"I am 3/4ths Canadian, and one 4th New Englander - I had ancestors on both sides in the Revolutionary war." - Elizabeth Bishop

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Nova Scotia Connections: A Day in the Life of Great Village: A Living from the Land, Part 1

Farming has always been a pivotal part of life in Great Village. The pioneer settlers (both French and English) dyked and dug deep into the rich soil, growing enough oats, barley, wheat and flax, potatoes, turnips, carrots and parsnips not only for their own use, but also enough for export in the 19th century.(1) It was indeed the earth that served the farmers so well, not only in Great Village but all along the shore in both directions. Even today, when winter arrives the farmers do not rest from their labours during the cold, dark months. Rather, most of them spend days and weeks harvesting the alluvial deposits, the rich marsh mud, and hauling great quantities of it to their fields. For over a hundred years, this mud has provided some of the best fertilizer in the world. It is transported by horse and cart, spread on the open fields and left to lie until spring when it is pulverized by drags and ploughed into the ground.

 Farmland around Great Village

This harvesting and hauling is heavy, back-breaking work, so in the mid-1890s several of the enterprising farmers in Great Village came up with the idea of building a “Pole Railway,” a narrow-gauge line which would extend from the mud flats on the Great Village River to the farms on the adjacent hillside, approximately a mile and a quarter away. This ingenious plan, which would have allowed an immense quantity of mud to be transported at comparatively nominal cost, never proceeded beyond the idea; but it demonstrates the entrepreneurial spirit of the Village farmers, who have always been willing to experiment with new varieties, breeds and techniques.

This open-mindedness exists even today: Mr. T.D. Blaikie introducing new farm machines, converting many to modern threshers, and his adoption and promotion of the Guernsey breed; Barry Hill modernizing his dairy operation with new feeding equipment; Messrs McLachlan, Lively and Forbes building windmills on their properties to generate electricity. Certainly, the coming of electricity to Great Village is transforming not only agricultural practices, but all aspects of daily life.

The glory days of shipbuilding in the 19th century lured many men away from the cultivation of the land, but the increased activity of that industry also brought more people to the area, making the need for food even greater. The result was the farms that remained got bigger, more specialized and more prosperous. By the beginning of the 20th century there were a number of grand farms in Great Village. Some of these farms specialize in dairying: Mr. T.D. Blaikie, the Hill brothers and several others have large operations though every crop farmer also has a few milk cows. Large-scale dairy farming requires substantial capital to maintain it, but the income it generates is well worth the expenditure. Mr. Blaikie’s creamery has ensured that for nearly thirty years the farmers have had a ready market for their high-yield Guernsey milk.

Another area of specialization for village farmers is fruit farming. During the last decades of the last century, a number of farmers planted extensive orchards, or expanded those they already have, and have experimented with new varieties of apples, pears, cherries and plums. No one took up fruit farming more enthusiastically than Dr. J.L. Peppard, one of the principal promoters of the “Pole Railway.” Though Dr. Peppard is no longer alive, his legacy continues at Derry Farm.

Maple Syrup:
As the winter eases and the first thaws begin, many farmers along the shore and especially in the nearby mountains, have a busy spell with another specialty of the northern realm when the sap starts running in February and March the tapping of the maple trees commences. For several weeks the sap is collected and one of the activities most anticipated by young and old alike is a sleigh ride into the sugar bush for a syrup party. The sweet smell of the sap as it is boiled down and the syrup emerges is for some the surest sign of Spring, like early Mayflowers. The children (and not a few grown ups) delight as the fresh syrup is poured over flesh clean snow and voilà, instant taffy. The syrup is also made into butter, sugar and cream. Larders and pantries are just bare of last year's supply, so most folks stock up on the new season's crop. Many cooks think that there is no better sweetener for their desserts, preferring syrup to molasses any day. Maple syrup provides a number of farmers with much needed cash at a lean time of year.(2)

The seed has been sewn in Great Village since late May and early June. The farmers check the crops regularly, but all they can really do now is watch the weather and hope for the right amount of sun and rain and hope there will be no cold snaps. The Farmers Almanac predicts favourable growing conditions and anticipates bumper crops for most grains and vegetables, so the farmers are in good cheer.(3) Most of the farmers with beef cattle have long ago taken their herds up into the mountains for summer pasturing and are hopeful too that the grazing will be exceptional.

Quite a few of the farmers take this time after planting to repair, renovate or build barns and outbuildings. The Hill brothers and William Peppard have been the busiest this year with barn construction. William Bowers has also announced major renovations to one of his big barns, to commence in a few weeks. The Village farmers are constantly improving their properties and operations; the bustle it creates is a heartening counter to the growing number of memorial services for the lads who will never return. The farmers also actively patronize Mate Fisher’s blacksmith shop, getting their horses re-shod for the lighter summer work. One of the farmers keenly concerned about his horses is Mr. Bowers.

Harvest Excursions:
Though the summer is just underway, yet already many farmers have turned their thoughts to preparations for the harvest. Indeed, in farming, as in domestic chores, it is necessary always to be thinking about the next season. In spite of ample harvest work in Great Village and its surrounding communities, for decades young men in the area have participated in Harvest Excursions to the West. A special Excursion train is put together in Halifax and as it rolls into each community along the way it picks up the men and women who want to venture to Manitoba, Saskatchewan and beyond to earn cash helping with the immense Western grain harvests. The excursionists often stay until late October. The fare from Londonderry Station to Winnipeg is $10.65. If one wishes to go further it is 14 a mile. The Harvest Excursion trip is an adventure in itself. There are no sleeper cars on the train so each person carries his or her own blanket and food. Each car is equipped with a stove at one end, so the passengers can make tea. This year Eugene Robinson, Walter Chisholm and Firman Barnes are talking about doing the Excursion. If they are able to find work in good places not everyone is so lucky they will be able to earn quite a good wage, though the work is extremely hard and demanding. Many young men do the Excursion because it offers a relatively inexpensive way to travel and see Canada. And hard work never hurts anyone, especially the young.

Harvest time also brings the Exhibitions. Crops and stock are always attended to with care, but the keen edge of friendly competition, which comes to a head at the Exhibitions, keeps the farmers of the village lively about their work. Great Village farmers actively participate in Exhibitions in Truro and Halifax. Some even venture to the National Exhibition in Toronto. They are consistent winners with their produce and animals (and village ladies frequently bring back ribbons for their baked goods, flowers, paintings and needle arts). This success has given Great Village a good reputation well beyond Nova Scotia's border. Exhibitions are grand social gatherings and offer ideal opportunities for farmers to exchange ideas and learn about new practices, and the competitive side keeps everyone striving to better their results.(4) The other event which gathers farmers in force and sparks the competitive fire is the ploughing match. These matches take place all around the county, the biggest being in Truro in October. These matches provide farmers with the chance to exhibit their mettle and to check out the latest machines and techniques. Some of Great Villages best plough masters are Messrs. John and James Peppard and J.H. Morrison.

Farming continues to be a vital, pivotal part of life in Great Village. The many large, prosperous farms in the area attest to the hard work and expert practices of the farmers and to the rich soil and generally favourable climate of the region. Farming, the first work of the first French and English settlers, continues to thrive and everyone believes it will do so for the rest of the century. And surely it will if future farmers are as innovative and dedicated as the current crop.


1. In 1878 the Truro Daily News reported: “Mr. Alex C. Peppard of Great Village threshed 582 bushels of wheat from 4 bushels sewn; variety ‘Golden Drop.’ This crop grew on 13/4 acres of ground, which gives very nearly 15 bushels from 1 [bushel sewn], and over 33 bushels to the acre” (November 27, 1897).

2. Maple syrup, sugar, butter and cream were some of Elizabeth Bishop’s favourite foods. She delighted most in receiving maple gifts from her Aunt Grace during her years in Brazil. The area around Great Village is still known for its maple products, which are exported around the world.

3. Harvest began in Great Village late in August 1916, delayed somewhat because of inclement weather early in the month. Hay was the first harvest, and it was a bumper crop. In September they turned to the grains and had a bountiful yield. October brought the potato harvest, another good crop. October also saw the mountain-pastured cattle return. As the Truro Daily News reported, “Grazing must have been excellent this year judging from the prime condition of the bovines” (October 18, 1916). The rest of the root crops were harvested as fall progressed, turnips being the last dug in November. Late in August a storm swept over the area creating extra high tides which broke dykes in several places on the marsh. The damage it caused kept the Village farmers busy for some weeks with repairs.

4. Exhibitions continue to be important events and forums for the agricultural industry in Nova Scotia.

1 comment:

  1. A BRILLIANT read, I am really enjoying this blog, now I have the time to sit and read awhile. A visit to Great Village is a must do, on my priority list, seeing my first Province properly as a new immigrant, looking forward to the future.