A cannery in every port: Lobster processing in P.E.I.'s Bygone Days

Lobster processing plants and the jobs they provide have shaped Prince Edward Island's social, economic and physical landscape over the last 150 years.

At the turn of the last century there were 250 lobster canneries on P.E.I.

Inside a lobster factory at Murray Harbour circa 1910. (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. 

Lobster processing plants and the jobs they provide have shaped Prince Edward Island's social, economic and physical landscape over the last 150 years.

The number of processing facilities, or "canneries" as they used to be called, has waxed and waned with industry demand.

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

Back in 1873, the year P.E.I. joined Confederation, there were two canneries. Just eight years later, that number had boomed to 118, and by 1900 there were 250 lobster canneries. 

One every few miles

Mom and pop lobster factories sprang up "more or less one every three or four miles along the coast," said P.E.I. historian Dutch Thompson. 

Employees outside a lobster packing plant in Murray Harbour, P.E.I., circa 1910. (PARO)

Lighthouse keeper Maisie Adams from French River — Canada's very first female lighthouse keeper — regaled Thompson with tales of some of those long-gone lobster factories. 

"Around from where that lighthouse was, that used to be James Hugh MacLeod's factory, between that and the wharf in French River. And then there was a factory back, you see, at the back shore — we called it the cove — that was a MacLeod, but not the same one," Adams said.  

In the 19th century the fishermen would go out before dawn haul their traps in their little boats by hand, eating their lunch while sailing back to port to unload their catch. Then they'd spend the afternoon and a good part of the evening canning lobsters in their little sheds on the wharf. 

Maisie Lamont Adams of French River, P.E.I., was Canada's first female lighthouse keeper — she looked after the New London Lighthouse. (Dutch Thompson)

Picked them 'right off the rocks'

Over the years half a dozen lobster factories sprang up around Victoria on P.E.I's south shore, recalled local innkeeper and historian Kay Wood. 

Kay Wood lived in Victoria-by-the-Sea for more than 70 years. (CBC)

And the now highly-valued crustaceans were plentiful, she said. 

"My father said when he was a youngster and he would go down to the shore, that he could pick the lobsters right off the rocks!" Wood told Thompson.

"We used to can them here, just for our own use — boil them and can them, that was great."

Charlie, or C.F., Miller, had two factories in Victoria that canned lobster in the first half of the last century, Wood said.   

He was a piano tuner and sewing machine salesman who came to P.E.I. and married Mae Stordy of Victoria. He built 300 lobster traps and his own boat and "turned out to be a pretty good fishermen," Thompson said, noting Miller was well-liked in the community.

This archive image of Cavendish was published in the Prince Edward Island Magazine of January 1900 with the caption 'A P.E.I. Lobster Cannery.' (PARO Acc 3466/HF72.66.4.32)

Miller was also the first to can crab meat on P.E.I., and hooked one of the first sharks in the Northumberland Strait. He had the first boat engine in Victoria, a little three-horsepower engine. 

He was an astute businessman too — since Victoria straddles the dividing line of the spring and fall lobster fisheries, he built a cannery on each side of the line.

'They were fed good'

Victoria is a treasure trove of fascinating historical figures, Thompson said, including Capt. Dan Ferguson who had at least two vessels sink beneath him but survived. His daughter-in-law Cora Ferguson also came from a sea-faring family. She was born a Bell in Cape Traverse, P.E.I., where her grandfather Willie Howatt ran a big lobster cannery.

Cora Ferguson recalls her grandfather Willie Howatt running two lobster factories on P.E.I. (Dutch Thompson)

"He made a lot of money. He had his own packing plant and then he had so many boats fishing for him," Ferguson said. Her grandfather owned a lot of land in the area and moved to Borden (now Borden-Carleton) and built a large factory there, employing a dozen boats to fish lobster. 

"And he'd have them come from up west, girls. The men fished the boats and then the girls would do the packing of the lobster you know. 

"He had two women that did all the cooking for that crowd," she recalled. "And they were fed good — don't think they weren't." 

The women lived upstairs in the cookhouse, Ferguson said, in rows of single beds, while the men lived "up over the rope house." Curfew was 9 p.m.

She remembers being especially fascinated by a large old safe her grandfather kept all the money in, as well as a stash of peppermints. Howatt would dole out the candy only on Sundays during sermons at the Free Church of Scotland in Cape Traverse, she said. 

Breakfast at 3 a.m.

Janie Llewellyn MacQuarrie, who died in 2010 at age 92, knew all about cooking for 30 or 40 hungry workers — her parents Chester and Loretta ran several lobster factories at the eastern end of P.E.I. in Georgetown and Boughton Island. 

Lobster factory possibly in Tignish, circa 1900 from P.E.I.'s provincial archives. (PARO)

"The cookhouse pantry was just lined with things — mostly you bought everything in either casks or boxes of dried apples for pies. And prunes. They fed them really well," MacQuarrie told Thompson. "And then there'd be bags of beans and sugar — big bags, about 98 pounds or so.

"They had a breakfast at 3 o'clock in the morning. Pitchers and pitchers of tea — they had huge pitchers, you put them right on the table. You could never go around with a teapot and pour tea for them."

The fishermen took a "lunch" with them in the boat, MacQuarrie said, then returned to shore for dinner from 10:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. "Supper" was between 3 and 4 p.m., and another lunch was served at 7 p.m.

"So you know how much food went through the day. My mother would bake bread every day ... probably a dozen loaves." 

Most of those cannery buildings across P.E.I. are now long gone. 

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With files from Sara Fraser