Monday, February 26, 2024
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McGill Oak

by Neil Carleton 

A darkroom to develop photographs wasn’t a typical feature of a rural farmhouse in Lanark County during the 1920s.  The McGill home, located today at 4139 County Road 29, north of Snedden Corners, was unique in this regard.

 Margaret Morrison McGill (Arthur), wife of John McGill, was a remarkable woman.  In addition to all the responsibilities of managing a farm home and raising a family, she was an avid shutterbug.  With a dark room at the back of the house, Mrs. McGill developed her own black and white photos of farm life over the years.  Her photographic treasures are carefully looked after by her daughter Marion Cavanagh (McGill) who lives in the same house.

The front yard of the McGill home has been featured in a variety of photographs over the years.  Captured by the images are social events, family portraits, and a changing landscape.  In some photos there is an enduring icon.  The large burr oak that’s graced the south fence row for more than a century is still standing tall near the road.

This shot (photographer unknown) was taken in June 1913 when the farm was owned by the Snedden family. The event was an afternoon tea given in honour of the former minister, Rev. McLean. Of note for this month’s column, still in spring foliage, is the oak tree in the background to the left.
When Margaret McGill tripped the shutter for this photo, circa 1928, her children Marion, about 2 years old, and Jean, close to 8 years old, were posed in the front yard closer to the road. The big bur oak at the end of the south fence row is visible in the background to the far right.
About the same time, a profusion of arboreal flowers in the front yard, near the road, was the subject of this early photo by Margaret McGill. Included in the background, to the right, is the same large bur oak along the south fence line.

 The McGill oak stands tall today with a circumference of 3.31 m / 10.86 ft, and a diameter of 1.00 m / 3.28 ft.  From its vantage point on the farm, this tree has been a witness to much change.  Two lanes of cars and trucks traveling at high speeds on a paved highway have replaced the narrow road and horse drawn vehicles of an earlier era.  Split rails have pretty much been replaced by wire fences in the region.  Gone too are the giant elms that defined much of the earlier rural landscape.


With deep soil at this location, there’s no sign of bedrock outcrops in the area. A bur oak has a deep tap-root with a number of deep, spreading lateral roots.


The branches on the south side of the tree extend well out over the field. Many of the leaves had already fallen when this photo was taken on October 16, 2012.


The leaves of the bur oak, about 17.8 cm / 7 in long, and 8.9 cm / 3.5 in wide, can be quite variable in shape. The commonest type has a broadly expanded, toothed upper portion. The narrower lower half has a few short, rounded lobes which gradually reduce in size to the base of the leaf.
The crown of the McGill oak is overall rounded and the straight trunk divides into many radiating, thick branches. The bark is rough and deeply furrowed with scaly darkish ridges.


Look for this month’s tree on the west side of the highway, just south of the Cavanagh driveway at 4139 County Road 29.  For an interactive perspective of this month’s shady character, go on the internet to Google Maps at

Although Mr. Google is a little confused about the exact location of some road numbers, the Cavanagh driveway is easy to find.  Instead of 4139, type 4195 County Road 29, Mississippi Mills, ON, and hit enter.  Then, over on the left, click on the street view photo.  Move your cursor arrow to the end of the driveway and click.  By using the arrows at the top left, you’ll have a fine view of the farm house, as well as the big oak along the south fence line.  If you’d like a closer look at the tree, move your cursor arrow a little farther down the highway and click again.  Turn to the west, or right, and you’ll find the McGill oak standing right before you.

Thank you to Marilyn Snedden for nominating this month’s shady character.

Do you have a notable or favourite tree?  Readers are invited to submit their nominations for an honor roll of trees in our area that could be featured in future articles.  You can contact me at 613-256-2018, <>, or Neil Carleton, 3 Argyle Street, P.O. Box 1644, Almonte, Ontario, K0A 1A0.  I look forward to hearing from you.

My volunteer columns started in March 2010, as print features, to support the tree planting and tree awareness initiatives of the Mississippi Mills Beautification Committee.  The contact for the Tree Working Group is Ron Ayling, 613-256-4617.  In Carleton Place, the contact for the Urban Forest / River Corridor Advisory Committee is Jim McCready, 613-257-5853.

Until the next column, you’ll find me looking for and hanging out with local shady characters.




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