Islanders worked the New Brunswick lumber camps in the Bygone Days

Many Islanders sought work in the lumber woods of New Brunswick during the first part of the last century.

'When the fire would go out at night the top bunks would get pretty cold'

A lumbering camp at Ferry Bank, Oromocto, N.B., circa 1897. (New Brunswick Museum-Musée du Nouveau-Brunswick 1964.147L)

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. 

At the turn of the last century on P.E.I., if you didn't have land to farm, your job prospects were limited — so, many young men would head off-Island. Some worked on Newfoundland's fishing schooners, some went to New England for carpentry, and many spent time in the lumber camps of Maine or New Brunswick. 

Jimmy Doyle was born in Summerville, right on the line between Queens and Kings counties on P.E.I., in 1914 — just one month before the First World War broke out. 

He was one of seven children, and went to work in 1926 at the age of 12 for $12 a month.

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

"First place ever I worked was [for] a man by name of Jim MacMillan," Jimmy Doyle told Dutch Thompson. "We'd get up in the morning, we'd milk five or six cows, I'd go to the field with a team of horses and I'd work till dinnertime." With a break for lunch, Doyle recalled that he worked barefoot.

After the war, farms on P.E.I. could only support one child — usually the eldest son. 

Doyle headed off to St. Martins, New Brunswick — the third-largest shipbuilding area next to St. John, N.B., and Halifax. It was a booming shipbuilding area that produced more than 700 ships between 1800 and 1920. All those ships not only required lots of wood, but they all left with loads of lumber aboard — therefore, the area was surrounded by logging camps. 

Jimmy Doyle of Summerville went to work at 12 years old for $12 a month. (Dutch Thompson)

Doyle worked in one such camp six days a week from sunup to 5 p.m. — as a treat, they got to quit an hour early on Saturdays — alongside abut 70 men, but he said he enjoyed the hard work. 

"The mill started at 7 o'clock and the men was chopping in the woods, they'd be at the tree before daylight in the morning," he said. The men would trudge back from the woods to the cookhouse for lunch, he recalled, rather than having the meal delivered to the woods. 

'Dangerous enough'

Two men using a cross-cut saw could cut 30 to 40 heavy, hardwood logs a day — Doyle said "it was a good day's work." 

Loading spoolwood on the tracks near Newcastle, N.B., circa 1895. (New Brunswick Museum-Musée du Nouveau-Brunswick 1954.62)

"It was dangerous enough — you had to know what you were doing. If you didn't, the tree could come down on top of you." 

Doyle would try to partner up on the saw with a man he knew, which wasn't hard, he said, because there were so many men there not only from P.E.I. but from the Summerville-Avondale-Vernon River area.

Doyle worked cutting trees, but mostly in the camp's sawmill where they cut, carried and stacked 17,000 to 20,000 "board feet" of lumber per day. 

Conditions in the camp were rustic, he remembers.

Jimmy Doyle talks about working in N.B. lumber camp 1:03

"The camp itself was just boards and tar paper over that. A great big drum, a 45-gallon drum, with the end cut out of it was what they used for heat. Mitts and socks would be hung overheard, right over the stove with a wire," he said

"Two bunks, one above and one below, and straw ticks. When the fire would go out at night the top bunks would get pretty cold — but the bottom one they weren't too bad," Doyle said with a chuckle. 

'Weren't allowed to play cards'

Doyle started out making $30 per month in the lumber woods. After four years, he made $40 per month, or $10 a week. 

The Quaco Queen, a three-masted schooner, is successfully launched in St. Martins, N.B., in 1919, one of 700 ships built in the area since 1800. (Quaco Museum Archives)

The camp was about 20 kilometres from the nearest house, he said, so the men stayed in camp all winter and had to entertain themselves in their off time.

"A lot of mouth organ players there — good players," Doyle said. "And then there'd be some step dancing. But they weren't allowed to play cards though, not in our camp." Card play caused too many fights, management said.

"You were terribly well fed," Doyle also recalled, starting with breakfast of bread, beans and oatmeal porridge. Doyle also fondly recalled the desserts.

"You had raisin pie, mince pie, plum pudding, prunes," he said. He recalls one man eating more than 100 prunes at dinner one night. For fun, the men then weighed 100 prunes, which came out to almost four pounds. He also remembers another hungry worker once enjoying 11 doughnuts. 

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With files from Sara Fraser