Reflecting on 'firsts' in P.E.I.'s Bygone Days

As we prepare to begin a new year, Dutch Thompson has some stories of "firsts" from Islanders born before the first airplane, before the first radio, and before the first woman voted in Canada.

As we welcome first night, some stories of first flight, first telephone and first jobs of yore

The stage is decorated for a performance at Falconwood Hospital in Charlottetown circa 1900. (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. 

As we prepare to begin a new year — 2019! — we may think back over the year or years past.

New Year's Eve is also sometimes called "first night" in North America.  

Dutch Thompson recorded some stories of "firsts" from Islanders born before the first airplane, the first radio, and before the first woman voted in Canada.

Dutch Thompson is an award-winning historian and storyteller. He's currently working on a book about the bygone days. (Pat Martel/CBC)

First female barber

Estelle Solomon was born in Georgetown, P.E.I., in 1909 and helped lead women into the 20th century.

Estelle Solomon was P.E.I.'s first female barber, and her husband Lenie was a renowned fiddler. She took the name Bolger after they married. (Dutch Thompson)

Estelle's dad Frank Solomon — who was mayor of Georgetown at one time — was a barber, plus he ran a hotel and a public bath. It was 10 cents for a bath, and one of Estelle's jobs as a girl was filling the bathtub with hot water — this could have been before hot running water was available.

Even though his barbershop was a haven where men gathered to smoke and gossip, Estelle said she was more than capable of handling the customers. 

After apprenticing with her father, she took a job in Summerside at Maxim Peters' barbershop and became P.E.I.'s first female barber. 

"His business was going downhill a little and he wondered where he could get somebody to help build up the business. So Bob Fraser — Bob's sister was married to my uncle — said that he knew of a lady in Georgetown who was a lady barber, taught by my father — that was me!" 

Solomon was offered the job and tells a story of when she began. She was barbering in a storefront window at Holman's Department Store. An older man who didn't have enough money had canvassed shoppers at the store for a penny or two each so he could get a shave. 

After a passerby on the street yelled "Look at the girl shavin'! My God look at the girl shavin'!" Solomon said people gathered three deep in front of the window to watch her work. 

The Men's Furnishings and Hat Department at R. T. Holman Ltd. in Summerside circa 1911. (PARO)

"And the policeman came in and said 'Miss are they bothering you? If they are I'll put the run to them,'" she recalled. "I said no, it doesn't bother me at all. 

"I was giving this old fella with all the pennies a shave. And Maxie Peters was laughing to kill himself because it was so funny," Solomon said.

It was through barbering Estelle met her husband of 73 years, Cornelius "Lenie" Patrick Bolger — a harness-maker and a well-known fiddler from western P.E.I. She took the name Bolger when they were married. He died in 2006, and she died in 2014.

'New York dressed' chickens

Farm wives on P.E.I. used to raise chickens to sell at general stores. When the chickens were slaughtered with the heads and feet left on and the feathers plucked, they were known as "New York dressed chickens." 

Many farm women raised chickens on P.E.I. to supplement their incomes and for food for the table. (PARO)

The MacLeod Brothers, Donald and Lloyd, ran a big general store in Vernon River and every Christmas they filled a railway boxcar with New York dressed chickens and shipped them to a wholesaler in Boston.    

Back in the 1920s on the other side of Queen's County in Bedford Station, 12 kilometres northeast of Charlottetown, Stella MacQuaid's first job was working behind the counter at Court's General Store. This was before the time when shoppers picked their own groceries from aisles of goods — MacQuaid had to fetch everything and weigh it. 

"Everything was in bulk — tea and sugar and beans and rice and barley, you name it it was in bulk, you had to bag it up," recalled MacQuaid.

Lloyd and Donald MacLeod in front of their now-defunct general store in Vernon River, P.E.I. (Submitted by Dutch Thompson)

"There was about three people that used to come to the store who drove cars, I could almost write out their order before they gave it to me.... And I remember the first canned peaches that were ever on the shelves. 

"In the evenings the train came at four o'clock, and the people would come and get their mail and get their groceries," she said.

"In those years people were travelling the railway tracks looking for work, the men," she said. They often came looking for a twist of tobacco but told her they had no money, she said. She and the store manager decided she would simply give these men what they asked for.

Men used to ride the rails in P.E.I. looking for work in the 1930s, and they'd come into the general store in Bedford Station where Stella MacQuaid worked asking for tobacco. (Submitted by Gary Gallant)

"Nobody would ever lay a hand on you — I was never really scared of anybody," MacQuaid said. "They weren't hoboes, they were just people looking for a job, just like ourselves." 

MacQuaid came into the world in her parents' front parlour with help from a midwife named Mrs. Trainor. She survived the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 and a bout of scarlet fever when she was a girl. Her sister wasn't so lucky — scarlet fever took her life. MacQuaid celebrated her 100th birthday in July 2010. 

First airplanes on P.E.I.

We take airplane travel for granted these days, but back in the 1930s even seeing an airplane in the skies over P.E.I. was a thrill.

Some of the pilots Lloyd MacLeod idolized, including Junior Jones, second from left, circa 1938 at Upton airfield in Charlottetown. (Dutch Thompson)

Lloyd MacLeod saved his pennies working in his dad's general store, so when Junior Jones the daredevil pilot came through Vernon River, he was assured of at least one eager paying customer.

"I guess they called it barnstorming. He'd land in any field in the country that would make a landing strip. And then the people, out of curiosity, would assemble and then he'd take them up, for possibly $15 for a 10-minute trip," said MacLeod. 

MacLeod was the only one who went up in the plane, he said. His mother was searching for the keys, but they couldn't be found — MacLeod had them in his pocket, up in the air.

"My mother wasn't too happy about that, I remember!" 

"I'll never forget that first trip, I can remember it so well!" he said. "As soon as you left the ground there was Orwell Head Church — that's no longer there — that showed up. Then he circled around and you saw O'Keefe's Lake up to the north."   

Although he was scared of heights, MacLeod said he wasn't afraid of flying. 

"You couldn't get me to climb on any roof, still I wasn't a bit scared up in that!" he said with a laugh. 

MacLeod said the family's general store had the very first telephone in the Vernon River area — and their phone number was simply, one.

Love at first sight

Tommy Duncan was born in 1900 in Mill River. Tommy had the distinction of being the first person to play a round of golf on the Mill River golf course — that's because it was built on his family's farmland.

Tommy and Pearl Duncan had a whopping $10 to spend on their honeymoon. (Dutch Thompson)

Here's Tommy's story about how he met his future wife, Pearl Sweet.

"I never was married till I was 48. I came home from the States, I got this place and I came here and I started in working and 'batching' and I said, well this is no good! I can't get along this way," he told Thompson.

"So Pearl was teaching school. She just lived in the next house over here. And I said well I'm gonna try my luck — so by golly I got her!" he said with a chuckle. Pearl was 18 years younger than he was. 

"I robbed the cradle, let's put it that way," he said, recalling that when he was a teenager, he'd picked up newborn baby Pearl and kissed her. 

"I kissed the baby, and 30 years later I married her!" he said. 

Tommy and Pearl eloped — they took the bus to Summerside and had a total of $10 to spend on their honeymoon.  

Tommy was a century baby, born in 1900, which was supposed to bring good luck. He lived to be 101. His wife Pearl lived six years after his death, dying at the age of 89.

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