Money was scarce and times were tough in P.E.I.'s Bygone Days

Most people made their own food and clothes from scratch, cash was scarce and work was long and hard in P.E.I.'s bygone days.

How some Islanders scraped together a living 100 years ago

Nora Wonnacott was offered $10 to model live in the window of S. A. MacDonald's custom tailor shop and clothing store on Queen Street in Charlottetown — but declined. 'I thought it'd cheapen me,' she said. (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. 

Islanders find themselves in unprecedented times right now, as the COVID-19 pandemic has some wondering where their next paycheque might be coming from. 

But what can present-day Islanders learn from tough times in the bygone days? 

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

Dutch Thompson has interviewed many Island seniors over the years and recounted their tales of hardship growing up around the turn of the last century. It's interesting to note that many interviewees were not bitter about those hard times — "that's just how it was back then" was a common refrain. 

Prohibition lasted from about 1900 to 1948 on Prince Edward Island, which were some pretty lean years in the Maritimes. 

Shipbuilding had been a boon for P.E.I. in the 1800s, but by the 1920s, the industry collapsed with the use of steamships to transport goods. With that, lumber prices also hit dramatic lows. 

Then, the 1929 stock market crash kicked off the Great Depression, which had this effect on P.E.I.: there was literally no money. 

Trading cod liver oil for gas

Clive Bruce was born in 1910 and fished off P.E.I.'s north shore for 80 years — cod, hake, lobster, tuna, whatever he could, sometimes for as little as one cent a pound. His first paying job was for 10 cents a day.

He told Dutch he used to trade cod liver oil for gas for his boat.

Clive Bruce, right, with his friend Robbie Robertson, fished on P.E.I.'s north shore for 80 years. (Dutch Thompson)

Bruce told a story of his aunt and uncle receiving a letter at Christmas which had to be answered — however, they did not have the two cents for a stamp. 

"They had a bunch of hens and they kept feeding the hens hot food and hot water to see if they could get a couple of eggs out of them, to go to Mossey's store to buy a stamp" he said.

The hens eventually laid two eggs, and his uncle went to the store, sold the eggs to get the stamp, and mailed the letter — although "a month-and-a half after it was due", Bruce said.

Bruce told Dutch he eventually built his own house in Elmira by getting up at 2:30 a.m. to pound nails before heading down to the wharf to go fishing at sunrise. 

$10 was a small fortune

Nora Wonnacott of Charlottetown was born in 1896 and died in 2004 at the age of 107.

Nora Wonnacott was born in Charlottetown and saw times change dramatically, since she lived to be 107. (Dutch Thompson)

She told Dutch in an interview back in 1998 about some of the stores in Charlottetown when she was growing up. S.A. MacDonald ran a store by the same name on Queen Street, she said, which sold clothing and of course, hats, which everyone wore at the time.

The store's head milliner, Pauline Seaman, taught Wonnacott to make hats when she was a young woman, and she thought she might even become a hat-maker herself. She recalled a trip to New Brunswick with Seaman for an Easter hat fashion show — she said her favourite part of the trip was dancing with a couple of nice fellows at the local dance hall! 

The store's owner "wanted me to go in the window and show clothes. I knew if I did that, I'd be thought terrible. Those things weren't done here. He said he'd give me $10 each time," Wonnacott said. 

She didn't do it.

"I thought it'd cheapen me," she said.

Times might have been tough, but a woman's reputation was worth everything in those days. 

Selling rum — or water

Many Islanders were tempted by the opportunity to make money by rum-running and bootlegging, since there was little opportunity to buy liquor legally except by prescription. If they could come up with $3 to $5 a gallon for the rum, they could easily make double the money selling it. 

Rum boats sat a few miles off P.E.I.'s shore, not daring to land lest they be arrested by P.E.I. prohibition officers. 

The sailing vessel Leona Maguire, formerly the notorious rum-running ship Nellie J. Banks, at dock in Murray Harbour circa 1940s. (PARO)

Clive Bruce told Dutch he didn't run rum, but he would sell the rum-runners bottles of fresh water — trading one bottle of water for a carton of cigarettes with 20 packages.

The cigarettes were also contraband, he said, and the packages were stamped — so he'd empty the individual unstamped cigarettes into a bucket with a rock in the bottom. If he saw the authorities approaching in their cutter, he'd toss the bucket overboard to get rid of the evidence, he said. 

Molasses was considered a sweet treat

Lester Hickox was born in 1909. His father Spurgeon was a man of many skills, and ran the little ferry between Clyde River and Charlottetown. As a boy, Lester worked with his father on the ferry, transporting everything from passengers to Ford Model T cars into town. 

"I remember one time seeing a vessel coming in from Barbados with molasses, boatload of molasses, big barrels of molasses!" Hickox said.

When the crew lined up the wooden barrels or "puncheons" on the wharf, they began to swell in the summer hear, so air holes were cut in the barrels for ventilation.

Molasses was a staple in P.E.I. diets in the bygone days. (Crosby's Molasses)

"The kids would go down there with straws, sucking molasses out of these barrels," Hickox said with a chuckle. "I'd like to get some of the molasses today that we had then." 

"You'd pour it, it was almost clear, it wasn't black like it is now. The molasses we get now is what they used to call 'horse molasses' in those days." 

People would buy the barrels once they were empty, and scrape the sticky residue off the bottom to make candy. Then they'd saw the barrel in half, and use the two containers to store salt herring and mackerel.

In other words, nothing was wasted. 

Keith Pratt, left, born in 1910, ran a general store for years in Bloomfield Station where molasses was one of the most popular commodities. Another man, Chris Smith, is on the right. (Submitted by Dutch Thompson)

Keith Pratt, born in 1910, ran a general store for years in Bloomfield Station where molasses was one of the most popular commodities. 

"We would sell in the store there about 50 puncheons of molasses in a year," he told Dutch. The puncheons held 90 to 100 gallons and at 13 pounds per gallon, they would weigh 1,200 to 1,300 pounds.

Leading up to Christmas, Pratt said he'd sell a puncheon every day to Islanders, using it to make baked goods or moonshine. He paid 43.5 cents per gallon. 

Pratt recalled having to heat the molasses on the stove in winter, because it would be too cold and thick to use.

Earning 20 cents an hour

Here are some more "you think you had it hard?" scenarios from the bygone days, from past Dutch columns you may have missed.

  • Ambrose Monaghan grew up on the family farm in Kelly's Cross in the 1910s. Every winter, he and his five brothers cut 15 to 20 cords of firewood, hauled it out of the woods and split it, all by hand, to keep the house warm. 
  • Monaghan's mother made bloomers for his sisters from cotton flour bag fabric, as did many Islanders.
  •  In the 1920s, farmers from as far away as Flat River near Wood Islands herded their cattle on foot to Charlottetown to be sold. 
  • Nina Brown recalled any canned food was considered a "treat" 100 years ago, when a gallon of molasses cost 35 cents for which her family bartered three dozen eggs from their hens. 
  •  Irene MacNevin was born in 1900 and said "an apple and an orange" were the exciting things in her Christmas stocking
  • Many Islanders made their own clothes from wool from sheep they raised themselves, spinning, carding and weaving the strands at home.
  • Gus Gregory said in this father's time around 1900, fishermen were paid 50 cents per 100 lobsters, Gregory said, or just half a cent per lobster.
  • Gregory also recalled working on a wharf one summer earning 20 cents an hour. "And that was good money then!" Gregory recalled. "MacLean's paid their farm help 15 cents an hour." 
  • Jimmy Doyle of Summerville, one of seven children, went to work on a farm in 1926 at the age of 12 for $12 a month. He had no shoes. About a decade later, he went to New Brunswick to cut wood in the woods in winter, making $30 per month.
  • Louis Cantelo born in 1904 in 7-Mile Road used his horse to haul a single plow on the family farm. He walked behind, and could plow two acres a day on a good day. "That's a lot of walking!"
  • Midwives helped birth most P.E.I. babies at home but were rarely paid for their services, despite long hours spent away from their own homes and families.
  • Kathleen Jelley, born in 1913, recalled wading through deep snow to get to school, wearing a dress with woolen long underwear beneath. Girls did not wear pants.
  • In 1921, Mary Morrissey bought a suit for her father with one of her first paycheques as a teacher. It cost her two months' salary.

More from CBC P.E.I.

With files from Sara Fraser


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