Times were very different in P.E.I.'s Bygone Days

A peek back at life on P.E.I. 100 years ago, when things were so different, it was almost like a different planet: wages of $1 a day, nine students in a one-room schoolhouse and taking the railway pump car to church on Sunday.

When people made $1 a day delivering mail on foot, and there were 3 lobster canneries on Boughton Island

The mail came to Prince Edward Island by boat until the mid-1940s, when Maritime Central Airways began flying it to and from P.E.I. This image of the Montague Mail Coach is circa 1904. (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 few weekends CBC P.E.I. brings you one of Dutch's columns. 

A hundred years ago life in Prince Edward Island was so different, it was almost like a different planet: wages of $1 a day, nine students in a one-room schoolhouse and taking the railway pump car to church on Sunday. 

Let's peek back in time with stories from three Islanders.

Pat Hennessey was born in St. Catherines, P.E.I., east of Souris, in 1902, the year after Queen Victoria died. Hennessey lived to the age of 100, so he saw many changes during his lifetime. 

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)

Hennessey was a blacksmith, charging 45 cents to shoe a horse, including the metal shoes. 

He went to Western Canada on the harvest excursion train in 1924, made a few dollars threshing wheat on the Prairies. He remembers long, hard days, earning $3.50 per day for "stooking" and $4.50 for threshing, working from sunup to sundown. Stooking is placing the bound sheaves upright on their butts in groups of six to 10 so the grain heads can air-dry and cure.

Hennessey returned home to try to make a living on the family farm, which grew hay, oats and blue and red potatoes, and included a few cows and a pair of horses. 

'The market went bad'

Hennessey recalled when he was young cutting the grain with a scythe then binding it by hand. There were also itinerant workers who would cut and bind grain for $1 per acre, he said. His family grew about 10 acres of grain. 

Then as now, some years the price of potatoes on P.E.I. was far less than the cost to produce them, and other years farmers like Pat Hennessey made a little money. (Dutch Thompson)

The potatoes would be shipped on the train to Souris where they'd be exported for sale by boat.                                     

"Twenty cents a bushel is all you'd get," Hennessey said. 

One of the very first years farmers began growing seed potatoes in earnest, he invested in growing about five acres of the cobbler variety but prices ended up being very low. 

We had better readers coming out of the school than is coming out of them today,​​​​​.— Janie Llewellyn MacQuarrie

"We shipped them all, hauled them to Souris, something over 500 bushels. And I had a fertilizer bill of $100. We were expecting to get 35 cents a bushel. And the market went bad," he said. "We got six cents a bushel for them.... Thirty-some dollars for over 500 bushel [60 pounds]! That's all we got." That was only enough to cover a third of his fertilizer bill. 

The next year prices were much improved, he said: "We paid all our bills and we had a little left, that time." 

Hennessey had an exceptional memory, and his generation kept things in their head. 

He said during the Depression there was no money on the farm at all. He recalled selling a pig for $21.16. He said he remembered the exact amount, because he made money on that pig. And $21 went a long way in the "dirty '30s."

'Like a lullaby for us'

On the topic of food, Janie Llewellyn MacQuarrie was born in 1917 in Georgetown, one of nine children. Her parents ran three lobster canneries. One was in Georgetown, one on Panmure Island and one on Boughton Island, which is now uninhabited. 

Howard, Ted and Frank Rafuse used to fish lobster on Boughton Island. 'They had shacks to live in and would take lobsters to Graham's Pond on Wednesday and Saturday,' says Howard's son, Errol Rafuse. (Submitted by Errol Rafuse)

"There was two roads, one ran from north to south ... and another one ran east to west," on Boughton Island, MacQuarrie said.

"The west end was mostly all woodland. There was a frog pond up there, we used to go to sleep listening to the frogs, they were like a lullaby for us. And there were rabbits up there." She said they'd wake to the sound of gulls shrieking, protecting the eggs they'd laid in the sand. 

 MacQuarrie recalled the "wonderful beaches" on Boughton Island. She said they weren't allowed to be "yelling around" on Sundays so they'd walk all around the island in an afternoon, watching the bank swallows fly in and out of the banks and skipping stones on the water. 

MacQuarrie started school in Georgetown and switched to Boughton Island in the spring when the lobster season began. There were only nine pupils in the Boughton Island School, where one teacher taught all the subjects and all students from grades 1 to 10, she said. There was no bookshelf and no library of extra books — just wooden desks, backless benches to sit on and a blackboard. 

Did you know you can walk to Boughton Island on a sandbar from Bruce Point in Launching? (Elizabeth Davis)

"But we learned! We had better readers coming out of the school than is coming out of them today," she said. They also had fun at lunchtime playing leapfrog, chase and farmer in the dell. 

She said there were sometimes dances at the lobster canneries or some of the houses, with the MacCormac boys playing fiddle and mandolin, but MacQuarrie said they always had to be over by 11 p.m. because fishermen had to go out fishing early in the morning. The men would go back to their homes on "the mainland" Saturday afternoons, often to work their farms, returning late Sunday or early Monday. 

There is now a Facebook page called Boughton Island Historical Society dedicated to sharing stories and photos of the island. It is possible to walk across a sandbar to the island from Bruce Point in the community of Launching year-round, locals say. 

Families with animal nicknames

In that area of P.E.I. at the time, families had animal nicknames. The MacPhees were nicknamed "the gannets" and the MacCormacs were nicknamed "the minks."

One of the MacCormacs worked for a farmer named Arthur Head. MacCormac was a rough and tumble fellow and so was nicknamed "Head's devil." 

One night he got into a fight at a picnic at St. Georges. He pulled off his coat and exclaimed, "I'm the son of the minks, grandson of the gannets and I'm Head's devil!" 

At that time, the Catholics living on Boughton Island went to worship in the church at Launching, while the Protestant had things better. The minister from Georgetown visited them several times a year — over the ice in winter and by boat in summer — holding services in the school. 

$1 a day to deliver the mail

The Mooney family proudly called Peakes their home. Peakes is between Mount Stewart and Cardigan.

Borden Mooney delivered the mail on foot in the Peakes area for 36 years. (Dutch Thompson)

Borden Mooney was born in 1920 and lived to be 87. He was a real character, and always had a joke or story to tell. 

Mooney's father Philip Mooney worked for the railway, and while the family might not have had a horse, he said they didn't always have to walk the three kilometres to church. 

"We used to go to church here on the old pump car," he said. "My father, that was his only means of travelling.… And you'd have bad roads in the spring, Holy Week and that, we'd take the pump car to church." It was uphill on the way to church, but downhill on the way back, and Mooney said they'd sometimes go as fast as 65 kilometres per hour. 

"It's a wonder we weren't killed, yessir" he said with a laugh. His father eventually stopped the practice for fear the car would jump the rails in its speed.   

Before his father worked on the railway, he was a mail carrier — but didn't have a horse.

'Not much wonder I'm poor!'

"My father used to walk with the mail here," Mooney said. "I walked with the mail here ... for 36 years, for dollar a day. Not much wonder I'm poor! A dollar a day. Had no horse." He said the route was about 21 kilometres, and he went in all weather. 

"Some of them wasn't very nice around the mail routes, they wanted their mail. But at the same time, sometimes it was impossible to get there with it," Mooney said. 

He said he looked after his parents, who lived into their 90s. He sometimes also worked at carpentry, but said travelling as far as Southport (now Stratford) would burn so much gas "it was no good," he said. 

There's not much going on in Peakes nowadays, but when Mooney was a lad it was a bustling hub including two blacksmiths, two doctors, a shoemaker, a dance hall, a sawmill and three general stores.

The biggest of the general stores was Devine's. You could get your flour ground at Leard's mill down the road, sell your milk at the cheese factory or catch the train at the station. Those buildings are all gone now, lost to fire or neglect, although some were moved and turned into barns.

Mooney received a papal blessing in St. Cuthbert's church for his dedication to the choir and the church, a proud moment for which he received a standing ovation in church one Sunday. 

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