How 'cackleberries' kept P.E.I.'s rural economy cooking in the Bygone Days

During the first half of the last century on P.E.I. eggs were almost as good as cash, says historian Dutch Thompson — many rural Islanders bartered eggs and butter for other ingredients at the general store.

The humble egg kept many Island families fed and even educated in the last century

Before the rise of commercial meat and egg farming, many Islanders kept their own flocks of chickens, ducks and geese themselves. (Historic PEI/Facebook)

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. 

During the first half of the last century on P.E.I. eggs were almost as good as cash, says historian Dutch Thompson — many Islanders bartered eggs, jokingly referred to as "cackleberries," for other ingredients at the general store. 

Back in the 1930s Islanders received about a penny an egg, sometimes even as low as 10 cents per dozen. 

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

And that money kept the economy going — sometimes keeping hunger from the doors of families who had little else, especially when the Great Depression hit. 

My mother was allowed the money from the eggs to buy the groceries. Sometimes there might be a penny left over.— Kay Wood

Pretty well everyone had a flock of hens — even in the bigger towns like Charlottetown and Georgetown, many people kept a few hens in the back shed with the horse, and sometimes even a cow or pig. 

'When I came home from school it was my job to feed the hens,' recalls the late Kay Wood. (Facebook)

'Things were very, very tough'

Ralph Matheson was born in 1914 on the family farm in Glasgow Road, P.E.I. The Mathesons had a prize-winning Ayrshire dairy herd but that didn't protect them when the bottom fell out of food prices during the Depression, Matheson told Thompson.

'That's what we were living on,' recalled Ralph Matheson of his mother's egg money for a time during the Great Depression. (Dutch Thompson )

His family had been receiving 16 cents a pound for butter fat, receiving a little bit of cash from a processor every month.

"Then, they couldn't sell it — for months, we didn't get anything at all. Dad always said if only for mother having her hens, taking them to the store every month. That's what we were living on," Matheson said of the eggs produced by his mother's hens. "Five months, they didn't get any pay [from the butter factory]. Things were very, very tough."

Just how tough was it? Matheson told Thompson in the early 1930s his father was once paid 12 cents for a 90-pound bag of potatoes, and actually he wasn't even able to get cash — he traded the potatoes for 12 cents worth of fertilizer. 

This slatted crate held several flat of a dozen eggs, and was called a Humpty Dumpty. (Dutch Thompson)

'Might be a penny left over'

Kay Wood was born a MacQuarrie and raised on her family's farm in Hampton, P.E.I., back in the days when eggs helped keep the rural economy cooking.

Kay Wood lived in Victoria-by-the-Sea for more than 70 years and recalls her mother trading the family's eggs for groceries at the general store. (CBC)

Wood was very well-known in the community of Victora by-the-Sea — her nickname was "The Duchess of Victoria." She wrote a column for the newspaper, wrote history books, and ran Dunrovin Tourist Home and cottages in the village. She and her husband H.B. Wood also ran the local ice rink.  

"When I came home from school it was my job to feed the hens, gather the eggs and fill the wood box with wood," she told Thompson. "We each had our work cut out for us and that's good — I used to have to drive the horse and the hay fork. I think the horse probably knew more than I did! They were very co-operative anyway.

"My mother was allowed the money from the eggs to buy the groceries. Sometimes there might be a penny left over and I would be able to get what [storekeeper] Ewie MacKinnon called a cock-a-ninny ... tastes like an all-day sucker," Wood said. 

Children help gather eggs from a chicken coop on P.E.I. (Historic PEI/Facebook)

'She put that away for the kids'

Wood's sister-in-law Janie MacQuarrie, born Janie Llewelyn, lived in Georgetown, P.E.I.,  and met her future husband when he came to Georgetown to preach. She told Thompson about the very important role eggs played in her husband's life. 

Children were expected to help with chores — even little ones could feed chickens or collect eggs. (PARO)

"They all had an education and he especially did — he studied in Edinburgh and in Germany. His mother raised ducks and turkeys and chickens, and that's where the extra money came from, she put that away for the kids," MacQuarrie said.

"And when he finished at Dal and graduated, she'd never been off the Island ... she went to see his graduation. And he said, 'I reserved a seat for mom pretty well up near the front of the hall.' And he thought the world of his mother." 

So all the MacQuarrie children got good educations, thanks to the humble egg.

Bobby Clow's scrambled eggs

At Clow's general store in Hampshire, P.E.I., one of Bobby Clow's jobs as a youngster was taking the eggs local farmers had brought to his family's general store to be graded in Charlottetown. 

Stores like Gallant's in Rustico would barter eggs with local farmers for goods like molasses, kerosene or tea. (Gallant's Clover Farm)

Clow remembers making one memorable trip in the store's one-tonne truck when he was 16 years old.

"And of course I called in to see my buddy, he was still going to school down in Warren Grove. They were all out at recess playing, I pulled in with this great big truck y'know, showing off, I was only 100 pound at the time! ...Of course when I took off I put 'er to the floor, making pinwheels with this old tonne truck with the dual wheels on it — I got to town and the poor old eggs were all over the place!" he laughed. 

"I remember coming home and telling dad that the bottom fell out of the crate. I know he didn't believe me, but he let on he did."

Islanders kept ducks and geese as well as chickens. (Submitted by Humble Farm )

'White egg from a black hen'

Thompson recalled the old Scottish home remedy recorded by folk historian Helen Creighton back in the 1930s — "to cure TB [tuberculosis] eat a white egg from a black hen." 

Most Islanders kept a small flock of chickens in the back shed with the horse, says Thompson. (Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press)

Thompson still has his grandmother's recipe book, which has a recipe for a large wedding fruitcake that calls for not 12 eggs, but 12 DOZEN eggs — that's 144 eggs.  

P.E.I. now has only seven large registered egg farms producing almost four million eggs per year, according to the province's website. Some smaller homestead farms sell at farm markets and at the farm gate. 

More P.E.I. news

With files from Sara Fraser