Pioneers and "The Island"
As summer was almost over when the settlers landed they erected at once rude cabins to shelter them from the bitter cold of winter then approaching. These were built of logs squared and dovetailed at the ends. The spaces between were filled with moss or clay. The seams were covered with birch bark. Over all a ply of boards was nailed. The roof was covered with pine shingles. The nails used in this work were of iron, made by a blacksmith in the settlement. The windows in these little cabins were few and small as glass was dear. It took iron courage to face the first winter in this inhospitable climate, and until the harvest was garnered next autumn their minds were harassed often by the grim spectre of want hovering about their kitchen door.
Entering the humble cottage of the early settler one found an abode of Arcadian simplicity. If at meal time, there might be half a dozen healthy blue-eyed children, with their parents, seated on planks around the rough board table. The simple fare consisted of potatoes and pickled herring or dried salt cod. Oatmeal porridge was the staple breakfast dish. It was many years later before wheat flour was used daily. In the meantime, barley and buckwheat varied the oatmeal diet. Many meals were partaken without forks and knives, and those in use were made generally of horn. The teapot was always on the hearth. The Scots were inordinately fond of tea and drank copious quantities of that beverage. As soon as a caller entered the house the kindly housewife, with unbounded hospitality, proffered a cup.
Of adornments there were none. The walls and ceilings were of untouched native wood. Later it was customary to whitewash the whole interior with slaked lime. This sanitary practice continued until wallpaper was introduced.
The bedstead consisted of a rough hewn frame on which lay a huge home-made linen tick, filled with grass, and in later years the choicest oat chaff. This made a warm, clean and comfortable resting place. At least once a year, at threshing, it was emptied and refilled. As a supply of chaff for ticks was stored in the barns they could be changed whenever the housewife so desired.
As domestic geese were raised in large numbers, feather ticks became common and the guest chamber was generally equipped with one. The houses were cold. The open chimney, although healthful, allowed most of the heat to pass off without tempering the air in the chilly rooms. Beside the fireplace hung the boot-jack, fashioned from the crotch of birch or maple, while over it rested an old Queen Anne rifle. Newspapers were unknown. Other books were rare, but the Gaelic Bible was in every home. By the fitful glow of the pine knot on the fireplace, the father read the nightly lesson from its sacred pages. All were warmly clothed. The men wore natural grey homespun, the women drugget. Their shoes were made in neighboring homes from cowhide tanned in the settlement. Well rubbed with warm sheep's tallow, they were impervious to water.
The settlers started at once cutting down the forest. "How bow'd the woods beneath their sturdy stroke." They reserved all marketable timber to be floated to the nearest shipping point for export the following summer, or to be converted into ships.
The Scots and Irish lacked the Englishman's deep appreciation of the beauty of the forest. In their eagerness to clear the land they swept everything bare, in many cases leaving neither hedges nor even shelters about their homes. The English settler, with an eye trained to the beauty of landscape, frequently brought acorns and shrubbery with him, and today one finds well laid out grounds that testify to the forethought and taste of these farseeing English pioneers. The Goff homestead at Woodville, Cardigan, is an example. Only in the past generation have the Scots made consistent efforts to beautify their homesteads by planting trees, and laying out their grounds in an orderly manner.
Not being experienced woodsmen the task of clearing the forest was very laborious and dangerous, occasionally resulting in serious injury and even death. But with experience they gained knowledge, and within a few years the young men became skilled in all the arts of woodcraft. Lumbering was the chief industry for many years. The choicest timber was used in shipbuilding. In every harbor along the coast were built ships, which, manned by daring seamen, brought fame to their native isle in every leading seaport throughout the world. As early as 1825 large numbers were launched, and in that year forty vessels of 8,409 tons were built. The shipwrights' hours of labor were long. Frequently several miles intervened between the shipyard and the workman's home. One lady recently told of her father, over seventy years ago, walking daily, six miles to and from his work at Davies' shipyard. His honesty, so characteristic of the times, was such that on one occasion, finding a few iron spikes in his pocket when he got home, he insisted on bringing them back next day, for, as he said, if he did not do so they might be in his coffin.
Occasional trees, especially pine, were of imposing size. On each farm, for many years after the forest was cleared, isolated stumps stood in the cultivated fields, silent reminders of the venerable monarchs that once looked down from imposing heights upon the meaner growth of maple, spruce, birch, beech and fir around them. On one of these farms, near a grateful spring, stood a notable stump, six feet in diameter. This remnant of a lordly pine withstood decay for over half a century. Finally, about 1900, it succumbed to the annual attacks of fire and axe.
Potato sets, with one eye, were planted in groups of three or four and lightly covered with the rich soil and ash from the recent fire. After the young plant showed above the ground it was "killed." As there were no pests (the Colorado beetle or "potato bug" attacked them first about 1895), and but few weeds, they were not touched again. They yielded about twenty-fold next fall. Whent, oats and barley, which were sewn among the stumps broadcast also gave bountiful yields.
Until the land was stumped all grain was cut with reaping hooks. When the clearing was large enough, the back-breaking cradle was used. This instrument consisted of an iron blade or scythe and cradle with four hardwood fingers, adjusted to the handle. The grain fell across the fingers. The cradler strove to lay the grain in an even swath on the highest stubble to lighten the work of the binder, who followed with a hand rake. While binding the sheaf the harvester rested the handle on his shoulder. In this spot the skin was soon calloused. It is reported of one Neil Campbell, of Peel County, Ontario, that he took a swath eleven feet wide and cut eleven acres in a day. Five acres was considered a good day's cradling in average grain not broken or tangled. Cutting started before the grain was ripe. Ripened straw became so brittle in the hot sun that sometimes it could not be used for bands. In such cases binding was done in the evening and morning, when the straw was softened by the dew.
Women cut much grain with the sickle, but rarely with the cradle. "Oft did the harvest to their sickle yield." They bound, after the cradle, though hampered by their long skirts and often barefoot. The torture caused by the sharp stubble and prickly thistles, was almost unbearable.
The reaper, drawn by two or three horses,
displaced the cradle. A man, standing on the machine, raked the grain off
the table. Later a revolving rake, set on a stand, swept the bundle from
the table onto the ground. It could be adjusted so that, instead of every
fourth rake carrying off the grain, the driver tripped it at will and made
the sheaf the size desired.
In all these tasks the women shared equally with the men. They helped to gather the stumps, and to burn the piles. They bound, stooked, and stacked grain. They sheared the sheep and washed the wool beside those pleasant little brooks, that ran through almost every farm. The water used was warmed in iron boilers brought from Scotland.
For many years threshing was done with the flail. This instrument consisted of two hardwood bars loosely tied together at the ends by a thong, preferably of buckskin. The handle was longer than the swingle to prevent the latter hitting the hand clasping the handle. Two parallel rows of six sheaves each, were laid on the barn floor with heads together and bands uncut. These were beaten with the flail until the straw began to curl. Then they were turned over with the flail, and the same punishment administered to the other side. The straw was stored for fodder and bedding. The grain was thrown into the air to separate it from the chaff. The lightest and cleanest chaff was carefully preserved to fill the home-made linen ticks on which the hard worked pioneers spent their all-too-few hours of hard earned rest.
The horse tread-mill consigned the flail to museum walls. The open cylinders first used were studded with hardwood teeth. The straw was passed back with hand rakes and forks and stored in the loft. After the evening meal was over the threshers returned to the barn. In an atmosphere clogged with dust, they put through the fanners all grain threshed that day. There seems to have been less opposition to the introduction of the fanners into Belfast than into Peel County, Ontario, where a certain lady tried to expel from the church a neighbor who had brought into the district one of those "wind machines."
Persistent cropping without rotation, soon impoverished the soil to such an extent that the yield was reduced by half. To restore fertility, farmers within a radius of several miles hauled "mussel mud" from Orwell River. This was thrown in small heaps over the field and in summer scattered in a thin layer. The digger was set up on the ice over an oyster bed. Those engaged were protected from the bitter winter winds by spruce trees planted in the ice, about the machine. An iron shovel worked by horse capstan, was lowered through an opening in the ice to scoop up and deposit in the sleigh the slimy mass of shells. To the humble oyster much of the prosperity and consequent happiness of the Island is due. Among the many resources with which it is so bountifully blessed this inconspicuous bivalve will ever hold an honored place.
Wooden ploughs with wrought iron mould-board, share, and colter, were long in use. In the earliest models the share and mould-board were in one piece. These were later made of cast iron in separate sections.
Stump fences were never a distinctive feature of Island landscape. Soft fir and spruce grew in abundance, and as they were easily cut the fences were made of them. The rails, or "longers" as they were known, were generally twelve feet long. These fences were built five rails high, then staked. A rider was placed over the stakes.
The wedding was often a day of jollification. The men present engaged in feats of physical prowess, running, jumping, throwing the heavy hammer, shooting at targets, and other Highland games.
It was customary for her parents to tocher the bride with a milk cow, a few sheep, and bedding for one bed. In the evening dancing was continued until, with great show and much burlesque, the assembled guests assisted the newly wedded pair to bed.
As the evening wore to its close a group of young men from the neighborhood armed with shot guns, tin pans, circular saws, horns, bugles, and other noise producing instruments, gathered outside the wedding house for the charivari. Here they kept up a continual din until, spent with their exertions, they accepted the invitation of the kindly host to share in the good things on the banquet table, or received from the groom a gift of money, which, as sometimes happened, they spent at the nearest tavern before going home.
Dances were usually held in the winter. A favorite time was at "house warmings," and sometimes at weddings. The Plain Quadrille, Scotch Reel, Step Dance, and Highland Schottische were the favorites. Another favorite was Sir Roger De Coverly, also known as the Virginia Reel.
The musical instrument generally used was the fiddle, gut in default of it the mouth organ and jews-harp were sometimes used. One talented old lady with an ear for music, delighted her audience with strains from a coarse-tooth comb covered with thin paper. She used to be in great demand at these dances.
Much of the enjoyment at these gatherings was due to the "caller off." He was responsible for the movement of the various figures, and was often chosen because of special capacity to provoke merriment. In loud tones heard above the hum of conversation and the noise of shuffling feet, he called off the well remembered litany:
It sometimes happened that the young men and women were present in unequal numbers. The genial caller-off, or perhaps some wag, to add a note of mirth, often varied the ritual by calling "swing or cheat." At this some hapless swain quickly stepped between a dancing lady and her partner and cheated him out of his swing. This sometimes provoked a jealous suitor to reprisals. On one occasion an aspiring youth tried to cheat, but for his pains his ears were boxed soundly by the indignant young lady who would have nothing to do with him.
Mrs. Alexander Gillis of Kinross, was born on the farm of her father, Donald Ban Oig MacLeod, beside the Orwell Head church, over eighty years ago. When recently questioned about amusements in the Orwell district of her youth, she declared without hesitation that, while geese raffles and other gatherings provided much fun for the young people, the wauking, or "thickening frolic" was the happiest day of the year.
These frolics were common in the winter time. When the web of cloth, containing generally from fifteen to thirty yards, according to the needs of the family, was ready for thickening word was sent through the settlement. When those who wished to do so had assembled, the web, which had been soaking for some time in soap and water, was "wrung out" by hand. It was then placed on a long table improvised from boards placed on barrels. The young women lining each side of the table then grasped the cloth in their hands, at the same time giving a kneading movement as they advanced along and around it. This was accompanied by a Gaelic song, the rhythm of which lent itself to the movement. The hilarity produced by the singing robbed the task of any appearance or sense of labor. After repeated manipulations the cloth became quite thick. It was then rolled tightly on a wooden roller and allowed to stand for a few days. From this it was rolled off onto another roller and allowed to stand for a short time. When removed it was perfectly smooth and ready to be tailored by the women or by the community tailor, who was recognized as an important personage in the district. He went from house to house as his work called him.
Following the thickening, the evening was spent in step dancing and reels. When instrumental music was lacking a jigger chanted his wavering melody to the amusement and great delight of the whole party. Some of these jiggers had a ready fund of humorous anecdotes and an uncanny gift of mimicry. They were always welcome guests and did much to improve an evening.
At this early period the reel and step dance were the only ones she ever saw. Mrs. Gillis believes that for the first generation the Belfast people never danced the quadrille. It came into favor later.
The Gaelic songs most often sung around the thickening table were:
Songs were composed to commemorate striking events in the district. Some were in Gaelic, others in English. One of the most popular of the latter was "The Belfast Riot." The authorship is in doubt, but it gives a fairly complete history of that exciting event. It consisted of twelve stanzas. The first two were:-
THE BELFAST RIOT
"The first of March was the day of election,
During the long winter evenings young and old gathered in neighboring homes to "ceilidh," drawn by the genial atmosphere that pervades certain homes in every community. There they told stories and sang folk-songs. These were in Gaelic, and among them, according to Roderick C. MacLeod, the Gaelic scholar of Dundee, the favorites, all brought from the Homeland, were:
Between 1827, when Dr. Macauley died, and 1840, when Donald Munro, of Alberry Plains, arrived from Skye, there was no one in the district trained in medicine. During that period each district had one or more unselfish neighbors of practical skill, who prescribed simple remedies for the various ailments. Through their intelligent interest and devoted care many lives were saved, but the death toll from tuberculosis, diphtheria, scarlet fever, croup, pneumonia, and epidemics that frequently swept over the country, was heavy. These men did valuable work, but the midwives of Belfast exhibited a skill beyond all praise. They were equal to every emergency. They never turned a deaf ear to a call for help and without thought of reward they braved miles of miserable roads and bitter storms. Finally, when they made way for the modern practitioner, they left behind a record of unselfish care and skill, rarely, if ever, equalled under similar circumstances.
To every school boy the sea captain is a hero. In the fall of the year the docks were lined with ships loading cargoes of the famed McIntyre potatoes, or the equally famed black oats. The summit of the young boy's desire was gratified if permitted to bring a discarded whisky bottle full of milk to proffer the captain for the privilege of inspecting the hidden mysteries of the ocean Leviathan. Returning home, the assembled family heard of the wonders seen - the captain's cabin with its reeky lamp, the tiny sweating forecastle, and the cavernous hold in which was spied the dripping puncheon of Barbadoes molasses, nectar destined for the children's daily porridge.
These sailors were courageous, stern men. Inured to hardship and facing danger as their daily lot, they were disciplined and self controlled. If, in moments of dire peril, the mate's voice boomed above the fury of the storm, it was not a characteristic of the sailor. The same man, especially if a Highland Scot, was urbane ashore, speaking in that quiet undertone that is recognized as a characteristic peculiar to all sailors, and also one marking the speech of all the inhabitants of that beloved isle.
For the first sixty or seventy years of the settlement's existence there were notable fishing grounds stocked with a plentiful supply of cod, herring and mackerel within a few miles of their homes. To these grounds the young men used frequently to go for a few weeks, each summer. Erecting huts on St. Peter's Island they made it their headquarters, and did a thriving business with American shipowners who used to buy their catch. Unfortunately, these grounds no longer provide this near source of pleasure and profit to the people.
Among the few Lowland families who settled among the Highlanders, and taught them improved methods of farming, were the Andersons of Orwell Cove, who emigrated from Perth, Scotland, in 1808 to New Perth, P.E.I., and settled in Orwell Cove about 1819. They were, like most Lowlanders, more thrifty than the Highlanders. About 1842 or 1843 Alexander Anderson II built up-to-date mills on the Newtown River to which people carried grain from long distances.
The first iron plough in the district was brought from Scotland by Alexander Anderson I. He also brought the first cart wheels, and gig, and what did even more for the prosperity of the community, the famous black oats. All he grew for years was sold to the neighbors for seed. The daughters in this splendid family were equally as notable as the sons. Their skill in husbandry and in the domestic arts, made them outstanding women. The heckle they brought from Scotland, was the first used in Orwell Cove. They taught their neighboring Highland women not only how to use it, but also how to plant and harvest the flax on which to use it.
Another Lowland family of unusual parts was the Irving family of Vernon River. From the first they exhibited those sterling qualities of thrift, industry and originality that inspired others and made them leaders in the district since first they entered it.
THE FIRST MILL IN BELFAST
The mills were among the most important factors ministering to the comfort of the early settlers. Each favorable stream had one or more. The first mill in Belfast was built by Lord Selkirk on the Pinette River near the church. Various parties operated it until finally, in 1839, John Douse sold it to Alexander Dixon, a miller from Bowport, Northumberland, England, whose grandson, Joseph Dixon, owns and operates it today in keeping with the fine tradition handed down through succeeding generations of that worthy family.
Oatmeal was ground in it for several years before the first wheat flour was made. In addition to the grist and saw-mill originally built, both carding and shingle mills were added at an early date. Prior to the installation of the carding mill, probably by Mr. Dixon, wool was carded in the settlers homes by small wooden cards studded with iron bristles. Holding the handle of the card, which was about five inches by eight inches or ten inches„ in each hand the wool was pulled and rolled into the required form for spinning.
The First Church
The Belfast settlers, like their kinsmen of the Red River Settlement, for many years were without a settled minister. They regarded this as a heavy cross, but bore it with patience. They longed to have observed, in the form they loved, the sacred rite of baptism, of marriage, and the final rites at death. They looked forward eagerly to the day when, in Gaelic, they might hear in their own church the voice of their own minister. For this day many waited in vain. At last in 1823 there was sent to minister to them the much revered John MacLennan. In the meantime the observance: of religion was not neglected, and nothing shows more clearly their reverence for the Sabbath than their strict observance of that day.
The church was the lodestone around which centred the life of the people. Young and old alike presented themselves at divine service clothed in their best, and comported themselves in a manner befitting the sacred nature of the service. There was no endowment, but all reasonable demands were met. The people contributed willingly of what they had. The minister's stipend may seem trifling today, but it was adequate at that time. He was easily able to support himself and family in a manner befitting his station. No one was rich and it was proper that he should not have luxuries while his parishioners dined on humble fare. There was thus complete fellowship in the community.
There is a tradition in Belfast that John Gillis, a Skye-man who settled in Orwell Cove in 1803, built a log structure near the French cemetery, probably in 1804, which for years was used both for church and for school. It is believed that Dr. Aeneas Macaulay, who had been an army chaplain before studying medicine, frequently conducted religious service during the early years of the settlement in that building, and also in private homes.
The church records seem to indicate that the present church was erected in 1823, where it now stands, near Pinette River, on land granted for the purpose by Selkirk; but it is held by some that it was built in 1824. It is an imposing and beautiful structure, a tribute alike to the high value put upon spiritual things by the early settlers, and to their unbounded confidence in the future of their settlement. They had early taken firm root in the new land. With the speedy improvement in their financial condition their contentment grew apace, and no regrets were felt over their migration from the home of their forefathers. The building is sixty feet long by forty-two feet wide. The Wren steeple is composed of a tower fourteen feet wide by sixteen feet long, surmounted by a spire of unusual beauty eighty-five feet high. The spire was built by the two brothers, Neil MacLeod and Malcolm MacLeod (father of Donald Mor MacLeod of Orwell). They had both worked in the U.S.A., and after returning to their old home at Murray Harbor Road, about 1860, erected the spire. There is a gallery on both sides and one end.
Up to the time the church was built and for a couple of generations later, shingles were made by hand from the choicest wood, free from knots. The instrument used in making them - the "frow" - had a wedge-shaped iron blade about a foot long attached to which was a short stout handle. The block of wood was stood on end and the "frow" driven by a wooden mallet into the end of the block so as to give the shingle, or barrel stave, as the case might be, the required thickness. With the block braced against the knee, the handle was then pulled sideways and the required piece split off. The piece thus severed followed the grain of the wood.
This was then planed by hand. The result was a shingle which endured until completely worn off by the elements. The shingles now on the churches at Belfast, Orwell and Orwell Head are of this variety. In the former case, although exposed to the elements for almost three quarters of a century, they are still sound.
In a copy of the Monthly Record of the Church of Scotland in Nova Scotia, and the adjoining Provinces, for October, A.D. 1864, in the possession of Miss Bella Macdonald, postmistress, Eldon, Belfast, appears the following, written no doubt by the minister:
"ST. JOHN'S CHURCH, BELFAST"
"This church, one of the oldest buildings among our places of worship, is now undergoing a thorough renovation. At a meeting of the Congregation held a few weeks ago, it was resolved to make extensive repairs, so as to secure comfort and the respectability of appearance which should distinguish everywhere the House of God. A large and very liberal subscription was made on the spot, and although but a few weeks have passed since the work was resolved on, a large portion of it has already been accomplished. Before the end of October the whole will be finished, and it includes, besides other necessary repairs and changes, the shingling and plastering of the whole building, with the addition of a large vestry.
"This church, when originally built about forty years ago, was one of the best of the Protestant churches in the Island. It is now again about to resume its original position, and to become what the church occupied by a congregation like that of Belfast should be. In the meantime, and for some weeks to come, public worship must be held in the open air, which, although not always very comfortable, is cheerfully submitted to by pastor and people, from the pleasure and comfort anticipated when again permitted to occupy the sacred building. To complete these extensive repairs will require an amount of upwards of £250. A short time ago, another church was erected at Orwell, for the accommodation of that section of the congregation residing there, at a cost exceeding £300. This has been done amid difficulties caused by an almost entire failure in the crops. For two successive seasons they were subjected to this severe trial, and the debts then incurred in providing food for themselves and families still continue to embarrass many of them. The efforts which, in these circumstances, have thus been made, and the vigour with which especially this last one is being carried on, speak well for our people, and afford some evidence that they value the means of grace."
(Signed) A Belfaster.
Following the above article is an account of a presentation to Rev. Alexander Maclean, the able and highly respected minister of the Belfast congregation, of a set of silver mounted harness and whip, gift of a number of gentlemen of the congregation. The address is reproduced. It is signed by the following committee on behalf of the donors:
The minister's lengthy reply, dated August 22nd, 1864, is also given.
The Belfast church was thoroughly repaired again in 1922. Mr. R. E. Macdonald, of Pinette, Secretary-Treasurer of the congregation, in a letter dated May 21, 1927, reports as follows:
"The first foundation of the Belfast church was stone blocks, which, after ninety-nine years of service, were, in 1922, as good as new, but not high enough for present needs. We raised the whole building twenty-eight inches, and replaced the stone blocks with concrete, enlarged the cellar, built a new vestry, replaced the two small windows in the east end with one large one, installed two new pipeless furnaces, shingled one side of roof with cedar, and affixed new eaves to the main building. Many people considered it impossible to raise this building, it was done in three hours by forty-eight men, and an equal number of jack screws and several other helpers. It was a memorable day to see this beautiful and historic building with its high tower and two large chimneys raised so easily without crack or break of any kind. The jacks cost 50 cents each per day, and the men $2.00 per day.
"The total cost of the work was $3,856.01. Of this sum $3,161.49 was paid out in cash, whilst $694.52 was given in voluntary labor.
"In the summer of 1926 we painted the whole structure and attached new eaves on the tower at a cost of about $550.00.
"The cemetery, which was heretofore managed by a Committee, is now under the control of the Board of Trustees, who are going to make an effort to maintain the sacred spot in that degree of respectability pleasing to all who have loved ones interred in it."