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

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Nova Scotia Connections: A Day in the Life of Great Village: A Modern Age

With the coming of the war, most folks in Great Village, like most people throughout the Dominion and Empire, sense that the world is changing, that they are entering a new age, a modern age. The sensation is not entirely unfamiliar. Indeed, at the turn of the century, and especially with the death of Queen Victoria in 1901 (ending the longest reign of any monarch in British history), people began to expect change as a matter of course. Many folks recognize this change in the forward march of industry and technology. New-fangled inventions are coming along with increasing frequency, marvellous machines which are changing the way folks live their daily lives, entertain themselves, communicate and travel.

Some of the change has been recorded in photographs. Photography has been around for decades. It is such a common matter that most people take it for granted. Many folks not only go to the photographic studios to have portraits done J.E. Sponagle(1) in Truro is one of the best and busiest professional photographers around but more and more people are taking to the lens themselves, carrying cameras around with them, recording their daily lives.(2)

Barely a decade ago these pictures began to move and in the few years since the first motion picture show arrived in Halifax (Edwin Porter’s Wormwood’s Dog and Monkey Theatre set up shop in 1897), most of the larger towns in Nova Scotia quickly built cinemas. Truro’s Princess and Orpheum Theatres are among the busiest places in town and show a steady stream of motions pictures. The world opens up in new ways to the cinemas’ patrons, and the theatres are crowded nearly every night, except on Sunday, of course.

Motions pictures are not the only wonder of new entertainment technology. Though they may never be as common as pianos, gramophones and phonographs are gaining popularity, especially among the young people. With their love of music Great Villagers have been quite interested in this new mode of listening to favourite songs. The heavy cylinders, and most recently, thick flat discs, are also introducing new kinds of music. Many of the older folks look askance at the noise of what is called jazz and swing, but the lads and lasses seem to take to it. Some people are even suggesting that it won’t be long before motion pictures will merge with recorded music and voices!(3) Imagine, talking pictures!

Telegraph communication appeared in Nova Scotia in the late 1840s, and the telegraph poles and lines have stretched from Truro along the shore to Amherst and beyond for decades. The wonder of Mr. Marconi’s experiments in wireless telegraphy excite many people as much as Mr. Bell’s invention of the telephone.(4) But for now, the hum of the telegraph wire is still heard by the farmers as they trundle along the road in their hay wagons. The telephone has long since vanquished the strangeness of hearing a real voice without seeing a real person, but even so, some of the old folks in the village mistrust such disembodied voices, and feel that the proliferating poles and wires in town are ugly. Many others, however, see them as markers of progress, show that Great Village is not behind the time, which is moving so quickly into a modern age.

The first telephone system in Nova Scotia appeared in the late 1870s. Great Village was not too far behind (villagers like to claim that they are never far behind in adopting any good advance), a system being set up in the late 1880s. For many years the local switchboard of the Central Telephone office was in the Londonderry Hotel. It was moved to Amelia Spencer’s house just before the hotel burned in 1898. Miss Spencer continues to connect up folks, a growing number of which sign on every year to have telephones installed in their homes and businesses. Today over a dozen people in Great Village have telephones. Some of these progressive folks are: the Elmonte House, Rev. William Gillespie, Jenks’ Garage, Laytons store, Hill’s store, Albion Kent, Dr. T.R. Johnson, Capt. Albert Mahon, Edward G. McColough, Amos B. Geddes, T.D. Blaikie, G.W. Blaikie, J.A. Blaikie, William E. Spencer and Arthur Bulmer. The Laytons and Hills are always willing to let folks use the telephone in the stores when the need arises. These needs are arising more and more, so it is supposed by many that more telephones will appear in village homes.

Electricity has not yet reached Great Village in any general way, but folks believe it is not too far in the future, that soon the village will become illuminated in this way. Oil lamps still provide the principal lighting for all homes and businesses, but the Hill brothers have set up their own generation system to run the new refrigerators they recently installed, and they are talking about establishing an electric light company to supply the village with this modern convenience. They say that the only way for farmers and businessmen to advance is to have access to electricity, that the larger towns and cities have been electrified for some years now, and the village needs to be as progressive. T.D. Blaikie agrees and is keen to get a steady supply of electricity for the creamery. Several farmers in the village have built windmills to help in the operation of their farms, but the Hill brothers say that only a central generating station will be economical.(5)

Indeed, the advent of refrigeration is a new convenience looked on with much interest not only by business, but also by the housewives in the village. Cold cellars and ice houses are the norm, but during the hot dry summers ice is a scarce commodity. What cook wouldn’t want to have at her fingertips a machine to keep produce, milk and butter cold. Mr. Ralph Smith has been at Hill’s store regularly these days examining the new refrigerators and considering the possibility of getting similar ones set up at the Elmonte House.

These new machines, means of communication and sources of power are impressive in themselves, but the most amazing advances in this modern age is transportation. For short distances folks still rely on their trusty horse and wagon, and cyclists are seen wheeling around the village in large numbers during warm summer days. The vast distances are given to steam ships and locomotives. Train travel is the most popular and quickest way to cross the Dominion, and the wonderful huge ocean liners take travellers to the far reaches of the world.(6) However, two upstart modes of transportation seem to be pressing themselves on people everywhere. Some say automobiles and aeroplanes will not replace ships and trains, but others say don’t be so sure.

Horseless carriages and flying machines have been around for decades, but with the coming of the new century inventors of all description have been experimenting and advancing the technology at a great rate. Already folks are choosing automobiles to travel not just around town, but even long distances. Motoring is becoming so common many don't give automobiles a second glance.(7) Mr. Bell and a number of engineers in Canada and the United States have been experimenting with flying machines of all descriptions. The flight of the Silver Dart in Cape Breton in 1909 stunned the world, coming as it did a mere six years after the Wright Brothers historic flight experiment at Kitty Hawk. For certain, Nova Scotia is in the forefront of aviation advance. The pilot of the Silver Dart was J.A.D. McCurdy, one of our brave men now fighting in France. He set a number of flying records before the war called him to duty overseas. His expertise as a pilot is being well used by the Empire.

The Silver Dart, Baddeck, N.S.

The war has brought into focus the benefits and necessity of motorized transportation on land and in the air. Trucks and automobiles are being used as supply vehicles and ambulances. Motorcycles have appeared and are proving to be an efficient mode of transportation for couriers to and from the front. In the air, dirigibles fill the skies over the trenches in France, for reconnaissance and as bombers. So, too, are aeroplanes increasingly used for both these purposes. The newspapers carry more and more accounts of terrifying air battles and many young Nova Scotian men are learning how to fly these amazing machines in the midst of combat.(8)

Many folks read the newspapers with both sadness and wonder these days, learning about the ultimate sacrifice many of Canada’s brave young men are making for King and Country, and learning about the amazing advances which are taking place, pushed forward by the demands of the war. For some people change is happening too fast, for others, not fast enough. On this day in Great Village, as the first day of summer dawns, evidence of the strong traditions of a close-knit community and the march of progress in a bustling town exist side by side, the balance tips back and forth. Only time will tell where the scales will finally settle.(9)

Modern technology for writers


1. J.E. Sponagle (1883-1961) was a long-standing recorder of life in Colchester Co. When he died suddenly in 1961, the Truro Daily News gave an account of his place in the community: “J.E. ‘John’ Sponagle one of Truro’s best-known citizens, died at Colchester County Hospital Friday morning from injuries received in a car accident at Brookfield last Sunday. He was 78....An outstanding portrait photographer, Mr. Sponagle was in business on Inglis Street for more than 50 years, retiring about five years ago. His files of prints and negatives were a pictorial history of the persons and events of 20th century Truro. A native of West Dublin, Lunenburg Co., he began dabbling in photography in his youth and later attended the Guerin School of Photography in St. Louis, Missouri. One of his earliest subjects was the famous Col. William ‘Buffalo Bill’ Coady, a friend of the school’s operator. Mr. Sponagle came to Truro following completion of his course and opened Sponagle's Studio while still a teenager. He won a number of awards for his work, the most recent in 1942 when he won the Maritime Photographers’ Association award for best entry submitted. Mr. Sponagle had a natural talent for the piano and performed at functions of the Kiwanis Club, fire brigade, curling club and other social occasions. He joined the Truro fire brigade in 1909, the Truro Curling Club in 1912, later becoming president. He was a charter member of the Truro Kiwanis Club and was a former member of the Masonic Lodge, No. 43, and was a past president of the Maritime Photographers Association....The funeral services, under auspices of the Truro fire brigade, will take place at 2:30 p.m., Rev. George P. Allen officiating.” (November 4, p. 21)

J.E. Sponagle was an important recorder of the Bulmer family, and photographed Elizabeth Bishop on a number of occasions.

2. The Bulmer family was one such group taking up the camera in their daily lives. The Bulmers had numerous formal portraits done during the 1910s (in both Nova Scotia and New England), but Grace Bulmer had her own camera and recorded many moments in her personal and professional life as a nurse. The Bulmer-Bowers-Hutchinson-Sutherland family fonds at Acadia University Archives contains the contents of two of Grace Bulmer’s photograph albums from the 1910s and 1920s.

3. Arthur Bulmer was one of the Great Villagers to embrace the new technologies, being one of the first in the village to own an automobile, to have a telephone installed in his house, and to buy a phonograph. Elizabeth Bishop remembered this device in her memoir about her uncle, “Memories of Uncle Neddy”: “The other chief attraction in Uncle Neddy’s parlor was an Edison phonograph, very old, that still worked. It had a flaring, brown-and-gold horn and played thick cylinders. My girl cousins were allowed to play it. I remember only two out of the box of cylinders: a brief Sousa march that could have marched people about fifty yards, and ‘Cohen on the Telephone,’ which I loved. I knew that it was supposed to be funny, and laughed, although I hadn’t any idea who or what a Cohen was or what I was laughing at, and I doubt that Uncle Neddy entirely understood it, either.” (Collected Prose, p. 246)

4. Alexander Graham Bell (1847–1922) was a scientist and inventor. The list of Bell’s inventions and scientific interests (he supported work of colleagues) is impressive: speech therapy for the deaf, telephone, steam-powered and gasoline-powered aircraft, atomic research, the photoelectric cell, the iron lung, desalination of seawater, the phonograph, genetics, horticulture, and hydrodromes or hydrofoils. In 1890 Bell built Beinn Bhreagh, his estate in Baddeck on Cape Breton Island. He conducted many of his experiments there (Canadian Encyclopedia, 1, pp. 199-200). Guglielmo Marconi (1874-137) was a physicist and inventor of radio telegraphy (1896), and later worked on the development of shortwave wireless communication. In December 1901 Marconi succeeded in receiving the first signals transmitted across the Atlantic from Cornwall, England, to St. John’s, Newfoundland. Marconi later moved his operations to Cape Breton Island where he established facilities for regular trans-Atlantic telegraphy (Britannica, 7, p. 826).

5. It took several years before Barry and Lucius Hill established the Village Light & Carbon Co. Limited, incorporated in 1922. A generating plant was set up beside the Great Village River near the bridge and provided electricity to the village between 6:00 and 11:00 p.m. Elizabeth Bishop remembered this plant, which was not far from her grandparents’ house: “We did not have electricity in our house, but at the time of which I am writing [early 1920s] I think two houses in the Village did, and there were two electric lamp-posts: one on the corner where the road turned off to go to the station....The other was in front of the smallest of the three general stores....There was also an electric light hung in the middle of the bridge from the iron-work overhead, under a frilled metal shade; but this had never lighted as far as I can remember. The ice-cream parlor had electricity, and the post office and the town hall.” She goes on to say: “The electric light plant was a small barn-like building shingled and already turning gray.... Outdoors, at its back, was a large, black round boiler, covered with mysterious holes. One man, Charlie Devereux [sic: Fred Hill] ran the whole affair; and every summer evening we’d see him puttering around the buildings and boiler about seven o’clock, carrying arm-loads of firewood from the wood-pile at the side. It took him a long time to get the engine started and sometimes it would not work at all. Just before it grew dark there would be a few puffs of blue smoke, just a shade deeper than the air, then a hiss and cloud of steam, and then, if it were a fortunate evening, the engine would begin to work, at first noisily, later a sort of clicking, and then nothing but a vibration you could soon forget.” (“Reminiscences of Great Village” at Vassar College Library, Special Collections)

In the early 1930s the Cobequid Power Company was established and operated for many years before Nova Scotia Light and Power bought it, in a process of consolidating the generation and supplying of electricity in the province.

6. The increased comfort and luxury of train and ship travel reached its epitome in 1912 with the launch and maiden voyage of the Titanic, which tragically sunk off Newfoundland in April of that year. The Titanic was an especial fascination for Bishop’s uncle, Arthur Bulmer, who, according to his niece, never “went anywhere in his life.” Bishop remembered: “It was obvious that Uncle Neddy had been strongly affected by the sinking of the Titanic; in his modest library there were three different books about this catastrophe, and in the dining room, facing his place at the table, hung a chromograph of the ship going down: the iceberg, the rising steam, the people struggling in the water, everything in full color.” (Collected Prose, pp. 245-6)

7. By 1922 bus service between Halifax/Truro/Parrsboro/Amherst had been established, adding another mode of transportation to the repertoire.

8. It is hard to say when Great Villagers might have seen their first aeroplane. It could have occurred before 1916, but more likely it was sometime in 1918 or 1919. Capt. L.E. De Vere Stevens opened the De Vere Aviation School in Truro right after the war ended, training a number of pilots and attempting that first circumnavigation by air of Nova Scotia. In June 1919 he and another pilot, Lt. I.L. Barnhill, R.A.F., took off from Truro to deliver issues of The Atlantic Leader newspaper to towns throughout the province. Their aviation experiment came to a sudden end when, attempting to take off after landing in Halifax, the plane hit a parked car and fence and flipped over. Neither man was hurt. 1919 was one of the most important years in aviation history and Nova Scotia played a pivotal role in the year’s events. Undoubtedly Great Villagers motored to Parrsboro in July 1919 to take a look at the Handley-Page bomber, the Atlantic, which crashed near the town while en route from Newfoundland to New York. It took months to repair the Atlantic, but when it took off on October 2, 1919, it was an international news story. Several other men from Truro also had distinguished air careers in World War I, William Munroe Archibald and Stuart Graham among them. In 1919 Lt. Stuart Graham and his wife Madge made a successful non-stop flight from Halifax to Saint John, N.B.; then they flew on to Qu├ębec, setting a record for the longest overland flight by a seaplane in Canada. Though not the first Canadian woman to fly, Madge Graham, who served as her husband’s navigator, was the first woman to make a long-distance flight in Canada.

9. 1916 was an important, in many ways a pivotal, year for Great Village, when the pull of tradition and the push of modernity was most active. The village (province, country, empire) was poised to move from one era to another. Traditions persisted, of course, well into the twentieth century; but industrial and technological advances had begun in earnest and were unstoppable. Elizabeth Bishop was aware of the dialogue between these two forces of tradition and modernity. She embodied it most directly in her poem “Manners,” which sets her grandfather and his horse and wagon (a mode of transportation he never abandoned) next to the increasingly prevalent automobile. Bishop admired the tradition of her grandparents’ generation and often expressed regret for the dying out of local culture; but she recognized the inevitability of progress and even welcomed certain aspects of it. Her maternal family was itself poised between tradition and modernity her grandparents representing the faithfulness of the past while her aunts and uncle moved fully and willingly into the future.

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