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

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Nova Scotia Connections: A Day in the Life of Great Village: Business as Usual, Almost

War is a strange business. The war now raging in the trenches in France has taken away many of the young men of Great Village, and of countless villages, towns and cities across the Dominion. Their absence leaves a gap, an emptiness, which can only be filled by their return ─ and already the village knows of lads whose spaces will never be filled again. But the war has not slowed Great Village down. Duty and necessity have, in fact, sped everything up, just as automobiles are speeding up travel for more and more folks. Great Village has been a prosperous village for longer than its residents can remember. Even Mr. John M. Blaikie, one of the oldest citizens and businessmen, says that Great Village's prosperity is perennial.(1) The war has not diminished this circumstance in the least. Business is good for merchants and manufacturers alike, not only in Great Village but throughout the country.
The Laytons and Hills operate the largest mercantile businesses in the village, but several other shopkeepers make a decent living. Mr. W.W. Peppard, general merchant, offers groceries, dry goods, stationary, hardware, boots and shoes. Greta A. Blaikie, John M. Blaikie’s granddaughter, carries on the enterprising tradition of her family in her grocery and confectionary store. The children love to stop by Miss Blaikie’s store after school. She offers a full line of groceries and sweets, including the famous Moirs chocolates. Miss Blaikie also sells school supplies to the scholars, though they are usually not as interested in this merchandise! For the scholars’ fathers she offers tobacco, cigars and cigarettes.(2)

 Royal Bank, Great Village

Miss Blaikie is not the only lady merchant in the village. Miss Amelia Spencer operates in ice cream parlour and candy store in her home. It tugs just as hard as Miss Blaikie’s shop at the sweet tooth of Great Village children. The telephone switchboard is also located in Miss Spencer's dining room, moved there just before the Londonderry Hotel burned down at the end of the last century.(3)

Not all those who have goods to sell do so in a shop. Fergusson Davison is the agent for Rawleigh Products, those specialty medicines, toilet articles, spices and extracts, disinfectants and insect poisons every housewife needs in her cupboards. Mr. Davison is ready to drop by any home to demonstrate his wares ─ just give him a call and he’ll come along with his trunks and cases. He spends many hours of his day driving the shore and up into the mountains visiting homes too remote from the centres for regular shopping. He is one of many travelling salesmen who journey the roads and byways of Nova Scotia. Recently, a fellow came through selling products for the Fuller Brush Company. Many of the ladies and gentlemen were keenly interested in the line of high quality brushes and other toiletry items ─ the ample patronage he received here ensures, he said, his regular return.

Great Village is also a busy place for manufacturing, though many of the busiest industries have ceased operating or have moved elsewhere. When Acadia Mines was at its height and shipbuilding was booming, Great Village had several iron foundries. The busiest was Mr. G.W. Blaikie’s Londonderry Stove Co., which operated in the late 1890s and into the early years of this century. Mr. Blaikie’s foundry turned out a lot of stoves and furnaces during these years, helping to keep Villagers and their neighbours warm during long, cold winters. Many kitchens and basements still display Mr. Blaikie’s handiwork; his products were made to last. Mr. J. Moffat Spencer’s stoves can also still be found in the homes of the area. Like Mr. Blaikie, Mr. Spencer had his own iron foundry. His claim to fame is his design for a stove with an elevated oven, a first in the country, he said.

During the 1890s and 1900s, Mr. Ralph Smith was also active in the manufacture of tin and sheet iron. He had his own foundry and trained a number of fellows, including tinsmith Mr. O.C. Layton. What Mr. Smith’s business is most remembered for, however, is a “steam cooker” device which he made, and which he claimed was the "most valuable and most necessary utensil for the kitchen stove." Mr. Smith is not so busy with this sort of work any more. He puts most of his time and energy into the Elmonte House, which is so ably and efficiently run by his wife Sara. Still, Mr. Smith’s “steam cooker” can be found in a few kitchens in the village, still cooking.

Iron foundries have all but disappeared in Great Village and its surrounding communities, except for the work done by the local blacksmiths; but tinsmithing continues to be an active trade. Arthur Bulmer, who apprenticed with Leander Corbett, is the principal tinsmith in Great Village. He is also an agent for a variety of furnaces and stoves, taking up the task of importing what no longer is made locally. Arthur Bulmer's shop is located at the heart of the Village, at the corner where the Old Post Road and the Old Cumberland Road meet. His shop, sitting next door to his home, is the building which for decades housed his father’s, William Bulmer, tannery. Arthur is kept busy turning out tinware (pails, cups, dishes and countless other practical utensils), which can be found in nearly every kitchen in the village, and many homes along the shore. He sells paint and some hardware on the side. But it is furnace installation which keeps him hopping most days. He is frequently seen with several workmen trundling up Layton’s, Scrabble, or Hustler Hills in a wagon loaded with a furnace for some church, school, business or home. Two of his furnaces keep the scholars warm in winter in the Great Village school.

Mabel, Hazel, Arthur and Eleanor Bulmer with their dog

One of the most established and trusted artisans in the village is Mr. C.B. Spencer, a premier harness maker. He started harness making over thirty years ago and his expertise is unquestioned. He knows his work. Though horses still abound in Great Village and the neighbouring communities, Mr. Spencer saw that with the coming of the automobile there could be a dropping off of his business, so he decided to diversify and set up a barber shop on his premises. This shop has become another of the gathering places for the gentlemen of the village. Mr. Spencer has entertained many a lively discussion in recent days about the hotly contested election. In 1912 Mr. Spencer expanded again and began to offer undertaking services, one of those businesses both difficult and necessary. He is such a fixture in Great Village, known far and wide for his fair and thoughtful dealing, that he is assured success at whatever he puts his hand to.

Mr. Spencer’s harness making skills points to an artisan trade and manufacture which has a venerable history in Great Village, but which has more or less vanished: the tanning business. There have been tanneries in Great Village since pioneer days. Back then just about everything used in the home had to be made at home or in the community. Mr. R.D. McKim and Mr. Silas Corbett were the busiest tanners in Great Village in the mid-1800s. Mr. McKim apprenticed a young lad from River Phillip in the 1860s, and in the 1870s that lad, William Bulmer, set up his own tannery at the centre of the village which he operated for decades, one of the last fully operational tanneries in the area when it closed around the turn of the century. Though Mr. Bulmer has long ago retired, his handiwork of fine leather for all sorts of purposes (including many of the harnesses made by Mr. Spencer, can still be seen in the village.

One of the principal uses for the leather produced by Great Village tanneries was boots and shoes. Shoemakers were prevalent in the village in the last century, and though merchants increasingly import footwear made in the far reaches of the Empire, Great Village still has skilled shoemakers, as there are still many folks who believe the best boots are those made by somebody you know. The busiest shoemaker in Great Village is Mr. Alexander McNeil. Shoemaking is in his blood. His father, R.T. McNeil was a shoe and harness maker. In June 1902, after a successful apprentice, Alexander set up his own business almost opposite the Elmonte House. It has been thriving ever since, though he imports most of his leather now. The farmers especially patronize him, as his work boots are second to none.

Since the appearance of the first automobile in Great Village in the last decade, folks have not been behind in the acquisition of these vehicles. Dr. T.R. Johnson, Messrs Albion Kent and Arthur Bulmer, the Laytons, the Hills, the Blaikies, and a number of other individuals have automobiles and trucks for pleasure and business. Motoring has become so common these days that most people take it for granted. With motorized travel came the need for a new breed of businessman. Mr. A.L. Peppard has just opened a Vulcanizing Shop, right across from W.W. Peppard’s store, to service automobiles. Mr. Peppard has always been in demand as the fellow to call on to fix just about any broken machine or tool. It seems natural that he has put his hand to automobiles and has learned how to repair them. He also supplies tires and tubes. Folks call Mr. Peppard the harness-maker of the modern age, supplying the equipment needed to keep the cars running. He also sells gasoline. His principal competition is Jenks’s Garage, which offers its own full line of car accessories, “Dominion” tires and tubes, motor oils and Imperial Gasoline. Some folks wondered about having two such shops set up, but both owners say they have as much work as they can handle.

 Dr. T.R. Johnson's automobile

There are still folks around who mistrust automobiles and believe they are just the latest fad, but the young people point out that if man can now fly, which the war is demonstrating as fully possible, surely automobiles are here to stay. It is the young people one often sees motoring to and fro ─ though none of them has yet outgrown the sleigh ride. Automobiles do not yet outnumber wagons and carriages in the village, but a trip to Truro shows just how prevalent these vehicles have become. On a busy market day the streets are lined with Fords and Chevrolets.(4)

Great Village also has a drugstore, a jewellery store, a busy livery stable operated on the premises of Elmonte House; and its tailor, several seamstresses and milliner are kept busy year round. The blacksmith and dentist, the creamery and lawyer’s office help to fill the town with folks from near and far. Little wonder Great Village bustles and hums on a weekday. As the sun rises this still cool morning, boding another clear warm day, this first day of summer, the village stirs as it usually does, or almost. As the morning passes the streets fill up, and everyone goes about their business ─ the creamery trucks and wagons abound; the lumber wagons trundle through for Mr. Flemming’s busy mill in Glenholme or for the ships that stop at the wharf; the “Ferry” and supply wagons come in from Londonderry Station with mail and imports of every description; the stores, shops, hotel and post office teem with customers; the children run to and from school.

Arthur Bulmer has been up before daylight working in his shop. He has a furnace to install in Glenholme in the afternoon. It arrived on the train yesterday, so he is assembling the tools and parts he needs. Today he also must canvass for the Foresters’ big supper. He can combine both tasks on his way to and from Glenholme. As he goes about his tasks he pauses now and then, takes a dark bottle from under his work bench and takes a drink. A bit early, perhaps, he thinks, but it is going to be a worrying kind of day, and he needs a little fortitude for the trip. He sets off after lunch, taking a couple of the Spencer lads with him and his father to keep an eye on Billy, who insisted on coming. With all that has been going on Art couldn’t say no to Billy. He and Will talk about the election as they trundle along to Glenholme, the lads sitting at the back of the wagon laughing. But they are both thinking about Gertie and Grace, who will be reaching Halifax around 2:30. On the way back Art stops at various houses to get pledges for the supper. Art’s gentle manner is very persuasive, he never presses, and as a result, often gets more out of folks than they expected to give him. Nearing the village everyone stares quietly, admiringly across the fields towards the Bay, shining in the late afternoon sun. No one in the village tires of this view. No matter how many times they see it, they still gaze in wonder at the vast stretch of water framed by rolling hills and shouldering the wide open sky.

 William Bulmer's tannery/Arthur Bulmer's tinsmith shop, foreground

1. John M. Blaikie would know, as he was one of the principal contributors to that prosperity for decades. On October 20, 1900, the Truro Daily News provided a list of the ratepayers in Great Village for that year: “The population of Great Village is now estimated at about 800, of whom less than 50 are assessed for nearly one half the valuation of Londonderry District No. 16, which includes, besides Great Village, Folly, Little Dyke and Londonderry Station. The total assessment for the district is $204,347.00, of which 48 of the Great Village ratepayers are assessed for over $98,000.00, as follows:

Archibald, Edson $1,160
Blaikie, John M. $10,170
Blaikie, J.A. $2,655
Blaikie, T.D. $1,300
Blaikie, G.W. $2,700
Blaikie, Mrs. Matilda $4,800
Bowers, W.W. $2,550
Burnside, Stewart $1,705
Chisholm, J.H. $2,600
Congdon, Mrs. Susan $2,120
Currie, John $1,090
Davidson, Geo. W. $1,855
Dickson, M.S., MD $1,100
Delay, Thomas $2,025
Fulton, Cap. Isaac $1,650
Fulton, Arthur $8,000
Guild, Stewart $1,000
Hill, Mrs. Sarah W. $1,800
Hill, J. Allan $1,025
Hill, Robert $1,890
Johnson, Mrs. Margaret $1,650
Kent, A.S. $1,850
Layton, L.C. $6,125
Layton, C.W. $1,245
Maxwell, Robert $1,600
McLean, Rev. J. $1,120
McLellan, Hiram $1,200
McLaughlin, Albert $1,275
McLaughlin, Capt. Thomas $1,010
McKim, Isaac O.B. $1,275
Peppard, Allan $2,075
Peppard, John Sr. $1,000
Peppard, John W. $1,150
Peppard, J.S., MD $1,350
Peppard, Mrs. Margaret $1,800
Peppard, Joseph $2,025
Smith, Mrs. Jeremiah $1,000
Spencer, Suther $3,450
Spencer, Grant D. $2,500
Spencer, D.V. $1,000
Spencer, Mrs. Sarah $1,415
Spencer, W.E. $1,950
Spencer, Fletcher $2,000
Spencer, R.A. $1,400
Taggart, John $1,295
Trott, H.H. $1,300
Urquhart, Capt. William $1,310
Yuill, J.M. $1,500”

2. After the war Greta A. Blaikie married Percy E. Doyle, a Five Islands man, who settled in Great Village and opened a store opposite the Royal Bank, a store they operated for decades.

3. Elizabeth Bishop had vivid memories of Amelia (Mealy) Spencer'’ store. In “In the Village” she recalls, “Mealy has a bell that rings when you go in so that she’ll hear you if she’s at the switchboard. The shop is a step down, dark, with a counter along one side. The ceiling is low and the floor has settled well over to the counter side. Mealy is broad and fat and it looks as though she and the counter and the showcase, stuffed dimly with things every which way, were settling down together out of sight” (Collected Prose, p. 268). 4. An example of how central automobiles had become in daily use in the province in the 1920s was Mr. Edward G. McColough, owner of J.J. Snook Ltd., wholesale hardware, in Truro. Mr. McColough lived in Great Village and must have been one of the province’s original commuters. He drove the eighteen miles to Truro every morning and returned every evening. It was said that people set their clocks by his car, and many along his route thanked him for a drive to Truro.

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