The view from a rural general store in P.E.I.'s Bygone Days
The general store and local farmers had a symbiotic relationship, recalls Keith Pratt
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.
Back in the days before P.E.I. had large chain grocery stores, most small communities had their own general store.
Keith Pratt was a general storekeeper in Bloomfield Station, P.E.I., who told Dutch the good old days weren't always all that great, especially for farmers — whom he saw from both sides of the store's ledger.
Pratt's very busy general store bought and sold crops from local farmers — everything from turnips, oats, and potatoes to beef, lamb and sheep's wool. It also supplied the farmers with everything they needed, from anchors to anvils.
Have you any wool?
"We used to buy the wool from the farmers and they'd have a bag six feet high — you could hardly lift it!" Pratt recalled. "You'd buy washed wool, and unwashed wool."
The store would buy pigs in mid-November and ship them to Davis and Fraser in Charlottetown, a pork packer that operated in the early 1900s on Kent Street and later on Grafton Street, or to Canada Packers.
"You'd have 10, 15 pigs a shipment. Sheep day and pig day," Pratt said.
Pratt also bought hay from the local farmers, and recalls putting hay into his barn on the property late on warm summer nights.
Pratt was born in 1910, and in his latter years received many visits from folks hoping he could help them trace their roots in the area, as he knew so many people so well through the general store.
First female station agent
Pratt's favourite topic, Thompson discovered, was the P.E.I. railway. The train ran right past Pratt's store, and everything was shipped by rail in the early 1900s.
Bloomfield station had a station agent, and Pratt recalled Jimmy O'Halloran, who retired in 1929, followed by Irwin Jay, Philip Arsenault and Mary O'Malley — the only female station agent on P.E.I.
O'Malley was born a McQuaid and her father was the station agent in Alberton, where she used to help out.
Pratt recalls O'Malley as very capable — "good on the key" he said — although at first the railway didn't want to hire her and only agreed to when help became scarce.
The mail, coal, and barrels of molasses (45 cents a gallon) came to the community by rail, Pratt remembers, and things like firewood, Irish moss and farm produce including eggs went out.
Don't 'let the hens eat grass'
Eggs were bartered by farmers for groceries, and Pratt's store built an egg grading station which graded and packed farmers' eggs for shipping.
"If they left this morning by express, they'd get to Montreal tomorrow morning — the railway gave good service," Pratt said.
"At the beginning of the [Second World] war, eggs were starting to go up a little in price, and the farmers were doing pretty darn good," Pratt said. "They used to have meetings for the farmers to come to the hall and give them instructions on how to feed — not let the hens eat grass, because you'd get a green tinge in the eggs."
For a few weeks after the war ended, Pratt's store shipped 150 cases, or "shooks," of eggs, that contained 30 dozen eggs each. Pratt told Thompson farmers received 19 cents per dozen for large eggs, and 10 cents per dozen for slightly cracked eggs.