Stories of love and courting from P.E.I.'s Bygone Days

The way men and women dated in the bygone days more than 100 years ago on P.E.I. was very different. For one thing, it was not called dating — if a young woman was accepting visits from a young man, perhaps accompanying him to a dance or a picnic, it was called "courting." 

'There was a lot of romances made during the skating days'

Church or community picnics were an excellent place to meet potential mates in the bygone days, especially if there was a cake or box lunch auction. This photo was taken between 1905 and 1920 in rural P.E.I., and children can be seen in the background having sack races. (PARO)

The way men and women dated in the bygone days more than 100 years ago on P.E.I. was very different.

For one thing, it was not called dating — if a young woman was accepting visits from a young man, perhaps accompanying him to a dance or a picnic, it was called "courting."

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

Kathryn "Kay" Wood from Victoria, P.E.I., was well-known and beloved by everyone in the community before she died in 2007 at age 100. The tourism industry pioneer and newspaper columnist was once named one of the most influential women on P.E.I., but it was her impish grin, love of conversation and deep knowledge and curiosity about the world that endeared her to all. 

Kay was born a MacQuarrie in Hampton, just down the road from Victoria on the Island's beautiful South Shore, into a family of three boys and five girls. She also lived through a pandemic as she and her sister got sick but survived the 1918 Spanish Flu. 

When she was a girl, life in the village of Hampton revolved around two buildings: the Hampton Hall and the general store, which was run by her sister and her husband. Kay worked at the store for several summers when she was going to school. She'd measure out sugar and molasses from large containers.

Kay Wood of Victoria as a young woman, left and in her later years, right. She was impressed by her husband's car when they were courting. (CBC)

"It was fun, I enjoyed it. It was sort of the social centre of the community for years and years and years. It and the community hall," she said. 

"Especially all the men would go every evening. They would sit around the pot-bellied stove that Hughie had in the store. And they would talk about the news of the day — it was just like the Patriot and the Journal Pioneer [newspapers] those days!" she said. "That's where all the news was!"

The community hall was just across the street.

"We had a lot of fun in the hall, we used to have Christmas concerts and plays. That's what we did in the wintertime, practised for plays and then put them on." 

'He might take you home'

The community put on what were called box socials. Women would decorate a basket and fill it up with the best food they could bake. An auctioneer would then auction them off.

Percy W. Turner in front of the Bank of New Brunswick in O'Leary, P.E.I., circa 1908. (PARO)

The winning bidder got to take the box and eat it with the young woman who had baked the food. 

"Or he might take you home or something like that — it was fun," Wood said. "Quite a few romances started that way!"

That way, men also knew if their potential bride could cook. The MacQuarrie sisters put fruitcake, birthday cake and cookies in their boxes, Wood said.

It was fun going for a sleigh ride on a nice moonlit night with a buffalo and a good-looking boyfriend!— Kay Wood

Sometimes, girls would make sure the young man they were sweet on knew which box was theirs, so they could be together. When the boxes were auctioned, Wood said sometimes wire got crossed and the "wrong" young man outbid all the others, and the sister would spend the rest of the evening with him in a rather melancholy funk. Or worse.

"They'd probably just apologize and give him the basket and go home!" Kay said with a laugh. 

Kay was the baby of the family, and always had a twinkle in her eye. When her sisters were being courted by boys who came calling to the house, Kay was not seen or heard, but she was listening.

"I used to sleep in a room called the lookout room, and it overlooked the orchard and a little stream," she said. "In the living room, they used to call it the parlour, there was a stove and the stovepipe went up through my room ... quite often, we used to listen to the courting down below." 

She said the conversations were very innocent compared to what she saw on television in her later years. Nevertheless, she'd use the opportunity to tease her sisters. 

Stars on ice

Eventually, Kay was old enough to be courted herself. 

Back in those days, young men would arrive by horse-drawn sleigh, decked with sleigh bells. Wood said she didn't remember what kind or how many sleighs the family had, but said in retrospect they must have had several because her older brothers would want to take the sleighs out courting. Boys only went courting to a girl's house in those days, not the other way around. 

"I'd like to be travelling with a horse and sleigh right now because I love the sound of the bells. Every person had different-sounding bells in the wintertime, and you'd know who was going by, by the bell," she said. 

"At our house, my father had a deadline — we had to be in the house at 10 o'clock," she said. "I'd be grounded." This only applied to the MacQuarrie girls, not the boys, she noted. 

This was also another reason for courting and marrying someone who lived within several miles by horse and sleigh, Wood said — those were the people you knew, and who were accessible. 

One rink in Victoria dated back to at least 1884. The community held the Victoria Winter Carnival every year, and it was a big social event. 

The girls competed for prizes as rainbows and snowflakes and the "Star of the Night." The boys dressed as the village blacksmith or Buffalo Bill, whose Wild West show was all the rage at the time. 

Many people did their courting at the rink, Wood said. She remembered P.E.I. Premier Walter Lea, a well-known, very progressive farmer who once had the best Holstein herd in Canada, skating there with his girlfriend, whom he later married.

"There was a lot of romances made during the skating days,"  she said. 

'Love's young dream'

The book The History of Victoria devotes eight pages to the rink and the years of the great Victoria Union hockey teams. 

Main Street in Victoria, P.E.I., has not changed all that much in 100 years. Wright's store, seen here in the foreground of this postcard, is now Island Chocolates. (Dutch Thompson)

Victoria boasted six rinks altogether, the last one with a covered roof and one of the biggest ice surfaces in the Maritimes — and plenty of atmosphere. 

The History of Victoria said "The rink was an ideal setting for love's young dream and sentiment flourished under the soft lights of the old kerosene [lamps]." 

Kay eventually married Harold Boyd Wood, known by all as H.B. He ran the rink for 15 years in the 1940s and '50s. 

The Woods' big barn, just up the road from the rink, would be filled with the horses and sleighs of couples out skating to the big band music of Glenn Miller or Tommy Dorsey and his orchestra. 

Wood said couples would take a slow ride home snuggled under a thick buffalo hide lined with wool, with their feet resting on a brick warmed in the oven.

"It was fun going for a sleigh ride on a nice moonlit night with a buffalo and a good-looking boyfriend!" she said with a giggle.

'Fell in love with the car'

"My husband saw me at a picnic and he said 'she's the girl for me!' like the song. I was only 15 or 16." 

How did you let a girl know you were sweet on her in the bygone days? Perhaps you gave her a ride on a freight cart, as Colin Love did with Daisy Turner in rural P.E.I. back in 1908. (PARO)

Kay taught school on P.E.I., then went to Rhode Island and was accepted to nursing school. Her parents became sick and asked her to come home, she said, so she did. H.B. courted her and convinced her not to go back to school. 

H.B. had his own car, a Star, one of the only boys in the area who had one, which Kay said was "exciting." 

"He often said he didn't know whether I fell in love with the car or with him," she said. 

Kay and H.B. married on Sept. 27, 1927, and were happily married for 60 years, making a dynamic couple. 

After H.B.'s death, Kay wrote for the Journal Pioneer newspaper and for years ran their bed and breakfast, called Dunrovin Tourist Home and Cottages. Some families from the U.S. would stay every year — one family stayed 47 years in a row. 

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