ictou County Reminiscences--- Early Years



written by Stanley Graham, Scotsburn, Nova Scotia


© COPYRIGHT 1997 by Stanley Graham



Early Years of Survival


At this point in our history we have our community well settled, many farm places being carved out of the forest. Naturally they were not able to carry much on the boat from Scotland. Evidently each family carried a few tools pertaining to their trades, such as blacksmith tools, a few carpenter tools, spinning wheel, loom, a few seeds and a few things considered necessities.

We wonder how they survived their first years. They were encourage to come to the new country by the land dealers who painted a rosy picture of wild life of all kinds, moose, deer and fowl in the forest, fish in the rivers and wood for heating their homes, which also provided sugar as well as lumber etc.

For some years after their arrival they needed to be almost self supporting, money was scarce and most of the common necessities in the way of food and clothing had to come from their farms.

After they had their log houses built they started to put in seeds. Potatoes were their staple food, then grains such as oats, wheat, barley and buckwheat as they were able to clear and prepare the land.

As the settlers brought their trades, mills were soon started to make flour from their various grains. These mills called grist mills were water powered, therefore had to be built on brooks or places where they could be dammed up for water power. The building to house the mill had to be strongly built to stand the heavy vibration of the mill. Then large stones had to be prepared, about 8 inches thick and weighing about 3/4 of a ton, the lower stone was usually stationary while the top stone rotated. When the mill was built it was referred to as a grist mill, and the operator as a millwright, who tended and kept the machinery in repair. The grain was referred to as a grist, while the edible or finished product of the grain was the meal. It was then sifted through a flour bolt consisting of a frame covered with silk wire or gauze.

Now that mills were being prepared and made ready for service many items of food stuffs were prepared for the winter as the grists of grain were taken to the grist mill after harvest time. From the wheat they made flour, shorts and bran, the oats provided oatmeal for their porridge and oatcakes, pot barley was made from barley also barley flour. buckwheat provided buckwheat flour for porridge, pancakes and buck wheat cake which was a real treat hot from the oven, it was an easily grown crop, widely grown because of its short season requirement.

There were many mills for many years, and were located at reasonable distances apart, one mill was run by Wilson Smith, just across the McKay Road from where Blanchard Smith now lives. It was still doing service into the I900's.Two mills at Stillman continued to operate for several years later. Bells mills did grinding of grains and was later sold to Archie McInnis who ran it for several years.

The second mill at Stillman was a carding mill and operated by the Hamiltons, not far from the grist mill. Here people could take their wool to be made into "rolls" for spinning. Most people acquired sheep as soon as possible, they were much cheaper to feed and pasture. In the spring the sheep were sheared, the wool washed and dried and made ready for teasing, that is pickings the wool apart to let drop out any seeds or bits of straw and dirt that might cling to the wool. It was then ready to take to the carding mill to be made into "rolls" for spinning. Every home had a spinning wheel, reels and swifts, and yarn was spun for wool blankets, socks, mittens, caps, shawls even underwear was knitted. Needles for knitting were home made from steel, while needles for coarse knitting were made from wood.

Flax was commonly grown and like the wool required a lot of work to prepare it for linen weaving. The flax was cut when it reached the proper stage for cutting, it was laid on rows on the ground until the stocks became brittle. Then it was broken with a wooden knife to break the fibre, then it was put through a hackle to remove all the old fibre and leave the linen. When the linen was spun it was woven into table clothes, linen bedding, articles of clothing and many useful articles. The coarser linen was woven into bed ticking, these would be filled with clean fine straw and served as mattresses, sometimes a light home made covering would be made and filled with feathers as a top mattress .

Many other things were made at home, quilts, hooked mats and braided rugs were made from old clothing. Carpets for the floors were often hooked from rags or woven, stair carpeting was common, even blinds were woven from linen yarn.

Dyes to color the yarns were made at home from certain tree barks, other colors from certain plants growing; around the fences, even onion skins were used. Of course certain mordants were used to set the color.

Soap was made by putting wood ashes in a barrel or container and adding water, after some time the lye was drained off, and beef tallow or other fats added and stirred to finish up with soap.

Candles for lighting were made from tallow, at first cotton was dipped in the tallow, later moulds were used, the cotton candle wick was threaded into the mould, tied and the tallow poured in, when hardened the candles were pulled out and ready for use. For some time candles were their only source of light, later on kerosene oil lamps were used.

Most families had their hop vine, these were gathered every fall when ripe, dried and stored for the winter to make yeast for bread making. A jug of yeast had to be kept on hand sometimes for some reason the yeast ran out , then they had to go to a neighbor for a "starter", a little of their yeast to start a new supply of yeast.

Cobblers were common and most every family had at least some tools that enabled them to put half soles on their boots. Some were cobbler by trade and made leather foot wear for men or women and children, of course many pieces of foot wear came back for repair, maybe half soles or stitching. First some were able tan or process hides for leather. Soon a thriving tannery started at Lyons Brook, which made work for men in hauling bark and hides needed in the manufacture of leather.

Even brooms were made at home using broom grass or for rough sweeping brooms were made by taking a block of wood to cut part way down into fine slivers or finely shaved down and tied, these were used in the barns.

A goose wing was used to dust around the fireplace and when necessary just a bunch of big wing feathers tied together were often used.

At first a lot of wooden utensils were made, bowls and spoons for table use, mixing spoons for baking, pot sticks for cooking over the stove. Troughs for bread making, wooden churns and paddles for butter making. Mash boards and wash tubs for washing by hand. Coopers made pails and tubs for water or whatever use they were needed for.

The summer and fall of the year were busy times too, preparing food stuffs for the long winter ahead.

Usually every fall an animal was butchered for the winter, Every part of it was carefully used. The meat would be cured, smoked and dried or pickled in salt pickle brine. The head provided potted meat, the tripe was used, also oatmeal puddings were made. The tallow was carefully rendered for soap, candles and other uses.

Butter and curds or Cottage cheese was made before winter, and packed into crocks or wooden tubs for winter use for it was hard to keep their few cows milking during the cold winter months.

Cheese was also made and stored. I can remember just once of my grandparents making cheeses I believe the whole milk was used, and if I remember rightly, rennet was used to thicken the milk. This was obtained by taking one the calves stomachs at butchering time, cleaning it carefully and drying it. After soaking a piece of rennet the juice was added to the milk. When the cheese base reached the proper stage it was put into a cheese press and a heavy weight put on to take out the moisture, then removed and ripened Junketed milk was also made the rennet, and a common and popular dish.

Fruits were gathered and made into jam if they had the sugar, where possible fruits like apples were peeled and dried. There seemed to be more wild fruits years ago. Each were picked in their season, as wild strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, wild gooseberries grew around the stone fences or in moist places, blackberries also were common, many of these were dried for winter use. Cranberries grew in some places and were often kept in containers of cold water or in a cool place.

Jelly was made of wild cherries, or chokecherries, or combinations of fruits. Each kind of fruit helped supply fruit for the meal in its season. Even pectin for jelly was made by using juice from green apples.

Nuts were gathered in the fall of the year, more commonly the hazel nut, even spruice gum wasn't overlooked.

We must not forget the importance of sugar in the spring, when the sugar maples were tapped. A hole was made in the tree and a wooden Spite or spout was inserted, the sap collected from the trees into containers or wooden troughs. This sap was boiled down for syrup and made into maple sugar, this supplied sweetening for many things, for table use, cereals, sweet breads and cooking.

Nothing was wasted for they were all needed for survival, most families were large.

As time passed of course, things became easier to obtain, to add some variety to their menu, but for the first years things were very expensive as they had to be imported and transportation was slow and costly.

These days all these foods can be lifted off the shelf in grocery stores, carefully packed in tins, jars and packages. I'm sure a lot or pleasure and pride in gathering and preparing so many of these items of food stuffs is lost in our modern style of living.

Pictou County Reminiscences

Stanley Graham, Scotsburn, Nova Scotia


Compiled by: John Broderick


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