People were resilient in P.E.I.'s Bygone Days

People tend to romanticize the past, looking at bygone days with rose-coloured glasses. Dutch Thompson has interviewed hundreds of people, most born in the early 1900s, and he says only two of those people preferred the so-called "good old days" before penicillin, electricity, paved roads, medicare and all the other things we take for granted now.

'$6 went a long way in those days'

Most fishermen on P.E.I. in the early part of the last century fished from dories, which they rowed. This image from 1905 was used in a brochure for the Hotel Acadia, a large summer resort in Tracadie catering to Americans built in 1892, which burned in 1906. (PARO)

People tend to romanticize the past, looking at bygone days with rose-coloured glasses.

Dutch Thompson has interviewed hundreds of people, most born in the early 1900s, and he says only two of those people preferred the so-called "good old days" before penicillin, electricity, paved roads, medicare and all the other things people take for granted now. 

One of Dutch's best friends was Maisie Adams, born Maisie Lamont in 1913 in French River just down the road from the  lighthouse she would eventually tend. Her husband Claude became lighthouse keeper in 1939 but died at age 30 of cancer. In 1943 Maisie took over and became one of the first female lighthouse keepers in Canada, according to Dutch. 

Maisie knew all about tough times, raising three small children for 16 years in the lighthouse across from the Cavendish sandspit. 

She lit the lights by hand — "You were supposed to have them out before the sun was up and lit before the sun was down, and you had to clean them and you had to carry oil," she told Dutch in 1998. 

The lighthouse is down on the beach, in the midst of sand dunes. Maisie had to haul all the family's water from a well 180 metres away. She tended both the lighthouse and a range light 400 metres down the beach, and would be out in all kinds of weather lugging cans of kerosene to fuel the lights. 

'Never wanted for anything'

She was paid $16 a month, which even in 1943 wasn't much money. However in true P.E.I. tradition, Maisie said neighbours were always generous with their help. 
Maisie Adams shows her rug-hooking skills. (Dutch Thompson)

"I could have never got along in any other community, only French River. Everybody in French River was awfully good to me," she said. "Most everybody was farmers or fishermen and I never had to buy milk. My family was fairly well off, my brother was fairly well off, and my husband's people were fairly pretty well off — uncle Roy kept a store. So we really never wanted for anything."

If she was sick her neighbours the MacRaes would look after the lights for her, she said. 

Maisie's two sisters-in-law, like many Maritimers, had relocated to New England — what they called "the Boston States" back then. They sent boxes and boxes of used clothes to Maisie, who was good with a needle and "made them over for the kids." 

One night when the lighthouse inspector was visiting, there was a big storm along with a tidal surge that almost lifted the lighthouse off its foundation. The inspector, Mr. Lacey, helped Maisie sweep the sea water out the door and he recommended she get a raise: another $6 a month.

"Don't laugh," she told Dutch. "I was glad to get it, $6 went a long way in those days." 

At the age of 85 Maisie became an actor in the television series Emily of New Moon, and Dutch worked with her on the series. She charmed everyone including the folks in wardrobe, where she spent a lot of time checking out their stitches, Dutch said. She lived to be 88. 

The lighthouse in New London, where widow Maisie Adams raised her three children. (Dutch Thompson)

Salting fish by lantern-light

Fisherman Robbie Robertson is another resilient Islander Dutch got to know over the years. Robertson was born in 1904 and fished out of Basin Head, on P.E.I.'s northeastern shore. He also worked for a time in New England. 

He knew tough times as a boy. His mother died in 1907 and his father, a fisherman, raised him and his 13 brothers and sisters, with help from extended family and neighbours. The eldest sibling Mabel did a lot of work and raised the wee ones. She lived to be 107. 

Robbie Robertson fished out of Basin Head on P.E.I.'s northeastern shore. He was one of a family of 14 children. (Dutch Thompson)

One of the brothers was assigned to stay home and look after the small farm, with some help from Robertson and his younger siblings. 

But as soon as the boys were old enough to row a dory and use a trawl line, Robertson's father took them fishing for cod and hake. Their farm was about three kilometres from the shore, though, so they'd stay in fishing shacks there from Monday to Saturday.

"He'd have probably five or six sons fishing with him and us kids would be carrying over grub to them, supplies, cooking dinners for them," he said. His father used to say "If you're old enough to eat, you're old enough to work!" 

They caught their own herring and mackerel for bait, and went out twice a day to fish.

"They went out early, as soon as it was bright enough to see, and they'd generally have the dories loaded with fish and get them in and dressed up and perhaps have an hour's rest or so, then about 2:30, go out again — get in late in the evening and get the fish dressed up, salt them by the light of the lantern," he recalled. This way, they each caught about a tonne of fish per day .

Many cod Robbie Robertson and his family caught in the early part of the last century weighed 100 pounds or more. (PARO)

"There was lots of fish, you never went out and didn't get a load of fish!" Robertson said. "If you worked at all, you couldn't help but catch them!" Many of the cod weighed 100 pounds, he said.

The first few years the family dried the fish and sold it to a buyer in Souris, MacLean's, which exported the fish. In about 1912 a company from Massachusetts came to buy fresh, he said, and offered them a better price. During the First World War prices were good, Robertson recalled — about three cents a pound for cod.

"That was the first time they got any cash for fish," he said. 

Robertson left for the Boston States — "young fella, think you're going to make a fortune," he said — working 10 hours a day for $18 a week. He had to pay $1 a day room and board, so that didn't leave much. 

'Returned men would never talk about war'

Adelaide Hamm was born and raised on a farm in Bunbury across the Hillsborough River from Charlottetown. 

Addie had two brothers who fought in the First World War — Allan fought with the North Nova Scotia Highlanders who wore the kilt into battle and were called "the ladies from hell" by the Germans. Hamm recalled the officers had to buy their own uniforms. Another brother, Charlie, was in Vancouver when the war broke out and signed up in British Columbia into the 7th Battalion.

Adelaide Hamm grew up in Bunbury, which was then a very rural community, where Stratford is now. (Dutch Thompson)

"Mom sent [Charlie] a parcel every month — she'd bake a big fruitcake and we'd make candy," she said. They knit socks and mittens and sent them too. "We'd keep an account of it, when it was sent, we had the whole list. He said he never got them — only the odd one he got." However they did receive a thank-you letter from another soldier thanking them for the lovely parcel!

Charlie was wounded in the abdomen and in the head, she said, but did not discuss the war.

"Returned men would never talk about war," Addie said, although she remembered after the war, her brother's war buddies coming to P.E.I. to visit him and talking amongst themselves. 

"They spoke one time about having to drink their own urine — there was no water," she said. 

Trading ration slips

Most of the dozen or so men who went from the Bunbury area returned from the war, she said. 

"The only one that was badly wounded was Vince Duffy, he lost a leg," she said. "He was fitted with a wooden leg." He got a job opening and closing the railway bridge over Charlottetown Harbour. There were eight boys in that Duffy family. The two oldest fought in the First World War and the youngest two fought in the Second World War, and they all survived, Hamm said. 

Charlie wrote letters home from Europe every week — but only a handful made it through to the family, including one that had been retrieved from a ship that had been torpedoed and sank — it was water-stained and almost illegible. 

Tea and sugar were rationed during the war, Hamm said. The family saved up their ration slips for when men came to work on the farm putting in hay or threshing grain, and they'd need enough supplies to feed a crew. She recalled trading ration slips with a tea-loving friend in Charlottetown who would trade for her sugar rations.

Adelaide Hamm died in 2004 at age 101.

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