Business, bartering and beans in P.E.I.'s Bygone Days

Historian Dutch Thompson talks to P.E.I. old-timers about business done at the corner store, where farmers often bartered their goods in the early 1900s on P.E.I.

'They didn't know what a bank was'

This vintage postcard of Victoria Row circa 1900 shows the three-storey King's Square School on the left, where the parking lot for MLAs is now. Bill Reddin walked there every day from Brighton. (Doug Morton Collection, City of Charlottetown Archives)

Reginald "Dutch" Thompson's column The Bygone Days brings you the voices of Island seniors, many of whom are now long-departed. These tales of the way things used to be offer a fascinating glimpse into the past. Every second weekend CBC P.E.I. will bring you one of Dutch's columns. 

One place on P.E.I. where you are sure to catch up with a few of your neighbours has always been the grocery store —where in the olden days, cash was king, bartering was common and molasses was a staple most families purchased and couldn't do without.

Before social media, television and even radio those trips to the store were an important social outing to catch up on community news and gossip, as well as to shop for staples such as flour, molasses and lamp oil.

"We knew everybody those years who lived in this area, and a stranger would be a curiosity," said Lloyd MacLeod of MacLeod Brothers General Store in Vernon River, P.E.I., talking about life in rural P.E.I. 80 to 90 years ago. He and his brother Donald ran the general store and knew everyone. 

Dutch Thompson is an award-winning historian and storyteller. He has published a book about P.E.I.'s bygone days. (Pat Martel/CBC)

"Now, it's like as if you were doing business in a town or a village — you have people drop in shopping and you don't know who they are!" MacLeod told columnist Dutch Thompson back in the 1980s.

Clow's General Store

The store Islanders still call "Bobby Clow's store" is a well-known P.E.I. landmark that's outlived its owner Bobby Clow, who died in 2007. The house was attached to the store, which also housed the local post office. 

Bobby Clow ran Clow's General Store in Hampshire for decades and had lots of stories about the olden days for Dutch Thompson. (CBC)

Clow and his wife Verna ran the family business in Hampshire, 15 kilometres west of Charlottetown, for decades. It's now Clow's Red and White, and is still a hub of commerce and community in the area. 

A big plate of beans and a slice of buttered brown bread and a glass of milk for 25 cents looked pretty good.— Bill Reddin

Bobby Clow and and his sister Arlene described to Dutch how business was conducted when their father Everett ran the store.

"I never seen my dad ever write a cheque," Clow said.

"They didn't know what a bank was," Arlene chimed in.

Clow recalled in the 1940s a neighbour who was a wheeler-dealer in cattle, pigs and stud horses calling over the fence, "Everett! Lend me $500 until tomorrow!" 

His father would hand over the money, although no receipts changed hands. Then a few weeks later, his father would say to the neighbour, "Cecil! Give me a couple hundred till tomorrow!" 

"That's the way them people did business," Clow recalled. 

Much was bartered or traded, rather than paid for in cash three generations ago, because few had cash. 

A gallon of molasses for 35 cents

Nina Bernard was born on a farm in French River, P.E.I., in 1902, living later in Clinton, P.E.I., after marrying Stanley Brown.

Nina Brown in a photo taken by historian Dutch Thompson circa 1993. (Dutch Thompson)

"Nobody made money when I was a girl — just enough to feed you and clothe you," Brown said, recalling her father farmed foxes in later years. "We never wanted for anything but were never wealthy."

The family made its own flour as well as vegetables, beans, meat, butter and eggs. They'd travel to the store only for things such as tea, tobacco or molasses, she said. 

A gallon of molasses cost 35 cents, Brown said, for which her family would barter three dozen eggs. With that, her mother would make traditional baked beans every Saturday night, which they'd also eat Sunday mornings. 

"Once in a while he came home with a can of something ... something that'd be a treat," she said, remembering a tin of tomatoes was quite a novelty. 

Brighton was farmland

And life in the big city of Charlottetown wasn't that much different in some ways from rural P.E.I.

Goodwill Avenue and York Lane in the Brighton neighbourhood of Charlottetown circa 1945 — an area that's now completely urban. (Hope Hyndman Collection, City of Charlottetown Archives)

In the early 1900s the Brighton area was farm fields, where Bill Reddin's family owned an eight-acre farm. 

"When we lived out in Brighton we had a sow and we had hens and a whole lot of fruit trees," recalled Reddin. As a child, Reddin earned 10 cents a row weeding carrots for his neighbour Vince Power, whose farm was where Admiral Street is now.

"If you didn't do it right, you had to go over it again to get your 10 cents a row!" Reddin chuckled. 

Beans for blankets

Further illustrating the scarcity of cash in those times, Reddin recalled when his father died in 1921, a neighbour owed his mother $25. 

Lloyd and Donald MacLeod in front of their now-defunct general store in Vernon River, P.E.I. (Submitted by Dutch Thompson)

The man didn't have the money, but owned a restaurant where he said he'd give Reddin and his brother lunches as they attended Queen Square School (since demolished).

"We looked over the menu and decided a big plate of beans and a slice of buttered brown bread and a glass of milk for 25 cents looked pretty good," Reddin said. 

They ordered the same thing day after day until the cook simply asked them "Beans today boys?" as they walked in the door. It look them 50 days to eat the debt in beans.

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Sara Fraser

Web Journalist

Sara has worked with CBC News in P.E.I. since 1988, starting with television and radio before moving to the digital news team. She grew up on the Island and has a journalism degree from the University of King's College in Halifax. Reach her by email at