Category Archives: PEI History

Trap smasher

I took my mother to visit a friend of ours on an extremely windy day last week, and our journey allowed us a brief glimpse of the ocean surf pounding against the Sandhills, the barrier sand dunes the protect our coastline at this end of PEI. It was a dramatic sight, and my mother said, “That’s what they used to call a trap smasher.”

I didn’t remember hearing that phrase before, but it makes sense, as those kinds of roiling seas will tangle lobster gear and can certainly end up smashing lobster traps. T.K. Pratt’s Dictionary of Prince Edward Island English includes “trap smasher”, saying it’s a noun frequent in Egmont (the federal electoral riding where we live) and is:

In lobster fishing, a severe wind storm during the fishing season.

So, technically, trap smashers can only occur along our section of the north side of PEI between May 1 and June 30, the spring lobster fishing season here. We, of course, ignore and never discuss the weather the other 10 months of the year (lol!).

My father and I bringing in unsmashed lobster traps circa 1980.

Freeland WI

My mother attended her Women’s Institute’s annual meeting last evening, and they decided to disband after 99 years of continuous service. My mother joined in 1942 when she was 20, right before she enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force Women’s Division for service during the Second World War. She has loved being a WI member.

I think at one time almost every school district on PEI had a Women’s Institute to support the school and community, and pretty much every rural community had a one-room school, so that was a lot of WI groups. They were both a fundraising group and a social outing at a time when most rural woman were working at home. They would fundraise to keep their school in tip-top shape, and when consolidation in the 1960s and 70s closed small rural schools, many WIs bought the buildings from the government for a dollar and turned them into community halls. There were at least 22 WIs in our area, but that number has slowly dwindled and now 2 remain, Poplar Grove/McNeills Mills and Port Hill.

I never joined the WI. I was too young when I left for university, and when I moved back 20 years ago, there were no members my age, so I just didn’t join. I now feel like I have missed out on something important.

But I fondly remember the WI meetings that were held in our home when I was a child. I would sit in the corner and watch and listen to it all, the reports from the different committees, the education program on different topics of interest to country women, the discussions on what fundraiser they would hold next: a goose supper, a variety concert, make a quilt and sell raffle tickets on it, a bake sale. There was always tea and sandwiches and sweets and lots of chitchat after the meeting ended. It was up to the hostess to make “the lunch”, and my mother was a generous and excellent cook, so it was always a good feed! I would pass the plates of sandwiches from great aunt to great aunt to neighbour to cousin, all of them calling me “Thelma dear”, smiling, laughing. They would discuss who was sick and who had died and who was taking a trip, the price of things nowadays, wasn’t it hot/cold/mild/windy/dry/rainy.

The WIs in our district banded together to prepare and serve the suppers at the Tyne Valley Oyster Festival for many years, working out of a less-than-ideal kitchen attached to the old rink. They turned out beautiful lobster suppers, complete with salads, rolls, pies and sweets. It was thrilling to be in the midst of this cyclone of competence and energy, each woman knowing exactly what to do, working quickly as if they were line cooks every day of their life (which in some cases, with the large families that were once the norm here, they were), but almost always in good cheer and with a buzzing sense of unity and camaraderie. I feel fortunate to have learned so much from these resourceful, powerful women.

I texted a friend who is a member of one of the two remaining WIs in our area and asked if my mother could join them, even if just in an honorary way. “In a heartbeat,” she texted back.

Report on a WI meeting held at my great-grandparents’ lobster cannery from The Charlottetown Guardian, September 3, 1927. My mother went to live with her grandparents in the spring of 1927, and would have turned 5 that August, so she was likely present for this meeting, lurking at the edge of it like I used to do.

Pituamkek

A beautiful new video from L’neuy about plans to create a National Park Reserve on Pituamkek/Hog Island and the Sandhills that are just a couple of miles from my house. This initiative is important for the Miꞌkmaq and all Epekwitkewaq, because the Miꞌkmaq have lived and gathered food there for millennia and deserve the right to determine their future use. The Sandhills protect the shoreline and are important resting spots for migrating birds and nesting areas for the endangered piping plover.

Those sand dunes are the wildest place I’ve ever been on PEI, raw, stunningly gorgeous and powerful. I was lucky to visit with my parents many times as a child, and rarely would you see another person, miles and miles of beach and dunes and pounding surf. Such vivid memories of long summer days over there having picnics, playing in the cold water, beachcombing to find shells and starfish. I would always fall asleep on the boat ride home, through Cascumpec Bay and Foxley Bay, right up to the shore in front of our house, cradled on the waves, epekwitk.

My father and I in the water on the Sandhills, 1968
My father and I beachcombing on the Sandhills, 1968
Heading home with Toronto visitors after a long day on the Sandhills, 1970
Asleep in the speedboat, 1969

Take Down The Statues

Gary Younge explains in The Guardian why he thinks all statues erected to honour notable people should come down. I had started to write my thoughts on this last night after Charlottetown City Council voted yesterday to remove a statue of Canada’s first prime minster, Sir John A. MacDonald, after much debate and controversy, but Gary says it all, and far better than I ever could. Take them all down; the future hates our statues.

Caught some trout, but lost my teeth

I’m not sure who was writing the unsigned pieces for the “Summerside and Western Guardian” section of The Charlottetown Guardian during the spring of 1921, but their dispatches from the Western Capital included lots of wry commentary on the social ills of the town, and amusing microfiction like “A Fish Story” below.

The Charlottetown Guardian May 27, 1921 p8

Also in this little clipping under the “Western Personals” (i.e. the reporter met the western train and chatted to those who disembarked!) is the news that a former beau of LM Montgomery, Louis Distant (I think it’s really Dystant), had visited town. If I remember correctly, Louis was more a handy means of transportation for Maud while she lived and taught school in Bideford in 1894-95 than a real love interest, at least in her eyes. And the “AA McAull” who was also in Summerside was my great-grandmother’s brother, Anthony Alexander MacCaull.

That I manage to get anything done most days is a small miracle considering the hole I can fall down from just a small section of an eight-page 100-year-old newspaper.

70 Years

The Stewart Memorial Health Centre officially opened in Tyne Valley on this date in 1951. It rained that Victoria Day Thursday, so people sat in their cars to listen while speakers addressed them from the 7-bed hospital’s verandah. After the official ceremony, hundreds of people toured the building, and no doubt the ladies of the community provided ample and delicious refreshments.

Much of the money to build the little hospital was raised through suppers and bake sales, concerts and fundraising drives. The building was constructed by local contractors, and when we held a 60th anniversary celebration in 2011, a couple of the men who attended told me about working with their fathers to help with the initial build.

My mother tells of going to Stewart Memorial with a friend to help clean the rooms after construction was completed. The Women’s Institutes would answer their roll calls with canned goods that would be given to the hospital to provide food for patients, and they sewed curtains and johnny shirts. Farmers would donate eggs and meat, fishers would drop off trout and cod and lobsters.

Stewart Memorial had its own board until 1995, when amalgamation fever was high on PEI and regional health boards were formed. By that time, two building additions had added 16 more beds for a total of 23.

Over the years the hospital had provided almost every service except for major surgery. Many babies were born and cared for, there was an emergency room (and staff would attend accidents before there was an ambulance service), outpatient services, acute and later long term care. It provide generations of local residents with good jobs. It was the place where members of Lennox Island First Nation would come for medical care, first by boat or on a potentially hazardous trip across ice in winter, and later via the causeway built in the early 1970s.

After the regional health board was established, services at the hospital were gradually decreased until the government announced in 2013 that Stewart Memorial Hospital would close and be turned into a nursing home. Many of us fought to save our little hospital and the valuable services it provided to our area, spending thousands of hours in meetings. I’ve never really gotten over the closure, and trying to save it consumed my life for a couple of years.

Today I spent a couple of hours looking over old documents and thinking about all the people connected to our hospital. My grandmother was the first cook, my father served on the board of directors for many years. I went there to receive medical care, to volunteer, to visit sick relatives, so say goodbye to loved ones. My father lived there for a couple of years while dementia slowly took him from us, in a wing of the hospital he helped to raise the money to have built. He died there, as had his mother, his brothers, his friends and relatives, all cared for by people who knew them.

Soon there will be a generation of people who won’t know that we once had a hospital, that it was a focus of community pride and energy. I suppose it won’t matter, but I’ll never let it go, because it was important, despite what the Capital City bean counters told us. Closing Stewart Memorial didn’t fix the out-of-control health budget, it didn’t solve provincial health care staffing issues, it certainly didn’t improve health outcomes for my friends and neighbours. I’m not sure what closing it achieved, but I know what the hospital achieved while it was open, and that was life, and death, and everything in between.

“Speak up, me son!”

My mother and I were talking about the characters that she knew years ago, funny friends and neighbours, customers at her general store. One fellow was George Palmer, who lived just up the road from the store with his wife, Dora. I don’t remember either of them, but have heard lots of tales.

Even into the 1990s, we had a party telephone line that was shared with other people. By the end, there was just one other family on our line, but there would have been dozens on the line at one time. Each telephone subscriber had their own distinctive ring that would alert them to an incoming call, so you had to know your pattern and were only to answer if it was yours. George, though, would listen to every call that came on his line, but his hearing wasn’t great in later years, so he would occasionally blurt out “Speak up, me son!” if he thought he was missing some juicy news.

Mom said George loved to play April Fool’s jokes. One April first he pulled up in his horse and wagon to deliver eggs to their store, which was having a very busy day. The eggs would be in a little crate on the back of the wagon and my father would go out and take them in to the store, grade them, and credit the amount to George’s account. George pulled up and yelled “Phillips!” and my father went out to get the eggs. Just as he neared the wagon, George slapped the reins, geed up the horse and yelled “April Fool’s!” as he drove away.

I have 40 hours of 8mm film my father took starting about 1960, and I remembered a short clip of a man in a horse and buggy on the road in front of our old house. It’s the only film I have of someone in a horse and buggy, so it’s a short but important memory of a time when horses were still the main source of transportation for some. George would be one of the last men in our area who never owned a car or truck. I showed the clip to my mother, and she is pretty sure it is him, the jokester, and at the end of the clip, you can see his house off in the distance as he drives down the road past my grandfather’s house.

Still Funny?

When I read past issues of the Charlottetown Guardian online, I almost always start on the back page, where the western PEI news is given. I love the old gossip of who went to Summerside on the train, or who has a horse for sale. We were and remain a snoopy bunch.

Next to the western news on this date in 1921 was a big ad from Prowse Brothers Ltd. advertising a white wear sale, the perfect time to get new undergarments. I read and then reread the bottom of the ad, and while I think it was a joke to fool everyone on the first day of April, you can never be sure with some parts of history.

Retention Rate

My father, Harold, served on the regional school board for western Prince Edward Island from 1975 to 1987, and was chair for seven of those years. He and my mother sold their general store in 1971, so both had ample time for volunteer pursuits. For a few years, my father was in meetings nearly every day as the school board worked on the creation of a new amalgamated high school.

That school, Westisle, was created to achieve many goals, both educational and fiscal, but one my father often cited was to improve student retention rates. I had never known exactly what those rates had been, but he gave an idea in a speech he made at the fourth Westisle graduation in 1983:

I would like to very briefly outline some of our achievements since the completion of the MacDonald “Drop Out Study” in 1974. 10 years ago, this study showed our retention rate to be only 31% (for every 3 children who entered grade 2, only 1 completed grade 12), whereas most recent figures show it now to be the reverse, which is very close to the national average.

Westisle Composite High was built to accommodate 810 pupils. However, due to the great flexibility of this facility in being able to offer a fairly comprehensive program to our young people, our high school enrolment reached 872 this past year, compared to 610 [at the three separate high schools] one year before Westisle opened.

Of all the things my father accomplished as a school board trustee, keeping young people in school for as long as possible was the most personal and made him most proud. He had to leave school at grade eight and always regretted not having been able to further his education, so he was happy to have helped others achieve that dream.

Hon. George Henderson, Unit One School Board Chair Harold Phillips, and Hon. Robert Campbell (aka The Great West Wind) turning the sod for what became Westisle Composite High School circa 1978.