The MacMillian Claim Table – Michael Barnes

The auctioneer’s gavel has had a great deal to do with the distribution of our northern history. People pass away, the relatives put the estate up to auction and sometimes priceless artifacts are lost to public view, often because those who bid on them are not aware of their significance.

All across our north country people are holding artifacts, curios and just plain keepsakes with the vague notion that the object in question is old and therefore should be kept for their own private posterity.

I come across paintings, photographs pieces of furniture and so on but often with no background material, the significance of the item is lost.

Not long ago someone sent me a page from a catalogue of antiques and other curiosities. The main item was the Macmillan Claim Layout Table.

I had heard of such mining artifacts but they are rare and like so many tools of trades from past times, moulder away in garages and attics because their present owners do not have a clue what they have.

A scan of the background information on this unusual piece indicated that the table belonged to George and Viola MacMillan and then my interest was really piqued. The MacMillans were a well known husband and wife team who prospected in Canada from a period after World War I until at least the late seventies.

Mining developer Pat McCulloch described the table and its purpose. The table was 24 by 32 inches, with four hinges and a cross brace, I guess something like a card table.

The difference was that that both brace and legs were made of axe handles. Its two owners had seen tough times in the early part of their careers and knew how to use whatever materials were handy and free.

This portable rig came with a strap so that it could be fastened to a pack for easy transport when canoeing or packing through the bush.

George and Viola MacMillan were characters in the history of mining in Canada. Both were prospectors and were among the founders of the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada, the umbrella organization for the mining industry.

They worked hard and made money in various endeavours. Best luck came in Timmins where Viola made a gold discovery in Hislop Township which produced a working mine and bankrolled much of their further explorations.

The husband and wife prospecting team must have used the claim table on their countless trips. The practical utility of the table was to lay out for a staking crew a sixteen claim block. But it was more than that. The thoughtful MacMillans devised the table so as to make less work than bureaucratic regulations required.

You see the old mining act used to require that each 40 acre claim be cut out sequentially at its four corners with the date and time recorded on each claim post. Once all four posts had been set in order, then the staker could go on with the second claim.

Trouble was that this could really tire a person out. In effect it meant that the hard working claim staker had to retrace steps many times. Time after all is the essence in the claim business and someone else could be claiming ground while the original staker was following the ponderous regulations.

The kind folks who devised the regulations never thought of prospectors slogging through swamp or fly infested bush to do the work. If four claims could be cut, for example with the same corners, the outside area could be taken first and the details completed  later.

So the MacMillans used the table to plot their strategy for each area they claimed. The idea saved a lot of work. Actually the table seems to have been modified later and turned into a game where player ’prospectors’ could vie to see the most efficient ways of staking land.

George died in 1978 and just before she passed away in 1993, Viola was awarded the Order of Canada for her services to Canadian mining.

I bet they never mentioned the claim board at Rideau Hall when she picked up her medal. Let’s hope that whoever picked it up gave it to a museum or some place where the unusual artifact from the prospector’s trade could be seen, enjoyed and understood by future generations.

Michael Barnes is a published Canadian author who has written extensively on Northern Ontario.