'We couldn't believe it!' When the lights came on in the Bygone Days

Anyone who lost power in post-tropical storm Dorian knows how inconvenient it can be to go without electricity. But in the bygone days, in the 1950s when electricity first came to rural P.E.I., some people weren’t sure electricity was even a good thing.

Not everyone embraced the beginning of electricity as much as Minnie Langille

Minnie Langille remembered coming home from the dentist in the 1950s and seeing lights on in her house for the first time. (Dutch Thompson)

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. 

Anyone who lost power in post-tropical storm Dorian knows how inconvenient it can be to go without electricity.

But in the bygone days, in the 1950s when electricity first came to rural P.E.I., some people weren't sure electricity was even a good thing.

Dutch Thompson is an award-winning historian and storyteller. His book, Bygone Days: Folklore, Traditions & Toenails, from Nimbus Publishing, is available now. (Pat Martel/CBC)

Minnie Langille, who died on P.E.I. in 2013 at the age of 94, was originally from River John, N.S.

She grew up poor in Pictou County, N.S. Her father, Leonard, was a farmer and a blacksmith. Her mother, Hazel, raised five children. She made butter, knit and sewed clothes out of bags flour came in. Minnie Langille was married and had kids of own before electricity arrived in the River John area in 1952, but her days of self-sufficiency weren't over then. 

First, they had to convince the neighbours that electricity was a good idea. They had to get three houses per mile hooked up and on board before the government would pay for it. Once they got wired, Langille said, they had to wait about a year before the power actually was turned on.

Waiting for power

"There was men from New Glasgow from a store came out and they went around and they sold wringer washing machines and refrigerators — and no power for about a year," she said.

Some people in the bygone days wanted just enough electricity to power a couple bulbs and listen to the the radio. (Submitted by Vintage Charlottetown)

"And I remember my children, my daughter was about five, she hadn't gone to school yet. And then my son was five years older and we lived about a mile on a side road. And we were coming up the road, coming home from a dentist in New Glasgow and the lights were on. We couldn't believe it!"

Some people were wary of the change to electricity, like Dutch Thompson's grandfather Joe Cunningham. 

Dutch recalled his uncle Joe was not what you'd call a techno geek, though he did have a crank telephone like many, but that was only because he landed the job of putting up the poles and installing the phones for the Maple Leaf telephone company. He refused to get indoor plumbing and all he had for electricity was a single 15-amp fuse box — just enough power to run a couple of light bulbs — one upstairs, one downstairs — and the radio, so he could listen to the death notices after the 12:30 afternoon news.

Langille said she knew a couple of men like Cunningham.

He thought his eyes were getting better because he could see more.— Minnie Langille

"A bachelor from River John, his niece came from the States and she read his meter. He was paying for a flat rate and he wasn't using it so he was paying for something he wasn't using so he had it taken out," she said. "Of course, he was a bachelor, he didn't have any women to complain."

Langille said there another family — a grandfather, parents and children, in the same house with the same electricity. She said the grandfather "ruled the roost" and insisted on using only a 25-watt bulb, which didn't throw off much more light than the oil lamp it replaced. 

But his daughter-in-law was able to outsmart him.

"She left the 25-watt bulb in and then she put in a 40 and that was getting better. And then she left that for a while and she put in a 60. And then she left that for a while and she put it 100," Langille said.

"And he thought his eyes were getting better because he could see more. Of course, they never told him because he was saving electricity by using a small bulb which was very little good."

Years later, when the Langilles added a bathroom, Minnie wired in the lights and the electric razor plug all by herself. 

Roy Clow built fishing boats inside his home. (Dutch Thompson)

Langille did it all: she made her own soap, she drove horses, and she worked as a domestic, earning $10 a month working seven days a week. She said back then, a winter coat cost $10 — a month's wages  — so she learned to make her own clothes. As a girl, she knit sweaters made from wool from the family's own sheep. 

Nicking the sheep

Meanwhile over on P.E.I., Roy Clow's dad was also raising sheep in Murray Harbour North. The Clows' wool went to Condon's Woollen Mills, which started off in Murray Harbour North and then wound up in Charlottetown. 

Clow says shearing sheep was not his favourite job. (PARO)

Clow was born in 1917. He's from the same generation as Langille,  and also not afraid to tackle any job, but shearing sheep wasn't one of his favourites.

"Oh my God, I hated shearing sheep," he told Dutch. "And in the spring of the year before we put them out to pasture I'd have to shear them. Hand shears, you know, just like a pair of scissors, only they're flat.

The sheep were probably glad when it was all over too.

"When I let them go you'd see little dots of blood here and there where I nicked them with the shears."

"And we never watered them. You  never had to water a sheep, they get enough dew off the grass to satisfy them," Clow noted.

'DIY' taken to new level

There is another Langille-Clow connection. Clow worked in a Pictou County lumber camp back in the 1930s, when money was scarce.

After Clow got home from the Second World War he moved to Montague. He and his wife Margaret were newlyweds, and started building their own 26-by-36-foot house in Montague. To make a few extra dollars, Roy built a few lobster boats as well. 

Where he built them takes "do-it-yourself" to a whole new level.

"I built the boat in my house," he said, adding "Margaret helped me."

"I took the corner of the house and took the boat out and I went fishing. She was a dandy sea boat. And there wasn't a boat down in Murray Harbour that could follow me. So I started building boats. I built 13."

He said his neighbours thought he was crazy to build the boats in his house, but he sold them for $300 each.

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