Should we be nostalgic for P.E.I.'s Bygone Days?

Even though many Islanders from the bygone days of P.E.I. had seen war and the hardship of the Great Depression, some of them waxed nostalgic. They share their memories with award-winning historian Dutch Thompson.

Islanders get sentimental about steam engines, pigeons, pre-war life and their horses

A steam engine on turntable outside engine house in Tignish, Prince Edward Island circa, 1910. (PARO)

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. 

P.E.I. historian Dutch Thompson admits he is the first one to break the historians's rule not to indulge in nostalgia or romanticize the past. 

Some of the hundreds of Islanders he has interviewed over the years have waxed sentimental over the past, even though many of them had seen one or both world wars as well as the Great Depression. They'd known hunger and loss and gone without so many comforts we now take for granted, like electricity, indoor plumbing and plenty of fresh food at our fingertips.

Harold Gaudet was passionate about his work on P.E.I.'s railways, and waxed nostalgia about its loss. He even wrote a book, Remembering Railroading on Prince Edward Island.

Islanders haven't heard the sound of a train on P.E.I. for more than 30 years, but Gaudet knew the sound of every type of steam and diesel engine on the tracks. His dad worked on the railways, and Gaudet, born in 1914, lived in the east end of Charlottetown near the railyard. 

Gaudet told Dutch about a conversation he'd had with his friend Jack Cameron about diesel versus steam engines. 

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)

"Huh! Diesel! They got no personality!" Gaudet recalled his friend saying. "And I started thinking about it and I said you know, that's true."

"A steam engine, you put a fire in 'er and you can feel 'er moving and starting, and the steam coming — she come alive! A diesel engine was like going down and starting a car, that's it!" he said. "Working around diesel wasn't the same as working around a steam engine." 

In 1995, Gaudet visited the former railway machine shop on the waterfront where he'd spent so many hours working as a machinist on the steam engines, peeking through the broken windows at the dusty emptiness. 

"It was heartbreaking, looking in there and seeing that," he said. "Make you feel sick to the stomach." That was only six years after the last train left P.E.I. in 1989. 

That building, built in 1906, underwent a huge $4 million restoration which was finished in 2001. It is now Founders' Food Hall.

Traded 2 horses for a tractor

Mac Irving, born in Cherry Valley in 1902, farmed all his life and especially loved his horses.

Malcolm 'Mac' Irving had nostalgia for his horses, whom he believed to be superior to a tractor. (Dutch Thompson)

He traded two horses for his first tractor in 1956, he said, although he still kept a team of horses to do a few chores like haul wood in winter.

"I don't think there's a workhorse around here anywhere for miles," Irving said wistfully, then launched into an entire poem called O Wonderful Horse. 

O horse you were a wonderful thing, no buttons to push, no horn to honk,
You start yourself — no clutch to slip, no gears to strip, 
No license-buying every year, with plates to bolt on front and rear,
No gas bills climbing up each day stealing the joy of life away,
No speed cops chugging in your rear yelling summons in your ear,
Your inner tubes are all OK, and thank the Lord they stay that way,
Your spark plugs never miss and fuss, your motor never makes us cuss, 
Your frame is good for many a mile, your body never changes style,
Your wants are few and easy met, you've something on the tractor yet.

Irving was in his 90s when he recited that poem from memory, and he had learned it 80 years before that — a testament to the rote learning and recitation from memory that was mandatory back then. It was written by H.R. Elliott. 

Looking after pigeons in wartime

Vincente Elordiata was a Basque whose ancestors hunted whales in Spain. He went to sea even though his father, grandfather and several uncles and cousins had drowned while working on the water.

Vincente Elordiata's parents. His father drowned at sea in 1921, but Vincente still made his life on the sea. (Dutch Thompson)

He waxed sentimental about life at sea during the Second World War. 

"I've had pigeons land on the ship 1,500 miles from the coast, in the middle of the Atlantic — got blown out. We always picked them up and looked after them, they were exhausted," Elordiata said. 

He remembered in great detail one pigeon that was so thirsty, it tried to land on the rim of a bucket of boiling-hot water a sailor was taking to have a shower. Elordiata dashed into the galley for a saucepan of cold water, and put it down on the deck where the pigeon hurriedly drank its fill. 

One night, the old sow was going to have her pigs, and she took us all out to the stable with her and we slept between the cows— Maude Palmer

The bird was a racing pigeon that had been blown out to sea, he said. 

"We kept that pigeon, and we put it in a box to make a cage," he said. The sailors took it to shore in the Panama Canal, where it was to be picked up by the next British ship coming through on its way back to England, who would take the bird to the pigeon society. 

"And we always got a lovely letter of acknowledgement and thanks from these societies," he said, noting he did this twice during the war. 

Elordiata was born in 1909 in the Basque ghetto in Liverpool, England, which was the main port for the all big ocean liners. He was a crew member on a British ship that was torpedoed off the coast of Nova Scotia in 1943. Most of his fellow crew members died, but he survived for eight days at sea in an open rowboat. 

Frostbitten and dehydrated, he was taken to Camp Hill Hospital in Halifax where he fell in love with the nurse who cared for him, Helen Soloman from Georgetown, P.E.I. They were married within a year. 

Nostalgic for pre-war life

Joyce Crane also lived in England during wartime. She grew up near London, in the leafy suburb of Thornton Heath near the Croydon airport, which became a target of German bombers.

'It used to be a race with the neighbours, to see who could get there first!' to collect the manure from the milkman's horse, Joyce Crane recalled fondly of her childhood days. (Dutch Thompson)

She looked back fondly on her idyllic life there with her parents before the war. 

Her father was a conductor on one of London's famous double-decker buses, where she recalls having "great rides." She also remembered taking the bus for day trips to the countryside, where they'd pick wild raspberries and blackberries from the hedges. 

They'd go rowing on the River Thames, and their milk was delivered to their doorstep by horse and wagon. 

When he saw the milkman coming, her father would send her out to gather the horse's manure.

"It used to be a race with the neighbours, to see who could get there first!" she said. 

Sleeping with the cows

Maude Palmer was born in 1905 on a farm in Freeland in Lot 11, and was one of 10 children. She lived to be almost 99 years old.

Her mother was well-known midwife Annie Henderson, and her father was a carpenter. In 1917, when she was 12 years old and her brother Jim was fighting overseas in the First World War, the Halifax Explosion happened

Palmer remembered her father, uncle and other men from the community going to Halifax to help with the cleanup and rebuilding. Her mother had to manage all the children and the family's farm by herself. 

"I remember one night, the old sow was going to have her pigs, and she took us all out to the stable with her and we slept between the cows. The cows would be lying down. And she watched and she just stayed right there," she said. Her cousin went to the house that evening, but finding nobody there he went to the barn. 

"He said 'Aunt Annie, what are you doing?' And she said, 'I got to watch this pig.' I can remember that as well as it was yesterday," said Palmer. All the valuable little piglets lived.

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