Getting ready for winter in P.E.I.'s Bygone Days

At the turn of the last century, many Islanders had to grow, preserve and make enough food to last them and their animals through the unpredictable winters, as well as chop enough wood to keep wood stoves burning. 

'When I was churning, I found a mouse drowned in the cream'

There was lots of wood to be chopped and seasoned before winter set in on P.E.I. (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. 

At the turn of the last century, most Islanders lived on a farm, and most people were about 80 per cent self-sufficient. 

They had to grow, preserve and make enough food to last them and their animals through the unpredictable winters, as well as chop enough wood to keep wood stoves burning. 

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

Ambrose Monaghan recalled his mother Lizzie making crocks of butter when he was growing up on the family farm in Kelly's Cross in the 1910s. First, she'd have to hand-churn the milk into butter.
"Coming up late on the fall, she'd start packing crocks. Coming on spring, some of them would be hungry for butter," Monaghan told historian Dutch Thompson. "We'd take probably a two-gallon crock to Charlottetown or even to Bradley's store, you'd near get what you wanted for it." 

Sometimes Lizzie would mould the butter using a wooden mould with a pretty flowered print on top, other times Ambrose said she'd simply pack it into an earthenware kitchen crock, salting it as she went. 

Wood-chopping chores

Lizzie Monaghan was a midwife, and Ambrose said when she was called out in the middle of winter they'd heat several Family Herald newspapers in the wood stove and wrap them under her clothes to keep her warm while she crossed the hills in the horse and sleigh. 

Ambrose Monaghan had five brothers and five sisters — families were large in P.E.I.'s bygone days. (Dutch Thompson)

Ambrose had five brothers and five sisters, and every winter the boys went out into the woods to cut 15 to 20 cords of firewood, haul it home, buck it and split it — all by hand. 

It was a never-ending cycle — they spent half the winter getting the next winter's firewood for the family's two wood stoves. 

They also needed fuel for transportation, which in the bygone days wasn't gasoline, but rather hay in the barn for the horses to eat. 

In 1918 when Ambrose was five, there were only 300 cars on P.E.I. — so few, kids played a game they called licence plate. They'd get a list of all the cars on P.E.I. and the owners, and when they saw a car they'd note the number on the licence plate and check it off the list.

Grow your own long underwear

Another thing Islanders needed to face winter's cold was long underwear. And who needed store-bought underwear when you could grow your own? 
This image from the 1925 Holman's catalogue advertised woolen long underwear — to be worn in the summer! (Dutch Thompson)

The Monaghans had eight or 10 sheep, which were sheared by Lizzie and Ambrose's aunt, Janet. 

"They were pretty good at it," Ambrose recalled. "In fact probably if there was someone else not so good at it, they'd give them a hand."

The women would wash and dry the wool at home and take it by horse and cart to French's Mill where it was carded or combed. 

"My old aunt used to do all the spinning, she'd walk across the kitchen with the thread, and the spinning wheel going," Ambrose said. Then the women would knit anything the family needed. 

Ambrose told Dutch his father Jimmy Rosie Monaghan wore the long woolen underwear they made all year long, while making hay or threshing grain in the heat of summer. Dutch's own grandfather did the same, claiming the wool absorbed the sweat.

Flour-bag bloomers

People did have to break down and barter for a few things at the general store, however.

The SS Harland operated in P.E.I. rivers and the Northumberland Strait, stopping at Eldon, Orwell, and China Point in the east, as well as and up the Strait to Victoria. The service was terminated in about 1934. (PARO)

Keith Pratt who ran a big general store in Bloomfield Station said he bartered with local farmers — everything from eggs to Irish moss.

Monaghan described how different general stores in the Kelly's Cross area bought their farm's products: they hauled sides of pork to Kennedy's in Breadalbane, shipped vegetables on the steamer Harland that sailed between Charlottetown and Victoria, and his mum raised roosters to sell at Christmastime — New York-dressed chickens they were called, he said, with feathers plucked but head and feet left on.

Most farmers also grew their own wheat for flour in those days, too. 

Ivan Kennedy at Kennedy's General Store in Breadalbane, one of the last general stores in P.E.I. (Dutch Thompson)

The flour came in 98-pound bags, and Monaghan's mother made bloomers for his sisters with the cotton bag fabric.

"Not as many flour bags as you'd think — flour came in barrels," Ambrose said. He recalled one oft-told story of an older woman who took a horse and wagon to Kelly's Cross to get a barrel of flour. As usual, there was a group of men chatting around the front of the store, chewing twists of tobacco and spitting into the snow. 

The men got the idea to challenge the woman: if she could put the barrel of flour on the wagon herself, they'd pay for her flour. 

"She just grabbed her barrel of flour and rolled 'er out and picked 'er up and set 'er in the back of the wagon and went around and collected her money from each fella. She loaded the flour and got her flour free!" 

Mouse in the butter

Monaghan also recalled a story of a woman from western P.E.I. who brought a crock of butter to a general store and asked the proprietor to exchange it for another crock of butter. 

Keith Pratt and Chris Smith in 1926 at Bloomfield Station, P.E.I., in front of Pratt's general store. (Submitted by Dutch Thompson)

She leaned over the counter and whispered, "When I was churning, I found a mouse drowned in the cream. Well I can't waste all that good cream, and I certainly can't give the butter to my own family. So I wonder if you would swap with me and sell the butter to someone who doesn't know what happened?"

"No problem," the store owner said, taking the crock of butter out back and returning carrying another crock. However, all he had done was put her butter in a different crock. 

The woman thanked him and said, "What a person doesn't know will never hurt them!"

"Absolutely right," agreed the storekeeper. "What a person doesn't know will never hurt them." 

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