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

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Nova Scotia Connections – A Day in the Life of Great Village – Neighbours, Communities Nearby

Miss Harrison’s missionary lecture tonight in the Presbyterian church will draw an audience not only from Great Village itself, but the organizers also expect people from neighbouring communities. Folks will come from nearby Highland Village, Spencer’s Point and Glenholme, a good number from Londonderry and Londonderry Station. A few are even expected from Masstown, Truro, Portaupique and Economy. Villagers are always assured of support from their neighbours, and their neighbours are likewise assured that villagers will turn out for their events: concerts, bazaars, suppers, theatricals and society fĂȘtes of every description. The village has close relations and interaction with all its neighbours a daily and lively commerce, which keeps them all hopping.

Highland Village is more or less an extension of Great Village itself, where one ends and the other begins only the locals know. Highland Village’s farmers’ focus is mostly on the stores and the creamery in Great Village. More than one family has a house in Great Village and a farm in Highland Village.

 The Road to Highland Village, Spencer's Point, Bass River

Spencer’s Point seems more apart, being out at the mouth of the Great Village River, right on Cobequid Bay. But the Point is a favourite spot of Villagers, who gather there in the summer for picnics and bacon frys, and for swimming. The Y.M.C.A., the Boy Scouts, Sunday School classes, and many other groups all have gatherings at the Point. It is rather like Great Village’s own summer resort spot. Though not as long settled as Great Village, Spencer’s Point has an interesting history. The location made it a good stopping place for ships in the late 1800s. In 1863 Spencer’s Point got its first light: a lantern hung on a pole. As the years passed, this light was improved, and in 1870 Mr. R.A. Spencer was officially appointed the keeper of what the Dominion government, on its official maps, called the “White Light visible eleven miles.” Mr. Spencer kept the light for decades. In 1913 his daughter, Miss Amelia, took over, and she is doing an admirable job, along with her sister Miss Annie, guiding ships through the treacherous waters of the Bay.(1) Besides being a port of call for ships, Spencer’s Point is also a farming district. However, the immense tides of the Bay never cease their work, and gradually, over the years, the cliffs and banks have eroded so much that some of the farms have actually been washed away. This relentless erosion continues and threatens the remaining farms.(2)

 The Road to Truro

Though the name was officially changed to Londonderry in 1903, most folks around still call it by its old name, Acadia Mines or the Mines, especially when talking to strangers. Londonderry Station, a separate place, is usually called the Station. When you add Londonderry Township, the old name of the whole district (which is now part of Colchester County, the township long ago abandoned as individual communities grew into their own identities), and Port of Londonderry, as Great Village was called in the 1800s well, it is little wonder that visitors to the area get a little confused. In the late 1800s, Acadia Mines was the most bustling, populous town in the county outside Truro. For some years it was the site of the largest iron ore mines and works in the eastern part of the Dominion. Though the mining and smelting have ceased, Acadia Mines is still abustle with activity and folks are always hopeful a company will come in and start things up again. Companies have been mining iron ore in the area since the late 1840s, and by the 1870s steel mills were built to process the ore on site. It was in 1872 that the railroad was completed, with a station constructed in 1873 near Acadia Mines, which was named Londonderry Station. A community grew up around this busy spot ore, steel, lumber, goods and passengers moving in and out at a great rated during the 1880s and 1890s. At one point in the 1890s there was talk and some planning around the construction of a rail line from the Station to Parrsboro, via Great Village and along the shore road. Nothing ever came of it mostly because the mining and smelting began to dwindle at the turn of the century. The miners and labourers who had devoted their sweat, and sometimes blood, to the industry began to return to Sydney in Cape Breton, and the busier mills there. Being on the ocean, Sydney was a more economical location for manufacture. Deep in the heart of the Cobequid Mountains, Acadia Mines always struggled with the problem of how to get the ore and steel out to the wider world. The iron works closed finally a few years ago (around 1910); the steel mill closed in 1912; the big pipe foundry closed in 1914 and its operations moved to Quebec. These closures have had a profound affect on the entire county, the province and even the country. Over the years approximately 2,000,000 tons of iron ore was mined in the area. It grieves many of the people in the town and the surrounding communities to see Acadia Mine’s many homes, stores and mills sitting idle, falling into decay.(3) Some hoped that with the start of the war, there would be renewed interest in the ore still buried in the mountains. But the Dominion government's attention is in other quarters. Many of the residents who remain in the town have not given up and are turning from mining the hidden ore to harvesting the extensive forests. Lumbering has always been an important activity in the area, but it is taking off as a profitable substitute to the glory days of industrial manufacture.(4) Turning back to this primary industry has brought some renewed hope to those who remain in the town. Londonderry Station has also diminished, of course, but the trains keep running indeed, with the war, there are many more of them, bringing people and goods along in a steady stream. And like the Mines, the Station is seeing some new life with increased lumbering.

Another name change that can cause confusion with visitors is with nearby Glenholme, which many around still call Folly Village (not to be confused with Folly Lake and Folly Mountain). The government changed the name by statute in 1909, but old habits die hard, and many of the older folks still prefer what they have always known. Glenholme is a small village with a few stores and one of the oldest Presbyterian churches in the province, Erskine. In the early years of settlement it was a very popular stopping place for the stage from Truro to Parrsboro. Farming and fishing have been and remain the principal activities in Glenholme. Fishermen come out from communities all along the coast: from Spencer’s Point, Little Dyke, Portaupique, Highland Village. They have fished the salmon and shad in the Bay for decades; but Glenholme is the centre of fishing in the area and has the steadiest group of fishermen: Messrs. J.B. Urquhart, G. Flemming, S. Stewart and H. Morrison. Fishermen have harvested the Bay in two main ways: with weirs of brush or twine, and with drift or gill nets (the fishermen position themselves at the head of the ebb tide and drift down, and then return with the flood tide. Shad is cleaned, salted and packed in barrels, then shipped at Spencer’s Point, mostly to Boston. Smelt, trout and gaspereau are also fished at various times, but these fisheries are not of any commercial significance. Still, they do give added income to an enterprising fellow (especially the local lads), who can sell trout and smelt door to door. The clam fishery takes place mostly further up the Bay.

One amusing story told in Great Village (with versions repeated in most other towns around) is how the smelts arrived one May Sunday during church service. A man opened the door and whispered to a friend at the back, who went out with his informant. A buzz passed through the congregation, which sensed immediately the cause of the departure, and one by one the gentlemen left. Finally, the buzz reached the minister, and he announced the closing hymn, “Shall We Gather at the River”!

Glenholme, Londonderry, Spencer’s Point, and the other larger villages and towns along the shore as well as the tiny communities such as Highland Village, Peek-a-Boo, Little Dyke, Masstown, Lornevale, and so on form a complex web of activity and connection with Great Village. Families are spread out among them, have intermarried, and commerce is strongly tied to each others' highs and lows. Gathering within and among communities occurs for a bewildering number of reasons. The Newsy Notes and Happenings columns in the Truro Daily News are read with interest by everyone along the shore. With the telegraph and telephone more common now, news gets around a little faster, word can spread quickly over greater distances; yet some think that telephones are not bringing people together in the same way as the mails have done for decades. Still, Colchester County is a land of close and supportive neighbours and folks hope this won’t change for some time to come.


1. Miss Amelia Spencer (not to be confused with the telephone switchboard operator, Amelia (Mealy) Spencer) kept the Spencer Point Light until February 1950, when Miss Annie was officially appointed and remained in charge until her retirement due to illness on December 31, 1958. In 1959 the Spencer’s Point Light was electrified.

2. Elizabeth Bishop’s memories of Spencer’s Point and its lighthouse remained with her for the rest of her life. In October 1963 she wrote to her aunt, Grace Bulmer Bowers: “I was tempted to cable you PLEASE BUY LIGHTHOUSE but have thought better of it! I don’t like the Geddes house I want an old farmhouse with the only improvements electricity and a good furnace or I'd put them in myself....I vaguely remember that house at Spencer’s Point but I think it’s a bit too out of the way and I’m not that mad about the Bay of Fundy. I love it, but I think it’s better to go to, or see from a distance not be right there with the rocks and mud....How much land goes with that lighthouse?”

Bishop always said she day-dreamed about living in a lighthouse, perhaps as Misses Amelia and Annie Spencer lived in the lighthouse at Spencer’s Point.

3. Further devastation occurred at Londonderry (Acadia Mines) when on May 30, 1920, a fire raged through the town destroying 54 buildings. Elizabeth Bishop remembered Acadia Mines (which she referred to as “Galway Mines”) in the 1920s, in her memoir “Memories of Uncle Neddy”: “Aunt Hat came from Galway Mines, a sort of ghost town twenty miles off, where iron mining and smelting were still carried on in a reduced and primitive way. It had once been more flourishing, but I remember boarded-up houses, boarded-up stores with rotting wooden sidewalks in front of them, and the many deep black or dark red holes that disfigured the hills. Also a mountainous slag heap, dead, gray, and glistening.” (CPr, 235)

4. One of the local customers for timber (unprocessed wood) and lumber was the furniture factory at Bass River, the Dominion Chair Company.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Nova Scotia Connections: A Day in the Life of Great Village: A Host of Pleasant Times

It becomes apparent quickly to any stranger who arrives in Great Village that this bustling little town is a musical place. Music is heard everywhere and not just on Sundays in the choir lofts though both churches boast exemplary choirs. Just about every house in the village has a piano or an organ, and not too many less also have violins. Musicians abound in memory and actuality and villagers always welcome and appreciate any performer touring the area. For a number of years the Village has had an orchestra. In the 1890s it was the Ariel Quartette Club, which used to perform with Miss Jennie Spencer. The club gave many recitals on its own, too. And Miss Spencer travelled up and down the shore, with several of her musical friends from the village, Truro and Acadia Mines, entertaining packed houses.

A few years ago the Great Village Orchestra an ensemble of the Chamber variety was formed and has been active ever since, holding concerts for its own benefit, but also offering its talents to the Baptist Church or the Tennis Club to help them raise funds. The war has taken a few of its members overseas, but several young ladies in Great Village have filled the spaces admirably.

Indeed, organized or ad hoc, any social gathering in Great Village can usually coalesce an orchestra, a quartette, a duet or, at the very least, a soloist.

With music often comes dancing. Though not as avid in this department, Great Village is well-known for its Masonic Ball. For some years around the turn of the century the Village also supported a Quadrille Club.(1) Among the older generation of Baptists and Presbyterians, dancing still holds a hint of the illicit. An amusing story, still told in the Village, today goes like this:

“A Presbyterian minister, who lived in Great Village many many years ago, was a very ardent preacher and most strict in his views. Dancing was, in his opinion, but a device of the devil to lure people from the path of righteousness. Accordingly, his daughter was forbidden to go to dances. However, her youthful spirit saw no harm in the good old quadrilles and polkas. One evening she slipped away from home and after a real good time arrived at the parental roof very early in the morning. On the doorstep she was met by her father with this reproachful greeting, ‘Well, daughter of the Devil!’ The only response was, ‘Well, Father!’”

Today, the disapprobation is rarely taken to this extreme. With so much music around, it is impossible to keep one’s toes from tapping. And even the most devout Baptist or Presbyterian families host musicales, where their guests trip the light fantastic to a jig, reel, waltz or polka.

Besides the many socials, concerts and suppers which societies organize, Great Villagers love to entertain and celebrate on a more intimate level. Every week someone is having an anniversary or birthday party, a wedding or baby shower. And sometimes music itself is enough to prompt a gathering. Many of the parties are got up as surprise parties. Great Villagers are addicted to surprise parties, a funny thing since the village is so small it is hard to keep anything a secret. Parties at the Blaikie’s, the Layton’s, the Peppard’s and the Hill’s are always highly anticipated. Monday evening Mrs. DesBrisay, who was a Layton in her youth, and is visiting for the summer, is hosting a musicale. It is her last such evening before she leaves for the West. She is such a fine pianist herself, her favourite composer being Chopin. But she has also invited the MacLachlans and several other musicians and singers. A lively evening is sure to be had by all who attend.

 The women of Great Village gather

While live music is still the preferred way to entertain, several families own gramophones. This novel way to hear music still amazes many in the village, and several parties, especially for the young folks, have been got up with the gramophone at the centre. Most of the older folks are still a bit suspicious of these interesting machines, because they have heard that some of the music being played is the new fangled jazz. Some musicians in Truro and Halifax are said to be able and willing to perform jazz, but Great Village musicians stick to their classical, folk, sacred and popular tunes.

The young folks in Great Village certainly keep up with their elders in the realm of parties. Taffy pulls and charade parties are the most popular. But what they flock to most of all is hay or sleigh rides, depending on the time of year. The Leap Year sleigh rides have been the most eagerly anticipated in the past, and many a young lad and lass has got engaged on those frosty February drives under the stars. There are also theme or costume parties during the year: Valentines Day, Arbour Day, Halloween. Actually, young and old have a penchant for dressing up in costumes. The fine seamstresses in the village are kept busy.

Great Village has also had a long Thespian tradition. Dramatic oratory and recitation is usually a part of every concert, but many folks in the village and surrounding towns participate in plays and other dramatic productions they have been doing so for decades. They have also crowded into performances of travelling theatre companies, which make their appearance mostly during the summer months. The Great Village school is responsible for instilling much of this interest in drama, as every year the students put on a big variety show just before Christmas with skits, farces, parodies, tableaux, readings, and do not forget, music and singing too! Even its programme for Empire Day, with its drills and recitations, give the students a taste of the stage, which many of them enjoy. Villagers have been performing for so many decades it seems that grease paint is rather in their blood.(2)

A Great Village Parade -- Donald MacLachlan plays the fiddle.

Over the years there have been some outstanding performers in Great Village, but few equal Mr. Charlie Taylor, who is perhaps the village’s most outstanding entertainer ever. His sleight of hand, ventriloquism and comedic bent keeps his audiences in stitches. He is very much in demand these days, doing shows throughout the county, and as far away as Halifax. He is set to give a series of concerts at the Temperance Hall in August and already the tickets are going fast. He has packed houses wherever he goes. He might have to add a performance to accommodate the demand. Layton’s and Hill’s stores are selling the tickets. Though Charlie outshines the best of any place, the Village also has a first class impersonator in Mr. A.W. Hill. He can be found at many a party making everyone laugh with his delightful renditions of local and famous characters.

Great Villagers prefer the comedy side of drama, and in times of great uncertainty and sorrow, laughter is healing. Even so, the serious side of the theatre is not neglected and the members of the Seed Sowers Mission Band are already discussing the programme for their Christmas tea and sale, and it is agreed that the play The Tree Triumphant will be the highlight of the evening. Some of the young thespians at the school are talking about rehearsing scenes from King Lear to perform when they go to the drama competition in Truro in November.

Live theatre is still the most popular kind of dramatic entertainment, but the cinema is making more and more converts with each passing day. There is no cinema in Great Village, but Truro has three: the Strand, the Orpheum and the Princess, where moving picture shows are daily offered to a growing audience. Some of the older folks have not yet absorbed the idea of sound recorded on round wax cylinders. They really marvel at motions pictures. But the young flock to the cinemas, for the young always embrace the new. They return abuzz with talk about Charlie Chaplain, Geraldine Farrar and Ethel Barrymore. A few young people are motoring to Truro tonight to see Blanche Sweet in “The Ragamuffin,” by William C. DeMille, at the Strand.

Whether music and song, recitations and plays, or parties, bees, pulls, etc., Great Village is a hotbed of entertaining activities. Villagers are often so busy planning the next "do" that a stranger might wonder how they get any work done. Indeed, Great Villagers are some of the most industrious folks in Nova Scotia.


1. A quadrille is a square dance containing usually five figures.

2. In the 1920s the Chautaqua came to Truro and Great Village for the first time. Its programme of music, lectures and entertainment was enthusiastically embraced by the local people, and it returned to the area several years in a row. The Chautaqua’s structure fit in perfectly with the kinds of performing which was already a well-established tradition in the region.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Elizabeth Bishop News -- June 2012

On a recent trip to the U.K., award-winning Nova Scotia writer Alexander MacLeod, was interviewed by writer Steve Wasserman for his blog Read Me Something You Love. As part of this interview, Alexander read and talked about Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “In the Waiting Room.” Here is the link: http://readmesomethingyoulove.com/?p=918


Award-winning Nova Scotia/Ithaca College film-maker John Scott (Magpie Productions) is at it again with another cinematic interpretation of an Elizabeth Bishop poem, this time the haunting “First Death in Nova Scotia.” He did two outstanding short films based on Bishop’s poems “Sandpiper” and “One Art,” which received a lot of attention during the EB100 year. It is not possible to see this new film quite yet, but he has a facebook page, so by all means have a look and find out at which festivals it will be screened. Here is the link: http://www.facebook.com/pages/First-Death-in-Nova-Scotia/408275002545921


Award-winning Toronto-based film-maker Cassandra Nicoloau (Fighting Fish Productions) also has a new short film inspired by one of Bishop’s poems that she did not complete and publish during her lifetime, “Where are the dolls who loved me so.” This film features the acclaimed Canadian actor Megan Follows. It is not possible to see this new film quite yet, but Cassandra has also set up a facebook page and BravoFact has some information about it. It will be premiered at the OutFest, the 30th Los Angeles Gay & Lesbian Film Festival this year. Here are the links: http://www.wherearethedolls.com/ and http://www.bravofact.com/2012/01/31/where-are-the-dolls-2012/

Friday, June 15, 2012

Nova Scotia Connections: A Day in the Life of Great Village: A Living from the Land, Part 2

Dr. John Leander Peppard was born in Fredericton, N.B., in 1840, the second son of John and Sarah Peppard. After receiving his training at Dartmouth Medical College and Harvard University in the 1860s, he practiced briefly in Boston, then came to Nova Scotia, his father’s homeland, and practiced at Acadia Mines before settling in Great Village. He lived and practiced medicine in Great Village the rest of his life, becoming a much beloved member of the community.(1) Like his successor, Dr. T.R. Johnson, Dr. Peppard was an extremely active man both inside and outside his practice, participating in organizations such as the Reform Club and the Temperance Society. Having eight children of his own, he had a special interest in young people and education, and offered constant support to the Great Village School. Many villagers still remember his fine oratorical skills, and he was frequently called upon to give speeches at important gatherings. He was one of the first villagers to have a telephone installed in his house in 1985, extending his handsome voice even farther.

While his doctoring was highly respected and praised, what villagers remember most about his life is his devotion to Derry Farm, a property he bought in the early 1880s and developed lovingly until his sudden death. On September 17, 1894, the Truro Daily News described the prosperous extent and prospect of Dr. Peppard’s homestead:

“Derry Farm There are many very striking localities in Great Village as sites for handsome residences and there are many fine first class buildings in the little town, but for natural beauty of situation we doubt if anything equals Derry Farm – the splendid property owned by Dr. J.L. Peppard.

Ten years ago the Doctor purchased a large strip of land on the road leading from the Village to Acadia Mines from Mr. Wm. McKim, and realizing the beautiful site he had, built there on one of the finest residences in the county. The house is a large two storey building exceedingly showy in appearance, finished throughout in handsome native woods, and with all the equipment and conveniences of every first class dwelling. The view from the top of the house is grand and the eye can scan with ease and clearness Economy Point on one side of the Bay and the distant shores of Walton, Noel and Maitland on the other, while the pretty town of Great Village, nestling at the feet of Derry Farm, with its silver streak of the river as it glides through the rich marshes to the murky waters of the Bay in the distance, presents a lovely view. The panorama is enchanting on every side as away in the distance, in another direction, rises Mount Pleasant with its sloping sides of cultivated fields and pasture lands and then thick forest trees, till they seem to touch the clouds as your vision carries you up the lofty spurs of the Cobequids.

Derry Farm consists of some 150 acres and over twenty-five of this area are in good cultivation. Besides the ordinary products of the farm hay, grains, roots and vegetables of all kinds, the Doctor has, here in the midst of his busy practice, found time to give some attention to fruit raising. He has between three and four hundred fruit trees apple, plum, cherry and pear and the most of them are thriving well. The plum trees are doing extra well and many of them are laden with rich, ripe, luscious fruit. This year the cherry trees yielded but a small crop, and the pears, though some of them are of the easily raised Bartlett variety, are also indifferent. Many of the trees are but nurslings and no large returns could be expected; they, with very few exceptions, look remarkably healthy, clean and shapely and the Doctor has great expectations from his fine orchard on which he has bestowed so much time and money.

Derry Farm is one of the pretty outlooks of Great Village, and the view will well repay the trouble of a ten minutes walk from the Elmonte hotel to this fine property, and those interested in fruit raising there is the sight of two or three acres of young trees that in a short time will form one of the finest orchards in Colchester Co.”

Dr. Peppard was a prominent and benevolent personage in Great Village, which made his sudden tragic death in 1907 a tremendous loss, a loss which many Villagers still think and talk about, especially when they drive past Derry Farm on their way to Londonderry Station. The story goes: It was a pleasant afternoon in late September. Dr. Peppard and his cousin Samuel Lindsay of Londonderry were harvesting oats and, becoming thirsty, took a break from their labour. Dr. Peppard when into his surgery to prepare a refreshing drink and by mistake took a bottle of strychnine from the shelf and poured it into the jug. Both men died from the effects. The beautiful orchards blossom every year but it seems to most villagers that their yields have not been as bountiful since Dr. Peppard’s loving attention ended. Will Bulmer remembers his friend Dr. Peppard as well as anyone in the village as he and his girls pass by the property on their way to the train. He thinks of Dr. Peppard’s sudden, too early death, just like Gertie’s William, only thirty-nine, setting off so much of her trouble.

Dr. Peppard’s strange, sad story fades from memory a bit more with each passing year. The war is filling villagers’ minds with the death stories of so many young men. The war has brought a new urgency to farming all across Canada. With fewer lads to do the planting and harvesting the older fellows are back vigorously at the ploughs and threshers.

The Bowers’s farm is another of the village’s efficient, bustling operations. Will Bowers is keen about the science and business of agriculture, having taken courses at the Agricultural Colleges in Guelph, Ont., and Truro.(2) He bought in farm, Elmcroft, in the 1890s and has expanded rapidly, bringing it to its current high standard. He raises mostly hogs, but also has a herd of beef cattle, including prize Shorthorn bulls, which he breeds. Mr. Bowers also cultivates crops of various kinds, so his operation is regarded as one of the best mixed farms in the area. He is a firm believer in diversity, his philosophy, “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.” All this activity is business, but his most intense passion, like many of the other farmers in the village, is horses, and he is one of the regulars at the tracks around the county. He also travels the province in search of the best stock for this pursuit. His wife is Kate, the daughter of Rev. T.D. Blackadar.(3) She has one of the loveliest voices in the district, some say like an angel’s. She also oversees a growing family of six sons and a daughter. The oldest, Wallace,(4) has enlisted in the 193rd Battalion with his many friends and they are now at Aldershot training. He gets home regularly and always rolls up his sleeves to help out on this busy farm.(5)

 The Bowers's Elmcroft

Another highly progressive farmer in Great Village is Mr. Amos Geddes. He owns and operates another large mixed farm, one of the largest on the shore. Born in Highland Village, son of Mr. and Mrs. David Geddes, Amos has lived his whole life in Colchester Co. This summer his principal plan is to build a new house on his property. His intention is to make it one of the finest residences around, equipped with all the modern conveniences, including an up-to-date private water supply. He has engaged Mr. L.B. Gray, Architect, of Truro, to design it, and the contract to build it has gone to Mr. MacCurdy of Truro. The site has been prepared (he will have a commanding view of the marshes which stretch out to Cobequid Bay, and of the Cobequid Mountains to the East) and the men are poised to start the foundation. The work will take most of the summer. Mr. and Mrs. Geddes are expecting a busy summer besides. Their son Lloyd will be home from Dalhousie University. Mr. Geddes’s sister, Mrs. George Clinton Batchelder, has already arrived for a summer’s stay. She came along to keep house for her brother as later on Mrs. Geddes and her mother, Mrs. H.H. Fulton of Debert, are planning a trip to Alberta to visit Mrs. Geddes’s sister, Mrs. Allie Morrison of Nanton, who is in poor health. Most village folks suspect that Mrs. Batchelder, Truena, is helping Mr. Geddes with his grand new house. Truena Geddes is a lively and expressive woman, who made her way to New York City and a successful business career. There she married a wealthy manufacturer, and as the folks around here say, was set for life. She is Great Village’s first and to date only millionairess. But even money is not immunity from sadness, and Truena was widowed a few years ago. Some say Willie Spencer is particularly interested in Truena’s visit, as they were old sweethearts way back when.(6) Truena loves motoring and many of her old friends are regular passengers on trips along the shore, in both directions. Today it is Broderick’s Hotel in Five Islands, with Eleanor Spencer and Beletta Urquhart. For Amos, it is a full day of chores and supervising the work on the house. He’s glad for the fine weather, as it means the foundation work can proceed apace.

 The Geddes House


1. Dr. J.L. Peppard married three times: Arabella Morse Symonds (three children: Alice, Sarah, Ernest); Clara Amelia Balcom (three children: John, Arthur, Helen); and Sophia Peppard (two children: Matthew, Albert).

2. “The Nova Scotia Agricultural College (NSAC) is the third oldest centre for agricultural education and research in Canada.” Though officially opened under this name in 1905, the NSAC was an amalgamation of “three earlier developments: the establishment of a School of Agriculture at the Provincial Normal School in Truro in 1885, the acquisition of the Provincial Government Farm at Bible Hill in1889 and the establishment of the School of Horticulture in Wolfville in 1894” (Ells, p. 7).

3. William’s wife Kate Blackadar died in 1922 and he married Grace Bulmer, Elizabeth Bishop’s aunt, in 1923. It was to “Elmcroft” that Bishop returned in the 1940s, when she came back to Great Village after a sixteen year hiatus.

4. Wallace Bowers was one of the Great Village boys killed during World War I.

5. Great Village remains a farming region and the tradition of specializing continues. The Bowers family is now a fifth generation farm. It grows crops for food processing plants in the area. It and several other local farms also specialize in strawberries (Great Village was known for its strawberries even at the turn of the 20th century). Today the crop is not only the berries but also the plants themselves, which are grown, harvested and shipped to Florida. The other booming fruit crop in the area is blueberries. Deforested hills in the Cobequid Mountains above Great Village, as well as large areas along the Fundy shore, have been planted with blueberries. This crop is one of the fastest growing agricultural industries in the province. Oxford, N.S., not far from Great Village, claims to be the blueberry capitol of the world.

6. On October 29, 1918, Truena Batchelder and William Edward Spencer were married. Mr. and Mrs. Spencer spent their life together travelling the world, but they also made significant contributions to Great Village, and returned regularly during the summer months. Mrs. Spencer built two beautiful residences and generously supported many institutions and societies. One of her good deeds was providing the financing for the aboiteau, which protected acres of marshland for the farmers.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Response to Elizabeth Bishop’s “Keaton” by Binnie Brennan

 “Because ‘dry’ comedy is so much more rare and odd than ‘dry’ wit, there are people that never much cared for Keaton. Those who do cannot care mildly.” (James Agee)
My introduction to Elizabeth Bishop was fairly recent. In 2008 I had the good fortune to befriend Sandra Barry, whose infectious enthusiasm and prodigious knowledge of Bishop’s life and her work drew me in. My exposure to Bishop’s work has enhanced my own experience as a writer (and reader), and the retreat time I’ve spent at the Elizabeth Bishop House has been a privilege and a boon to my writing.
My introduction to Buster Keaton was even more recent. Late December, 2011, found me with my nose buried in a book, Marina Endicott’s excellent novel, The Little Shadows, a beautifully written and layered account of the lives of three sisters coming of age in vaudeville in western Canada. One of the secondary characters in particular fascinated me, with his rough-and-tumble vaudeville act and his upbringing in early twentieth-century vaudeville theatre. An interview with the author revealed that the character, Nando, was loosely based on the early life of Buster Keaton. I hied myself to the library and found a biography on Keaton, and spent the next three days alternating between reading on the couch and dashing to my computer to watch his movies on YouTube as they came up in the biography. It was a deeply enriching and exhilarating experience during which I found myself drawn to the lightness and lyricism of his movies and his poetic “Buster” character. Keaton’s economy and his understated, dry comedy, combined with his unsentimental approach, appealed to me endlessly.

It wasn’t until I surprised myself by writing a story on Keaton’s early life that I realized my new-found obsession was actually research. Without planning to, I set my imagination loose on what I had learned about his childhood, and proceeded to write myself ragged. Previously I’d been writing short stories concerning childhood, and this new piece seemed a natural progression.
Around this time I had the pleasure of a visit with Sandra Barry. Somewhat shyly I began telling her about the story I was writing, about the connection I had made with Buster Keaton and his movies. Sandra was curious to know more, and enough of an open vessel that I began to pour my enthusiasm for and new-found knowledge of all things Keaton in her direction, much the same as she had done for me a few years earlier regarding Elizabeth Bishop.

Sandra mentioned something in passing: Did I know that Bishop was an admirer of Buster Keaton? And that she’d once written a poem called “Keaton”? Our conversation elevated as I wrapped my head around this connection: Bishop, Keaton, and my research. It made perfect sense to me that Bishop would have connected with Buster Keaton’s work. They share in their art an understated, sophisticated approach and dry wit. There is nothing wasted, not a gesture in Keaton’s case, nor a word in Bishop’s, and yet they both manage to convey deeply-felt emotions, seemingly without effort.

By the time I arrived home from our visit, Sandra had emailed me the page number to Bishop’s “Keaton” in the Library of America volume on Elizabeth Bishop. I read the poem. I found it profoundly moving. For a long moment I stared out the window and tried without success to swallow the lump that had formed in my throat.

Herewith, my response (by no means scholarly) to Elizabeth Bishop’s poem, “Keaton”:

“I will be good; I will be good”: The Buster character that Keaton developed during his tenure at Buster Keaton Studios (1919–1928) is an honest, decent little fellow with an unsmiling face topped by a porkpie hat, standing no taller than 5’6”. Underlying everything he does is a sense of melancholia, which, in a letter to Anne Stevenson dated January 20th, Elizabeth Bishop mentions with regard to Keaton’s films, “the pathos of man’s trying to do the right thing.” Pathos and melancholia balance Keaton’s comedy beautifully, creating a singular sense of comic gloom.

“I have set my small jaw for the ages”: Buster is ever determined. I’m quite certain this reference has to do with one of Keaton’s roles in his first feature-length film, Three Ages, an episode of which takes place during the Stone Age, Keaton and his cast dressed in bearskins and such. As usual, he’s the smallest man by at least a foot – one of his long-standing sight gags.

“...and nothing can distract me from
solving the appointed emergencies”: With his stoic deadpan, Buster is a point of stillness in a chaotic and hostile world. No matter what goes wrong and how many times he needs to try, he will figure his way around impediment.

“...even with my small brain”: Keaton had but one morning of formal education. The six-year-old delighted in answering the teacher’s questions with puns and punch lines, schoolroom shtick he’d learned from the stage, which caused total disruption as his classmates dissolved in laughter. The child was sent home at lunch with a note from the principal, expelling him. Buster never again set foot in a classroom, and in later years he suffered from a sense of inferiority owing to his lack of schooling.

For the first twenty years of his life, Buster and his family lived on the road, with no fixed address. In the early days they worked in third-rate medicine shows, but before long, as young Buster’s virtuosity as a physical comedian emerged, they made the move to big-time vaudeville. The family lived out of packing trunks, travelling by Pullman from one town to the next, setting up temporary homes in boarding houses and hotels, sometimes tents if money was especially tight. What vaudeville’s children lost in the way of formal education, they gained on the road, as little Buster did, learning sleight-of-hand from Harry Houdini, tap dancing and soft-shoe from Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, and developing improvisation skills that he would put to use for the rest of his life. Reading and writing he picked up along the way, from his mother and likely the chorus girls who fawned over the precocious little boy. Buster’s own curiosity and aptitude led to his interest in the mechanical gags that would eventually characterize his work.

“...the diameter of my hatband”, “the depth of the crown of my hat”: Late in his life, when Keaton realized that the intellectuals were claiming him, he declared “You can’t call a person wearing a flat hat and slap-shoes a genius.” To Keaton, geniuses were people with an education. We may all argue with his point (I’ll go first).

“I will be correct or bust”: A dated expression, in its usual context, “or bust” is prefaced with a destination, indicating a strenuous journey ahead. Buster wanted to do things the correct, if often inventive way, no matter how much effort it took. “Bust” is also a nice little play on his name.

“I will love but not impose my feelings”: For the movie audience, Buster wears his heart on his sleeve, but so often his love is unrequited. His longing for the girl is mostly quiet, contained, stoic. Keaton’s movie The Cameraman opens with him practically in a trance of longing as he first catches sight of the girl, falls instantly in love with her, and then leans in and sniffs her hair. Later in the film, as he peers at her from behind his camera, his eyes are forced shut, so overwhelmed is he by his feelings for her.

“...I will not say anything”: Keaton successfully made the move to talking pictures, although some regarded his husky and somewhat lugubrious baritone speaking voice a departure from the poetic character he had developed in the Buster of his silent pictures (not in my view – for me, the suggestion of melancholy in the huskiness of his voice added to his comedy). The advent of talkies coincided with Keaton’s loss of his creative independence as a film artist, as Buster Keaton Studios was shut down in 1928 and he accepted a contract from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios (M-G-M), a move that he maintained was the worst mistake of his life. Keaton had no problem with advancing technology, being a techno-geek himself, but with sound, everything changed. Gone were the days of working without a script, where he and his crew could make the most of Keaton’s physical grace and virtuoso improvisational skills while filming. For the first time in his life, he was forced to stick to a script. Keaton knew instinctively when a few minutes of improvisation and silence would improve a scene, a situation where he and his fellow actors could express meaning beyond words far better than any dialogue writer could ever do, but the studio heads drew the line, usually to the detriment of the movie. M-G-M’s 1930 movie Free and Easy, Keaton’s first talkie, is filled with gratuitous dialogue imposed on Buster and his cast mates. As Keaton himself once said, “There’s nothing wrong with sound that a little silence won’t cure.”

“If it goes again I will repair it again”: Buster was dogged, the sort of character who will work to fix something until his tongue hangs out. In his 1920 short film One Week, he tries again and again to haul a piano into his new house, and even after the ceiling has practically caved in, he finds another way to do it. Having sacrificed the living-room floor in the process, Buster finds a way to conceal the damage, which leads to a string of gags surrounding the installation of the carpet, the release of his jacket from under the carpet, hiding the hole he’s just cut out of the carpet, and so on until the viewer thinks he couldn’t possibly top one more gag. Of course, he does.

“My backbone
Through these endless etceteras painful”: As a performer and acrobat, Keaton lived with chronic pain. In one of Keaton’s earliest movies, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle’s ode to vaudeville, Backstage (1919), there is a visible manifestation of the sort of beating a vaudevillian routinely took. During a dance scene where Buster is dressed in drag – curly wig, ballet gear and slap-shoes – he doesn’t bother to conceal his bashed-up, skinned knees, likely a result of his being flung around the stage by Arbuckle.

Keaton endured tremendous physical risk and injury for his art. During the filming of Sherlock, Jr. (1924), he was hurled from a train by the force of rushing water from a water tower. He landed hard, his neck slammed against the rail, and despite weeks of searing pain, he continued filming. Some thirteen years later, an X-ray revealed that Keaton had at one time fractured his neck, likely during that film shoot.

Twice more during the filming of features he was nearly killed. In Three Ages he missed a jump from one building to another and fell two storeys; and in Our Hospitality, while filming in a white-water river, he nearly drowned after a hold-back wire snapped. Each of these accidents made the final cuts of the movies; his trusted cameraman’s standing orders were to keep shooting until Keaton yelled “CUT!” or was killed.

“Go with the skid, turn always to leeward...”: One of the vaudevillian conventions was a cartoonish sight gag indicating speed, running into a hopping, skittering skid while making a quick turn at a right angle. Keaton used this often in his movies.

 “I lost a lovely smile somewhere,
And many colors dropped out”: My first reading of these lines choked me up, as has every reading since. I believe this image is at the heart of Bishop’s poem, and of Keaton’s life. As a child comedian, young Buster realized that he got bigger laughs from the audience when he didn’t smile. With the exception of a few of his earliest films with Arbuckle, Keaton elected to keep his mouth still, expressing himself fully with his eyes and facial/corporal nuance. But there’s more to it than simply a lack of smiling: Melancholia was central to Buster’s character, a sense of wistfulness filtered in among the larger impediments put in his way to try to overcome. Sadness balances comedy to great effect, allowing the “funny” to pop.

“The rigid spine will break they say...”: For how long can Buster stay strong in his character? How much longer can Keaton maintain his physical strength to perform his own stunts?

“I was made at right angles to the world...”: As Sandra Barry observed in conversation with me, Buster Keaton was unique, at right angles to the world. My own observation is that when Buster landed from a pratfall, he was all right angles, seated at a right angle to the floor, his legs at right angles to his torso and to each other, his feet shod in long slap-shoes at right angles from his outstretched legs... Indeed, he was very much at right angles to the world, which leads to the next line,

“I do not find all this absurdity people talk about”: Buster gives us moments of bewildered, perfect stillness in a chaotic world. He rarely knows what has sent him into a pratfall, and emerges from it rubbing his head with a puzzled look on his face.

“... a serious paradise where lovers hold hands...”: In Keaton’s movie Sherlock, Jr., the hand-holding scene is a lesson to us in the serious matter of falling in love. As they reach for each other’s hands once and then again, Buster and his lady friend are at once furtive, nervous, and determined, the looks on their faces a timeless reminder of the pains and triumphs of love.

“I am not sentimental”: At all. One of the key elements of Keaton’s comedy that makes it so accessible is that he draws on fundamental emotions without playing on sentiment. That he manages to convey meaningful, deep feelings with minimal gestures is a measure of Buster Keaton’s genius; his expressive face tells us the whole story.

The poet James Agee, in his essay “Comedy’s Greatest Era” (LIFE Magazine, 5 September, 1949), writes the following:

“Because ‘dry’ comedy is so much more rare and odd than ‘dry’ wit, there are people that never much cared for Keaton. Those who do cannot care mildly.” Given the care that Elizabeth Bishop put into the writing of her (unfinished) poem “Keaton,” it’s clear that she is among the legion of Keaton’s admirers who “cannot care mildly.” The same can be said for admirers of Bishop’s work.

As I continue reading and writing about Buster Keaton, I’m sure I’ll find that the re-reading of Elizabeth Bishop’s “Keaton” will be ever-more enriching. Whatever new responses I may have to the poem, I will remain deeply in admiration and awe of the understated, poetic genius of both of these artists, slap-shoes, flat hat and all.

The End

Binnie Brennan
All Rights Reserved
(Binnie Brennan's short story collection A Certain Grace was published in 2012. Visit her blog for more information.)

YouTube Links:
“The Cameraman”- not available in complete download.

[Ed. Note: Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “Keaton” can be found in Elizabeth Bishop, Edgar Allen Poe & The Juke-Box: Uncollected Poems, Drafts, and Fragments, ed. Alice Quinn. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006, p. 119.]

Friday, June 1, 2012

Elizabeth Bishop Society of Nova Scotia Annual General Meeting, Saturday 16 June 2012

To learn more about the Elizabeth Bishop Society of Nova Scotia, go to www.elizabethbishopns.org