving assistance from neighbours. In Scarborough , in 1832:

Females, when confined, do not call the assistance of either midwife or surgeon; the reason is they charge too high. So the neighbors assist, and all goes well enough.[vii]

Apple paring bees, logging bees, pumpkin bees, sugaring bees and corn husking bees all followed that old-country tradition of combining community toil and dance. Of course, the task was all the more pleasureable with the promise of the "frolic" to follow. These bees could involve the efforts of men, women and children.


Barn Raisings

Early twentieth century barn raisings were community events as described by Clark Secor:

Invitations were sent out by phone and neighbour told neighbour. Everyone was glad to take part. Early on the morning of the "raising", six or eight neighbours arrived to assemble the bents... About 1 PM the rest of the men (40 or 50 of them) started to arrive. The boss carpenter would tell them to pick two captains, one for each side, as we always had a race, and they would choose their teams... All worked together raising the bents, but when raising the plates and putting up the rafters, the two teams competed to see who could finish first. It was a great thrill to place the last rafter ahead of the other fellow and reach the floor to the cheers of your team... All the ladies who had come to help with the meal which was always served when the raising was over would be out watching and cheering us on... After the last rafter was up, came the eats. Two long tables end to end, with benches along the sides, and lots of hot food, tea coffee, the works... When all the work was done, there was one more thing needed to finish off -- the Barn Party. All during the building of the barn, plans were being made for that big event, the Barn Dance. A football club, tennis club, or other group would ask for permission to hold a dance in the new barn. When permission was given, it was always on condition that everyone who had helped in any way would be invited, and that no alcohol would be permitted.[viii]

At the barn raising of John Young, near Milliken, although June 7, 1905, was a "very wet forenoon, 175 took tea". On June 30, there was a "fine party in barn, upwards of 500 present".[ix]


[i]               Hazel C. Mathews, Mark of Honour, p. 18. She quotes Lord Selkirk's Diary, Jan. 19, 1804.

[ii]               Graham, Social Life, p. 183, quoting "Court Book of Barony of Urie, 1604-1747", Scottish History Society, p. 47.

[iii]              Letter from Robert Hamilton, Scarborough , May 27, 1830, to his father in Lesmahagow, Lanarkshire. R.H. Martin Collection.

[iv]              Boyle, Scarboro, p. 268.

[v]               Diary of Rev. William Proudfoot, as printed in "Transactions of the London and Middlesex Historical Society", Part VI (1915), p. 68.

[vi]              C.O. Ermatinger, The Talbot Regime, p. 102, testimony of George Munro.

[vii]             Diary of Rev. William Proudfoot, Dec. 2, 1832.

[viii]             "Barn Raisings: Personal Recollections" by Clark Secor (born 1889), a grandson of James Weir from Lesmahagow. In " Scarborough Historical Notes and Comments", Volume 1, No. 2, Sept. 1977, p. 3-4.

[ix]              Diary of John Young.


The Scarboro Heights Record V13 #5