A Good Place to Grow Up
A River Runs Through It – Nova Scotia Version
Nova Scotia’s Bear River Looking Northwest from the Head-of-the-Tide towards the Annapolis Basin – Bridge and Village Centered
(Photo by Ameriault Photography, Digby, NS)
One of the first stages of ageing is an increasing preoccupation with things of our youth. Such preoccupation can be as simple as attending that 30th or 40th high school reunion and rekindling the associated memories of good friends and good times past, it can involve the more complicated process of tracing and recording family history, it can get as complicated as trying to capture some of those still vivid memories of childhood on paper, and it can involve, perhaps the ultimate investment in the past, physically relocating back to the hometown to attempt to again somehow get closer to those still vivid pictures of the time when life was much more warm and fuzzy. Interestingly, our minds tend to repress the negative experiences of those early years, in part because we have not practiced, for all the apparent reasons, their recall frequently enough to have them readily available 50 years later. For the most part that is not to be regretted!
This little essay is an attempt to recapture some of the highlights remaining indelibly on my mind of life in one rural Nova Scotia community in the late 1940s and the 1950s. Of course the highlights, as seen through my eyes, are colored by my family background and the perspective that derives therefrom. Others would cast some of the events described herein, being observed from a different vantage point, in a different light; that is quite legitimate. For the presentation of incorrect facts herein I, and the intervening four and a half decades, am solely responsible.
The time period is significant as it covers the end of the transition from horses to motor cars, and it heralds the advent of TV and the widespread use of the telephone. From a family perspective the period saw the acquisition of the first motor vehicle (a c1930s Model A Ford coupe purchased from Milton Morgan with, if you can believe, a rumble seat!), the first telephone, the first TV, and finally the first ‘owned’ house.
I am convinced that the lives of most Canadians are significantly shaped by some combination of the geography and the people experienced in their first two decades of life. The geography of Bear River was and still is perhaps unique – a relatively long and deeply incised river valley the physical and contextual nature of which changes twice a day with the influx of Fundy’s high tides. Even today I continue to relate well to rivers, their valleys, and feel most comfortable when I can look up and continue to see ‘land’. Though today I live on Lake Superior’s rugged shore, I miss the Fundy tide; experiencing the more modest Hudson Bay tide at Moosonee, as I did occasionally over the decade of the 1980s, always engendered a comfortable, though then exciting, familiarity within.
The people of Bear River tended to be what today we would call ‘laid back’ and really in no hurry to go anywhere. For the most part they were God-fearing, salt-of-the-earth types, closely connected to the land (their intense involvement with the sea had terminated in the early part of the 20th century when iron replaced wood as the building medium of choice for ships), struggling with the definition of their place in the new post-WW2, development-focused Canada. Everybody in the village knew everyone else, the community was safe, and the welfare of its children was more than an isolated family responsibility. It was a good place in which to grow up!
Finally, the question has arisen as to why I have taken the time to pull this material together. I was driven to some degree by the family historian that lies within and there is always the fact that I enjoy the writing process. However, I’m quite aware that there is nothing really unique or earth shattering about my growing up in Nova Scotia – young lads have done it for centuries and will continue to do so in the future. There is not a large audience out there waiting with baited breath to devour the history of my early years – most rational people simply do not care. So after mulling it over for several days I have reached the simple conclusion that I wanted to do it – I did it for me! If, by chance, anyone else can work up the courage to tackle this tomb, can stay with it to the end, and can come away with even a glimmer of feeling that their time was well spent, that is simply an added bonus. I admire their courage for taking it on!
Bear River – Its Geography and a Bit of Its History
The Source of the Name:
The derivation of the name of the River is a slight matter of controversy. There are two generally accepted speculations as set out in Calnek’s History of the County of Annapolis (p 256-259).
According to Calnek the name originates from one Captain Simon Imbert (“Im-bear”), who, when delivering supplies to the struggling colony of Port Royal in January of 1613, took refuge from a storm in the welcoming mouth of the river behind what is now Bear Island. The good captain later explored the river to tidehead and discovered its two branches. In honor of this exploit his countrymen at the Habitation henceforth called the river (shown on Champlain’s map as the St. Anthony) the Imbert. The good Captain’s name in the 1950s was still applied to the hill section of the “Brook Road” where it leaves the Head-of-the-Tide on its course to Morganville.
However, Judge A. W. Savary, who after Calnek’s death edited and published the Calnek manuscripts, attributes the naming of the river after Louis Hebert, the apothecary in the deMonts expedition in the period 1605 to 1607 who, he claims, sought to cultivate grapes on the Bear’s fertile banks. He notes that the river was shown as Rivere d’Hebert (actually, "Hebert R.") on Lescarbot’s map. It is likely that today’s name is simply an anglicized corruption of the French pronunciation of Hebert, or “hay-bear”, which would easily be rendered as ‘bear’ with a rationally expected shortening.
It is reasonable to assume that the name of the village was derived from the name of the River. However, that section of the town on the Digby County side was initially designated as Hillsburg(h), and in fact that term was still applied to the Federal Census District for the area as late as 1911. The name Bridgeport was initially applied to the Annapolis County side of the community and the name was still in use on A. F. Church’s 1871 map of Digby County. It appears to have fallen out of favored use by the time he published his 1876 map of Annapolis County wherein Bear River was applied to the full community straddling the river. E. Foster Hall in Heritage Remembered – The Story of Bear River, notes that a letter from Germany addressed to one of the former Hessian mercenaries living near the community in 1784 was simply addressed to Bear River. It would appear that the locals early on had decided on a single name for the community, a name that ignored what became the administrative boundary defined by the river.
The Geography of the River:
Nova Scotia’s Bear River has its origins on the Province’s upland core adjacent to the Digby/Annapolis county line and is fed by two main branches – the East Branch and the West Branch - which converge at tidehead.
The East Branch has its origins on the highland plateau some four and a half miles east and slightly south of Mulgrave Lake, locally called Big Lake in the 1950s, and called East Bear River Lake prior to the 1870s. From its origins the Bear flows some 13.5 miles west-northwest through Mulgrave Lake to its confluence with its sister, the West Branch, at tidehead. Circa 1950 Mulgrave Lake was dammed for water power storage purposes, and a second dam added to the system about 4.5 miles downstream to create a headpond for the Gulch Power Station in Bear River which was commissioned in 1951. In 1954 a second headpond and associated power station were added to the system between first two dams. This hydro development work has left the original East Branch significantly diminished and in summer the three remaining natural sections of the original watercourse below Mulgrave Lake are reduced to a mere trickle.
The East Branch per se lies wholly within Annapolis County although one of the small brooks (did you know that “creek” is not a common Nova Scotia word!) that drain into it (called Welcome Thomas Brook in my day) has its origins in Lake Le Merchant on the county line. The East Branch had been the prime source of Atlantic salmon habitat for the area. In fact, the lake from which Negroline Brook takes its origins, now called Charlotte Lake, is displayed on an 1876 map as Salmon Lake, and the first large pool in the East Branch above the Head-of-the-Tide was locally known as Salmon Pool; needless to say the Bear’s Atlantic salmon run is now sadly extinct.
The Bear’s West Branch on today’s maps is designated as the Franklin River and takes it source from Lake Franklin located just inside the Digby County line about a ten mile crow flight to the southeast from the village. About a mile after leaving Lake Franklin the River washes into the two and a half mile long Lake Jolly from whence it flows on a somewhat sinuous northerly course some 9 miles to its confluence with the East Branch at the Head-of-the-Tide.
The Head-of-the-Tide represents the general point of highest tide penetration on the Bear River; the Gulch power station tailrace would only on rare occasions of major storm surge on the Bay of Fundy taste the ocean salt. The term Head-of-the-Tide was also used to describe that part of the community lying on the outwash plain and surrounding hillsides in the vicinity of tidehead; the actual outwash plain itself carried the local moniker “The Flats”.
Geologically the rocks at the Head-of-the-Tide consist of sedimentary shales and siltstones which are perhaps 400 million years old; a fine representative, fossil-bearing outcrop of this unit (which for a number of years in the late 1940s was embossed with a handwritten “Killroy was here” in red paint) occurs near the westerly of the two bridges. Just upstream of the Gulch power development and at the site of the early electric light dam on the west branch the transition to underlying somewhat older volcanic rocks is marked by some notable rapids. The boundary between these volcanics and the granite core or spine of Nova Scotia is mapped as occurring about halfway to Morganville on the West Branch and about a half kilometer north of the Gulch headpond dam on the East Branch. The Bear River has over the millennia managed to affect serious erosion of the softer sediments and volcanics north of the granite contact, that erosion being responsible for the deeply incised valley of the Bear between the Head-of-the-Tide and the Annapolis Basin. There are no waterfalls of note on the East and West branches where it pours off the granite tableland because the streams were of sufficient volume and in place over a long enough period to erode the granite basement to a relatively gently sloping downstream contour. Water-worn rounded granite boulders are found in great profusion along both branches, although both their presence and much of the wear undoubtedly represents the effect of continental glaciation.
From the juncture of the East and West branches of the Bear at the Head–of-the-Tide the river runs its perhaps half mile course north northeast and then northwest to the Bear River Bridge. Throughout this section in my time it generally gurgled across a bottom of cobbles and small boulders and through a number of small pools. One could walk across the river on its north northeast trend although not without wet feet. On its north trend the channel became more precisely defined and the water deeper as a result; while it was still crossable on foot now pants would get wet. Just below Bell’s Point, where swimming was occasionally focused at high tide, there were a couple relatively quiet pools, probably three to four feet deep, where salmon were known to have spent time between tides. Because of the effect of the tide the rocks in this section of the river were inevitably muddy and slippery. Beginning at about the Firehall “eelgrass” (Zoster sp) was first encountered and that indicated the presence of real mud. Eelgrass was common in the river and tended to grow in those areas of deeper sediment (dare I say mud!) with more exposure to the air during the tide rotation, thus it would be found toward the high tide lines and would be absent in the areas of deeper mud along the low tide channel. In reality it resembled a sedge, not a grass (remember: sedges have edges!).
Below the large pool just down stream of the village Bridge the river takes a turn to the northeast between the wharves, retaining its rocky nature for another few hundred yards until just past the Oakdene school yard where its course narrows at low tide to a single stream between muddy banks. In this case a muddy bank would usually mean a six or eight inches of sucking, brown-to-black, stinking gumbo! It was not a place to wander in search of being earnest. The river keeps this mud format pretty much all the way to where it empties into the Annapolis Basin. Just below Raymond’s Point on the west bank the river bottom changes to a more sandy consistency and provides habitat for a small colony of clams.
The Bear pours into the Annapolis Basin about four miles north of the village. Centered perhaps a half mile off the mouth of the River lies currently uninhabited Bear Island, about a quarter mile by a half mile in size, and built up over the millennia by the deposition of sediment being carried down the Bear to a spot where the energy of the river was dissipated by the currents and tides of the Basin. In 1857 the island was bequeathed by Artemus O'Dell of Smiths Cove to a consortium of O'Dell family members, one of whom was Maria (O'Dell) Poole, the second wife of my great great grandfather James William Poole of Smiths Cove. It was possible to walk to the island during low tide but it was not a habitual occurrence because it was too easy to get caught by the tide and have to wait for 11 hours to be able to make the return trip. The one time I can recall having gone out for a little exploration the tide was up to our thighs on the return trip. Aboriginal people had likewise been interested in the mouth of the Bear and there is a significant archaeology site on the Annapolis side near the river mouth. As a kid I did not know of its existence. This is probably a good thing because I am certain that my natural curiosity would have led me to investigate the site, perhaps to its long term detriment!
The Local Brooks:
The Bear was the recipient of the outflow of five smaller brooks near the village. The most southerly, to us known as Daddy Franklin Brook and in my experience with no other name, emptied into the West Branch just a few hundred feet upstream of the West Branch’s confluence with its easterly sister. It originates in Barnes Lake and cut through my grandfather’s property, on the road which joined Morganville to the Sissiboo Road at Milford Corner, as it made its three mile trek to the West Branch.
Two other smaller brooks are found on either side of the River a couple miles downstream of the Bridge. Chisholm Brook is located on the west side of the Bear about a mile and a half northwest of the village. Amos Botsford, after whom the 1784 Digby County land grant to Loyalists is now commonly named, secured the original 200 ac grant that covered the mouth of Chisholm Brook. On east side of the River Kniffin Brook makes its entrance about 2 miles north of the village. The latter originates in the area of the Waldeck Line lots. Spring fed, both of these brooks tended to be more or less intermittent in the summer time. Like Botsford, the Kniffin brothers were Loyalists as well.
Just above the Bear River Bridge the Bear is joined from opposite sides by the two largest of its five supporters – in the parlance of my day Campbell Brook and Charlie’s Brook. Both brooks have their own bridges in the village, these bridges making road access to the Head-of-the-Tide possible.
Campbell Brook as I had been led to believe was named after a turn-of-the-century doctor whose residence lot supposedly abutted the brook as it entered the village. The brook had its origins in Harris, or Jim Harris, Lake situated on the tableland a couple miles west of the village. I have seen the brook more formally referred to as both Wade and Harris Brook on maps. The brook was deeply incised into the local topography with steep slopes of a couple hundred feet on either side which gradually petered out upstream until just beyond the Clarke Road where its characteristic bubbly rocky character was replaced with a narrow, winding, alder-clogged, slow moving meadow brook. Its upper reaches had been the proud sponsor of at least three small sawmills c 1870.
On the opposite side of the community the fifth brook, Charlie’s Brook, has its origins in a series of springs in Bear River East. It still supported in the 1950s an intermittent-working, water-powered sawmill then owned by Charlie Balser, hence our name for the watercourse. An early map name for this brook was Harris Brook (as well!) probably because in the 1870s a couple Harris families had lots abutting the brook on its north side just above the Chute Road corner. At least one of those lots was still in the Harris family hands in the 1950s. I had also heard the brook referred to as Pistol Brook, no idea as to the source of this name, and have seen it referred to in print as George Tupper’s brook. Apparently a Mr. Tupper owned an earlier version of Charlie Balser’s sawmill in the early 1930s. Similar to Daddy Franklin and Campbell brooks, Charlie’s was deeply incised into the shoulder of the valley of the Bear for a distance of about two miles, almost to the point where it crossed the Clementsvale Road.
The River Valley:
The Bear appears to have incised some 400 feet into the northwest shoulder of the province. The river valley is steeply sloped for about a half mile from the shore as are the valleys of all the small brooks entering the Bear in the vicinity of the community. It is this steepness of the river valley in the vicinity of the village that drew the appellation for the village of ‘The Switzerland of Nova Scotia’, highly popularized during the first half of the 20th Century. The roads on these same slopes, up to a 10% grade in their steepest, can prove to be a major challenge for vehicular traffic during winter snow storms. On the other hand, after being packed they can provide an excellent course for recreational sledding.
The valley of the Bear displays an intermittent series of those same 400 million year old rock outcrops along the river from the Head-of-the-Tide to the point below the town where the River turns northwest and its basin expands to perhaps a maximum of a quarter mile. Additional rock outcrop makes an intermittent appearance again on both banks just downstream from Kniffin Brook and continues at the base of the steep river banks to its confluence with the Annapolis Basin.
The landscape on either side of the Bear consisted in my time of mixed fields and woodlots stretching up from the river to the adjoining tablelands. Typically there was a fringe of trees along the river, at least in part because much of the immediate shoreline was too steep to be managed after clearing. Closer to the Annapolis Basin the fringe may have extended back from some hundreds of meters to perhaps a kilometer near the river mouth on the east side. The woodlots along the river consisted of a mixture of sugar maple and beech with lesser amounts of white oak, white birch, aspen, white ash, and the occasional rare yellow birch and residual white pine and hemlock as individual trees or small stands. Much of the original conifer had been harvested by the settlers and farmers at an earlier time. The abundance of sugar maple lent a crimson glow to the hillsides in the fall.
The Bear River, the Village, and the Bridge Looking South – Photo c1930s
The configuration of the river valley protected much of the hillside land from the extremities of cold and heat that were common on the tableland above. The valley side hills likewise benefited from reasonably good soils. This combination made it an early and choice site for settler farmers involved in the homesteading process. E. Foster Hall in Heritage Remembered – The Story of Bear River (p 119) indicates that settlers had brought cherry trees to Bear River before the advent of the 19th century, apparently initially planting them at the Head-of-the-Tide where they took an instant liking to the local growing conditions and thrived. By the late 1800s they became the focus of a mid-July festival, the Cherry Carnival, which is still being held in the first decade of the 21st century. Unfortunately the trees were attacked by a killer blight during the first few decades of the 1900s. By the 1950s one could find only single scattered remnant offspring of those once proud orchards. However, it was still possible even then to locate, if one knew where to look, both large and small ‘black’ cherries and large and small ‘red’ cherries within the community. Cherries for Carnival in more recent years were imported, generally from BC. I was not happy at Carnival time to see destructive non-locals walking around with fruit-filled limbs they had stripped from our trees.
The fields adjacent to the Bear and on the adjoining tableland were primarily directed to pasture for the one or more cows kept essentially for family milk and possibly for a calf or two to be slaughtered for winter beef. In a few instances farmers ran small herds of beef cattle and two farmers concentrated on small dairy herds. Herefords were the primary beef species in the 1950s but by 1960 Black Angus had started to appear. Jerseys ruled the dairy agenda in 1950s Bear River. The biggest crop was hay; occasionally turnips or corn might be grown for supplementary cattle feed. Commercial specialty crops were not common. I picked strawberries (five cents a quart) for cash-crop farmer Peter McGregor (he was always my mental version of “Farmer Brown”) in the late 1940s and early 1950s and I recall c1955 picking green beans by the pound for Don Ruggles for a season.
There were a few orchards scattered across the community but none were harvested commercially. Most had been planted before the turn of the century and the species available were something other than the popular and commercial McIntosh and Red Delicious that were common “up the Valley”. Two of my favorite apples were the “Transparent”, a soft yellow apple available about the third week of August, and the heritage species the “Russet”, a smaller golden brown/green apple that tended to ripen late in the season. Because of the orchards there was a profusion of wild apple trees scattered in the woods where seeds had been deposited by wildlife. It was unusual for any of these apples to be highly palatable but if one was to put up with their more or less sour/bitter taste they would make a nice light snack while hunting in the fall. Likewise, there were occasional plum and pear trees in the orchards and if one was quick one could occasionally sneak a plumb before the owner took them home for the table.
The Bear is crossed by three sets of bridges. The most southerly set of two is found at the Head-of-the-Tide and they cross the East and West branches about 150 feet upstream of their confluence. These bridges cannot be more than a couple hundred feet and a corner apart. It is apparent that the engineers believed that two short bridges (each perhaps 60 feet long) would be less costly and provide less cumbersome access than one longer span. Occasionally one could find a trout or salmon smolt lying in the fast water just below these bridges.
Emplaced at the River’s mouth at the entrance to the Annapolis Basin were two long bridges - one railway, one highway, about 100 yards apart on their east end and both about a quarter of a mile in length, critical links in the transportation system of southwestern Nova Scotia. Known as the Victoria Bridge the highway structure was, according to Calnek, installed in 1864-1865 at a cost to the Province of some $26,000, replacing an previous ferry. The existing bridge was totally reconstructed in the early 1970s using a prefabricated concrete design. Collectively we knew them as “The Bridges”. While the highway bridge naturally saw significantly more activity on any given day it was the train bridge that adheres to the forefront of memory. Trains of the Dominion Atlantic Railway, perhaps two passenger trains and as many freights a day, servicing the Halifax to Yarmouth run via the Annapolis Valley and “French Shore”, utilized the 1200 foot trestle. It was a right of passage for many a Bear River boy, at some point in time after the acquisition of a bicycle, to make the trek to “The Bridges” to watch the passage of the afternoon train and collect a special souvenir penny that had been flattened by the engine wheels. Finding the souvenir was always the challenge. The railway bridge, although in superstructure still standing, has been abandoned with the removal of the Annapolis Valley train service.
Of perhaps more importance was the fact that the trains were required to announce their approach to the trestle with their whistle. On still, clear nights the lonely sound of that whistle would wind its way up the Bear and leave many of those of us that heard it wondering about who was on the train, where were they going, and what event had taken them to the train that day. It certainly brought home early to me the understanding as to why American country music had been so infiltrated with great train songs. The only other experience that has had a similar effect is my standing in the wilderness of far Northern Manitoba after three months away from civilization watching a single engine bush plane at five thousand feet going somewhere, carrying someone. In the right mood a guy could write a song about that!
Of course to a boy from the village the most significant bridge was the one that joined the two segments of the community and was its central feature. While on the one hand the Bridge brought the community together it at the same time separated the residents into two different administrative units – the Bridge hosted the river-set boundary between Digby and Annapolis counties.
The date of the first bridge across the river is imperfectly known. The Nova Scotia Archives holds a petition dated March 21, 1795 and signed by 26 residents of Digby/Bear River/Clements which was directed to "The Province of Nova Scotia in General Assembly" requesting the granting of a sum of money for the construction of a bridge over the Bear River so as to ensure that mail destined from Canada to Halifax "...should not be interrupted by any weather or water that the service of the King and Country be as little as possible liable to obstruction." Calnek in his 1897 treatise History of the County of Annapolis noted that a Grand Jury in 1800 voted a sum to "lay out a road from Bear River bridge to Moose River bridge", indicating that a structural crossing of the Bear River was in place by that time. Heritage Remembered – The Story of Bear River (p 30) indicates that a wooden footway was in place c 1814. However, that same volume (p 31) also refers to an 1803 land transaction record which identified the eastern part of the community as Bridgeport, suggesting the presence of a recognized bridge by at least that date. Wilson in his Geography and History of the County of Digby (p 81) notes that one James Smith removed to Bear River in 1789 where he established a hotel on the east side of the River to cater to land traffic moving by stagecoach between Annapolis and Digby via Hessian Line and the Joggins. While such traffic may have had to be transported across the river at that time by barge on the high tide, or be forced to ford the river during low tide, one would anticipate that the inconvenience would have early led to the installation of permanent crossing, and following Calnek, likely before 1800.
The bridge of the 1950s (its predecessor had been taken out by ice a few decades earlier) was an iron structure, the prime characteristic of which, as I recall, was rivets. My memory suggests it would have been about 22 feet wide with a single lane, 12 foot deck and two four-foot sidewalks; the deck may have been 120 feet long. Separating the sidewalks and the driving surface were two riveted iron support girders that stood perhaps six feet above the deck. The girders were about 14 inches across, flat on their upper surface, and were sloped at about 30 degrees at either end, making a fine separate pathway for kids with sufficient ‘joie de vivre’ to occasionally choose ‘the high road’ as a means of crossing the river. They also provided a good front row seat for the Cherry Carnival parade and, later in the day, for the water sports. While there was some danger involved in falling off the girders I do not recall much adult fuss in our unique use of the structures; I suspect that some 90% of the kids that grew up in the community had crossed on the girders at least once.
Both sides of the Bridge were fitted with a substantial metal railing. It would have been about four feet in height, mounted about six inches off the deck, and topped and bottomed with four inch angle iron, the bottom providing a barely adequate foothold for small feet when we fished off the Bridge. Between the angle iron extremities was a welded mesh of 3/4 inch metal strapping. The individual straps were semi-vertical in disposition leaving diamond shaped holes between. The holes were used for footholds when a short fisherman wanted to gain another foot or so of height in order to ply his trade above the top rail. All this metal was occasionally painted grey in order to preserve the structure from rust. The deck of the Bridge, both sidewalks and running surface, was of wooden planking and I can recall at least one refurbishing of the deck in the 15 year period preceding 1960.
The Bridge sat on a cement foundation at both ends. The foundation on the Digby side was only a few feet thick and it appeared that on the landward side the cement may have been poured directly into the substantial cribbing that formed the roadbed. It was not possible to crawl across under the Bridge on the Digby side. The foundation of the Annapolis side was much more substantial, perhaps as much as 25 feet across, as it housed the circular rail mechanism which had at one time allowed the Bridge to swing open to facilitate the passing of ships into the upstream basin. I never saw the Bridge open and am of the opinion that the swinging mechanism had been consciously allowed to fall into a state of immobility by the time of WW2 when it became evident that the dream of continued ship building in the upper basin was truly a thing of the past. It was possible to scramble and crab one's way under the Bridge on the cement swing pier on the Annapolis side; there was no apparent good reason for doing so beyond the fact that it was possible.
The Bridge of my childhood, and the opportunity to crawl thereunder, was replaced in 1991 with a new reinforced concrete structure.
This narrative would be incomplete without mentioning the two other bridges of prominence in the community. They were both cement structures and both about 50 feet long. One spanned Charlie’s Brook within a couple yards of and parallel to the east end of the Trading Company, and probably about 150 feet from the main street of the village. It had solid cement railings probably three feet high and perhaps 12 inches on the top. Those railings were only occasionally walked on when one felt particularly daring because the drop on the brook side at low tide was probably 25 feet. The other bridge of note was on the Digby side and spanned Campbell Brook adjacent to George Benson’s Meat Market. It, too, was about 50 feet long and had cement railings of the post and beam variety, these about 4 feet high. The two beams were strategically placed so as not to hinder good eel fishing opportunities!
The River Basin from the Bear River Bridge:
The river section on the south and upstream side of the Bridge had been stabilized by a wall of large hand-hewed granite blocks. Those stone walls ran from a height of perhaps 6 feet to as much as 25 feet next the Bridge on the Annapolis side. That block wall stretched from the Bridge along the main street to and beyond the two bridges over the adjoining brooks, a distance of perhaps 400 yards in total. The commercial buildings on the south side of the main street were all constructed on log piles driven into the river bottom. The tide would come in under these buildings twice a day. Local kids could be expected to make a journey under the buildings on the Digby side probably as often as once a day. Our objective would be to see what discarded treasures may have floated in on the tide, to chase the pigeons roosting under the buildings, or occasionally in my case, to burn something. It was not possible to walk under the Bridge on the bottom of the river because the water was too deep and swift as it channeled through the fifty foot opening between the Bridge foundations.
A View of the West End of the Village at High Tide Showing the “Stilt” Construction. Baptist Church in the background
Photo probably c1930s
The banks of the river on the downstream side of the street were supported by cribbing constructed of large logs filled with boulders. The wharf on the Digby side of the village, which had at one time been called Government Wharf, was of similar construction. It had been refurbished in the late 1940s and had a set of new steps, soon to be muddy and slippery, down to the river bed. I still recall that the lower levels of cribbing holding up the main street were remarkably sound due to the fact that they rarely got the chance to dry out. They contrasted starkly with their highly deteriorated brethren from the top of the cribs above tide level whose apparent condition had initiated the refurbishment. The wharf next the bridge on the Annapolis downstream side was in poor shape and in need of repair. I was always of the opinion that that wharf was owned by the Lincoln Pulp and Paper Company but it may have been otherwise. A really high spring tide could see water six to ten inches over that wharf.
Below the Bridge on the north side was a large pool, created in part by the work of a Lincoln bulldozer diverting river water away from the docking site of its pulpwood-hauling scow. The pool was only a few feet deep but I never tried to cross it on foot, although I cannot recall any particular reason for not doing so.
The river bottom on the downstream side of the Bridge was not frequented by we urchins as much as the south side – generally too dirty. The only thing that would lure one down might be a special treasure seen from above such as a beer bottle, or an expensive lure that got caught during higher tide. Rats frequented the river and had an extensive network of trails leading under the street and wharves to nests emplaced above the high tide lines. Occasionally some adult with a .22 rifle would use them as target practice; imagine attempting to carry out that sport in the middle of the community today. We kids tried out our luck on the rats with BB guns, very occasionally taking one out with a lucky shot. We also chased rats with rocks in one of the garbage dumps along the river north of Bern Alcorn’s sawmill. Again, if we were lucky, we’d get us a rat. We came to discover, to the rats’ chagrin, that they were creatures of habit and could be expected out at approximately the same places and same times daily, making accommodation for the tides where necessary.
As I mention this ad hoc dump, which was eventually signed and closed by county authorities as it should have been, I cannot for the life of me recall the location of any substantive community landfill site. Had there been one we kids would have naturally become honorary attendants. There is no doubt that for those conveniently located the river became the garbage disposal of choice. I do recall finding other caches of cans and bottles in some of the brook bottoms, and along fence lines in the uplands. However, managed garbage disposal for Bear River was at that time a thing yet to be realized.
On another interesting note it was quite apparent as a kid that the river became the favored site for some human waste disposal as well, and there were a number of households piped directly and raw into the river. It always gave one second thoughts of swimming in the Bear but at high tide on a hot day in the summer caution was usually thrown to the wind. In the early 1990s the community, at least in part because of its unique geography, became the site of an experimental sewage treatment initiative using settling ponds, solar radiation, bacteria, snails, fish, and vegetation as cleaning agents. Suffice to say the experiment, the first of its kind in North America, worked and, before its eventual closure, the plant treated some four million gallons of raw waste annually. For those interested a description of the facility can be accessed through Google at http://www.esemag.com/0904/bearriver.html
The County Line:
The Bear marks the boundary between Annapolis and Digby counties from its mouth to the Head-of-the-Tide from which point the mutual boundary strikes off as a straight line to the southwest. Consequently the community of Bear River has led something of a schizophrenic life from a governance perspective. Interestingly, however, from the point of view of a kid growing up in the community, the differences in jurisdiction were little evident - all the kids went to school on the Annapolis side, the fire department serviced both sides of the community, and Digby-based Mounties serviced both sides of the River. It was only in the redirection to the high school in Annapolis of some of the school kids bussed into Bear River from the rural areas of Annapolis County that finally brought the line home in a concrete way.
A View of Bear River, Annapolis County Side, c1980s Showing Lincoln Wharves Being Backfilled - Oakdene School Centered
(Charlie’s Brook flows in the treed gully to the right of the road in the upper right of the photograph)
I attended high school in Digby along with the other Bear River community kids even though I was at that time a resident of Annapolis County. It is a credit to the county officials on both sides that administration across the line appeared to be as seamless as it was. I understand that in the 1980s the line began to get in the way and that high schoolers from inside the village were unfortunately redirected based on their county affiliation.
I recall (fleetingly) traveling by horse and wagon to my grandmother’s out at Milford Corner more than once in the mid-1940s. The farm was located on the southwest side of the road joining Morganville to the Sissiboo Road at Milford Corner, where it was crossed by the brook from Barnes Lake. The house and barns were on the northwest side of the brook. A sawmill had operated on the downstream side of the road in or before the 1870s.
Besides the family home with its very formal ‘parlor’, a fireplace (which housed chimney swifts in summer), a milk separator room, and a root cellar, the property boasted a two story barn for livestock, a chicken coop, a woodshed, a rock-walled well with a with a crank for raising and lowering the bucket, and a two story, pole-constructed wagon house. I was most impressed at five years of age with this latter facility because it housed a number of still-viable wagons and sleighs designed for both working and visiting. I have no idea of what may have eventually happened to them.
First Trip to Grandma's House with Mom and Uncle Ken – February 1942
(Yes, Ken is thumbing his nose at the photographer – he did that sort of thing!)
Working horses were not uncommon c 1945. My uncle Max Rice was still teaming a pair of working horses as late as 1946. One of his daily chores was to walk these horses every suitable late afternoon about a mile down the Clark Road to Campbell brook for their daily supply of water.
Horses were still being used for village snow removal in 1946 and they played a major role in keeping the two village blacksmiths busy. However, by the mid-1950s only one horse was occasionally seen pulling a wagon into town. That horse was required to enter the community down the Oakdene Hill by the school and its passing could readily be followed by the students. The drill was that the farmer would, at the top of the hill, place under one of the wheels of his wagon a metal-shod wooden ‘brake’. This brake, attached to the wagon, would restrain the turning of the selected wheel and at the same time drag against the pavement thus impeding the wagon’s speed down the hill to the great advantage of the horse. The noise was deafening!
There continued to be one pair of working oxen in the community throughout most of the 1950s owned and operated by the Hill family. Vennie Hill was the prime family teamster at that time, using them largely for haying and hauling wood; by 1960 their cost had overshadowed their utility.
Most every farmer had a woodlot from which he produced fire wood for domestic use including heating in winter and cooking in both winter and summer. Occasionally, suitable conifer trees would be harvested and delivered to Bern Alcorn’s mill on the point in the River below and on the opposite bank from the school. There the deliverer would receive the going price for the particular variety of conifer sawlogs or they would be converted into dimension lumber according to the customer’s wishes. Lumber was air dried in the yard. The mill also had a small planer which was used to dress some lumber before it was sold. On days when the mill was not operating one of our occasional pastimes was to run the logs in the man-made millpond. The pond was intended to clean the dirt and rocks from the logs to protect the saw blades. Generally the white pine and large spruce logs were not much of a running challenge; however, there would inevitably be a few small logs in the mix and we would often push our luck until someone fell in. There are few odors as permeating and durable as the stench of mill-pond water drying in ones cloths on a hot summer’s day.
During the period of my growing up one of the characteristics of Bear River was the proclivity for its population, particularly its women folk, to walk. It was not uncommon to see a number of women of the community walk into the village at least once a week for groceries or to attend to whatever other chores they had to perform. Almost inevitably they carried with them an ash ‘shopping’ basket, not uncharacteristically made by a local Mi’kmaw craftsman. A number of the female members of the United Church Choir walked to and from choir practice. Part of the rationale for this circumstance was that they had always walked to get to places they had wanted to go – it was part of their rural lifestyle. A few families did not have automobiles, but even where they did those vehicles were likely needed by the male breadwinner during the day to further the family income. Men were not quite as likely to use ‘shanks mare’ to get around (they had better access to the family vehicle), but a few did. Of particular recall among the women walkers were, in no particular order, Irene Lantz, Mary Darres, Edna Lent, June Schmidt, Edith Read, Verna McGregor, Ruby Benson, Mary Mayo, Marjory Alcorn, Pearl Darres, and Dorothy Parker. This tradition is even more remarkable when one considers that for most of these walkers there would be a serious uphill challenge in either ‘the going out or the coming in!’
I mentioned some women walking home from choir practice. One other characteristic of rural Nova Scotia living at that time was its relative safety. Bear River doors were not locked. Kids would leave the house in the morning, with no idea of where they were going, and not be heard of again until lunch or supper, and there was a sense that as long as they were within the village they would be in good hands.
With the exception of the odd, perhaps annual, call to the Mounties to attend an incident of public disorder perpetrated by strong drink, I can only recall one other occurrence in the community of a law and order issue taking center stage. That was the presence in the community for a few days c 1949 of an individual who was called, probably euphemistically, “The Tramp”. If memory serves correctly the presence of the individual was removed from the village after a footrace one evening with some of the young men up the river bottom south of the bridge. “The Tramp” lost the race! I never did come to understand the nature of the circumstances that perpetrated the footrace.
As for organized kids activities the larger churches all tried their hand at something for younger teenagers with more or less intermittent success depending upon the quality and energy level of the leaders. Cubs, scouts, brownies and guides came and went, again dependant upon availability of competent leadership. In my experience Sea Cadets was the only organization with any lasting presence, not the least reason for which was in part the support by the Navy and the Department of National Defense.
In the area of sports, with one exception, we either did it ourselves or it did not get done. That one exception was the involvement of Harry Hill in coaching a girls’ ball team over a number of years, and a boys’ hardball team for a couple years. I still remember the first real curve ball thrown at me in one of these games by David Leonard from Digby. Put me off my feed for the rest of the day! Organized sport was a difficult thing because there were not enough kids available for any kind of local “house” league and there were no dollars or transportation available to support a traveling team.
The Ethnic Make-Up of the Community:
In the 1950s Bear River gave all the appearances of a white, protestant, Anglo Saxon enclave, and it was not a community that prided itself on its differences. The community’s initial roots had been generated in the American colonies and, to a somewhat lesser and somewhat indirect extent, in Britain. The 1767 census showed Hillsburgh with a population of some 67individuals, 51 of which claimed American origins, the other 16 British origins. It appears to have also included some American Dutch from the New York (New Amsterdam) area. The years 1760-1765 had seen a major influx of Americans into the Annapolis and Cornwallis valleys with the import of US settlers (now commonly referred to as Planters) from New England specifically designated to assume the farm land abandoned by the Acadians with their expulsion during the previous five years. Some of the descendents of these settlers, including my forbearer Rices, British by origin, eventually made their way to Bear River and their descendents formed a significant component of the population by the mid part of the 20th Century.
In 1783-1784 the Digby-Annapolis area saw the influx of a contingent of some 3000 immigrants of two backgrounds: i) the Loyalists consisting of American civilians and some lesser numbers with military background who had left the now-independent US with the political objective of continuing to maintain close ongoing ties with England the Motherland, and ii) a cadre of German mercenaries, attached to the British cause during the US War of Independence, who had elected to resettle in Nova Scotia on land offered by the British Crown rather than return to Germany. All of the 116 individuals mustered at Bear River on June 11/12, 1784 had roots in the ranks of the German mercenary force.
Locally lots were surveyed and assigned in the Waldeck and Clementsvale areas, primarily to the German mercenaries collectively known as Hessians. However, after five years many of these new settlers, particularly those of the officer corps, had found themselves ill-suited as homesteaders and had made for the larger towns of Nova Scotia’s South Shore, to New Brunswick, and to Halifax. The small numbers who remained readily adopted the fellowship of the Anglican Church and the spoken English of the colony and by 1950 could only be separated from the population of British and Irish descent by their Germanic names.
It was only later in life that I came to understand the origins of some of the more uncommon Germanic names in the area; for example, Oickle and VanBuskirk. While the term “Waldeck Line” was still in common use in the 1950s I was completely oblivious to the fact that the then Clementsvale Road, which actually ran in front of our late-1950s family home, had formerly been called “Hessian Line”. Both these names had been appropriated from the German provinces from which the majority of the new settlers had originated. In retrospect I am somewhat saddened by the fact that as a youngster growing up in the community I was not made aware, in a meaningful way, of the detail of this chapter of the community’s life. Such knowledge would not only have enriched my appreciation of the community at that time, but it would have generated a sense of greater inclusivity on my own part, at least during my teenage years, as both my paternal grandmother and paternal great grandmother generate from this cadre of German settlers.
Even though Bear River was only about an hour and a half’s drive from the heart of Nova Scotia’s “French Shore” the Acadian presence had not made its way into the River valley to any significant degree by 1950. The “French Shore” had been settled in the post-American revolution period of the 1780s and 1790s by returning Acadians who had been initially displaced to New England in 1755 and shortly thereafter. The community had thrived in the intervening 175 years but had tended to be somewhat insular, likely prompted by its Francophone and Catholic roots seeking to ensure their cultural survival in the sea of Anglophone Protestantism that was southwestern Nova Scotia. In 1950 there were only two Acadian families in the community, those of brothers Able and Eddie Doucette who had married daughters of Herbert Morine. Identical twins James and John Doucette were a grade behind me during our years at Oakdene School.
In the 1950s the population of the community was predominantly white. There was a small band of Mi’kmaw on the Bear River Reserve but this community was set apart both physically and culturally and was not perceived as a dominant element in shaping the every day lives of the community members in the mid 20th century. Darlene A. Ricker recently captured the history of the Bear River Mi’kmaw in her 1997 publication entitled L’siskuk – The Story of the Bear River Mi’kmaw Community, published by Roseway Publishing.
As well, the community contained two families of Afro Americans – the Hills and the Smiths – whose roots could be traced back to the influx of Loyalists to the area in 1783-1784. The families were active in community life, particularly in respect of their participation in the Baptist Church. In 2005 a monument was erected honoring the tremendous contribution of Harry Hill to the community over some seven decades. Florence L. (Smith) Bauld, a daughter of the village, has described the history of the Black community in Bear River in her 1995 publication: Bear River - Untapped Roots – Moving Upward.
Our little community, because of its really modest economic base, had been of no interest as a point of settlement for displaced Europeans after WW2 – to a great degree it remained a white, Anglo Saxon, protestant enclave into the 1950s. In my experience the first notable penetration of the generally WASP façade in Bear River was the arrival c 1952 of a Dutch farm family recruited to provide assistance on the modernized Chisholm pig farm a couple miles out of town. The family adapted to the ways of the village very quickly, and left an amazing legacy of a windmill tea house, latterly the Board of Trade visitor centre. However, their Dutch accent was my first sign that there was something different beyond the mouth of the Bear River. Later in the mid-1950s a second family, Polish in this case, arrived in the community and made their home not far from the location of my Grandfather Rice’s farm. They left for Upper Canada after only a few short years.
What an enriching shock it would be for me some 9 months after leaving the village to be parachuted into a mining community in the Northern Ontario bush where WASPs were but a small raft of foam in a sea of first generation Ukrainians, Polish, Italians, Portuguese, Germans, Czechoslovakians, and other Europeans. It made me instantly realize that, however comfortable and safe my upbringing had been along the River of the Bear, it had at the same time been highly sheltered and there was so much more to experience.
The Economic Make-Up of the Village:
Historically Bear River’s early economic underpinnings were in the quality and abundance of its readily available natural resources. The quality of the soil in and above the valley of the Bear was reasonably high, and when coupled with the valley’s microclimate made for a reasonable place to grow crops. It was this agricultural potential that attracted its first settlers in the 1760s and 1770s. At the same time the early settlers were quick to realize the potential of the area’s forests, both in the context of their ready availability to provide local building materials as well as to provide products for export. Undoubtedly, the eventual development of the village at its present location was greatly assisted by the fact that the site was the first upstream opportunity on the Bear River that could be reasonably forded at low tide by ground transportation moving between Annapolis and Digby. Its permanency became even more solidified with the emplacement of the first bridge in the early 1800s. These three factors combined to draw attention and people to the locale during the last quarter of the 18th century.
The configuration of the valley of the Bear made it a safe anchorage and its influx of 15-20 feet of tidewater twice daily made it a convenient link between the land and the sea. It was only reasonable that the local inhabitants should capitalize on this connection to provide increasing economic benefits during the 19th century. By the last quarter of that century Bear River had become a significant shipbuilding port on the Nova Scotia coast. It had also become a community significantly involved in international trade, particularly in respect of lumber and other wood products and principally in respect of the eastern seaboard of the US and the adjacent Caribbean. Church’s topographical township maps of Digby and Annapolis counties, published in the 1871 and 1876 respectively, show the location of some 12 saw mills and one grist mill in the village’s zone of general economic influence.
For all intents and purposes the village’s shipbuilding bubble is perceived to have burst around the commencement of the 20th century as ship owners in eastern Canada and the US quickly converted from wooden to metal hulls. At the same time, although perhaps over a more extended period, the village’s involvement in ship-born trade likewise collapsed as local entrepreneurs could not maintain their competitive edge against the financially and technologically more efficient competition from away. It was probably a failed greenfields pulp mill development by the local entrepreneurial Clark Brothers in the early 1920s, located near the Victoria Bridge, which finally pushed the community back into the reality that the good times were over. With the demise of the Clark Brothers leadership in the village economy the community had no choice but to retreat back to its agricultural and lumbering roots, while at the same time attempting to capture some of the growing interest in recreational tourism that was originating out of the Northeastern US.
A summary of the story of the Clark Brother’s Bear River pulp mill can be found in the Bear River Historical Society’s 2001 publication Water Under the Bridge – Bear River, Nova Scotia, 1920-1980 written by Doug Dockrill. That same volume hosts a significant collection of historical photographs of the village.
During WW2 Canada found itself short of training facilities to support its war effort. These circumstances led to the development in 1942 of a training facility, HMCS Cornwallis, on the Annapolis Basin between Deep Brook and Clementsport. By the end of 1946 the facility had been closed, perceived to have outlived its usefulness. However, as governments are wont to do, the government of the day changed its mind and the facility was recommissioned in 1948 as the Canadian Navy’s new-entry training base. That facility became the a significant driver, in fact perhaps the most significant single driver, in the economic health of Bear River and environs post-WW2 and certainly through into the 1960s. It seemed that if you were from Bear River in the 1950s, unless you were retired or ran a store, you worked at “The Base”.
Excepting the retail side of the community, there was little locally generated economic activity in the community during the late 1940s and the 1950s. The early 1950s saw the closure and subsequent dismantling of the former J. H. Cunningham “stave mill”, then owned by US-based International Cooperage Limited, at the Head-of-the-Tide. The Lincoln Pulp and Paper Company likewise gradually diminished its involvement in the area and by the late 1950s had effectively retreated back to the US. Even the American fishing and hunting tourist trade that had supplemented local incomes during the period between the two wars, and continued into the late 1940s, had all but disappeared by the end of the 1950s.
The hydro development on the East Branch had proven to be a small windfall in the early 1950s, and it left a legacy of several new jobs in the community in the form of operators and maintenance workers. Bern Alcorn’s sawmill continued to provide a few seasonal mill and woodlands jobs during the period, and towards 1960 some pulp began moving from the Bear River area to the Mersey pulp mill in Liverpool.
There were a few craftsmen, in particularly carpenters and masons, who contracted their services around the region, often having to go significant distances to reach their work. By the end of the 1950s the call for blacksmiths had shrunk away to a whisper. Only a few farmers, including Fred Read, “milkman” Bruce Read, and Peter McGregor, appeared to be able to make a full time living at their chosen vocation.
Interestingly, by the 1950s Bear River appeared to have severed its connection to the sea. I can recall only two active practioners of a sea trade in the early 1950s: i) Murray Rice worked the ships maintaining the trans-Atlantic cables out of Halifax, and ii) Reg Handspiker intermittently worked the scallop boats out of Digby. Unfortunately the community had lost three of it's young men - Sherman Higgins, 21, son of Curtis and Nora (Oickle) Higgins, and brothers Chipman, 23, and Lloyd, 20, Rice, sons of Robert and Mary Ann (Darres) Rice - with the sinking with all hands of the gypsum carrier Novadoc off Portland, ME on March 3, 1947. This tragedy undoubtedly had a strong effect in the final redirection of the community's vision 'inland', an odd circumstance for a community that only 50 years previous had been so tightly tied to the sea.
Today the economy of the village is to a good deal artisan-based, reflecting the presence of a vibrant arts and crafts community, including the recent development of a mini-winery. This artisan community had its origins with the arrival in the village in the mid 1960s of a number of American draft dodgers. Their legacy grew, adapted, and remains.
The “Commercial” Side of Bear River Village:
The ‘town’, in the vernacular of the local kids, initially would have covered, in my eight year old perspective, the area from, on the west, the foot of the hill by the firehall and the top of the hill by the Grand Central to, on the east, the top of the Oakdene hill where it bifurcated respectively to Bear River East and Waldeck. As my perspective grew broader with age the perspective of the town also grew to include most of the build up area adjacent to the Bear and centered on the Bear River Bridge. It included the Chute Road, the Head-of-the-Tide, the River Road, the “Cross-Roads”, the Bell Road, the Sissiboo Road to perhaps Milford Corner, Exhibition Road, and the Lansdowne hill to the ball field. The phrase “And a river ran through it” so captures the essence of Bear River.
In the early 1950s (more or less) “downtown” Bear River held the following active commercial/institutional enterprises:
On the Digby side:
The Firehall: Constructed by volunteers in the mid-1950s this facility quickly became a center of community life and remains so today.
Louie Bank’s Blacksmith Shop: Louie was still shoeing horses and oxen in the shop in the late 1940s but it was a dwindling business. He did not like to shoe oxen because he saw them as more dangerous than horses; I was surprised. I was always intrigued that an ox
Louie Banks, Allie Harris, Dora Riley, Titus Darres in Front of Louie’s Shop c1941
being shoed was partially lifted off the floor in a canvass sling during shoeing process, at least in part for better control by the blacksmith.
Louie did not mind us visiting occasionally as he pounded red hot metal into useful articles of which horseshoes were his most common design. He made me at least two 'dandelion green diggers' in his forge for which there was no charge. Louie closed the shop and retired in the early 1950s.
George Benson’s Meat Market: George, a member of the community’s former premier shipbuilding family, ran a small butcher shop next to the Campbell Brook bridge on its northwest side. As one would expect he sold other staples from the store as well. I can recall a sense that some people did not like to shop at Georges and it was apparently not a matter of the quality of the meat. He was usually positive when we were seeking bait supplies for our eel fishing expeditions on the adjacent bridge but occasionally he’d tell us “No!” in clearly defined terms. In the late 1940s George had a locally-produced inboard motor boat which he used to take the occasional party out fishing in the Bay of Fundy. On one of these ventures my mother caught a cod about half as long as she was tall.
The Yellow Three Story Apartment Block: A Stewart Darres-owned building, it probably had a name reflecting its former status as a hotel but that is beyond recall. Cal and Marion Ruggles and daughter Gracie lived in the street level apartment and provided a fine service in buying my beer bottles, but not dirty beer bottles, all had to be washed in the river/brook. Allie Harris, known by us kids as ‘Fat Allie’ to separate him from ‘Meat Market Allie,’ and wife Irene and family occupied the upper floor(s) of this building. The family was large with Robert, Patsy, Paula, Kathleen, Dianne, Dorothy and I believe one or two younger yet. Robert was perhaps four years older and my mentor in baseball. I can remember and appreciate him working hard to keep me at it one day after I got a ground ball in the mouth. I have never liked ground balls in the mouth!
Stewart Darres’ Grocery and Feed Store and Pool Hall and Ice Cream Emporium: While I may have made up the name, that’s what he sold. He was perhaps one of the community’s top entrepreneurs in that he was always chasing a buck. I am still not aware how he came to own most of the real estate in the core of the Digby side of town. A bachelor, he lived between the Store and the connected Pool Room, had chickens and ducks out back on the side hill below the store next the brook, occasionally had guinea hens and turkeys, sold ice cream made in a large old fashion ice cream maker that took ice and salt and needed lots of turning, had two Chihuahuas, and had two parrots one of which, Freda, talked a bit. By the time I was eight I’d heard the rumors amongst the kids that Stewart was gay (we used another more pointed descriptor in those days), and by the time I was eight I knew what that meant. If an incident of attempted groping of an 11 year old boy, namely me, is sufficient confirmation, then he was.
The Commercial House Apartment Block: Another Stewart Darres building which had three levels and as many families. At one time, perhaps I was four years of age, I went to Patricia Dukeshire’s birthday on the second floor. Later my father’s brother Dennis and family lived on the bottom floor. This was perhaps the most attractive and well maintained of all of Stewart’s apartment properties.
Percy’s Shoe Repair Shop: While this building was slightly uphill and across from Stewart’s poolroom it was not owned by Stewart Darres but by Thad (short for Thaddeus) Davidson and was adjacent to his house. Percy, from Conway near Digby, occupied the building twice for perhaps a total of two years. He was quiet and unassuming, got along well within the community, and was good at his trade but there simply was not enough work in the village to employ a cobbler full time.
Dr. Brennan’s Office: The good Doctor’s office was set up on the second floor of his large Victorian house on the main street; his wife often worked as receptionist. The couple had three children, with the oldest, Randy, being a few years younger that I. Don sang tenor in the United Church choir and had quite a remarkable voice. The house had previously been occupied by Doctor Black and I can recall quite vividly him occasionally coming next door to our back window (which made for a door during the summer) and passing the time of day. He had a daughter Margaret (Maggie) perhaps four years younger than I, and an even younger son (today a doctor in Digby). The family moved to Digby c 1949. Some 10 years later little Maggie asked me out for the Sadie Hawkins dance at the school and I obliged with the permission of my then girl friend. It was obvious when I stopped to pick Maggie up in the evening that I was ‘persona non grata’ with the good Doc – one could cut the air with a knife. I have always wondered if it was simply him being a protective father in respect of his firstborn, or if it really had to do with some type of class distinction in respect to his perception of the kid from the sticks, namely me. Obviously at the time I was leaning toward the latter hypothesis; latterly I’ve come to realize it may simply have been the former.
Harry Harris’ Taxi Stand: This facility was owned and operated by a gentleman who was winding down from a broadly-based entrepreneurial career in the community; he would in the early 1950s still buy the odd load of wood and resell it. The taxi shop was variously run by his wife Flo, a United Church Choir alto, or daughter Marilee. Frequently on Friday evenings in the summer older son Lawson who, although somewhat handicapped, was of cherry disposition and a friend of all, would sit on the taxi stand steps and broadcast across the west side of the village good old down home fiddle music. Lawson never failed to attend any live country performance in the Oakdene Hall.
The Grand Central Apartment Block: This was another Stewart Darres building and housed three families, described elsewhere, including ourselves. Stewart kept his cattle feed in one of the street level rooms of the building which served as an invitation to the local rodent population and, whenever a broken window appeared, to the local English Sparrow population. My first critical exposure to the glorious flowering bridal wreath shrub was at the bottom of the steps going up to the second floor of this building. One day at noon I was running home from the store with a bottle of catsup when I tripped on the cement deck at the bottom of the stairs – I still bear the scars on my left hand.
Cecil’s Barber Shop: This facility was essentially one room with an entrance off the River Road side of the Grand Central and with internal access to the upstairs apartment where Cecil Morgan lived with his mother. He was the first and only barber to work on my hair until I was in my teens. I got my first exposure to CBC radio in Cecil’s shop, usually classical music after school. In the early years haircuts were $0.25.
The Rice Brothers Taxi Stand: Operated by Bill and Curt Rice this facility occupied most of the street level of the Grand Central. The boys had grown up on the Lake Jolly Road where their father still lived; they were related to my Mother’s family (all the Rices were related!). They were a few years older than my oldest sister but hung around with and eventually married girls from her ‘crowd’. They were involved in two of the three decidedly rare divorces that occurred in the community from the mid-1940s to 1960.
The Telephone Office: This building was north of and separated from the Grand Central by a few feet. It had a shed for fuel on its north side and a cut-block granite retaining wall behind it. It was the center of ‘community communications’ and housed a couple large switch boards which were manned round the clock by a number of young ladies from the community. In the early days all phone calls went through the telephone office and one of their operators; by the late 1950s local calling (four digit numbers) was unassisted by an operator although they were still required to get a caller onto long distance. Full dial service was introduced in 1964.
Rob Yorke’s Theatre: This building was located on the Digby-side on “government” wharf just below the bridge; it was painted dark green, had no windows, and had earlier been named ‘The Green Lantern’ although the kids of my day just called it “The Show Building”. It was owned and operated by Rob and Winnie Yorke, sometimes assisted by son Denzil, daughter-in-law ‘Madie’ and granddaughter Sandy. Movies were shown every Friday and Saturday, and with perhaps a rare Saturday afternoon matinee for a very special kids’ production. My very first remembered movie was a matinee in that building to which I was taken by my mother but I no longer remember its title. I rarely missed a movie during the late 1940s and early 1950s. Unfortunately, for economic reasons the facility was closed by the latter part of the decade.
The BA Garage: This River Road facility was operated by Leland Marshall; it sold “British American” gasoline and oil and did light repairs. Leland’s wife Jo was a good friend of my mother; Leland’s blond daughter Judy was a good friend of mine!
Russell Thibideau’s Garage: Next to the BA garage, this was the place you took a vehicle when heavy repairs were required, particularly trucks and tractors and other ‘different’ stuff. The term ‘grease monkey’ may have originated here! Russell inevitably threw his emptied quart oil cans in the Bear which coursed behind the shop. Our intent was to see how many rocks it took to sink one; the close-in cans were easy, we occasionally lost a distant one to the current. Even as a kid I, for some inexplicable reason, intuitively knew that the waste oil escaping from the empty cans was not a healthy situation for the river.
I believe that attitude may have emanated from my early sensitivity to the dwindling salmon run.
The ‘Sometimes’ Poolroom: I believe this River Road facility was open twice during the timeframe of my memory, and the once, probably the mid-1940s, I recall it as being quite opulent and busy when compared with Stewart’s poolroom. It never seemed to be ably to make it financially. The building was used for storage in the later years of the decade by one of the perhaps three locally-developed entrepreneurs from my generation, Robert “Bobby” Benson.
The Irving Garage: Located kitty-corner to the Yellow Three Storey Apartment Block this was the other commercial garage in town. It was operated by Willis Buckler who was a quiet, ‘let’s get the job done’ type of guy. His wife Thelma Buckler stands out in my mind as a community volunteer of the most positive kind; her daughter Linda, still living in the community, followed in her footsteps. We used to be able to crawl around the perimeter of the garage building under the floor on the 2x6 superstructure, a practice that took on a more daring perspective when the tide was in. Pigeons found the hanging wall area under the building good nesting habitat as well, although when the tide was in it had to be a dangerous launching pad for just-fledged pigeons.
The Post Office: The post office occupied the street level floor of a brown, two storey building across the street from the Grand Central. Hallett and Muriel Banks lived in the apartment above; Muriel clerked for Ralph Harris for years. The post office had two wickets and a sorting table against the wall covered with brown masonite. I got my tongue stuck on the Post Office’s brass door handle one cold winter day; escape came, after drawing a small crowd of anxious onlookers, with only a few lacerations on my tongue. Vernon Harris was the postmaster I first recall; Lawrence “Torney” Henshaw became postmaster during the late 1950s after Vernon’s retirement and carried the responsibility until he retired some three decades later.
Darres’ Brother’s General Store: Formerly the A. B. Marshall store, this facility carried on the tradition and sold groceries, dry goods, and other general merchandize needed by a rural farming community; its main competition was the Bear River Trading Company on the Annapolis side. The store was run by brothers Aaron and Titus Darres and their wives. Aaron lived in the bungalow at the top of the hill just above Stewart Darres’ store; it was in my mind one of the nicest looking and nicest situated homes in the community and had been sited at the location of an early hotel overlooking the commercial district and the Bridge. Titus and family lived down the River Road where he also had a garden and ran a few head of cattle. I helped Titus put in his hay for three seasons during which time he switched from loose hay to bails. For years in the fall one of the Darres’ store windows would be decorated with miniature characters involved in scenes of hunting, of skating on mirror ponds, and of other things denoting the existing or upcoming season. The store was later purchased by Bernie Frazer and was raised by fire in 1971. The replacement building was constructed on fill instead of original “stilts”.
Ralph Harris’ Confectionary: Ralph ran a small confectionary in the mid-town area and lived a bachelor’s life on the floor above. The store held a wide assortment of penny candy and was a favorite haunt of the local kids. Ralph also made his own popsicles using “Freshie” and “Dixie” cups and for years refused to stock any of the ‘real’ kind. His home-mades were a favorite due to the tendency for some the sugar-enriched, flavored syrup to accumulate, unfrozen, at the bottom of the cup. Ralph’s passion was trout fishing and he loved to relate, even to a 10 year old, stories of his guided exploits into to the hinterland to catch the wily brookie. His second passion was photography and he had as well a record of many of those fishing adventures on film. Ralph developed film for local photographers and even made original postcards of the area.
Allie Harris’ Meat Market: Allie tended to be younger than most of the shopkeepers in town, perhaps a full generation younger than most. His store, next the bridge, tended to be sparsely stocked with only the essentials that someone might need to go with a good cut of meat. His shop became a bit of a hangout for some of the young lads of the village with time on their hands and one could often find a good (or not so good) conversation coming from the benches pulled up around the wood stove. Allie had this uncanny ability of being able to add up customers’ monthly bills (Yes, Virginia, there was once a form of non-plasticized credit!), longhand, leaning over his service counter on his elbows, with three other conversations going on in the shop at the same time. Obvious good concentration abilities!
On the Annapolis side:
Derby Jack’s General Store: Derby Jack ran something of an old time general store on the north side of the street just east of the Bridge and across the street from the drug store. It was evident even to an eight year old that he did not get much business, perhaps in part because he was seen to have a somewhat irascible personality which community members tended to avoid, and in part because his merchandize was somewhat aged or out of style. He had been a long time resident and must have at one time had a thriving business. By the end of the 1950s the building had been taken over by “Bobby” Benson from which for a number of years he ran Bear River Home Furnishings, one of his many retail ventures.
L. V. Harris’ Drug Store: Our pharmacist who dispensed all the medicines to keep a rural Nova Scotia community healthy in the 1940s and 1950s; one of the few post Secondary-school, formally educated individuals in the community. L. V. was a smaller, quiet man whose store likewise sold, among other things, Pot-O-Gold chocolates, perfume and grooming needs, comic books, cameras and film, and yes, as the photo above depicts, laxative. Until recently viewing the above photo I never appreciated the irony in the unintentional heavy emphasis on laxative at the door to our local rural pharmacy, even though it was once casually pointed out to me as a kid by someone from away! Goldie Henderson and Edith Woodworth worked in the store forever. L. V. lived in the green house facing the upper basin of the river just below the hill across from the drug store. I always believed that when the tide was full that that home had perhaps the nicest prospect in the village.
My Aunt Vera Riley in the Doorway to L. V. Harris’ Drug Store c1940
(Note the prominent copious advertisements for Ex-Lax!)
McCormick’s Ice Cream Parlor: This facility had been a recent addition to the commercial section of the community, opening up in a main street store front that had long been abandoned. It also sold gifts and other sundries with large mark-ups to help support the kid-catering section. Ira’s sister-in-law, low key and friendly Alice Frude, looked after the shop when Ira and wife Marion were at their day jobs at ‘The Base’. It was during this period of the mid-1950s that Marion, unknown to most in the community, was undertaking her definitive research on the Nova Scotia Rice family. In the early 1950s the Willard Parker family lived above this store and, because we were close neighbours, I had considerable interaction with children Billy, Pattie, Jimmy, and Joey. They later moved up on the Clementsvale Road in a house situated a couple hundred yards from the commencement of the Bear River hill; the family left the community by about 1956.
The Masonic Lodge: The Masons owned the next building on the street but the store front section was not occupied during the late-1940s and 1950s. The Masonic hall was entered from a side door off the alley. As kids we were never quite sure what went on inside; that circumstance still holds for me as an adult. Chester Kaulback rented space from the Masons for the initial version of his barbershop; I believe the Women’s Institute held meetings therein during the 1950s.
The Legion Hall: This building, purchased from the Lincoln Pulp and Paper Company c 1948, had an auditorium upstairs where meetings were held, a large usually unused main room downstairs, a shooting gallery off the back, and a separate, rather sparsely decorated, smoky poker room off the side. The shooting range had been constructed in the late 1940s by a number of returned veterans, my father included. My father did the janitor work for the Legion as part of the cost of rent for the storefront which housed his watch repair business.
A. E. Riley Watch Repair: A rented store front section of the Legion Hall contained my father’s watch repair shop which often substituted as the community ‘Story Tellers Club’! It accommodated a diverse group of story tellers who tried on an ongoing basis to see who could succeed in laying out the most believable story. Kids and adults hung around for the entertainment. My father’s best watch repair work was done between 5.30 am and 7 am before the first visitors of the day (not customers) would arrive.
Lincoln Pulp and Paper Company Office and Rooming House: The building downstairs contained the company’s Nova Scotia office which did enough business that it hired occasional secretarial skills from within the community. Upstairs the building housed bachelor’s quarters consisting of a kitchen, a bathroom, and two or three bedrooms used to house out-of-town employees during the week, and a couple of guys on a more permanent basis. The Lincoln’s mechanic Aubrey Young was one of the more permanent residents. Behind the office there was a garage, a couple other small non-maintained storage buildings, a large barn cum storage facility, a dilapidating tug moved in from Lake Jolly, and a large deteriorating wharf system. “The Lincolns” owned a significant amount of waterfront property downstream from the bridge.
The Bear River Trading Company - General Merchants: The community’s second general store, in competition with Darres Brothers and containing both a dry goods and a grocery section. The business derived from the Clark brothers who had initiated and maintained for several decades a great history of sailing ship trade down the east coast of the US and into the West Indies. At one point my family occupied the apartment above the store.
Harry Purdy’s Blacksmith Shop: This business was located in a rather old building sited on the river bank behind the Trading Company; it was operated intermittently by the brother of Ralph Purdy who owned the Trading Company. The building was leveled in August of 1950 by the still-forceful remnants of Hurricane Able and was cleaned up the following spring; its proprietor retired.
The Royal Bank of Canada: The RBC was housed in the IOOF building with the cenotaph commemorating WWI outside on the little patch of adjoining lawn. The bank was decorated in blond oak, and the tellers, of which my sister was one, worked out of “cages”. It was somewhat of a formal place but not overbearingly so. Mr. Snow was the first manager I remember; I took him up the East Branch fishing one afternoon c 1953 after the river had been turned off by the power development. He caught nothing but because he could see the trout lying in the pools, he never blamed the guide! Mr. Purvis replaced him subsequent to his retirement c 1954. After I left the community the bank was relocated down the River Road to the former gravel pit above Bern Alcorn’s mill. It became the focus of an armed robbery in the 1980s.
The IOOF Hall: The IOOF building was situated on the main street adjacent to the bridge over Charlie’s Brook across the road from the Trading Company. The hall was above some commercial establishments, including the bank, and I believe I recall it had had an associated kitchen. My mother and sister belonged to the Rebecca Lodge.
The Smart Hat Shoppe: I have to give Olive Barr, and her mother Annie who helped her in the shop (or perhaps it was vice versa), much credit for trying to operate an upscale lady’s fashion shop in a middle class farming/logging community in 1950. It was obviously a tough go but they persisted into the mid 1950s. I suspect they may have been at least in part driven by memories of the early part of the century. They were pleasant and engaging ladies and for several years I cut and removed the grass on Mrs. Barr’s front hillside with a scythe (too steep and rough for a lawnmower).
Chester Kaulbach’s Barber Shop: Chester’s shop was across from the IOOF hall. It was constructed, probably c 1952, of cinder block and was painted an out-of-place, at least to my mind, light green. Chester, when compared to his cross town commercial rival, was somewhat of a more expansive individual, but it was an expansiveness that tended to grate on one occasionally. His shop was open on a regular basis but only on selected hours as he also ran the adjacent guest house. He was a strong adherent to the Baptist persuasion, but even we kids could see the occasional concession in principle to his commercial side.
Kaulbach’s Guest House: This facility was a large rambling Victorian house converted to a Guest House. It catered to American tourists in the summer and in the winter might do a small amount of business with dinners and overnight guests. I believe Mrs. Kaulbach was the effective manager of this establishment. For several weeks two summers running it hosted a Jewish family from New York City who had a son about our age. While we indoctrinated the young lad into the joys and perils of rural small town Nova Scotia we had to be careful because his mother was a bit over protective. I always perceived that the “pet” metal lobster he carried in his pocket and had named “Lobby” to be a bit of a strange quirk. Also two years running the Guest House hosted a blind American preacher in town for a several-day series of ‘meetings’ at the Baptist Church. For what ever reason Chester recruited me to be the eyes of the preacher for those few days, and while I found the closeness to be a bit intimidating at first I believe I got the job done well enough. At least they asked me back for year two! I never did understand why he could not find a good Baptist to undertake the job; perhaps it was a subtle attempt to capture one of the competition!
Allan Parker and Gary Gesner on their way to Oakdene after Lunch c1953
Visible on the left: Derby Jack’s store, McCormick’s Ice Cream Parlor, the Legion, the Lincoln office, and behind the Oak Tree, Kaulbach’s Guest House; the Trading Company is on the right
Fred Harris Insurance: Mr. Harris, a bass in the United Church choir but of intermittent attendance at that stage of his life in the mid-1950s, operated an insurance business out of his large, well appointed, three-story Victorian home next to the IOOF hall. He was a short, sturdy little man who was always (well, at least when on display) in a jacket and tie, often with a vest. The family had obviously been a member of the social elite in an earlier time and he was not about to let that perception and its associated lifestyle change. He and the insurance business made a good partnership. I did the odd bit of yard work for the Harrises.
The United Church: Separated from the Guest House by the Mal Parker and Mrs. Roman’s residences, this church, the largest in town, was sited near the lower end of the Oakdene Hill on the north side of the street. Its lower level was constructed of large grey granite blocks over which I kept trying to grow a relatively hardy, but not quite hardy enough, English ivy.
Charlie Balser’s Sawmill: This facility was set across the street from the United Church on a large piece of property, in the centre of which Charlie built a new house in the late 1940s. The mill was still water-driven (may have also had some electrical capacity) and was only occasionally used to custom saw large white pine or other species. Charlie was a man of many “trades” and the property contained evidence of many undertakings, some of which were never quite completed. One of the older buildings on the property had once been used as a stable to house horses and wagons while the owners were at the church service across the street. The Balsers had the only quince bushes in the community that I can recall. I was always frustrated that quinces were not really palatable in their raw state.
The Oakdene School: This building was separated from the United Church by Walter Wright’s house, earlier owned by John Yorke. The original school had been constructed on that site in 1895 but it had been destroyed by fire in early January of 1934. The building present in 1950 was reconstructed on site later in 1934 with students moving in on schedule in September. The school was closed in 1993 and now serves as a community center for arts and crafts.
The Anglican Church: The Anglican Church was situated on the next lot uphill from Oakdene School. It was originally constructed on this site in 1833 but was destroyed by the same fire that consumed the school in 1934. Like Oakdene School the Anglican Church of the 1950s was a relatively new structure and quite attractive, although somewhat formal, inside. Its surroundings of a number of large stately white oak trees provided a special and attractive background for this place of worship and its adjacent myrtle-carpeted graveyard.
The above sets out the main commercial operations of the core of the village in 1950.
Commercial enterprises existing elsewhere outside this main hub consisted of a second guest house at the beginning of the Chute Road, latterly operated by Allison and Fern Denton; a dairy further along the Chute Road run by Bruce Read; Frank Parker’s blacksmith shop on the Bell Road; Sally Rice's hair dressing salon in her home a few doors north of the Advent Church, and for a short time housed on the lower floor of the IOOF hall; Clayton Harris’ store at the Head-of-the-Tide; the MacDormand/Dunn carpenter shop straddling Campbell Brook where it crossed the Sissiboo Road; Bern Alcorn’s sawmill on a point on the River about a half mile north of the Bridge; and Roger Potter’s taxi business operating from his home near the Baptist Church. At one time Roger had an imported Austin Minor as a taxi and it contained the first turn signal that I ever saw. I say contained because they were lighted arms about eight inches long that when engaged pivoted out of a slot in the car’s body behind the front doors. The Baptist Church was sited partway up the hill on the way to Exhibition Road; the Advent Christian Church on the road to the Head-of-the-Tide on the Digby side, and the Catholic Church on the Mi’kmaw Reserve immediately south of the Head-of-the-Tide.
In the late 1940s the former J. H. Cunningham mill, designed to make barrel staves from poplar logs and sited on the West Branch immediately above the bridge at its confluence with the East Branch, was still operating; it closed in the early 1950s. The odor of those fresh poplar staves was both strong and unique and I am still reminded of the Bear River stave mill every time I pass an operating poplar sawmill or panel plant even today. By the late 1950s the mill building had been removed and the area converted to a community swimming hole c 1961. Unfortunately the community swimming hole eventually ran afoul of health regulations and was abandoned.
The Family Unit
The composition of the family unit in which I grew up changed over time. For my initial five years it was fatherless, my father being tied into the war effort in Europe with the RCAF. At that time it consisted of me, my mother, and three half-siblings from my mother’s first marriage. Their ages ranged from 12 to 15 in 1942 when I was born and they, particularly the two girls, acted much like surrogate parents.
From about 1946 when my father returned from the service until c 1949 when my brother “Rusty” joined the post-WW2 RCAF the household was made up of six individuals. At about the same time younger sister Thelma moved to Digby for reasons of employment. A year or so later older sister Shirley, who had been working at the local bank, got married and moved out. Thelma did reappear for about three years in the late 1950s when she commuted from Bear River to her job in Digby; she turned out to be good company for our mother at that time. She in 1959, like so many other Nova Scotians of the day, eventually moved west to Ontario where she saw better prospects.
My mother was Seretha “Dora” Rice, the sixth child and youngest daughter of the 8 sibling family of Forman and Hannah (Sherriff) Rice of Bear River, NS. Forman had been born in Bear River in 1868; Hannah in Caledonia, Queens Co in the same year. The family lived on a farm in Digby County about two and a half miles from town on the west side of the Morganville Road between Milford Corner and Morganville. Dora was born at home in 1906 and died in Bridgetown, NS in 1994. She attended a one room school at Milford Corner and later boarded in Bear River to attend school where she achieved the 10th grade.
In her late teens she ventured to Saint John to learn the seamstress trade. While there she also became engaged in what today we would call a part-time nanny position to help make ends meet. Circumstances would suggest that she was likely employed by the Leo Krant family, which family is recorded living in Saint John in 1921. Leo was a German-born businessman, initially out of New York City and then Toronto, ON and Montreal, QC; the Saint John move was likely precipitated to reduce the traveling distance to clients in NYC. Leo's wife died in early 1926 and, after what must have been a whirlwind courtship, Seretha Dora married 40-year-old recent widower Leo Krant in Montreal. Very shortly after marriage the couple immigrated into northern New York State where they proceeded to have three children in the Albany area - Shirley in 1927, Clyde (later to be nicknamed “Rusty” because of his dark red hair) in 1928, and Thelma after the onset of the Great Depression in 1930. Unfortunately Leo’s son from his first marriage, very close to his new stepmother in age, never accepted his father’s second marriage, perhaps in part because he and his sister continued to live with his maternal grandparents and apart from his father. The younger daughter from the first marriage apparently did try to establish a relationship with her young stepsiblings but the relationship apparently failed over the longer term because of the influence of the brother.
On May 16, 1933 Leo Krant died in upstate Watertown, New York of a heart attack at 47 years of age. The result of this tragedy was that 27 year old Seretha Dora and her three children were essentially left destitute. Dora managed to somehow get herself and the children to her sister’s home in Detroit where she spent several months amassing the funds to get her family back to Nova Scotia, a feat eventually accomplished in late 1934 by train and ferry via Boston.
Dora’s first priority in arriving back in Nova Scotia was the massive task of getting her family’s life stabilized again. During the early period the kids, then 7, 6, and 4, were redistributed within the community for the summer, wherever a warm heart and a soft bed could be found, so to allow Dora to engage in gainful employment as a waitress at a Digby hotel. Rusty spent most of those summers at his grandparents on the farm, and the girls were accommodated, usually separately, by various individuals elsewhere in the community; the first summer all three stayed with their Aunt Beulah in Digby. Thelma spent some time at Dora Nichols where daughter Helen was about the same age. In my time husband Harold “Nick” Nichols, the community’s local milk delivery man for Digby Dairies, was one of my landscaping clients. He insisted that instead of using a gas rotary mower on his lawn that I use his cast-iron push mower. It was probably the best, and sharpest, push mower I ever had the pleasure of using, but secretly I was always afraid I was going to run into a rock and bust the thing beyond repair.
My mother’s prime focus of employment during the 1930s was The Pines Hotel in Digby. It was CNR-owned and seasonally operated and its focus was catering to wealthy Americans who would come to NS for anywhere from a week to the full summer season. Dora was a waitress, and obviously a reasonably good one to continue there for at least a half decade. I can still recall her giving first me, and then her two granddaughters, instruction on how to set a table. I have not forgotten.
She did a couple stints serving tables in the CN hotel in Montreal on the shoulder seasons. Her predominant winter employment was doing housework for a small cadre of local ladies for a dollar a day, judged then to be reasonably good remuneration, and some sewing at which she was quite talented. The main point to be made here is that as a young widow in the late 1930s she managed to make a living for herself and her family and at the same time keep her family reasonably together. A tough task at best!
Interestingly, she never mentioned to me the circumstances of her first marriage until after I had gone away to University and then only incidentally. Much of the detail I acquired from her daughters after her death. While she had good reason to be bitter about the treatment received from her Jewish in-laws, it was never evident to me, even when I came home one fall with a high school girlfriend in tow who had Jewish roots and with whom I maintained a reasonably close relationship for at least 18 months. I have often wondered what the nature of my high school relationship might have been had I known of my mother’s history at that time.
My mother married my father in Quebec City in October of 1941 and I appeared on the scene some six (yes, six!) months later. My father was at that time in Quebec with the RCAF preparing for transfer overseas. I have one poor quality photograph of my father in uniform with my mother in Virginia East with some of my father’s family; I would guess it was taken in the late fall of 1941, probably when he was on leave before his overseas posting. It is my understanding that the couple was not together again until he arrived back in Bear River from overseas in late 1945.
My mother did not return to seasonal waitressing work in 1942, given my arrival and a source of regular income from Alban’s overseas salary. The war years were spent in getting her teenage children off on the right foot while at the same time raising a new son. Fortunately she had found the inner strength to cope in her years as a single mother and the war years simply meant a continuation of that process but with the added security of a regular pay cheque. My father finally returned home after discharge from the RCAF in early 1946. He had spent Xmas of 1945 with the family in Bear River as his last posting was at a small airdrome at Penfield, New Brunswick, not far from Saint Andrews. On the summer Sunday in 1962, some 16 years later, and completely by chance, I visited that same airstrip, then reduced to a short paved runway with no other infrastructure, and turned down my first and only offer from some of the locals for a skydiving opportunity. I have never regretted that decision.
It was early evident to me in some sort of intuitive way that my mother was gently perceived as something of an outsider in the social life of the community, probably a reflection of her years as a struggling single mother, not a good thing to be in 1940s rural Nova Scotia. Over the years she quietly worked hard seeking acceptance and by the end of the 1950s had, through participation in such things as the Legion Ladies Auxiliary, the Rebecca Lodge, the United Church, the Women’s Institute, and general volunteering on other committees, created a niche in the community and a small circle of women friends. Most of those hard-won friendships remained throughout her later years except where separated by moving or death. Interestingly, as a senior citizen her circle of friends expanded to include some representatives of the community’s ‘old families’, individuals who in the 1940s and 1950s would not, because of social stratification in the community, have sought out contact with her. In her later years the senior’s club, The New Horizons, which brought together most of the ladies and a few of the gentlemen of her generation, was a favored focus.
The Depression had been hard on my mother and the habits she had developed from struggling to survive during the 1930s were never far from the surface. She cheerily made do with what she had; the stove in her kitchen in 1990 was a wood range the design of which came from the 1920s and the actual model from the 1950s; her washer was of the wringer variety, and I believe the one in the house in 1990 had been acquired in the 1950s. She saved stuff – brown paper, string, tacks, kraft paper bags, plastic bags, odd water glasses and coffee mugs, stuff that might come in handy some day in the future. Her clothes were functional, never opulent, and as long as they continued to fit, generally continued in service until they showed some evidence of wear. Possessions were looked after, kept clean, maintained, for it was never certain if they could ever be replaced. There is a certain bit of that Depression mentality that seeped into her offspring, even this youngest one.
After marrying my father my mother never worked out of the home. She was however an accomplished seamstress and took on occasional contract sewing projects to produce various and sundry garments for local townsfolk, including wedding dresses of which my wife’s ‘long distance dress’ is but one excellent example. One of her passions during the 1950s was to participate with a couple other local ladies of the Women’s’ Institute in putting together the Bear River social news for the weekly Digby Courier. It consisted of who was visiting town, who had been out of town visiting, who played cards at whose house on Saturday night, and the like. Because we lived at a central ‘downtown’ location, when I got home for lunch on Mondays I could always count on the “Courier ladies” being at our apartment consolidating the weekend’s latest events (some would say gossip) to meet the Tuesday deadline. Inevitably Monday lunch for me would consist of Saturday night’s leftover baked beans and newly boiled potatoes; even at that age I was not impressed!
Speaking of food, my mother was not a good cook! She was not partial to the pastime and as a result lacked the creativity that separates the heroes from the also-rans; she was also not particularly concerned about her reputation in that regard. For her, cooking was a necessity and not a labor of love. The fact that she had a husband who survived mainly on bread and tea, and a son who had rather pedestrian tastes and would eat almost anything (excepting, at that time, celery and olives) probably did not help. She did have a community reputation for making good donuts and she baked her own bread which my father tended to wolf down at the rate of a loaf every couple days. I have never been big on bread.
I also credit her with making good chocolate-coconut-oatmeal drop cookies and a rare grape catsup which was soooo good on venison. Other than salt and pepper, spices and garnishes were something seen only in magazines and never introduced to the table. You can understand why I was one of the few who thought that institutional cooking at university was ‘some nice!’ (One of my few remaining occasional Nova Scotia-isms!). You can also imaging my delight and surprise when in 1961, within 14 months of leaving home, I was exposed to my future Ukrainian mother-in-law who loved to cook and who introduced me to a whole new palate of central European spices and sauces, and new dishes which I had never before experienced. I’m still easy to please in a culinary sense but I am so easily captured by rosemary, and chili, and saffron, and curry, and garlic and …
My mother had only a few recreational pastimes. She enjoyed reading, both fiction and non-fiction, at one point in her life – during the Mary Maxim heyday – she got quite involved in knitting, she was an avid cross-word puzzle fan and quite good at it. She was proud of the rock garden established at the home on the Chute Hill but it quickly became too much for her to handle physically. I can recall seeing her one morning in late spring after she had spent the evening out in that garden; her eyes were still swollen shut from having been attacked by black flies. She had been aware that she had some allergy to their bites but not to the extent perpetrated by them that evening. The favorite flower in her garden was the white “Easter” lily; a catalpa that she raised from seed personally collected in Hamilton was her most prized tree.
She had apparently smoked before I was born but appears to have taken a break from the habit until after I left home. She was never a heavy smoker, perhaps a pack every two or three days. She for all intents and purposes never consumed alcohol. I do recall finding a couple bottles of stout in the fridge when I returned home for a visit. It was quickly explained that it had been prescribed by the doctor – one half bottle a day – as a means of helping to maintain her weight, something she definitely needed to do! I recall several years previous being given the same rationale for a supply of stout by another older lady in the community so I was not surprised. The other lady, however, confided in me that she had a side challenge with her store of stout – how to keep it hidden from her binge-drinking son-in-law.
My relationship with my mother was respectful but not close. I early became a successful student and enjoyed academics; school and learning was something that came to me naturally. I suspect good marks tended to make me somewhat cocky and by the time I was a young teenager I had developed the attitude that I was my mother’s intellectual superior; and while I may have been quicker on the draw in answering history questions I, as most youth, didn’t even understand that I lacked my mother’s wisdom born of surviving in a world that had been less than kind for some decades. In my early years my mother set enough rules to keep me out of danger but as I grew older many of the rules relaxed and I was left to fend for myself, often for the full day. It was critical that I show up at 5 pm for supper or at least check in so she would know where I was. My mother loyally attended all my school concerts. We were not buddies, and did not share the messages of the heart and of the soul.
My father, Alban Ernest Riley, was the sixth child and the third son of John P. Riley and Alice Trimper who raised a family of some ten children in Virginia East, Annapolis County, some eight miles northeast of Bear River. John P was born in Bear River East in 1880 and Alice in Clementsvale in 1879. My grandfather did some farming, some lumbering, and, like so many of his neighbours, hired out when the opportunity arose. Alban was born at home 1913 and died in Middleton in 1990.
The family put in a garden, kept a cow which eventually produced a team of oxen as well as milk, and raised a couple pigs for the winter. Table meat often consisted of venison which the boys would harvest in the orchard across the road. I never got the impression the Depression per se had had much of a specific effect on my father, and certainly not the effect it had on my single-parent mother. It is my assumption that the Depression was simply an extension of his pre-Depression life of living poor in rural Nova Scotia.
My father successfully made it to grade eight in the local one room school after which time he left to go to work and help support the growing family. He hired out to local farmers and worked in the woods, often walking several miles on the weekend to and from the job. He was good with his hands and even as a young man found work designing, carving, and fitting oxen yokes. He carried that handiness into his adult life using it to fix watches and clocks, a skill which he developed while in the Air Force and successfully raised to the level of a vocation to provide for his family. At one point in the late 1940s-early 1950s he became intensely involved in gun-smithing to the point where he had to consciously retreat from the passion as it simply distracted him too much from his watch repair work. He could do carpenter work but would never have been described as a finishing carpenter, a handle applied to and deserved by older brother DuVernet, one of the best in the area. He never had any interest in cars or trucks except as a means of transportation.
He had an interest in sports but not of the football and hockey variety. He was an avid fly fisherman for brook trout and that sport occupied most of his Sundays, his only day off in summer as the town worked Saturday’s from April to September through the 1940’ and 1950s. Occasionally Wednesday afternoon would see him out fishing as well if conditions were good. He eventually bought a canoe which he hauled with him to allow better access to his favorite fishing holes. He could not swim and my mother was never comfortable with him partnering up with a buddy in the canoe (he upset twice with partners); however, she early on learned to live with it without comment.
I recall him hunting in the late 1940s but for the most part he gave up the sport by the early 1950s when the local deer heard collapsed. In the late 1940s he was much involved in the installation of an indoor shooting range on the back of the Legion building. After its installation he as part of a cadre of mostly veterans became engrossed in the formal shooting experience and worked to obtain their various badges of merit from the Dominion Rifle Association. By 1955 that sport was all but abandoned by the village. During my last couple years of high school he was convinced by a couple of buddies to take up golf. This he did intensively for a few years and then he abandoned it as quickly as he had started.
He, along with my mother, actively supported the early-1950s Bear River Blue Sox baseball team which for about a four year period was involved in Provincial and Maritime play downs for supremacy in what at that time was called senior baseball. The team played strictly for fun and consisted of primarily locals across a rather wide age spectrum to include some vets as well as some kids just out of high school. But they for some reason melded as a team and got good at what they did. It was a great four year ride as well for those of us who watched.
My father also enjoyed gardening and from 1953 until after I left for University he maintained a vegetable garden. Since he had a tendency to give most of the produce away to members of the community his interest was probably locked to his involvement in gardening as a kid and the fact that it gave him an opportunity to get out ‘on the land’ in the spring. I was assigned weeding duties in his first garden at the Earn Davis house and although I was not required to weed during high school, this exposure allowed me as well to become infused with a love of gardening. As a result I have carried my own vegetable patch, and a few flower patches, for the past 35 years.
One of his other favorite pastimes was playing cards – nickel-dime poker and cribbage at a penny a point. He initially secured his watch repair shop via rental of a spare room in the Legion Hall which had direct access to the street. Behind that shop, via another door, was “The Poker Den”. It was the focus of a host of regulars, mainly Legion members, every Saturday night. Occasionally there would be a game on Wednesday afternoon but those tended to be more relaxing affairs than the Saturday night versions. My father would normally join these sessions shortly after 9 pm on Saturday when he closed his shop. They would usually break-up by 12 pm, and rarely would they go beyond 1 am. While gambling was illegal in Nova Scotia that particular institution was never to my knowledge raided by the Mounties, although its presence was well known.
In that regard it was well enough known to be attended by the “Tambourine Lady” from the Salvation Army on those Saturday nights in summer when the Digby-based Sally-Ann Band played on the local street corner for an hour or so and then took up a collection to assist in their work. The Legion members had been so impressed with the conduct of the Salvation Army in assisting the war effort, both on the home front and on the Continent, that the Tambourine Lady never failed to come away with a hefty contribution to the cause. After retirement my father established his workshop as the local card room and there was not a week that would go by, except in really bad winter weather when our steep driveway would become impassible, that one could not find a card game at Riley’s.
My father’s favorite past time was talking! In fact that was the favorite pastime of most of his siblings (his two older brother being an exception) and even some of his nieces and nephews (not his son of course!). Because his shop was readily accessible on the main street, and because he arrived at work by 5.30 am and stayed until 5 pm most days, and because he loved to talk, the shop became a place to hang out for a number of the locals. And he told stories and he told lies to young and old alike. The kids loved him. He was christened “Gabby” and carried the moniker for 25 years until he retired. His passion was to convince someone that he was correct on what ever subject, usually of his choice, even though he often had little sound knowledge of the subject matter. In later years he taped many of his stories at the request of local kids. I have recently managed to salvage some of those stories from their deteriorating tapes and have transcribed them to CD and the Internet.
He was quite an avid reader, focusing on information rather than fiction. Somehow, probably via helping some kid who was selling magazine subscriptions, he got into Psychology Today and stayed with the magazine for 20 years. Reader’s Digest was a second favorite, particularly since it made a convenient Xmas gift. He also unabashedly read my comics, and later those of his granddaughters. He also watched a significant amount of TV, primarily comedies, variety shows, and perhaps light drama. The CBC program Hymn Sing was a favorite and I’ve always speculated that along with the memories of his youth rekindled by some of the music he also enjoyed the wholesome young female singers promoted through the program.
While he garnered much information on a bunch of esoteric things from reading, from TV and from others he talked to, he was particularly interested in the natural world and its associated science. Not infrequently he often either missed some of the detail associated with the item, or conversely, did not have a sufficient breadth of knowledge to add context to any further discussion he might generate on the theme. It was not uncommon in my teenage years and later to hear him expounding on topic “X”, properly focused on a number of threads that had originally caught his attention, but making up any necessary detail or context required to make his dissertation appear both fully informational and enjoyable. He tended to embellish!
My father had begun chewing tobacco before he was a teenager. He carried the habit throughout most of his life, and one of my kids’ favorite presents for Grampy was Red Indian chewing tobacco – it was both easy and appreciated. At home while in the house he inevitably spit in the wood range; at his workshop in a small bucket that served as a spittoon. The habit did not take on, at least to me, the negative connotation that is usually ascribed to it. He smoked a pipe for a few years after returning from overseas, at first a straight stem and a picture I have of him in uniform in 1941 with a pipe in his mouth suggests he thought it looked pretty cool. By the late 1940s he had converted to a crooked stemmed pipe, probably because of its looks, but appeared to abandon the habit by the mid 1950s. He did drink a bit but he had a “bad stomach” and hard liquor did not sit well with him. I can only remember seeing him inebriated once – and that was Xmas eve in 1954.
I had been hanging around town in the afternoon and decided I catch a ride home with him rather that walk. It was obvious when I arrived at the shop that he and a couple of the guys had been drinking but I could not measure the state of his constitution. So I got in the truck and we set off across town and up the hill. He was obviously happy, waving at a number of people on the street, but by the time we reached the other side of town I knew he should not be driving. My only possible course of action was to cross my fingers and hold on. We eventually made it in our driveway without incident but I have never been more frightened in a vehicle. In later years there was always a case of beer in the shed in case the card players got thirsty but moderation tended to be the order of the day.
He was a member of the Royal Canadian Legion. The only other organization to which he belonged was the Bear River Volunteer Fire Department which got reorganized and reequipped in the early 1950s. The fire department early on took over the running of the annual Cherry Carnival designed to celebrate the harvest of the community’s abundance of cherry trees so successfully established in our protected valley before the turn of the century. The 1950s saw the last vestiges of the trees which had been wiped out by a parasite and I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to climb some of those last remaining and consume fruit to overflowing. He quit the Fire department cold, as he did a number of other things in his life, in the early 1960s – “I’ve put in my time!” The resignation may have resulted from a dispute within the membership – he would have never said – and he simply got his stubborn streak up and quit.
My relationship with my father was never one of closeness. He married late at 28 and immediately went to Europe. When he returned to the family in 1946 his son, who he did not know, was now four years of age and a person of his own. He had no previous experience with children and had no progressive experience in raising this one to that point in time. He tended to be a no-nonsense parent – things that got out on the table were always black or white – there were no shades of grey and no discussion or debate around a topic. As a result I never volunteered topics for discussion or debate so as not to get an undesired answer. And this appeared to work quite well.
As mentioned above there were few rules – be home at 5 pm for supper (primarily so my mother knew I was OK), and during the early teenage years be home by midnight. There were a couple other older kids my mother did not want me to associate with, and which to a great degree I did not, but not because it was not allowed but because I did not particularly want to do so. I could also not hang around town on Sunday (which was not very desirable in any event) but I could go through it to get to a fishing hole. The River and the associated brooks were a natural focus for a kid and I was never prohibited from hanging around them, and the associated wharves, even before I learned to swim at 11 years of age. In retrospect the attitude, probably initiated by my father, appeared to be “Let him go and trust he’ll look after himself because we can’t follow him around all day”! It did lead to a significant level of independence. On the matter of the danger of the tide and the wharves, during my formative years we only lost one individual to drowning, one of my best teenage friends drowned one June afternoon off the Bridge in the middle of town while swimming with a group on the high tide.
The one difficulty I can remember getting into, given all this freedom, went something as follows:
Allan “Ikey” Parker and I, both probably in our eighth year, often caught rides with local truck drivers we knew from the community who were going back into the woods to haul out logs. A round trip would take perhaps three hours and the logs would be delivered to Alcorn’s mill or the pulpwood to the storage area behind the Lincoln Pulp and Paper Company. One summer day we caught a lift with Don Ruggles who was hauling wood to the wharf in Digby, some 11 miles away. So we took a trip to Digby which was a bit out of the ordinary. We knew our driver was going to make two more trips so we cooked up a scheme to stop in Digby and visit around while he went back for his third load. Perhaps, I suggested, we could take in a movie. So when we arrived in Digby with the second load our driver let us out (not really a good move on his part!) and indicated he pick us up at that same spot at about 4 pm. Unfortunately there was no matinee show mid week so we wondered around town, visiting Steadman’s Store and other interesting venues while killing time. Then I suggested we should go and see my sister Thelma who was working at Wright’s Dry Goods. When she saw us walk into that store that was just about the time the fan started to turn a brindle-brown color.
Her first assumption was that we had run away from home; there was simply no opportunity to get in the good word that we had our afternoon well in hand and would be home in time for supper. Telephone calls were made and finally, by cab I believe, the “runaways” were set back to face their punishment. I remember some distraught mother when I got home and a couple lectures never to do that again. I believe our willing driver Don also got a dressing down by some rather perturbed parents and as a result he would never take us on a trip afterward. Now if I had only been smart enough not to pay my sister a friendly brotherly visit….!
My father rarely traveled anywhere other than to fishing opportunities. He excuse was that he had traveled enough during WW2 and that he had no interest in doing it anymore. I can recall two trips to Halifax to get his accreditation to repair watched and clocks c 1948. His next significant trip, some 22 years later, was to Fredericton, NB when he accompanied Rusty and step grandson James to James’ first day of university at UNB. I recall inviting him to Ontario to my wedding with absolutely no expectation he would come. My mother came.
There was some early post-war interaction of our family with some of the members of his family. I can recall weekend trips, some overnight and some simply day trips, with transportation by taxi to Virginia East. The visit would generally be focused on his brother Walton and wife Ede with interaction with sister Ora and family and brother DuVernet and family, both of whom lived near at hand. My grandfather was still alive at that time but I have no recollection of ever meeting him, if ever I did. Those visits came to a stop with Walton’s death in 1953. As for his sister Esther and younger brother Dennis in Bear River, there was little formal interaction at a family level after say 1950, although both he and my mother had individual contact. The Riley clan was not a close-knit family!
My Parents the Couple:
It was an interesting relationship, one that even at an early age I knew was different from those of my friends’ parents.
My father hardly said more than two words at home, at least in my presence. I had heard him claim that was because he was simply exhausted from all the communication he pursued at work, and I suspect that had some validity, but more so I believe that, beyond sharing the house and the responsibilities of a home, the two of them lived very different lives. My father was simply not prepared to spend the time to bring my mother up to speed on the many topics of the day that he would discuss while at the shop. I have often wondered how much that might have been generated by his spending his first four years of marriage overseas; I came eventually to believe it had more to do with his personality than his history.
They never socialized together either in going out as a couple or in having people in to visit. Very occasionally some distant relative or couple might drop in to say hello on passing through the community but there was never any planned socializing. And when someone did drop in my father would enter into his ‘shop mode’, take control of the conversation, and be off. My mother would occasionally make comments about the veracity of something he was saying, usually in correction and in part to ensure that the listener did not go away with the impression that all present in the household subscribed to the details of the thesis being put forward. These interjections might focus the discussion between them for a few moments, but not for long.
I have suspected that he initially entered the marriage from a sense of duty, and adapted as best he could to the situation when he returned in the late 1940s. In retrospect I believe his propensity to contain conversation with his spouse was not a function of my mother or her personality, but rather a desire on his part to avoid conversation that might expose his more sensitive and vulnerable self. I believe he would have taken the same approach with any other partner.
As a couple my parents income became more financially comfortable in the 1970s after I left home, and after my father retired due to increasingly poor eyesight; both had separately commented positively on the situation. That affluence would have been generated by a veterans pension for my father because he’d been injured in Holland during WW2 (diving under a table during a bombing raid to hear him tell it!) and some little CCP for my father and eventually the Old Age Pension and Supplement for both of them. Additionally, their house would have been paid off by that time so their expenses would have been minimal.
The couple appeared to grow closer together with age and by the late 70s my father had begun to actually provide home care to my mother, who had become less than able at getting around as the result of a series of small strokes. She had a couple other mild sessions in the early 1980s and became confined for the most part to a wheelchair. At the same time he had contracted prostate cancer and was having treatments without telling my mother exactly what was going on. We only found out the significance of his malady when his nurse granddaughter discovered the nature of an operation he had had in the Kentville hospital. During this forced separation her daughter Thelma, my half-sister, who had recently lost her own husband in Hamilton, spent about five weeks back in Bear River providing care and comfort so as to facilitate my father's needed hospital time. I do not believe my mother ever new the character of his illness.
The benefits of small town living is that people know you and are often prepared to lend a hand when needed. By the late 1980s my mother was having difficulty with her medication and at the same time my father needed to go back into the hospital. Through the family doctor my father made arrangements for her to enter hospital during the time of his own hospital stay. This was done in part to get mother’s medication straightened around but also in part to ensure she was looked after while he was in the hospital. In returning from the Yarmouth hospital in mid-1990 he finally realized he could no longer look after her and he had them both checked into the nursing home in Bridgetown. He died of pneumonia, probably as a complication of his most recent hospital stay, about two weeks after their arrival at the nursing home. My mother, often expressing her gratitude that Alban had found such nice accommodation for them, lived there quite happily for another four years in relative comfort. In the end, if not at the beginning, they had in their own way, grown together.
The Family Homes
The Little House by the Bridge - Year 0 to Year 3:
This was the first self contained house my mother was able to afford to rent after coming back from the US in 1934; it represented a milestone in her winning back her self respect as a viable member of the community. The house was owned by Stewart Darres, a local store owner and real estate entrepreneur and was situated adjacent to the cement bridge over Campbell Brook across the brook from George Benson’s meat market and one building removed from what was then Louie Bank’s blacksmith shop. The house location today would be best described as across the street from and kitty-corner to the firehall. I was brought home to that house from the Digby hospital in January of 1942.
It was in reality a small bungalow but the attic had been retrofitted with two small bedrooms. It had no running water with water being sourced by bucket from a tap at the back of Stewart’s store, next to his chicken yard. “Facilities” consisted of an outside toilet set out over the river in a corner of the veranda, emptied twice daily by the incoming tide. To that end I can still vividly recall, probably at the age of two, being held on that toilet seat by my mother when I dropped a ‘big one’ into the high tide and had my bum splashed with water as a result! The house was demolished probably sometime in the early 1970s.
I still carry some three other memories of that facility in addition to the one mentioned above. I have been told that before I could walk it was my habit to sit on my “pottie” and drag myself over the living room linoleum with my feet as the most efficient means of propulsion. I do have a memory of sitting on that pot quiet as a mouse and out of sight behind a large living room chair while my mother spoke to some visitor in the living room. I might have been 18 months old; as my friends know I continue to be just as shy today! (My good wife says this sounds like Alban Riley BS!)
The end of the veranda of the house was perhaps six feet from the cement railing of the bridge; the area between was fenced off with chicken wire to keep me, as well as others I’m sure, from miss-stepping and falling into the brook. I can distinctly recall falling down over the 15 foot embankment twice one day over a half hour time frame. Both falls required me to have crawled over or through the chicken wire fence. Fortunately the tide was out and I landed on some loose gravel deposited by the spring freshet. Gordon Morine was passing and collected me after the first fall and retuned me, unhurt and obviously not much frightened, to the safety of the veranda. I think after the second fall my mother came down the path on the other side of the bridge and rescued me. After the second fall I can remember feeling that the whole experience had not been so bad!
The third memory involved going with my half brother Rusty to get water from the tap at the back of the landlord’s store. I would have probably been three at the time.
The Grand Central Apartment – Year 3 to Year 7:
With my father returning in 1946 the little house by the bridge was not large enough so we set about moving. The move was about 100 yards to the second of three floors of the former Grand Central Hotel, long previous converted to an apartment building. It too was owned by Stewart Darres and had been turned into three apartments plus two commercial facilities on the ground floor – a taxi stand operated by the Rice brothers, Bill and Curt, and a barber shop operated by one of the rental tenants. Our section of the building consisted of a living room, a kitchen and three small bedrooms off an extended hallway. Shirley, my oldest sister, had a separate bedroom on the third floor.
There was another apartment on the second floor occupied by barber Cecil Morgan and his mother; upstairs were Howard Halliday and his wife Catherine. She was Acadian French and a couple years after we moved in her nephew, Eddie Melanson, spent two summers in a row with her and he and I had many exciting adventures together.
We obviously moved in the late summer of 1945 and I can clearly recall Rusty carrying me to the new digs on his shoulders as part of the baggage that had to be moved. I understand that the move was accomplished using student labor in the form of my older siblings’ friends. Just after our move I clearly recall watching from the veranda as the local kids came across the bridge from school celebrating the formal surrender of Europe on what must have been May 8, 1945. That same veranda was the platform from which I also recall watching some of the men of the town trying to plough snow with a large “V”-shaped iron reinforced horse-drawn timber plough about 18 to 20 inches high. I recall they were having difficulty in moving the snow. I suspect that would be about the time the plough ended up by Louie’s blacksmith shop where it languished, discarded, for some number of years thereafter.
I distinctly recall our first Xmas in the apartment – my father was there, or perhaps had just been there and had to report back for duty a day or two before. He brought me a set of toy airplanes, constructed of ‘white metal’ (a remembered quote from my father), and the Xmas tree lights consisted of candles in little holders affixed to the tree. They were considered dangerous and were only lit for a short time in the evening and on Xmas day. My Rice grandmother, Hannah, was apparently with us for that Xmas but the memory did not stay with me.
This apartment had running water and flush toilets – the family was ‘moving on up’!
I had my first serious case of pneumonia there and I can still recall with distaste the coughing necessary trying to get the phlegm out of my bronchial tubes and on to the newspapers spread on the floor beside my bed. I also contracted measles there and recall the blinds of my bedroom being closed to ease the effect of sunlight on my eyes.
The hall was often used as a bowling alley after I received a set of quarter-size wooden bowling pins and three balls as a Christmas present. It likewise became a shooting range when my first and only BB gun arrived as a present; the closet door unfortunately received considerable collateral damage from missed targets. Rusty once brought home a wild rabbit which made its abode for a couple months under the wood box (mounted on baby carriage wheels) at the kitchen end of the hall. He eventually returned the animal to the wild when my mother got thoroughly fed up with the gifts that the little guy left around during the night.
Bear Rivers former ‘Grand Central Hotel’ prior to being demolished c1970s
It was from this home that I started my life as a pyromaniac. For whatever reason I was intrigued with fire at an early age and matches were not hard to acquire. My first incident was carried out on a Sunday in the spring. I was about six, it was an overcast, colder, damp day and I had matches which I could use to help me warm up. As noted earlier Bear River had as part of its architectural legacy from the previous century a plethora of granite block edifices, primarily basement walls and stone retaining walls with the occasional set of steps thrown in for good measure. These granite blocks would have been perhaps a foot square and three or four feet long and usually grey in color. In retrospect they were likely all from the same quarry but I was never aware of its location (I am now of the inclination it may have been Greenland but why I so believe I cannot recall.).
Given that the community was constructed on a hillside there were many retaining walls of granite block manufacture in place. One of these walls was perhaps two feet behind the telephone office, the building that adjoined the Grand Central to the north on the River Road. Attached to the north end of the telephone office was a small shed which was used to store fuel - either wood or coal. I decided that the opening between the telephone office shed and the stone wall would be a good place to build my fire. Within minutes I had going a cherry blaze about which I was most intrigued. My reverie was soon broken by the passing of young teenagers Kay and Mavis Forsyth who would have perhaps been going home from a somewhat later Sunday School class. In any event there was some discussion, for the life of me I cannot remember what it was about, and I decided that I had better put the fire out. So I stomped on it, tried to pee on it with little real satisfactory result, added the contents of a small can of river water retrieved from the receding tide across the street, and finally covered it with a big flat boulder. I then went home to find another intriguing way to pass some time. Well, my poorly extinguished and unattended fire rebounded in intensity and spread to the adjacent shed. Fortunately within minutes someone saw the smoke and the fire department was there and put out the fire. I lied through my teeth but there was no doubt of my guilt. Thus cometh the lecture!
Later that spring before the green grass took control of the local fields I found a package of penny matches on the way home from school one noon hour. Nothing would do but I had to start a fire before lunch so up to the one acre field above our apartment building and the adjacent doctor’s office I went. I carried some paper from the street in hand. My paper lighted cheerily but before I knew it the breeze wafted my fire into the previous summer’s three foot high dry grass and the fire was out of control. I beat a quick retreat!
The fire was spotted within minutes and all available hands went after putting it out before it took out Miss Woodworth’s house which was downwind to the northwest. Fortunately they got it. Believe it or not I started a second fire in the same place the following spring which was likewise extinguished before it did any serious damage. My brother was involved in helping to put out one of these fires, likely the first, and immediately headed home and started asking questions. I denied any knowledge but the discarded package of penny matches under my bed tended to give the plot away. I caught heck but good!
In later instances I not infrequently set fire to newspapers in the river under the stores on pilings simply to watch the paper burn, and I was once caught by my father burning birch bark over the wood box inside the house. On that one my father took great umbrage at my stupidity and gave me my most severe spanking – deserving so – with the handiest tool around- a broken axe handle; that tended to break my pyromaniac tendencies. Once a few years later in the winter I accidentally set fire to the hanging discarded needles on a young white pine with a cooking fire that was too close but this was stupidity and not infatuation.
What is of ironic interest here is that in the late 1980s I assumed executive responsibility for the management and operation of Ontario’s full forest fire fighting capability, including its water bomber fleet. Who says we cannot be broken of our early habits!
The Trading Company Apartment – Year 7 to Year 11:
When I was 7 we moved to an apartment over what was known as the Bear River Trading Company, a company of longstanding tradition from the era of wooden ships and iron men in the last half of the 19th century. The building, which was still being used in part in 2005, would have been considered unique in most communities without a tide in that it was constructed on large hemlock pilings (one of many buildings on so called “stilts”) over the river and would see anywhere from 10 to 15 feet of tide water flow under it twice daily. The Trading Company building as I first remember it had a grocery section, a somewhat hushed and reverential dry goods section, an office section, and some storage on the street level off the grocery section. We used one section of that storage area for stove wood.
On the second floor was our apartment consisting of a living room off which lay the master bedroom, a kitchen off which was a veranda overhanging the river, a bathroom, two other bedrooms, and an interior room that my mother called a laundry room, probably because that was where she kept her washing machine. We had again moved up in the world. Best of all it was literally across the street from my father’s shop.
We also had access to a second part of the upstairs which was storage space for records of the earlier era when the previous owners, the Clark Brothers, had sailing ships trading lumber and other forest products south into the West Indies and returning with mixed cargoes of whatever might sell. Not only were there carbon copies of letters from the previous century there were original financial records as well. Even as a 12 year old I realized the historical value of those records but I have no idea of what has become of them. Perhaps they are still sitting on their shelves. The storage room also had a number of long abandoned counters left over from a period some 40 years previous when the upstairs area had served as retail floor space of the expanded commercial enterprise. One of the two rooms had also served as a makeshift classroom for Oakdene students forced to find alternate accommodation during the first half of 1934 after the community school was raised by fire.
When we moved in the facility was owned and operated by Ralph Purdy. Shortly after our arrival, although having no connection thereto, Mr. Purdy retired and the business was taken over by Mr. Purdy’s son-in-law Malcolm Parker. I spent much time with Malcolm’s sons Neil and Gerald, and in fact roomed with Gerald in University.
While living in this apartment I took advantage of the adjacent lower reaches of Charlie Brook. One of our ways of passing the time in the summer was to race toy boats down the brook from just below the sawmill dam to the Trading Company bridge. The intent was to see if you could float the boat the full distance, perhaps 200 yards, without it filling with water. The rules were that you could only touch the boat with a stick to put it back into the nearest current when it got hung up in still water or on rocks. If it sank the idea was that it had to be started all over again. The natural watercourse was the driver here.
We would occasionally fish off the Trading Company bridge for eels, even though George Benson’s bridge was better. One afternoon on a high tide we were minding our business fishing when a weasel appeared out from under the building and went into a crevice in the rocks next to the stone wall. I knew immediately what the animal was and decided I should try and catch it. Why I took that action is still not clear today because I knew at the time they could be vicious! That day I was wearing only a pair of sneakers, a pair of pants with no underwear – I’d been swimming – and no shirt. I approached the crevice where the weasel had disappeared and was standing over it when he suddenly reappeared and went up the inside of my pant leg. My first reaction was to clamp my hands around the bottom of my pant leg and yell to my fishing companions “I got ‘em!” The response was one of “OK! So now what are you gonna do with ‘em?” That question and the feel of the animal’s furry back as he raced around in my pantaloon prison brought me to the realization that I had a wild, blood thirsty animal in a position that presented him with an excellent opportunity to do some serious damage. My immediate need then became one of getting him out of my pants. I did the ‘dance of the shaking weasel’ for what seemed to be two minutes, but was in reality perhaps 20 seconds, before he saw daylight down by my sneaker and made for freedom. The look of his last furtive glance as he beetled under the bridge was one of “Boy, you don’t know how close you came!”
It was at this point in time that I used to make apple throwers consisting of a sharpened stick, stiff or somewhat limber, on which an apple would be impaled, particularity a smaller green one, and then thrown with a snap of the stick. It was not impossible to throw an apple perhaps as far as 100 yards, although flight direction usually left something to be desired. On my way back to school one noon hour up the back way through “The Lincoln’s” property I casually set up a stiff apple thrower with a rather large apple. When I initiated the throw, to be directed out over the pulp piles, the apple slipped off my thrower in the backswing and through one of the windows of “The Lincoln’s” barn. Unfortunately my companion thought that it was quite funny and spread the word. The result was that my father was approached to repair the damage – to all the windows in the barn! – and I was approached with a warning if I ever did that again there would be hell to pay. There was no attempt at trying to offer any rationalization because it would not have been heard.
During this period much time was spent on Lincoln property playing on the abandoned tugboat, the abandoned scow behind the school, making ‘forts’ in the abandoned shavings pile where a planer had at one time been set up (boy, does digging in damp shavings ever clean the hands) and playing on, and under, the slowly deteriorating largest remaining wharf in town. We also made ‘forts’ in the long piles of four foot peeled pulpwood but they always seemed to be lacking something, and I believe it was simply a matter of poor construction material.
This was also the time of great games of cowboys and these games would be carried out all over town and sometimes last for hours. I believe that we unconsciously enjoyed them because it allowed us to argue as to whether or not we had shot anyone with our toy guns - “Got ya!”, “No you didn’t!” “I did so!” You did not, you missed!” “I did not! If you are not going to play fair then I’m gonna go home!” “Well go then, but you missed me!” “I did not but I’ll give you another chance if you have to give me a hundred count to get away!” “OK!” and off the guy would go! The Eaton’s catalogue of the day would always have a couple pages of toy guns, mainly cap guns, all with elaborate holsters and belts and fake bullets and leg straps and the works. My dream at this period of my life was to become the proud possessor of the finest set of six-shooters in town, and hopefully at Christmas. The guns never appeared and I was disappointed for probably three years running; I still recall it so vividly. I believe my mother likely had an unstated objection thereto.
This was the period also when much time was spent during the summer walking the downstream shoreline of the river at the high water mark on the Annapolis side checking out the flotsam that was deposited by the tides during the spring and summer. Perhaps our best findings were glass buoys, with or without ropes attached, that we believed had been lost by Japanese fishermen. For whatever reason I never bothered to keep one, although I never could bring myself to break them the way some guys did.
This was also the time of making marble-shooting guns with led pipes and big firecrackers; their range was easily up to 150 yards but with no guarantee of accuracy. Led by Neil and Gerald Parker we built camps and clubhouses, played multitudinous games of rag tag, and slept outside in the yard in tents during summer. Winter saw sledding on the paved hills but that activity slowed down one season when Gary Gesner and a car had a bit of an altercation near the Trading Company; the incident was forgotten by the next winter.
A Gerald Parker Birthday Party - 1953
Front: Mary Lou Parker, Michael Parker, Gerald Parker, Ray Riley (back)
Back: Gary Gesner, Neil Parker, Murray Harris, Allan Parker (cousin), Lionel McCormick, Jimmy Parker
It was about this time that one summer, with another guy, I got into shoplifting cigarettes and chocolate bars – Coffee Crisp did make a nice light snack - from Stewart Darres store to which we had fairly free access. The cigarettes we’d smoke as we walked through the two miles of unfinished pipe that would eventually connect the East Branch headpond to the Gulch power development – ten cigarettes up and ten back; must have smelled like a chimney! That walk was somewhat intriguing – once in the pipe, probably six feet in diameter and constructed of creosoted planks, it was completely black until one arrived at “Secret Brook” about one mile in, where a trapdoor had been established and was maintained open until the pipe was attached to the dam and power house and the gates opened. The only light we would have would be our cigarettes and associated matches. Single file was the name of the game. Once we met another bunch of kids coming the other way.
That was the only time I ever experimented with cigarettes and after that summer simply had no interest. Later in life while working underground I was offered some ‘snuff’ by one of the other miners; within a half hour my head was reeling and that was the last of that experiment. A later attempt at enjoying an “It’s a girl” cigar proudly handed out by one of my colleagues at grad school also had me reeling within 20 minutes to the point where I had to curl up on the cool floor in the geology museum for an hour and a half to get my legs and stomach under control. It was not difficult to stay away from tobacco!
The chocolate bars we simply ate. I still recall the 1952 World Series when I’d come home from school, go across town and collect a single treat from our cache of chocolate bars, and spend the next three hours listening the Yankees and Dodgers going at it again. If I remember correctly the Yankees beat the Dodgers that year in seven games for their fourth consecutive Series win. In a couple weeks some of the other guys eventually found out about our cache of bars and squealed. Although there was no retribution I must have gone through some kind of reformation after that for my life as a petty thief ended.
The building of the pipeline and surge tank brought a bunch of young outside workers into town for a year or so and they would spend the week in Bear River and the weekends elsewhere. Because Stewart Darres had a pool table in a hall attached to his store the guys could often be found hanging out at Stewart’s place. As one would expect it wasn’t long before the local high school girls – June and Joyce Mayo, Betty Darres, Peggy Alcorn come immediately to mind - made this discovery and started hanging out in the little ice cream parlor just off the store, next to the juke box and a pin ball machine. It also was not long before the young lads discovered the girls in the ice cream parlor and pool became of secondary interest.
I can recall Allan Parker and I hanging around this crowd because we liked the attention we got as the guys used us as a bit of a diversion every time they got lost for words. They would occasionally allow us to even pick the song on the juke box. Nevertheless, I somehow always resented these guys because I realized they had the potential to take away a Bear River girl or two, girls which by right of location belonged to us as Bear River guys. To the best of my recollection no girls disappeared.
In late 1952 my sister Shirley got married and left the family home. In 1953 she had her first daughter and we early welcomed her to the Trading Company apartment. Thelma would be home from Digby on the odd weekend but for the most part she was living and working in that community. Rusty had joined the RCAF in the late 1940s, had married in Ottawa and at about this time spent his first tour of duty in Germany.
Exhibition Road – Year 11 to Year 15:
When I was eleven we moved again, this time to a detached house on the Exhibition Road. We were three houses south of the Digby County Exhibition Grounds in what my father referred to as the Earn Davis house; at that time it was owned by Stan Sabine, who, by the way, was the local manager of the Lincoln Pulp and Paper Company office so my window breaking incident had little lasting effect other than in my mind. On the main floor of this house was a large kitchen off which was located a master bedroom, a living room and an attached dining room (which we never used). Upstairs were three small bedrooms and a bathroom. There was an unheated ‘summer kitchen’ at the back through which one gained access to the interior kitchen; it was used predominantly for storage.
Just behind the house was a small barn which had, at one time, held cattle but which now contained a collection of some of the neatest nails and screws and junk you would ever want to explore. We used the barn to winter the hound Nipper, and I started my budding and short lived taxidermy profession there – tanned a bobcat hide, and worked at mounting a whiskey jack and a barred owl. The career was short lived as I really needed someone with some practical experience to show me the finer points. The experience however made me appreciate the art of the profession; I still retain the instruction booklets and a supply of glass eyes!
We had our first garden up beyond the barn in the field. Our well was near the garden and covered with a small shed, the door of which was kept locked. This well was treated annually in the spring with Javex as a means of ensuring any bad ‘bugs’ that may have arrived on surface runoff during the spring thaw were appropriately dispensed. The water was of good quality but I can recall have difficulty with quantity one dry summer.
Living in this area of the village put me in closer touch with another group of kids that I only knew incidentally from school, most significantly Gary Gesner, the MacDormand boys – Bruce, Malcolm, and Royce, Robert Forester, and the Dunn kids next door – Bonnie, George, and Avon. We spent much time playing on the Exhibition grounds, particularly in the cattle barns into which access was gained by crawling under the doors. We also had his and hers outhouses to use as the occasion demanded, and the odor was much improved over that of their three day occupation during exhibition time. One of the barns in winter often developed a sheet of relatively smooth ice which made for good sliding on a Saturday afternoon and it never needed to have the snow cleaned off.
The Digby County Exhibition was the highlight of the late summer for the kids in the village. It was typically a two day affair held on or about September 15. We even got an afternoon off from school to take in the exhibition. It was typical of most county fairs in that it had pies and cakes and apples and carrots and pickles and shawls and sweaters and asters and glads and chickens and ducks in competition and on display. To this day the odor of late summer garden flocks will immediately transport me back to the Exhibition’s ‘big building’. Most of the Oakdene elementary school teachers had their classes put things together during the first couple weeks of school especially for the exhibition. As well, they would set out for display the best work of the previous spring that had been carefully put aside in anticipation of the event.
The ‘cow barn’ and ‘horse barn’ were inevitably filled, primarily with local stock. The cows were generally Jersey milk cows, but Black Angus beef cattle made an appearance toward the end of the 1950s. The horses at that time were all work horses although I understand that riding horses became predominant in later years. It was inevitable that most of the displays, including horses and cattle, were generated from the Bear River area as opposed to the rest of the county – it seemed to me to be really a Bear River exhibition. However, horse and ox teams arrived from across southwestern Nova Scotia for the hauling competitions, particularly toward the end of the 1950s as the love affair with large draft animals, particularly oxen, began its revival. Not only did the winner go home with some extra cash but certainly just as important he took away a year’s worth of bragging rights as well. This was a big thing and the evening pulls with the heaviest teams inevitably drew the largest crowds.
Speaking of pulls, one of the traditional Exhibition events was the tug-of-war, generally well-orchestrated in advanced and waged between a series of teams of 20 and 30 year old men of the village. The venue for the tug-of-war was the ox/horse pull ring which would be vacated by the teams for a period of an hour or so. The event was generally a crowd pleaser. For whatever reason the event had not been properly planned the year I was in Grade 10 at Digby and the usual teams were not present. Needing a diversion to keep the crowd in place during the switch from one class of oxen to another it was decided to put on an ad hoc tug-of-war using anyone they could round up with a call over the PA system. In the space of five minutes about 20 of us, generally younger guys, answered the call and so we divided up into two teams on the spot and took our place at the rope. Due to non-existent planning I ended up as the anchor for the team at the north end of the pulling ring. Now the anchor is traditionally the strongest and heaviest guy on the team and his job is to dig in and generally ‘play defense’ to try and prohibit the opposing team from getting any backward momentum. In support of this job he is fitted with a simple cloth harness over his shoulder and under his opposite arm and attached to the end of the rope so as to take better advantage of his weight.
Now I certainly was not of the appropriate size or strength to act as anchor but took on the position simply because in our haste to get the event moving of the four or so guys near the end of the rope I was the only one who would volunteer to play anchor. So we got ready, primarily by digging initial foot holds in the soft soil of the arena, and as soon as the starter said “Go!” we heaved with all our might. The other team gave a bit which spurred them to greater effort. We gave a bit, but managed to hang on and then made up the lost ground. The other team then gave a superhuman effort and we could feel ourselves caving a bit, and we started to give way. Finally as our opponents got us moving toward the line my team broke rank and the rope and its still attached anchor, namely me, was unceremoniously dragged, head first and (unfortunately) mouth open, down the length of the oxen pull. The crowd loved it!
Now you must remember that an ox or horse intent on pulling a heavy load prefers to do it with an empty bowel, and that those bowels often get emptied on the pulling ring! You guessed it! My open mouth was catching more than Nova Scotia Class 1 agricultural soil! Even before I managed to get up I was gagging and trying so hard not to swallow. My mouth had never been so dry, nor has it since. Fortunately I could still breathe through my nose. A couple of the by-standers realized my predicament and, still laughing, arrived with a bottle of soda which allowed me to begin the task of rinsing my mouth. It took an hour and much water before I finally got my system back to normal. Fortunately, other than the memory there was no long lasting effect from the experience. I have not been in a tug-of-war since!
One of the Exhibition’s drawing cards for those of us who lived in the area was to arrive early on the evening before the exhibition started to ‘provide assistance’ to the local farmers in leading their cattle into the stalls in the barns. Occasionally a frisky one might bolt for a few minutes freedom from our untrained hands, but the owners never complained openly and continued to provide us with the opportunity each succeeding year. Bulls, draft horses, and oxen were off limits to us. From my perspective that was OK as I was never quite comfortable walking down the aisle of the horse barn hemmed in on both sides by the business ends of animals twice as tall as I was. Tails of the horses were quite often braided and/or ribboned and their harness brass or silver polished to glistening. The yokes of the oxen were freshly painted and the brass of their head and horn ornamentation inevitably polished to set the animals off in their finest glory to the viewing public.
The admin building of the exhibition contained the town’s only bowling alley. It operated on the evening before the exhibition opened for a few hours and both days from noon to one o’clock in the morning. It cost a quarter to bowl a string and the alley was inevitably busy throughout the two days. Pin setting was done by hand and I usually managed to make a couple dollars each day in the pin setting game. The exhibition inevitably had a bingo tent which was run by the local fire department; in my day prizes consisted of merchandize donated by local merchants. Cards were ten cents or three for a quarter and bingo would operate from about 2 pm until about 11 pm though closed for an hour and a half over supper. Daubers had not yet been invented; numbers were initially covered by dried corn kernels until cards with sliding windows were acquired in the late 1950s. Dinner and supper would be served both days in the dining hall by the ladies of one or another local service group.
The carnival rides so typical of late summer fairs today were not introduced until the late 1950s and came in the midst of great local controversy of whether or not to break with tradition; there were pointed opinions on both sides of the argument. Prior to their introduction the only recreational diversions, beside bowling, were throwing balls at canvass cats and a shooting range using real .22 caliber rifles, both operated by Frank Parker, the last local blacksmith and the father of my friend Norman. I was a decent shot as a young teenager and twenty five cents got me a five shot opportunity to take on the local adults in marksmanship. A winning score would usually be in the 48 out of 50 range and would usually be shot on the last evening of the competition. Inevitably that last evening would see perhaps as many as five local “good shots” involved in an intensive competition to win the coveted prize of a new .22. Here, too, attached bragging rights were just as important as the prize. I would inevitably get in the 43 to 45 score range and then have to pull out because I’d run out of cash to keep paying for opportunities. I never did win the thing! I believe the event was removed for safety reasons by 1960 with the advent of the imported carnival attractions.
The MacDormands lived just down the street and the family owned perhaps 10 acres of mature hardwood just above the River Road (Have you ever wondered how many communities in North America have a “River Road”?) on the hill side that was too steep to cultivate. That bush held perhaps as many as thirty mature sugar maples and I can recall that the MacDormand kids during at least two springs tapped the trees and made maple syrup and maple sugar. The rest of us kids could not let the opportunity to participate go awasting and inevitably would volunteer to collect sap, haul wood, and tend the fire. Their operation was strictly recreational and totally non-automated. Trees were bored by hand, spiles inserted by hand, sap collected by foot and carried by hand, and the outdoor fire under the probably eight foot by three foot boiling pan tended by hand. The syrup was finished off in the house over the kitchen range. It was hard work but kept us occupied during non-school hours for a couple weeks in the early spring. Toward the mid-1950s the MacDormands emigrated to New Hampshire seeking improved opportunity. In this they were simply following in the footsteps of so many local before them, taking advantage of longstanding family ties in the “Boston States”.
My interest in hunting and fishing continued during this period and my traditional territory for doing same expanded as well with the main focus being west and northwest up over the fields behind the house. Gary Gesner, who lived down the hill next to the Baptist church, became a close friend at this time, a friendship that lasted through high school.
We got our first telephone c 1956 and first TV at about the same time, although we were considerably behind many of the other families in town to enter the TV age. I saw my first TV when we were living in the Grand Central and I would guess it was probably 1949. The Rice brothers had a TV in their taxi stand one evening as a bit of a curiosity and I was allowed to go downstairs, sit quietly on the floor, and watch a Danish travelogue being broadcast from Saint John, NB. In the early 1950s the Earle Hardy family received a small TV from an American sportsman who Earle guided on annual fishing trips into the Nova Scotia interior. The Hardy parents were tremendously gracious and giving and allowed several of the local kids, including me, to attend to their house on Friday evenings and watch first boxing, and later wrestling, on certainly one of the first, if not the first, permanent TV in the community. The three oldest Hardy boys – Earle, Jimmy, and Donald - and father Earle were very musical, guitars, banjos, and violins were always at hand, and a country music tune could be made to magically appear with little coaxing. It was Mrs. Hardy that informed me on New Year’s Day in 1953 of the fact that Hank Williams had died the previous evening, and the palpable sense of loss in her voice is still with me today.
Elvis and rock and roll arrived during my time on Exhibition Road. I did see his first performance on TV, probably at Gesners. By the mid-1950s the hangout in town for kids my age had reverted from Stewart Darres’ to Marion and Ira McCormack’s store on the Annapolis side of the River. They sold ice cream and pop and chips among other things and put in a juke box in their back room and a few tables and chairs, leaving the centre of the room open for dancing. The shop became a focus for us until we left for Digby and High School. Ira showed me how to play solitaire checkers. Marion and Ira were both veterans of WW2, and both worked in civilian capacities at HMCS Cornwallis. What I did not know at the time was that Marion was just then becoming obsessed with tracing her family roots, which melded only a generation or so out with my Rice family roots. The Nova Scotia Rices originated from some Massachusetts Rices who arrived in the province as settlers in 1760. Marion’s work was certainly the definitive work on the Nova Scotia Rices and remains a classic to this day. The data from this study is now housed in the Acadia University archives. Given the size of Bear River and its long, close knit history Marion’s work was the first to point out the remarkable intertwining of community families through marriage; this led local character Woody Davis to address everyone with any roots in the community as “Cousin”.
Chute Road – Clementsvale Road Corner – Year 15 to Year 18:
Early in 1957 my father bought his first (and only) house. It was a two story on a granite block (there they are again!) foundation which likewise functioned as basement walls; the basement floor was packed soil. The house had been built in the 1890s and its plan had borrowed from another more elaborate home – the A. B. Marshall house – elsewhere in town. It had a large kitchen, a walk-in pantry, a dining room, a living room and a master bedroom on the first floor. As with our former rental house this building likewise had a summer kitchen attached, and a woodshed beyond that for wood for the kitchen stove. The second floor had one large bedroom and two smaller bedrooms and another room, perhaps originally some sort of sitting room, through which the smaller bedrooms were accessed. The two large bedrooms, the hallway and the upstairs sitting room had Douglass Fir tongue and groove floors. All the original walls were lath and plaster; the new ones installed by my father were gyprock. My father ran a wall in the sitting room to create another bedroom and subdivided one of the smaller bedrooms to create a bathroom. The only facility previous to this point had been a toilet installed in what used to have been a back stairwell. The house had been closed up for some number of years and he managed to purchase it for $2500. It was sold it some 34 years later for $25,000.
The house was strategically situated at the junction of the Chute Road and the Clementsvale Road (formerly Hessian Line) on perhaps a half acre of land. My father later bought a second adjoining piece of land, at one time owned by the school board, of about a quarter acre in size to use as a garden. What was not known at the time of purchase was the fact that original property consisted of not one but two parcels of land, the records of only one having been maintained. A quit claim had to be processed to acquire title to the second parcel before the house could be sold in 1991. The driveway was off the Chute Road, was narrow and steep, and was shared with neighbour and long-time Kindergarten teacher Miss (June) Schmidt.
Next door was a large rambling “guest” house which took in paying customers by the day or week; it catered primarily to summer visitors but business was never more than moderate. At the back of this property was an orchard containing perhaps 35 mature apple trees of varying species. The apples were not harvested in any regular manner and the orchard was not properly maintained due to lack of interest. A path across the orchard led to the house of my sister and her husband and family. The path was kept appropriately used by the two grandchildren making multi-weekly trips to visit Nanny and Grampy, a process maintained until the girls left for university. I likewise made the odd trip to my sister’s place because they had a shower, a device of which I had become increasing fond as a teenager.
The view from the window by my father’s chair allowed him to keep an eye on much of the goings and comings of the village, particularly in the fall and winter when the leaves were off the trees.
This was our first house with central heat. The furnace was fueled by wood our first year in this house, and later by sawdust which was purchased from the local sawmill at something like $15 dollars a truckload, delivered to the side of the house in front of the appropriate basement window. Sawdust had then to be shoveled down through the window and then re-shoveled away from that window to the back of the sawdust bin. In the winter the sawdust hopper would be loaded in the morning about 5.30 am when my father left for work. That hopper would then be filled at about five in the evening, or on really cold days when the furnace was doing double duty it might be refilled at noon just to ensure it did not burn out. The only significant problem with sawdust was that occasionally the hopper would be clogged with a piece of bark and the fire would be lost. Certainly it was an easier fuel to handle and cleaner than either wood or coal. The furnace was definitely needed because, as with most houses of its vintage in the community, ours had no insulation.
I recall we moved in June just before final exams. I clearly recall studying in my bedroom that first year by answering in writing all of the questions at the end of the chapters in the world history text. I got a good mark in history that year!
It was from this house that first fall that my treks to high school in Digby began; for the next three years much of my life centered on that high school and its associated people and activities. That first fall I commenced to attend “Teen Town” on Saturday night in the Digby Legion. It was simply a place for kids to hang out. Activities consisted primarily of dancing to recent records and watching TV. Most of the jocks spent the first couple hours glued to the TV watching Hockey Night in Canada. They would get around to other interests by about 10.30 when the game ended. The establishment closed at 11.00 pm.
My mode of transport to Digby was primarily hitchhiking; occasionally I’d catch a ride with some other Bear River kid who had access to wheels. I could usually make the 11 miles into Digby within an hour so leaving the village at about 7 pm became the ritual. Getting back was somewhat more of a challenge. In three years I only walked the entire distance twice, fortunately neither time in the winter. Surprisingly, rides were usually not difficult to get and frequently I was rewarded by someone going all the way back to Bear River. In my final year in Digby I cut a deal with one of the local Bear River taxi drivers, Hallett Banks; for $10 he’d take me to Digby and drop me off at the Legion and at 11 pm he’d be waiting for me at the door, having spent the evening with friends in the community. By the time of my final year in high school I was making sufficient money at odd jobs to facilitate my trips to Digby in this mode when required.
By the summer of Grade 10 a couple of us had started attending Teen Town in Cornwallis on Friday nights as well. I don’t recall much hitchhiking from Cornwallis so we must have found other ways of getting about. Certainly Gary Gesner had access to his father’s car by this time and that vehicle was not infrequently used to explore the neighbouring towns, even getting us as far afield as dances in Bridgetown. There we simply hung around looking out of place and giving the local lads someone to glower at with the decided message that we’d better not go messin’ with their women!
It was from this home that I set off to University in 1960. It continued to serve my parents well for another 30 years.
Memories of Oakdene School
(This is a slightly edited version of my submission to Oakdene Memories, compiled by Watson Peck, Family, and Friends, and published in Bridgetown in 2001).
Memories of Oakdene some 50 years later tend to be fleeting in general, yet remarkably fixed in some of their specifics.
The Teachers and the Grades:
I recall sitting on the outside stairs of the former Grand Central Hotel when Miss Schmidt came to see my mother about the possibility of my entering Kindergarten. I knew she was the Kindergarten teacher, and was somewhat overawed by the fact that she knew my name. Whatever they discussed must have been positive because a day or two later, firmly guided by Patricia Dukeshire, I was off across the bridge to begin a 10 year stay in my first institution of higher learning. Patricia was an "older woman" by at least two years and lived just up the hill in an apartment in what had previously been another of Bear River's fine hotels of an earlier era - The Commercial House. I believe the year to have been 1947. I also believe the school session had by that time had already been underway for a couple days. Miss Schmidt's visit was obviously one of collecting the strays who had not arrived on day one.
Miss Schmidt's room effectively housed three grades, Kindergarten in which I had just been enrolled, Grade 1, and Grade 1A. The latter, if my memory serves me correctly, was something of a transition grade, designed to accommodate somewhat older children who had not had the Kindergarten experience, but who it was hoped might make the transition from Miss Schmidt's room to Mrs. Smith's room and Grade 2 in one year. Some made it, some returned to spend a full year in Grade 1.
I have been back in Kindergarten classrooms several times since as my wife has had the opportunity to be a 'Miss Schmidt' to many crops of first time students. Times have changed. We spent most of our time at wooden desks organized in rows; today's kids spend much of their time in circles on carpeted floors. To me the big treat was the opportunity to play in the sandbox at the back of the room once or twice a week. The kids in my wife's classroom have a sandbox as well, but it is supplemented by a computer center, and play house center, a dress-up center, a water table, and equipment and toys for every imaginable type of learning experience. And snacks and rest time too - ah yes, times do change!
But even in those more regimented days of the late 1940s at Oakdene we learned, and we had fun doing so. And most of that credit goes to Miss Schmidt for getting us off on the right foot. By the time I had arrived at Oakdene she had already become something of an institution in the community, and carried on in that same capacity for another couple decades. She had the patience of Job, and a way of reigning in the most errant and rambunctious five year old with nothing more that a stern look and a few well-chosen words. I have no memories of her reverting to any form of corporeal punishment to maintain order and discipline.
The Kindergarten kids were on the window side of the room and the Grade 1's on the wall side; the Grade 1A's were assigned the middle section. The highlights of my time in Miss Schmidt's room must have been story time, the early times-tables, and the mid-February exchange of Valentines because these are the only specifics that I can pull up on my memory screen today. It was in Kindergarten that I first realized that all the kids in Bear River weren't "Townies" like me. Many of them lived some distance away and came to school with lunches because they did not have the time to walk home and back again in the hour between 12 and 1 pm on those short little Kindergarten legs.
It was in Miss Schmidt's room that I began to recognize I had somewhat of an affinity for academics. This realization and my resulting successes generated the beginnings of the packsack of positive self-esteem that I have managed to carry around with me during my adult life.
So in two years I made it to Grade 2 and Mrs. Smith's classroom on the other side of the library. The highlights here were one strapping - I think Allan Parker may have been involved as well - and one two hour session under the teacher's desk as punishment for some other long forgotten infraction. I believe Mrs. Smith had a beavertail for a strap, but something tells me that it was more of a conversation piece to be brought out early in the year to subtly try and establish the right student decorum in the room. The real strap was a piece of appropriately sized belting material, no pun intended. Shaking a student to get his or her attention was another part of her class control repertoire. As a teacher I recall her as being effective, even if occasionally somewhat gruff. She had taught in the school for a number of years before my arrival and was a fixture in the community.
Two years in Mrs. Smith's room saw us safely through Grades 2 and 3 and on our way to the Grade 4/5 room. We literally moved up in the world as we got to go to Oakdene's second floor and Miss Morine's classroom. This classroom overlooked the river, the beached Lincoln Pulp and Paper Company scow, Bern Alcorn's sawmill, and the school ball field. Because of this vista it was, along with the adjoining Grade 6/7 room, the most pleasant part of the school for me as a student. We need to thank the architect that designed Oakdene for the large windows in all the rooms. They maintained excellent light levels, and as they opened, allowed for good ventilation.
Mrs. Smith’s Grade 2/3 Class - 1951
Front: Howard Morine, Merrill Handspiker, David Potter, Oakley Peck, Robert Forrester, Royce MacDormand, Dale Robbins, James Doucette, John Doucette
2nd row: Nancy Parker, Avon Dunn, Maureen McCormick, Phyllis McCarthy, Forestine Parker, Joan Thibideau, Dianne Wade, Ann Frost, Mildred Higgins
3rd row: Marjorie Frost, Judy Marshall, Netty Morine, Mrs. Smith, Kathleen Harris, Juanita Blinn, Doris Porter, Jean Darres
Back Row: Lionel McCormack, Eddie Peck, Unknown, Gary Gesner, Ray Riley, Malcolm MacDormand, William Wamboldt, Gerald Parker
Miss Morine was a local girl with deep family roots in the community, probably having herself been a student at Oakdene. I recall her as quiet spoken, patient, and with a significant desire to instill as much knowledge into the heads of her charges as possible. We had special workbooks for Nova Scotia history and geography in Miss. Morine's room. It was her geography classes directed at learning the counties, county seats, and bays of Nova Scotia that provided me with a more than passing interest in geography over the past fifty-odd years. The rest of Canada should have had the experience of those history workbooks as well because they provided a dynamic summary of Nova Scotia's rich history as a founding cornerstone of Canada. Although it wasn't done in those days, a field trip or two to the Habitation and Fort Anne could have really brought those history workbooks to life. I regret never having attended the Habitation until I took my own kids, Upper Canadians no less, almost 30 years later.
Grade 6 and 7 saw us remain upstairs with a simple move across the hall. It was at this point that the progression of teachers becomes somewhat unclear. I believe we started the period with Mrs. Crocker, an experienced teacher who had just moved to Bear River to take up an available teaching position. However, before the obligatory two years stay in the Grade 6/7 room was over, we had a new young teacher, a local girl, Miss Robins, whose brother Dale had been a grade behind me since Grade 1. Miss Robins' advent on the scene was initially to take over for Mrs. Crocker, who had been assigned a higher grade in-year. Miss Robins, unlike all our former teachers to that point in time, had had little teaching experience, and was for all intents and purposes learning on the job. She earned her stripes that first year and the students' respect. In retrospect, she was a much better teacher than many I was to encounter later in life.
Grade 8 and 9 saw us move downstairs again and back into the domain of Mrs. Crocker. She was a solid, no-nonsense, yet caring teacher who did much to get us ready to move into the high school years of Grade 10 and beyond. By the time we got to Grade 8 she had been called upon to take over the reins of Oakdene's principalship. A quiet yet effective administrator, Mrs. Crocker maintained the chief administrative role for a number of years after we, her first charges, left Oakdene for the greener scholastic pastures of high schools in Digby or Annapolis Royal.
It is to the credit of that slate of teachers that this particular group of students from Oakdene was able to hold our own academically in the regional high schools. It has also been suggested that considering the quality of the talent with which the Oakdene teachers had had to work, namely us, that they had obviously overachieved!
The "Other" Rooms:
Oakdene's auditorium was the scene of many a community activity, but in retrospect it was probably underutilized from an economic point of view. It of course provided a formal meeting place for the school student body for all those activities that required a general assembly. It provided the site for the music "room". It was the location for the school Christmas concert, the pre-music festival concert, and annual graduation ceremonies. It never really served as a gymnasium for the students due to its limited size and probably because of the expense of maintaining the hardwood floors. It did contain a badminton court but there was, in my time at least, no effort through the school to organize badminton for the students.
The annual graduation deserves a couple sentences. It seems that it always occurred on the afternoon on June 22 or June 23, and memory suggests to me, probably incorrectly, that the old auditorium was always stifling hot during that ceremony. The best part of those graduation ceremonies was the fact they were usually finished by 2.30, leaving me three good hours between then and supper to celebrate my new found freedom. Memory suggests that freedom was celebrated in one of two ways - with a swim in Charlie Balser's mill pond, or matching wits and a Royal Coachman with some less than stupid trout in a couple of the deep clear pools remaining on the East Branch. And the robins always seemed to sing loudest on those afternoons.
There was an evening badminton club organized by a cadre of young adults in the community. Along with a few others in my age group, most notably Neil and Gerald Parker, I learned to play badminton through that mechanism. The auditorium was also used for the rare commercial venture, particularly for the staging of the odd traveling western music shows. It was in the Oakdene auditorium that I first saw the Lone Pine and Betty Cody Show, one highlight of which was the performance of their son, who may have been eight or nine at the time. In later years and under the name Lennie Brough, that guitar-playing son developed into one of the best modern guitarists in North America. In about 1953 Don Hardy, Gary Gesner, and I participated in a talent show associated with another traveling western music show, rendering forth Hank William's You'll Never Get Out of This World Alive. While quite popular in its day the song, true to its genre, carried a somewhat morbid topic for a bunch of 13 and 14 year olds. We managed honorable mention but no cash prize. I believe that Donnie’s brother, fiddle-playing Jimmy, was in the winning contingent!
I attended a couple good old down home revival meetings in the auditorium, the most memorial being in attendance for traveling faith healer, elsewhere described, who, among other initiatives during the "performance", tried, fortunately for the owner unsuccessfully, to break a young lad's crutches over the edge of the stage. Shades of Elmer Gantry!
I attended my only "pie social" at the school auditorium (as an observer, not a participant) and that was probably one of the last, or perhaps even the last, to be held c 1949. I recall through the activities of my sisters that those socials had been exceedingly popular during the late 1940s.
The Library occupied the space between Miss Schmidt's and Mrs. Smith's room on the west side of Oakdene's first floor. Even at an early age I realized that the library was somewhat of a lost cause, appearing to have never been appropriately stocked or used. The school decision-makers must have had a similar perspective for the library was soon converted to a classroom. I cannot for the life of me remember which grade may have been assigned to the room. It was then that the bookmobile made its debut at Oakdene, providing us with a more current selection on a monthly basis. It was a good service.
The lab occupied a spot on the first floor across the hall from the library. It had probably provided honorable service as a lab when Oakdene had housed a Grade 11 class. But in my time its use as a lab had been severely constrained. It had instead been recast as a student torture chamber and outfitted with the most devious, yet legal, of torture devices - a dentist chair!
I paid at least two memorable trips to that chair and the dentist that came in to the community for a week each year. At least one of Lila Purdy and/or my cousin Dot Thompson were usually the dentist's assistants during his stay. My first visit was early on in my Oakdene tenure when there was a need to correct the results of something less than adequate dental hygiene on my first set of teeth. Because of the numbers of patients that had to be worked on during the week, the trip to the dentist chair was usually a matter of pulling rather than drilling. And pull he did - stripping out four badly decayed molars before the freezing had had time to effectively take hold. The second memorable trip was about four years later with a repeat of the same process. That one hurt something awful as well, and I still carry the evidence of that visit in the form of a couple molar vacancies in my lower jaw. It put me off dentists for one long period of time but it did get me practicing better dental hygiene - but what a way to learn a lesson!
The Furnace Room:
This downstairs "room" was noteworthy for two reasons. Firstly it provided the necessary warmth to keep us cozy during those cold and windy days in winter when the community was besieged by winds and snow from one of the many east coast storm cells that had come tearing up the eastern seaboard and wedged itself firmly in the Bay of Fundy. Secondly, it constituted the "office" of the custodian, Mr. Higgins and later Mr. Wade. They were the gentlemen who kept the physical plant in operational shape, unplugging toilets, mopping floors, shoveling coal, and last, but not least, ringing the bell to get us all to class in time.
I find it interesting that I cannot remember who the principal(s) of the school were during my early years at Oakdene. Obviously they made no significant impression on my young mind. That fact probably speaks volumes about quiet and effective leadership. Might there have been a Mr. Willis? Was Joe Stedman an Oakdene principal?
In any event, that fact of quiet leadership changed dramatically when Alden Walker arrived from "up the Valley" in the early 1950s to take over the Oakdene principalship. I would time his arrival as during my Grade 4 year, and his stay of about three-year duration. Never having had him as a classroom teacher I can make no comments on his teaching capability. I suspect it was at least adequate because I cannot recall his teaching competency being a matter of controversy.
There were at least three main issues surrounding Mr. Walker that created controversy within the community. The first was the fact that his professional clothing had a significant feminine cast to it. In fact, students commonly, although covertly, accused him of wearing ladies blouses. This was perhaps not the best way to generate positive first impressions in a relatively conservative community of farmers, woodcutters, and ex-servicemen only five or six years removed from campaigns in Europe.
And then there was the knitting! Mr. Walker had a penchant for knitting, a penchant that he publicly carried into the school. It was not uncommon for him to be seen knitting at a school assembly in the auditorium while listening to the going's-on. While in more recent years knitting and petit-point by NFL football players has had its positive media reaction and appears to sit well with the general populace, such a public display by a male school principal in those days left some nagging questions in the minds of many of the parents. Interestingly, from the pieces we would see under construction, it was obvious to even our young eyes that he did good work. However, quality or not, a knitting male principal was not seen as a suitable role model for students in the rural Nova Scotia of the early 1950s.
Finally there was the issue of discipline and the methods used to achieve it. Mr. Walker was a strict disciplinarian, and supported his goal of zero tolerance of unruly behavior with the frequent carrying of a seized baseball bat in the halls during recess and lunch hour, as well as in the auditorium during some assemblies. However, that bat was only rarely if ever used in favor of a rung out of a hardwood chair. I can recall one of my classmates coming out of the auditorium one afternoon with a serious rung-caused welt on his person, after he demonstrated an unwillingness to curtail his motor mouth during an assembly. It only took a couple such demonstrations a year to maintain a level of satisfactory discipline in the institution. But it enveloped the principle in controversy; and that controversy finally resulted in his moving on, I believe in mid-year.
Oakdene had a segmented playground. One segment was found in front of the school. This was the prime location for the younger kids, and older students who were not into playing ball. Skipping and tag were the favorite student-organized pastimes. Generally the wall of the school and the big oak were the bases for tag.
Every spring marbles, occasionally called alleys, became the pastime of choice for the boys from Grade 2 to Grade 7. The objective was to win as many marbles from the other kids as possible. Billy Parker was perhaps the best player during my time. Large "cats-eye" marbles and steel ball bearings went for a premium of three or four regular marbles. The most poplar marble game required nothing more than shallow hole, five to six inches in diameter, dug in the yard (always in slate!). Participants would then toss from one to five, maybe ten, marbles each with the object of getting as many as possible in the hole. He who got the most in the hole collected all the hole marbles, and had first turn shooting the remaining marbles into the hole with the side of the forefinger. He continued until he missed, collecting the marbles he had holed. A second game consisted of tossing marbles against the side of the school with the objective of trying to get closest to an opponent’s marble. He who was closest collected all the opponent’s marbles he could "span" with his thumb and little finger. The remainder got recollected by their owners and went into the next round.
The playground behind the school, although it had a pair of swings in the far corner, was almost singularly directed toward ball games. They started on the first day of school, and usually ran right up until cold weather forced us inside. The warm days of spring saw us back at it again right up until school finished for the year.
All that was needed for a game was a sponge rubber ball and a bat of some kind. The red, white, and blue striped variety of ball was the favorite, perhaps because it was most readily available. When a proper bat was not at hand, a sawmill slab or tree branch would be pressed into service. Foul balls were always a challenge because that meant trying to retrieve them from the mud flats without getting dirty if the tide was out, or trying to coax them in by throwing rocks on their far side if they landed in tide water. Some lunch hours were wholly taken up with retrieving balls from the river.
The objective at noon hour for those of us who went home for lunch was to get home, eat, and get back as soon as possible to get in as much of the daily game as possible. I perfected the trip from school to home up on Exhibition Road and back to the ball field at 30 minutes, 35 on a slow day, and that included lunch.
It was easy to hit a home run on that field, because left field contained a copse of choke cherry bushes growing in among boulders and rubble at the foot of the school building. Truly remarkable were the number of balls hit into that cover which were actually retrieved.
Events from the ball field sticking out in my minds eye today are i) Bentley Rice's cross-handed swing which, when he connected, had the ability to put the ball up in Walter Wright's yard, and ii) Lloyd Paul's classic stance at the plate and his associated hitting prowess, a reputation later to be picked up by his cousin Donnie Sackney, iii) the continuous challenge of retrieving balls out of the river, and iv) the occasional scare we would get when some student would outdo himself and drive a long fly ball against a school window. At that distance the rubber and the glass would usually forgive each other and rarely did we see a broken window.
A third but unofficial part of the playground was the wooded side hill along and behind the Anglican Church cemetery. It was the focus of attention when one arrived too late to get on a ball team, or when the only ball had been lost in the river. There never seemed to be anything organized on that side hill, it was simply a good place to go to burn off energy tearing up and down the gravel pathways. A second good place to go was the United Church graveyard adjoining right field. The main attraction here was the small green or brown-striped garter snakes that could be collected from under some of the downed gravestones at certain times of the year. Not infrequently a small snake would be surreptitiously smuggled into class in a pocket, to be brought out and proudly displayed to those around you when the teacher was not looking.
One cannot think of Oakdene's playground without recalling the trees from which the school took its name. The mother of all the local oaks stood proudly out in front of the school near the corner of the playground next to the Anglican Church property. It was by far the largest tree in town and would have at that time had a girth that would have measured at least 10 feet. A second large specimen stood along the boundary of the ball field and the United Church cemetery. Numerous other oaks grew along the riverside boundary of the ball field, as well as on the hill behind and below the Anglican Church cemetery.
A description of the playground is not complete without mentioning the Lincoln Pulp and Paper Company's scow that was beached just behind home plate during most of my time at Oakdene. It was, if memory serves me correctly, off bounds to the students. However, occasionally it would be the recipient of a foul ball and one of we "Townies", who from weekend excursions knew the most efficient means of boarding the scow, would have to sneak on board, hand over hand via one of the mooring ropes, to retrieve the ball. I do not recall anyone ever being reprimanded for such heroics in a time of dire need, but for the most part we stayed off the scow during school hours.
One of the most interesting aspects of attending Oakdene, at least to a five-year-old, was the geographical distribution of the student population. When I went into kindergarten in 1947 my life for the most part had revolved around ‘downtown’ Bear River, and in particularly the Digby County side. Kindergarten and Grade 1 exposed me to a host of new faces from such distant and foreign lands as The-Head-of-the-Tide, Pecks' Hill, Bear River East, and Lansdowne Hill. It was an enriching experience that quickly allowed me to expand my own horizons into some of these new territories after school and on the weekends.
And then the school consolidations started and school busses became a common fact of life at Oakdene. The kids from Morganville, "The Crossroads", Milford Corner, Greenland, and Victory all made Oakdene their home school at least for a period of time. Their coming made the school more cosmopolitan and enriched the lives of us all.
In retrospect, the Oakdene student population of my day was for the most part white, and of Anglo-Saxon and Protestant background. There were a goodly number of families of Hessian extraction in the community but by 1950 they had for all intents and purposes taken on the habits of their British immigrant neighbours, and were distinguishable therefrom by surname only. We did however have a small cadre of Aboriginal students from ‘Indian Hill’ which was the local name for the Bear River Mi’kmaw Reserve, and a couple families of Afro-American extraction whose children had been moving through the Oakdene system. In my early years we also had a couple individuals with limited learning capability in the student body. While perhaps not the best of situations, in those days in rural Nova Scotia there were no other institutions to provide for the education of the kids with special needs.
Looking back in later years, at least from my vantage point, the opportunity to have interacted on a daily basis with students of different racial and capability backgrounds was a positive experience. That experience played a large part in helping to set my personal value system and it is that value system, germinated in the Oakdene experience, which will have allowed me, in some small way I hope, to have made a positive contribution to the betterment of this society in which we live.
A Perspective on the Religious Side of the Community
The community of Bear River in the 1950s was serviced by some five formal churches – Baptist, United, Advent Christian, Anglican, and Roman Catholic. In addition there were present as well a few Jehovah’s Witnesses and Pentecostals, and a few members of a low-profile Protestant sect known as the MacIllwainians could be found in the general Clementsvale area. A Presbyterian church had been present in the community for a number of years back in the mid-19th century, occupying a former school house off the Lansdowne road immediately above the old cemetery about half way up the hill. However, the Presbyterian congregation in the community was apparently not of sufficient size to maintain a separate identity and the church building was eventually relocated over the side hill to the flat along Campbell brook and its purpose redirected.
In terms of membership the Baptist Church, founded in 1810 with the present building constructed in 1859 at its current site on the hillside on the Digby side of the River, was the largest. The white building was visually prominent and its spire was capped by a yellow transparent ‘hat’ which could be seen in the distance at night because of the lights that were housed therein. The congregation had a relationship with sister churches on the US Atlantic seaboard and occasionally, if not annually, would have visiting New England or southern Baptist ministers, or perhaps evangelical singing groups, attend for special services over the course of a week. Toward my high school years the Baptist Minister was a young American from Maine who infused a new and younger enthusiasm in the membership.
The United Church was the largest physical church in the community and could be found on the Annapolis County side of the River near the foot of the Chute Hill. Like the Baptist Church the United Church had a membership that crossed the socio-economic lines and included a number of the prominent ‘old families’. In the 1950s book membership in the United Church probably numbered in the vicinity of 400 souls; attendance at a morning service in the spring would number between 50 and 75. Seating capacity, not including the rarely used balcony, would probably number 300. The only time I remember the church at capacity would have been at the occasional interfaith service. The United Church lacked the Baptist tendency of embracing a low level of evangelism – faith there was cut and dried and Methodist-efficient with no infusion of emotion. But beyond that one difference the two churches were like enough in style that a seriously disgruntled member of one might “cross the floor” (and the River) and attend the other facility for a shorter or longer period until the subject of the disgruntlement was forgotten. Rarely this temporary transformation would become permanent. There was an unkempt graveyard behind the United Church that housed members of the flock from the church’s first few decades. It was a great place to not only capture garter snakes but also to harvest blackberries in mid-summer.
The Anglican Church was a couple doors up the hill past the United Church and immediately east of Oakdene School. It was physically a smaller building than its previously described compatriots and was set in a stand of large white oaks. It too had a graveyard out back, this one covered by a thick blanket of myrtle, presumably spread from a planting at a grave. The original structure was built in 1833; the present church building is relatively new because the original had been destroyed by fire at the time the adjacent school burned in January of 1934. The Anglican Church had perhaps the smallest congregation of any of the established churches in town. However, it had been the earliest church in the community, its congregation having started in the late 1700s subsequent to the arrival of the Loyalists and Hessians in 1784. The Anglican Church was, as one would anticipate, the most conservative of the Protestant churches in town and was adopted generally by the Protestant Hessians as a substitute for the absent Lutheran denomination.
The Advent Christian Church was located on the Digby County side of the River about halfway to the Head-of-the-Tide. It, too, was a small building and perhaps the smallest of the lot, of two floors, with the basement used for Sunday School and other secondary congregational requirements. The Bear River church congregation is reported to have come together in 1841 and appears to have adopted the following of the formal Advent Christian Church after that protestant sect’s American birth in the 1860s. This church had a slightly more fundamentalist flair than the Baptist Church and it too participated in receiving traveling evangelical support from the US during the summer, particularly for the children’s church camp which I attended a couple times. There was a tendency for the Adventist devotee to outwardly display a slightly more intense adherence to the faith than members the other protestant denominations. The Advent church was the only church building in town that was not painted white, it being what I remember as a dark green bordering on black.
The Roman Catholic Church, constructed in 1834, was located on the Bear River Mi’kmaw Reserve and its main mission was to its Aboriginal parishioners. The church shared a priest with a couple other Catholic churches in nearby communities. There were only a couple non-aboriginal families attending the Catholic Church on the “Hill”, and they were always imports into the community who had arrived already part of the greater Roman Catholic congregation. I can only remember attending one service there. Because of their small numbers, their exclusivity, and their devotion to the ‘rules’ of their religion (e.g.; no meat on Friday) I was always curious about any classmate who might be Roman Catholic and the role that their religion might have played in shaping their personality.
Like other communities of its size Bear River also maintained a small cadre of individuals who followed the teachings of other more fundamental churches. Of these the Jehovah’s Witness and Pentecostals were perhaps the most numerous and growing c 1950 but in total numbers were relative insignificant when compared to the established churches. In the 1950s the physical buildings designed for the adherents of these two faiths were located outside the community. The MacIllwainians were a small, relatively obscure Protestant sect that had existed in the Clementsvale area since at least the 1930s; little was known about it other than its name and that they did continue on with a small but quietly active ministry.
There was an active undercurrent of protestant fundamentalism in the community beyond the five major churches described above. It was never well organized and may have even not wanted to show its organized face fearing at least quiet condemnation from the more conservative elements of the community. I can clearly recall one instance where this faceless faction imported a faith healer into town for an evening meeting in the Oakdene School hall. I would have been in Grade 10 at the time, and a die-hard skeptic of any healing that was done in the absence of the attendance of the medical community. In any event I simply could not miss the meeting just to see what would happen when they got down to the curin’. I attended the meeting with my friend Keith Henshaw who likewise owned a rather large piece of teenage skepticism. The first part of the meeting was your regular prayer meeting filled with singing and clapping and praying and evoking the glory of the Lord. And, oh yes, we must not forget the passing of the collection plate. They then got down to the ‘good stuff’. My lingering memory now focuses on only two of the happenings that night, although as with any good show there were some initial less theatrical and non-memorable ‘acts’ that were designed to open for and lead up to the main event.
The first of my recalled incidents involved our local shoemaker, Percy, in his fifties, of Afro-American decent, who had been running his shop in the community for a couple years, although he lived in Conway and went “home” for most Sundays. He was a kind and gentle man and fit well into the community. My sense was that Percy’s involvement in the nights’ events had not been planned; Percy had attended the meeting that evening like most of us out of curiosity. He wore glasses and was having some difficulty with his eyesight. As the meeting began to work up to its finalizing crescendo Percy got caught up in the moment and decided there was nothing to loose to let our ‘Miracle Worker’ try and ‘heal’ his eyesight. By this time in the evening most of the attendees had left their seats and were crowded around the elevated stage where the action was taking place. Keith and I had used our knowledge of the auditorium and were standing in the stage wings watching the proceedings.
Percy was assisted up on the stage via a chair and the ‘healer’, a slightly portly man about 5’ 9” in stature and with a good swale of Brill-creamed hair, now with suit jacket off and white shirt sleeves rolled up but still wearing his tie, asked Percy what his problem was. Percy indicated it was his eyesight. The ‘healer’ asked him to remove his glasses and give them to him. Percy did as requested. The ‘healer’ then began to evoke the good Lord to come into Percy’s body and drive Satan, the cause of Percy’s poor eyesight, out from his body. This request of the Lord began in essentially public speaking tones but within a couple minutes the tone had reached shouting proportions, and Percy, at the same time, was experiencing a good shaking by his potential benefactor. The ‘healer’ then let Percy go and stepping aside on the stage, made a great production of tossing Percy’s glasses on the stage floor and stomping them to pieces, all the while evoking the blessing of the Lord in loud dramatic tones. A couple more turns of Percy on the stage, some laying of hands on Percy’s eyes, and Percy was pushed away and told to go home and “Praise the Lord!” because he would never need glasses again. Percy was helped down of the stage by members of the assembly and assisted to the door of the auditorium.
For the most part the audience in the room was paying rapt attention to the happenings on the stage. Occasionally one would evoke an arbitrary “Halleluiah!” or a “Praise the Lord” but for the most part they followed the on-stage event with captivated concentration. I do recall a couple local, staunch male Baptists at the deacon level, watching events unfold from the margins of the crowd; their body language made it evident that their presence was not as participants but as critics.
The next and final patient of the evening was a 12 year old boy on crutches. He was not familiar to us and therefore must have traveled with his parents some distance to attend the meeting. The process applied to the boy was much the same as the one applied to Percy, except it may have been a bit louder and a bit longer. In this case the ‘healer’ attempted to break one of the boy’s crutches over the edge of the stage; fortunately he failed. The end result of this experience was that the boy, who was by then crutchless, was told to walk. He made a couple wavering steps on the stage; however, it was evident that the boy simply was not able to proceed further. In the end, crying, the little boy left the auditorium on his crutches.
The following day I paid a visit to Percy at his shop specifically to see whether there was any lingering effect of the previous night’s event. Percy was perhaps somewhat quieter than usual and appeared to be experiencing some embarrassment from his part in the happenings of the preceding evening. Never particularly loquacious, his prime comment was that he would have to get to Digby in the next couple days and order new glasses for without them he would not be able to work. I left Percy’s shop that day feeling tremendously sorry for his circumstances for the cost of a new pair of glasses was really something he could ill afford. I also left with intensified skepticism of those who pursue a living by actively selling commercial righteousness to a vulnerable public in pursuit of an undefined personal spiritualism. Interestingly, the practice over the past 50 years has moved from the protestant fringes to the mainstream.
On a personal basis my involvement in religion commenced early via my mother at the United Church where I began as a Sunday School attendee, probably around the age of six. I continued with Sunday School and the odd (really odd) church service until I entered the church choir. Then it became an immediate every week occurrence. I am somewhat at odds with myself as to my choir beginnings. It was just after I joined the choir that I took on the church’s janitorial duties, and it made good sense since I was going to be at church in any event. It proved to be a good source of regular income, $11 a month to start, and $18 after one of the church fathers just happened to see me putting in the years’ wood supply two falls later.
I continued Sunday School into the young teenage years when our long term teacher, Mrs. Will Morine, retired after a couple decades on the job with the young teens (daughter Miss Morine had been my grade 4 and 5 teacher at Oakdene – it was a small community!). So since I was in the building every Sunday anyway and since they could not find any adult replacement for Mrs. Morine I agreed to try and fill her shoes, probably starting at about 14 and working with 10 and 11 year olds. A few years ago one of those former students, Garry Wamboldt, actually introduced me to his good wife as his former Sunday School teacher! I had obviously, and unwittingly, made some sort of lasting impression!
Some 18 months later Mr. Harvey Chisholm, who had been the Superintendent of Sunday School almost forever, retired as well. So I picked that job up and carried it off quite well, if I must say so myself! I abandoned it, like everything else in the community, when I went away to University in the fall of 1960. The church experience for me was not religious, nor even spiritual; rather it was organizational. I thrived on making things work, from the stubborn direct radiation furnace which occasionally needed babying to the 1959 Sunday School Christmas concert!
Unfortunately one of our Minister’s took my activism for something beyond the feeding of my “A-type” personality. When I was about 15 he decided it would be good to bring about eight of us “into the Church”. Since the rest of our teenage crew were proceeding down that path I said “Why not?” and started the lesson process. It probably went on for about 6 to 8 weeks. Somehow the week before our big day my father got wind of what was up (he never set foot inside a church unless it was for a funeral or to put on the fires for me if I was ill!). His point was delivered hard and fast – no way are you proceeding with this initiative, you are simply too young to know what you are doing! I was only slightly disappointed to have been forced to abandon the project, but attended the service in my usual spot in the choir. My father, of course, was right and I believe I even knew it then!
That same minister had made arrangements to transfer to another parish up in Cape Breton circa the summer of 1959. During that summer, just before he left town, he came down to The Pines Hotel, where I was gainfully employed scrubbing pots in the staff kitchen, to speak to me one afternoon. His intention was to set me on the road to Mount Allison University and the United Church ministry. He was disappointed when I turned him down without much apparent forethought but I well knew it was not the ministry for me. My mother had apparently been in on the scheme because sometime the next winter she casually mentioned how one of her dreams had been that I would become a Minister. Neither did the guilt trip work.
Through the ensuing years I’ve become increasing cynical about organized religion. At the level of the individual and even at the level of the individual church it carries the continued potential for much good. At the institutional level however I believe it has failed and continues to do so. Over recorded history it has championed, all in the name of one deity or another, the reigning of devastation on relatively innocent populations. In the Christian experience think only of the Crusades, the extirpation of southern Amerindian civilizations, and the last 200 years of servitude and put downs perpetrated on Irish Catholics as three examples of organized religion at something considerably less than its finest hour. In its quest for souls and the associated power that accompanies their capture, organized religion manipulates and is manipulated, the present Islamic terrorist threat being but one example. Some have argued that the US invasionary response to that threat has only been possible due to support of the US religious right, a support that the US Administration continues to quietly stimulate.
Religion, once severed from the soul, is a dangerous mistress.
Music – A Significant Part of Growing Up
My music appreciation talent appeared early in life. Shortly after I could talk I asked my mother not to sing to me. My mother appreciated the request because she knew she could not sing. That request found its way into her annals of “Ray stories”.
The first singing experience that I remember was practicing for the Annapolis County Music Festival. That festival was a county school board affair, usually held in Bridgetown or Middleton High Schools because of the size of their auditoria. As well as the singing experience it also provided an opportunity for a school bus adventure for the Bear River kids - probably a two and a half hour trip to Middleton in those days. As well, when I was a bit older it provided an opportunity to attend the local Steadman’s store and purchase some neat “stuff”. One year it was a plastic rocket with a cap firing mechanism in the weighted head which was propelled by a hand held rubber band launcher. The paved main street of Bear River made for an excellent proving ground for this winged marvel. It probably lasted about a week.
My first entry to the music festival must have been in Grade One in a duet with Nettie Morine. Nettie, her mother, and younger sister were imports into town. Her mother was significantly involved in the music program at Oakdene for my first couple years at the school but I cannot recall if it was as a paid teacher or as a volunteer. That first piece of music was the ever popular Paper of Pins which starts off “I’ll give to you a paper of pins for that’s the way my love begins, if you’ll just marry me, me, me, If you’ll just merry me.” That was my verse and yes it got me some ribbing from the six year old guys! But I soldiered on anyway. We must have done OK because we were entered in the same duet competitions the next year, perhaps singing Good Day Happy Roseina! I believe I subsequently repeated Paper of Pins at a third festival with Juanita Blinn.
Involvement in further years was both in the solo category and as part of a school choir. The one solo piece I still remember was Shenandoah and I recall standing on the stage practicing in an attempt to get some feeling into the song to match the lyrics. I still like the song to this day but I’m certain my efforts lacked the finesse that was required in building the necessary emotion from the inside into the phrasing. Fragments of one other Festival song continue to echo in my mind but I have long since lost both title and most of the words. As it was arranged for and sung by a female trio – Carolyn Harris was one of the singers – I really did not commit the words to serious memory. It had to do with clouds in summer, rain and the subsequent sunshine. It was used in two different years and I can recall at least in the Carolyn Harris year I was so impressed and surprised with the quality of the production. I never hear John Denver’s ‘big sky’ trucking song but that my mind makes the jump back to the trio for girls at the Annapolis County Music Festival.
Mrs. Edna Lent took on the daunting responsibilities during most of my Oakdene tenure of providing music appreciation to the students as well as trying to keep us in tune; she stayed with the program until after I left for high school in Digby. Mrs. Lent was a private piano teacher with a large retinue of students, and the organist at the United Church. She fell logically into the position. For a couple years she was ably assisted by Carolyn Brown who had studied voice; we were fortunate to have Carolyn as a regular teacher in the senior grades for that period as well.
In the earlier grades we had the opportunity to participate in something as simple as a singing period for perhaps an hour a week. The class would simply attend the auditorium, sit in straight back chairs, and blast it out to Mrs. Lent’s piano accompaniment. We had two books from which songs were chosen by the students. It was a good experience because it gave everyone a chance to get involved. I do not recall Mrs. Lent having serious discipline problems in those classes. The Ash Grove, Far from the Old Folks at Home, and John Peel are favorites from those books that jump immediately to mind.
The tradition at Oakdene was that each Christmas the school would put on a major Christmas Concert with every room doing something unique. Opening and closing the show was the mixed-grade school choir directed and accompanied by Mrs. Lent. We would generally do two carols, occasionally three. It seemed that over the years we covered the carol waterfront with the only duplicates being Silent Night and O Little Town of Bethlehem. One of the challenges of this initiative was not to faint during the last number, as the hall grew hotter, the night longer, and the nervousness of performing keener. I believe I only fell off my perch in the middle row once.
I somehow got hold of a guitar when I was about 9, perhaps traded something for it. I recall the neck bridge had been worn to the point where the strings vibrated against some of the frets. I installed a new one using a tooth brush handle as the medium. It resolved the problem of buzzing strings but the strings were now too high and playing hurt my tender little fingers. I managed to learn a few chords from a book and got to the point where I could change them in enough of a rudimentary fashion to be able play a three cord song. I did not spend enough time with it, likely because I needed an inducement. I graduated to the ukulele while at college. In my forties I became a member of ‘The Twisted Picks’ in Cochrane, Ontario, focused mainly on American folk music from the 1960s. We were for several years invited to play at the local Kinsmen Telethon where people made pledges to get us off the air. The Kinsmen liked us!
I joined the United Church choir when I was about 11, and must have sang soprano for a time until my voice changed at about 13. I then went to singing bass, although I had a baritone voice, because our bass section was small – only Mr. Maurice Benson who by that time was retired, and, for a time, Mr. Fred Harris who was slowly withdrawing from his insurance business. This was my first real exposure to four part harmony singing; fortunately the bass parts tended to be more constrained and predictable. Mrs. Lent was our organist and choir director, although she would have been too modest to say that of herself. Choir practice was in the church vestry on Thursday nights from about 7.30 to 9.30, occasionally moving on to 10 pm when we were learning new and or difficult material. The choir often sang what was dubbed an anthem, which was designed for choir alone to highlight our “abundant talent”. These pieces were often more difficult and would take several weeks of hard practice before Mrs. Lent would judge them being performed well enough to allow us to present them before a Sunday audience. The hymns for the weekend service – only one morning service on Sunday – were generally chosen by the minister, which meant that he had to have his sermon planned by Thursday afternoon if he wanted to link it and the hymns.
Our choir was not large, perhaps a dozen members with Flo Harris, Maurice Benson, Fred Harris, Mary Darres, Irene Lantz, Viola Cress, Bertha Sanford, Lillian Morine and Marjorie Alcorn being some of the long time stalwarts. Dr. Brennan began making an appearance just before I signed on and his wonderful tenor voice added more quality than simply another body. My sister Thelma signed on for a couple years in the late 1950s after she returned to live in Bear River and commute daily to her job in Digby. Judy Mayo, a couple years my junior, and my cousin Nancy Riley, both of whom had had their talent nurtured by Mrs. Lent in the school program, made an appearance during my last year or so with the troupe. Mrs. Lent retired from her duties at the United Church organ and the torch was passed to one of her star pupils in the last year – diminutive and capable Evelyn Henshaw with the big smile.
Choir practice had two spin offs for me. The first was that Mrs. Lent offered to give me piano lessons free of charge when I was about 14 years of age. The intent was that I had access to the keys to the church and hence the piano so would have lots of opportunity to practice. Lessons would be held on Thursday evenings, before or after choir practice. I managed to get through grade one piano and into grade two when I realized there were just too many other things – the onset of high school being one – going on in my life to get as deeply immersed as was needed. I also had to really work at it – I simply did not have the innate talent that would let me play by ear. So we agreed that we would both channel our energy elsewhere.
Some of our energy and time got redirected into post choir-practice singing fests which focused on poplar music of the day. Mrs. Lent would play and I’d sing whatever we could get sheet music for. It was both instructive and enjoyable. Occasionally toward the end some of the young girls from the choir might join in as well.
I can recall when I was eight and the family was spending a Saturday evening at my Uncle Walton’s in Virginia East my cousin Wilfred and I offered to sing a song to the gathered relatives accompanying ourselves on a guitar that neither of us could play. When asked what it would be I volunteered The Red River Valley, a song I at that time believed was about a River in Manitoba, having no idea that it was written to praise the valley of the same name in Texas. We started into this venture without having a good command of the words and finally had to adapt on the fly words from Home on the Range since the show had to go on! Well, our performance was a hit, but I was much aware the accolades were probably more for our adaptability than for our musical talent. I realized right there and then that the words to songs were important and promised myself that I’d never get caught out again. So I started learning the full slate of words to any song I found appealing. It soon paid off when my sister came to me for the words to two songs that were important to her group of friends. One I recall was a novelty take-off song which parodied the genre of songs written from the 20s through to the 50s about hobos. Its actual name I’ve forgotten, if I ever knew it, but I’ve always labeled it ‘The Hobo Song’. The second verse which I still recall goes as follows:
One morning I woke up quite hungry
I thought that it never would pass,
I picked out a house and went on the front yard
And started in eating the grass.
I thought they’d feel sorry and feed me
But the lady I looked in despair,
She said “Go around to the back yard
The grass is much longer back there!”
I got serious in listening to music on the radio in about 1950-1951. Highlight programs covered the top ten country hits out of CFNB in Fredericton, NB on Friday night at 7 pm, after which I’d make a bee-line to the movies, and the top ten pop hits out of CHSJ Saint John, NB on Sunday at 1 pm, after which in the summer and fall I’d make a bee-line for the fishing hole or the rabbit snare line.
And then I found the words to all the top pop hits were published, probably monthly, in a publication sold in the local drug store. Was that a find or not! So I started buying and memorizing, I’d belt them out to my hearts content around the fishing hole, and became perhaps the most well versed in the words of any of my friends. And then after about a year and a half I found out they really didn’t care! So I gave up the practice and then only learned those that made a difference to me.
I had the opportunity to experience the transition in the few short years of the 1950s from the 1951 middle-of-the-road pop music a la Tony Bennett, Frankie Lane, Doris Day, and Les Paul and Mary Ford through to 1957 and Elvis and Buddy Holly and Gerry Lee Lewis and the Everly Brothers and the birth of rock and roll. As with most of my generation, the music of the period 1955 to 1965 has become infused deep within my soul. I found the transition exciting and easy to accommodate. Of course this generated in part because of my age, but I had already been exposed to traditional roots music from Appalachia and the country music derived therefrom which, in the early 1950s, led me easily to Hank Williams and his simple melodies and soul-rendering lyrics. I found an instant affinity for the ‘doo-wop’ music component of rock and roll that became the secularized derivative of black southern gospel music; this probably came about because of my church choir experience. This combination, plus my appreciation of Celtic and French-derived Maritime fiddle music made me a continuing easy and willing convert to the folk music explosion of the early 1960s. Interest in and appreciation of bluegrass and the blues came later but indeed generated from the rawness and simplicity of the late ‘50s style of rock and roll.
In 1956 and 1957 I decided with Mrs. Lent’s encouragement that I would do a couple special pieces for the pre-festival public performance. That first year I performed Perry Como’s Hot Diggity and Elvis’ Heartbreak Hotel. The next year I performed Elvis’ Old Shep and something else that has been lost in the annals of time. They went over better than I perhaps thought they would. Fortunately I did not choke up from nervousness the way I had with a festival piece a couple years previous – that particular night I tried three times but no sound would come out of my ‘frozen’ constricted throat. Interestingly, the audience understood what had happened and I got an ‘effort star’ for taking a couple thwacks at it
My last venture into the world of music was in high school when one of the Grade 12 guys casually announced he had a saxophone for sale. Since Bill Hailey’s sax had always intrigued me I made an immediate offer for the instrument – a silver alto sax with a case. I believe I had to pay the $100 price tag off in installments. I took the instrument home and the first thing I learned was that a sax was loud so I had to pick my times for practicing, particularly when my father was not at home. In retrospect I wonder why I did not practice in the church. In any event I got to the point where I could do a passable rendition of a number of scales and then switched to trying to carry a tune. Eventually in the spring of Grade 11 in association with buddy Keith Henshaw on guitar and teacher Mr. Hodgson on the drums we actually played for an assembly. Blue Moon was one of the pieces that stays with me. Again, because of lack of incentive I did not stay with it and I sold the sax to a classmate in University for his high-school brother. Nevertheless it had been a good experience.
Fishing and Hunting – Consuming Pastimes
The outdoors was my youthful passion. I came by it naturally and willingly, certainly in part because I was surrounded by the opportunity.
My first fish was a brook trout, about 8 inches long, caught from a nice dark hole under the big rock in Daddy Franklin Brook just past the apple trees in my grandfather’s side field at Milford Corner. I believe that first fish was caught with my mother in tow so I may have been about four years of age; the next one from the same location, perhaps the following year, was on my own.
Bear River kids were fortunate to have several watercourses on which to develop their early fish catching skills; namely, The Daddy Franklin, Campbell’s, and Charlie’s brooks. The Daddy Franklin in my opinion ranked third as a brook trout producer of all the small brooks to which we had foot or bike access from the village. It required a hard day’s effort to catch even a couple fish, and many a day I returned home skunked. It was ably promoted by Raymond “Herbie” Morine as a treasure but I could just never make it work for me. The one exception was the rock by the apple trees in the side field at my Grandfather’s; it almost always held a fish. However, efficiency would not often promote the two mile upstream walk (and return) for that one fish.
The smaller Chisholm Brook on the Digby side and Kniffin Brook on the Annapolis side were seen by their local school-mate promoters as significant sources of fish but they were smaller, intermittent in the middle of summer, and never really produced more than the odd small brookie. They really did not rank.
The other two brooks that contended for our early attention were Campbell Brook on the Digby side and Charlie’s Brook on the Annapolis side, both entering the Bear immediately upstream of the Bridge.
The bubbly nature of the brook and the best fishing persisted for about a mile and a half upstream as the Campbell incised its way through the thick deposits of overburden and occasional soft shale or slate bedrock. Above the Clark Road where Campbell Brook took on the nature of a meadow stream it contained a few fish but it was almost impossible to penetrate its thick alder banks without scaring every fish in the vicinity. We would take perhaps one try at this phase of the brook annually but success was spotty. Trout in Campbell Brook rarely got much larger than nine inches and tended to be scattered principally along the lower stretches above the Sissiboo Road Bridge. The only ‘hole’ that I can specifically remember was one we called “the well”. It was circular in outline and about five feet across and six feet deep. It had been drilled into a corner in one of the few shale bedrock outcrops on the brook by spring currents using loose boulders as nature’s drill bit. The hole, over storied and shaded by large hemlocks, often produced a trout but the specimen, if it had been there any time, had inevitably adapted its color to its surroundings and was exceedingly dark on back and belly.
Water temperature in some of the less shaded pools increased in the summer and supported a good growth of “frog slime”, or green algae. It forced a migration of the trout to cooler sections of the stream. I was amazed that by hunting time in late September the frog slime of summer would be gone and the pools would run clear and cold again over their growing accumulation of leaves.
I caught my biggest boyhood brook trout – a 14-incher – in Charlie’s brook, which became my favorite of the five. Charlie’s mill pond and the pool below the dam generally held a few trout but we kids had been threatened by Charlie with something worse than hell fire and brimstone if he ever caught us fishing them. I always believed that was Charlie’s approach to fish husbandry on the brook, although it was really impossible for any below the dam to get back upstream. For the most part we respected his wishes, not because of the threats but because that was the way one did things in that community at that time.
I do remember that we also had been warned not to go in the mill – which was a sizable three story, somewhat dilapidated building – but of course we took the odd diversion through the building when we thought no one was looking. I can remember that one day when we were in there someone, I can’t remember who, perhaps Bentley Rice, threw a switch and turned on an internal motor. He immediately turned it off and we split like a bunch of squirrels at a martin convention; as a result we were not apprehended. However, I can also recall Mrs. Balser calling me over to her door step a couple days later and, without any accusations, calmly getting out the message that Charlie had been some angry (he heard the motor startup) and that his big concern was that kids playing in the mill could lead to someone getting hurt. She even offered that if the kids generally were curious of the mill and its workings that he’d put on a demonstration for them. We never took up the opportunity because we thought it might lead to the discovery of who was in the mill that day.
There were a number of small holes/pools further up the brook where one could usually find a trout or two. The biggest pool was only about four feet deep, perhaps 25 feet long, eminently clear, and the one to three trout that periodically lived therein inevitably saw me coming and would hi-tail it under the nearest rock. I eventually resorted to crawling up to the pool on my belly and popping a small fly into its upstream end. Occasionally, and only occasionally, I’d manage to fool the smallest into rising to the occasion. For the most part trout caught, unless obviously critically injured, were returned to the water to provide sport for another day. I had early learned that going home with a catch of only one fish was something less than satisfying so I developed my own version of catch and release.
My big trout came after a mid-summer freshet. I had gone up the brook about two days after the storm, and the water was somewhat high and still a little cloudy. It is inevitably a harder fishing experience under high water conditions because of the fact that the trout have more options as to where to hang out. I approached this particular pool from the downstream side – we most often fished going upstream and walked home, although occasionally we’d try the other approach just for variation or because of something we’d read in Outdoor Life – and flicked an olive-green wooly worm into the head of the pool just at the edge of the current. In seconds this humongous shape darted out from under the pool-head rock and made a pass at the fly. Either I reacted too quickly and in trying to set the hook pulled the fly away, or he simply missed, but in any event we did not connect. Wow! I knew that was the biggest trout I’d ever seen. I had a lump in my throat and my heart was pounding like a pile driver. Did I hook him? Did I scare him? Should I wait for a few minutes?
Well, waiting isn’t my stock in trade so to end the suspense I quickly dropped the fly back in the same spot, this time a bit better prepared. He pounced and I pounced and we had a connection. I would like to be able to say that we then fought each other up and down the pool, crafty old fish, determined young angler, neither giving quarter, but alas I can’t. I put as much pressure on that seven foot fiber glass rod as I could and scrambled that fish right out of that pool and across the gravel bar where I fell on him to ensure there was no tossing of hook and flip-flapping back into that pool. I succeeded and the prize was mine. He then went home to dinner with me.
Where he had come from was a question. I eventually came to the conclusion that he may have been raised in a dammed pond in front of George Jefferson’s house up stream on the north side of the Clementsvale Road. There was a rumor that George fed fish in his pond. However, he may have been calmly growing over the years in a brook side home that was simply oblivious to us. As an adult I caught many larger brook trout in streams flowing into Hudson and James bays. While every one was a savoring and exciting experience none arrived with the same thrill as my 14-incher from Charlie’s Brook.
As I grew into my teen years my trout fishing-grounds grew in area. It was obvious that I would naturally migrate up both the East and West Branches of the Bear River. The hydro electric infrastructure placed on the East Branch c 1951 effectively curtailed the stream fishing on the first two miles of that river once the fish trapped in the isolated pools were taken either by fishermen, osprey, or mink, an exercise that required only about three years. The flooded head pond for the power development produced excellent trout fishing for a few years but by the time I reached high school the bloom was off the rose.
As a kid I can several times recall seeing, and hearing, an Atlantic salmon jump in the river on the incoming tide. Salmon were purported to occupy the pools off the point above the bridge when the tide was out and I can recall hearing my brother talking about the illegal activity of attempting to catch them with pitchforks and lights after dark. I never managed to catch an adult salmon although in fishing for trout c 1950 to 1954 in the vicinity of the bridge at the Head-of-the-Tide I did catch perhaps a half dozen incidental young salmon smolt which were building up body mass in fresh water before making their initial foray into the Bay of Fundy and points beyond. The East Branch power development effectively curtailed the Bear River’s Atlantic salmon potential. Although there were a couple serious attempts in the latter part of the 20th century to reintroduce salmon on the West Branch the initiatives were singularly unsuccessful.
The West Branch garnered more attention as I grew older. At first it was the section of the river to Morganville; and later the section above Morganville. One of my early introductions to the sport was on the West Branch when I was about 7 years of age. My father took myself and my mother out to a short, relatively easily accessible section of the river somewhere above Morganville for a Sunday afternoon. I believe the intent was that he would fish while my mother kept an eye on me. It was in the spring of the year and the trout were in transit from their winter to summer habitat and, as a result, all hanging out at the heads of the larger pools where there was significant running water.
I can recall that my father had been able to get himself located at the head of one of these pools near the center of the river; it was almost impossible and too dangerous for me to access. He was fly fishing and had probably taken at least a half dozen fish. My worms did not seem to be doing the trick nearer the shore and so I decided that I too would change to a fly, two of which I had acquired from wherever. I managed with some difficulty to get a Yellow Sally tied to the end of my line and flipped it back into the water. Nothing happened, nothing happened in one minute, nothing happened in two minutes, and by then my short attention span had redirected my mind, my line and its yellow charge still in the water. At some indeterminate time later I refocused on the task at hand and decided it was time to relocate to a better fishing spot. Upon pulling my line out of the water there was, unbeknownst to me, a fine trout attached to the other end. That little incident instantly converted this previous purveyor of worms to the graceful art of fly fishing.
In my older teenage years I managed to get out, walking all the way, to such places as Negroline Brook off the East Branch, Welcome Thomas Brook also off the East Branch, and John Paul’s Hole in the upper end of the West Branch south of Lake Jolly. Unfortunately these larger streams were difficult to fish from shore in many places. Also in my teenage years and with canoes out of Lake Jolly I, with some combination of the Parkers and Pecks, accessed the John Paul’s Hole section of the upper West Branch, as well as Ninth, Eighth, Seventh, and Sixth Lake, Sixth Lake and Whitesand Lake streams, and Whitesand Lake. Good experiences all.
A Morning’s Catch at John Paul’s Hole
The author with brothers Neil (left) and Gerald Parker c1957
On one of the trips to John Paul’s hole with Neil and Gerald Parker and Gary Gesner we took a side day-trip into Sixth Lake, taking along some grub and the sleeping bags and ground sheets just in case. On the return in the late afternoon we pulled up on a small sand beach on the west side of Lake Joli; it was a beautiful, warm summer afternoon, we were in a wonderful location, and in an optimistic mood so we decided to stay the night. Gary and Neil elected to sleep out under the stars while Gerald and I decided to construct a balsam bough lean-to to better define our evening accommodations. After extinguishing our early evening fire in the pit on the beach we hit the sack beneath a star-filled sky, anticipating deep reveries under Mother Nature’s natural comforter. About 4 am we were set upon by a massive thunder storm. We early heard Neil and Gary scrambling under the canoes out of the way of the light showers from the storm’s leading edge. In contrast Gerald and I, protected from those initial showers by our lean-to, simply rolled over and decided to wait it out in our protected alcove. Bad decision! The heavens then opened and it simply poured for the next half hour. As one would expect our brush lean-to could not cope with the water and we started getting wet, in fact, we got saturated, sleeping bags and all!
The rain stopped at about 5 am just as dawn was breaking. Soaked to the skin, hungry, grumpy, and with no means of drying out before noon, Gerald and I elected to immediately set out back for the camp at John Paul’s Hole, one portage and perhaps 90 minutes away. Gerald was not pleased that as we moved out across Lake Joli I was attempting to raise our flagged spirits with a rousing rendition of Row, Row, Row Your Boat; he told me in unmistakingly clear English to can it! The portage, still hanging with water from the night’s storm, refreshed the moisture level in our clothing and the despair in our souls. Arriving at the camp at about 9.30 am we immediately built a big fire in the stove and got the temperature to a point where it managed to counteract any incipient hypothermia (which in those days we simply called it cold!), and finally had something to eat (likely bread fried in yesterday’s bacon fat, one of our then favorite camp foods!). I have not constructed a brush lean-to in the ensuing 50 years.
Given the fact that the community of Bear River was at tidehead and enjoyed two Fundy tides a day it also provided another kind of fishing opportunity… Eels! Every summer the adult eels found their way back to our community and provided great sport when one had nothing else to do. Eel fishing was generally carried out by hand line from one of the three bridges in town. Bait was typically meat scraps bummed from one of the two butcher shops, and the butchers rarely refused. Occasionally Bobby Benson would join us with clams (sans shells) that he had acquired near the river mouth or in the Annapolis Basin (his Dad, of the community’s famous Benson shipbuilding family, had an inboard motor boat). Opinion based on empirical evidence was that clams had a slight edge over meat scraps.
Eels were present in greatest numbers on the immediate leading edge of the incoming tide. On a sunny day they could easily be seen snaking their way up the brooks. The objective would be to drop a baited hook in front of one, watch him get the smell of the bait and perhaps change course a bit, watch him take it in his mouth, give him a second, and then set the hook. With a hand line the objective was to get the eel up on the bridge immediately, get him unhooked, get the line re-baited, and go after the next one. It was a numbers game and the best fishing only lasted perhaps 30 minutes.
Sometimes the act of unhooking the eel became something of a challenge, particularly if the hook had been swallowed or taken deeply. Since eels, like snakes, have a common characteristic of wrapping themselves around the line or an arm, and since unlike snakes they are terribly ‘slimy’, those hooked deeply were slammed on the pavement until their squirming was reduced to a manageable level, and if convenient they would be placed in a position to be run over by the approaching car or truck. Then the hook would be extracted with fingers or a knife as appropriate. The eels, which ranged in size from perhaps a foot up to three feet, were then generally left on the bridge until the fishing session was over and then tossed back into the river. Herring gulls would often be seen fighting over our leavings.
Eels on a fishing rod can be a particularly challenging experience, especially with light tackle. I had the opportunity to try it with my kids one summer afternoon c 1980. That experience taught me that eels are still a challenge to unhook even after thirty years of life experience. I occasionally – perhaps four times - caught an eel, perhaps 12 inches or so in length - on a rod while fishing up one of the local brooks. At that time I could not fathom what they were doing there. It is now assumed that they represented individual eels that had matured in the brook and had not yet, for whatever reason, followed the primordial urge to migrate down stream back to the brackish water of the Bear.
At one point we lived in the apartment over the Trading Company where an outside platform veranda was perched out over Charlie’s Brook. Since the Trading Company was built on pilings driven into the river bottom the tide came up under the building, and our veranda, twice a day. With it also came the eels. While the intent of the veranda was access to a clothesline it also provided a garbage disposal service (into the river!). At the same time it became an excellent point from which a 10 year old could do some eel fishing.
One midsummer’s day I and a friend had been catching eels off the veranda. For some reason we decided we’d put a couple in the sink in our bathroom. This we did and promptly forgot about them and went off on other adventures. Now my mother happened to have had a massive aversion to snakes, so bad I actually chased her out of the house with a drawing of copperheads one day (only once!). So she arrived home and found two eels in her bathroom sink. Mine was not a happy homecoming for supper that evening.
Two other points about eels - Firstly every year saw the advent of a new batch of young Atlantic eels in the River, ranging from about 2 to 5 inches in length and about the diameter of a pencil lead. I had always thought and was amazed that these little guys had managed somehow to migrate all the way in from the Sargasso Sea in the central North Atlantic. I was to discover later that it was not these little eels that had migrated from the Atlantic into the river but their 4 cm transparent larval stage – the little guys that caught our attention had already transformed from the larvae in local fresh water brooks and had migrated back to salt/brackish water to feed and mature. The truth is ever more amazing! The truth also explains why I’d find the odd five inch baby eel up one of the brooks.
Secondly, during the late 1940s early 1950s eels were commercially caught in the Bear River for the fish markets of New England and New York. The fishermen were part–timers generally following the practice simply to supplement their annual income. The method was simple yet effective - a wooden oak barrel with a removable door on its side and four inch holes cut in both ends formed the trap. A meshed stocking about eight inches long would be attached on the inside covering each hole. The barrel would be installed near the side of one of the brooks during low tide, weighted down with rocks, and baited with raw meat or fish. The eels making their way upstream on the incoming tide, smelled the bait, made their way to the now submerged eel trap, found and entered the hole and were prevented from finding their way out by the mesh stocking. When the tide went out the fisherman walked out to his eel pot, opened the door, transferred the eels to a gunny sack and began the process of their transport to the Yarmouth ferries and the US East Coast market. In the Bear River an average eel pot would capture from 5 to 20 eels a day and the local fisherman may have had from two to six active eel pots at any time during the summer season.
The Bear hosted a few other species as well. Tommy cod, a small fish averaging about eight inches and resembling a cod, traveled into the River to spawn and were occasionally caught off the bridge or a local wharf. The odd flounder likewise made it up to the bridge and I managed to catch a couple in the associated pool below. The prime ‘other species’ was striped bass which gave the appearance of arriving as a new species in the Bear River c 1950. Its appearance created a whole new sports genre for the area, and several of the locals took to pursuing it with great energy. A 45 pound specimen fueled the appetites of the tourist fishermen and Bear River became a place to go to catch large striped bass during the mid 1950s.
In 1960, after the loss of a job as a fire spotter in the local fire tower elsewhere described, I needed another activity to garner some of the Queen’s coinage to assist in my first year of University. Mal Parker, our landlord and the father of two of my friends, offered me the use of his boat and motor if I could rustle up any stripe bass guiding opportunities on the river. Within two days I had a call from a resident of the fine state of Massachusetts and we made a deal to be at the dock the next morning at 9 am even tho the tide would then be just about turning. I was to bring some food and tackle. When my passenger arrived at the dock he arrived with a seven year old son and a five year old daughter who would be accompanying us for the experience. Well, the boat was of sufficient size, I did have appropriate life jackets, and there was enough food. We set out.
We trolled above the bridge on the outgoing tide and then went downstream and worked that section of the river. A strike and subsequent loss got my intrepid sport much more interested in the process, and in his growing enthusiasm he determined we should stay on the river so as to be able to fish the incoming tide. He had not taken into consideration the attention span of a five year old when he made that decision.
Just about the time the tide was fully out the little girl had had enough and the decision was made by my paying customer that we would have to go to shore. Now getting to shore was no problem – I could effectively touch it with a paddle. What was the problem was that we had about 200 yards of mud flats to cross before we could reach terra firma – and that mud would be calf deep. My problem would be to get them to shore, then to town, and then to get back before the incoming tide made it impossible to reach the boat. Given the length of the anchor rope I had about 90 minutes. So with the little girl on my shoulders and him carrying and assisting the seven year old we made for the solid ground. If you have never had the experience let me assure you that walking in this kind of mud is something of a challenge. It took us about 30 minutes to get off the mud flats, both of us dog tired. It took another 30 minutes to get them back to civilization – Oakdene School, and a paved street that would lead them to their car.
After a quick thanks and the exchange of some dollars, $15 I believe, including a $5 tip, I beetled it back down the river, across the mudflats, reaching the anchor about five minutes before the tide. I managed to pull the boat as close as possible onto the flats, wade in the oncoming tide and jump aboard. In 10 minutes I managed to get the boat floating, pushed out into deeper water and headed upstream under power. I finally tied up at about 6 pm. The next morning I cleaned up the boat – mud everywhere – thanked my benefactor and indicated that if that was striped bass guiding I was going back to landscaping. In retrospect, it was my first lesson on the attention span of younger children.
This last significant fishing experience focused on our proximity to salt water. Woody Davis was a fishing buddy of my father’s and lived with his father on the family farmstead. Woody had in earlier years had various jobs, including bank teller, working in Newfoundland in the late 1940s at one of the American bases where he had stayed for a couple years, and a short stint in Toronto in the 1960s where his Upper Canadianized-sister had found him a job as a security officer in one of the downtown office complexes. The latter job lasted only months because Woody was self conscious about wearing his uniform in public – he always took it to work in a brown paper bag and changed in the washroom so he would not be noticed in that uniform by people on the street – and as a result he eventually terminated his employment and returned to Nova Scotia. It was never really clear to me what he lived on but he was a colorful, friendly guy-on-the-street and was loved by all.
Some 25 years later I had described Woody to some Ontario friends who were touring Nova Scotia by car and told them that if their trip took them into my fine home town to look for Woody Davis on the street and he’d provide local guiding service. They arrived at the stop sign by the post office, my friend saw a guy standing on the street in front of Frazer’s store who fit my description, inquired if he was Woody, it was, and guiding services were provided forthwith!
Now Woody had an older uncle, Chance Parker by name, who lived the life of a bachelor recluse in what had been the family home out at the Head-of-the-Tide. Chance was probably in his early 70s at the time our paths crossed in the early 1950s. He had been a surveyor in the US, Maine if I remember correctly, and appeared to have returned to Nova Scotia in retirement. Now Chance was known to have money and was also known to be Scottishly frugal. My sister worked in the local bank in the late 1940s and recalls Chance at least once depositing significant numbers of banknotes that carried a musty, early odor and the conclusion was that the cash had been buried for some time. He later withdrew all his savings from the bank, claiming another pending set of bank failures. But I digress!
Chance’s Scottish frugality induced him in the summer, every couple weeks when the tide was right, to drive the 20 or so miles to Culloden on the Fundy shore and fish off the dock for whatever was catchable. That catch would be deposited in burlap bags and transported home to provide a source of nutrients for the next week or so. Frequently, Woody would accompany his uncle and Woody graciously took me along on several of these outings c 1953. Transportation was provided by Chance’s 1941 ‘half-ton’, which I was never sure would make the trip. The routine was to park the truck on the hill overlooking the wharf, so it could be started by catching it in gear should the battery fail, and a heavy WW1 army great coat was always placed over the engine bonnet to ensure the number 10 oil in the engine stayed warm, even in mid-summer.
The intent was to catch the incoming tide and fish for 5 or so hours until it turned and/or the fishing fell off and/or the weather came in. The catch would primarily consist of pollock, and cunner, supplemented by the occasional flounder, and probably by another species or two that are now lost in the mists of memory. I did pull up a crab one day but it let go just after he came out of the water. There were often commercial fishing boats tied up at the dock or unloading fish; the fishermen and their crews, usually a few high school guys involved in summer jobs, were generally quite hospitable and would occasionally assist in unsnagging our lines from the bottom. I can clearly recall one young fisherman with time on his hands who I watched make a spoon-type lure out of a tin can and catch a cunner all within the space of 15 minutes. That action obviously made an impression on my fertile memory.
Herring gulls maintained a vigilant watch on all goings and comings in aid of seizing the odd discarded fish. Inevitably when the boats were unloading there would be a gull or two swimming around with a fish tail hanging out of its beak, a tail that would stay there until a sufficient amount of the now swallowed fish would be digested to allow the tail portion to be swallowed as well. Those fish-tail gulls had a difficult time flying. I still have no idea of how much time is needed for a gull to internalize an oversized fish. Large jelly fish, a relatively rare sight up our River, also played around the pilings of the dock and provided a good distraction when the fish were not biting. Meat fishing on the Culloden dock provided a good diversion from chasing trout, was inevitably more or less successful, and where better for a boy to spend a lazy summer day.
There is a small post script to my acquaintance with Chance Parker. Upon Chance’s death in 1963 his estate, or at least most of it, was left to nephew Woody. The immediate question was what had happened to the money he had taken out of the bank c1950? The missing cash prompted Woody to recruit my father and retired storekeeper Aaron Darres to spend a couple weekends working over Chance’s home property with metal rods, systematically driving them into the ground on a predetermined grid to try and locate buried metal or glass containers. The task proved futile. There was some consideration that they should perform the same ritual on a woodlot Chance had owned up the West Branch but given that the lot was in excess of 20 acres it did not take long to realize that playing poker in Riley’s garage would be a more lucrative pastime. Discouraged, the treasure hunters retreated to the garage.
A few months later a number of bearer bonds were cashed in the southwestern Nova Scotia banking system. Because of their uniqueness the authorities decided to place a trace on the instruments and the trail led directly to the lady that had looked after Chance during his final months. The remaining bonds were eventually returned to the estate and the lady appropriately dealt with by the authorities.
My first hunting experience was with my parents as perhaps a five year old and involved an overnight stay in one of the abandoned buildings at Lake Jolly where we had been delivered by taxi. Our accommodation was perhaps the best remaining building of a former clothes pin factory that had existed on the site in the 1930s. I came to discover recently that my paternal grandfather had actually worked at the site while it was operating, walking on Saturday afternoon all the way home to Virginia East to see the family and leaving on the return journey Sunday at noon, a distance of some 15 or so miles each way.
The ‘hunt’ involved my father unsuccessfully working some apple trees in the evening, and the three of us walking some woods roads during the day. I can remember being admonished for talking and apparently scaring a deer that was on the road just around a corner. We collected a wonderfully large, recently abandoned wasp nest in excellent condition.
My next ‘hunting’ venture commenced when I was about nine and consisted of the development of a snare line for ‘rabbits’, more properly snowshoe hares. The location of my ‘line’ was up above Tommy Gates’ house on Peck’s Hill. The land was privately owned but ownership rarely affected our hunting or fishing efforts unless there were cattle in the field/woodlot or if the land had been planted. Under such circumstances we knew intuitively to leave well enough alone.
I really had no idea what I was about, but had been able to purchase a skein of brass snare wire and had probable read enough in a book to get the general gist of the idea. I probably set five snares which I attended faithfully every night after school, at least in the beginning, and on Saturday’s as well. Since we had no snow that first fall I was going strictly on my interpretation of what may have been a rabbit path. The reality was that rabbits were not very plentiful in that area that particular year (rabbit populations tend to be naturally cyclic, generally over a more or less seven year period, growing exponentially and then crashing). But in the second week of November I caught my first rabbit which I promptly took to the local meat market and sold to the good proprietor for fifty cents. I caught a second rabbit that year in the same snare. It was still alive when I arrived and I had to dispatch it with a couple thowop’s to the head with the back of my trusty hatchet – another fifty cents.
On one of my Saturday outings in the general vicinity of my rabbit line I discovered an abandoned V-shaped fence with arms about 10 feet long and about 18 inches high in the cleared under-story area of a stand of thick, large white spruce. It had apparently been constructed the previous year by another ‘trapper’, and was designed for a snare at the point of the ‘V’ into which the unsuspecting rabbit would be naturally guided by the wing fences. To my ten year old mind it was an ingenious device and ready for the taking. I set a new snare and it became a regular part of my line. Unfortunately it did not live up to my expectations in its production of rabbits, but I did take two ruffed grouse from it that first year. I never bothered with the location again, but I always admired its designer’s creativity.
I was still working my line in the fall of 1953 when then Premier Angus L. MacDonald came to town to open the new power station on the East Branch at the Head-of-the-Tide. All the students of Oakdene School were to attend this great event and were scheduled, upon notice, to walk from the school to the power site, a distance of about a half mile, and then return to school after the opening. Well, the notice to leave for the site, for whatever reason, was not delivered to our Grade 4/5 classroom and we missed the event.
Late that afternoon there was to be a reception in the I.O.O.F. hall for the Premier and other dignitaries. As well, because we had missed the earlier event arrangements had been made for the Premier to treat the members of our room to ice cream after school. It was my intention to get my ice cream and then head out to check my snares. However, on the way to the ice cream parlor I tarried by a small group of town folk who were waiting for a glimpse of the dignitaries outside the I.O.O.F. hall. Since my short stature prevented me from seeing what has happening I climbed one of the maples adjacent to the hall.
Unfortunately, the next thing I knew was that my older sister, who worked in the adjacent bank and had seen her kid brother climbing the tree and was embarrassed to death by his actions, came out and made it abundantly clear that I was to get out of that tree and make myself scarce. Knowing that discretion was the better part of valor, particularly when it came to discussion of my behavior at supper time, I immediately abandoned my aerial vantage point and made a hasty retreat up the hill from my embarrassed sister and off to the safety of my snare line. In my haste to avoid a serious incident over dinner, however, I forgot the ice cream opportunity. Consequently my angelic countenance is missing from the legendary picture that captured the only day the Premier bought ice cream for Miss Morine’s Grade 4/5 class in Bear River. I caught no rabbits that day either!
In the mid-1980s I got back into the rabbit snaring business for about a week one early December. At that time we were living in northern Ontario and my intent was to show my 8 year old daughter and 10 year old son the knack of ‘living off the land’. However, that particular December saw temperatures of -35 C and the afternoon we checked the snares for the first time I got three badly frostbitten fingers extracting two rabbits. The kids were definitely not impressed with either the process or the dead rabbits, and I could not entice anyone into eating the catch. So much for trying to relive my childhood! Two of those fingers continue to he hyper-sensitive to cold even today.
Miss Morine’s Grade 4/5 class November, 1953 with Premier Angus L. MacDonald
Shown left to right: Juanita Blinn, Avon Dunn, Gene Darres, David Potter, Judy Marshall, Gerald Parker, Jimmy Doucette, the Premier, Johnny Doucette, Mildred Higgins, Unknown, Bentley Rice, Joan Thibideau, Eddie McDonald, Ann Frost, William Wamboldt, David Hill, Rodney Peck
For a couple years I ran a complimentary trapline for red squirrels. The traps consisted of a couple of rat traps purchased from the local general store, Darres Brothers in this instance. The bait consisted of a slice of apple. The line was established in a stand of large white pine on the back end of Woody Davis’ father’s property where it intersected Charlie’s Brook, perhaps a half hour walk from town on an old woods road that generally paralleled the brook. The first year I believe I took four squirrels, but I got them a bit too early and the pelts were not quite prime; hence their value at market not sufficient to cover the postage to fur buyer Sidney I. Robinson in Winnipeg (sourced from the Family Herald). The second year the white pine had been cut but not skidded out and the general disorder in the forest made the dynamics of the area much more intense to both the squirrels and the trapper. Waiting until November to set up my line took care of the primeness problem in the six squirrels I managed to harvest. However, I received a check from Sidney I. Robinson for some $3.00 or a disappointing fifty cents a piece so thus endeth my squirrel trapping venture.
I recall that on one of my last ventures out to my squirrel line to retrieve my traps I had to make my way in several inches of early snow. The trail I used was a bush-road that led from behind Woody Davis’ house and was at best rarely used and certainly not after the first snowfall. Part way there I had to “go” and in so doing absent-mindedly wrote my name in the snow with a bit of a flourish. Apparently Bentley Rice had, for whatever reason, been walking the road later in the day, saw my signature, reported the fact to his good friend Wayne Wright, and the secret of the signature had escaped the bottle. Within less than 24 hours the fact that my signature graced the road was well known in certain quarters in the village and I was the subject of some good natured razzing for the next few days.
In my mid-teens I did try to harvest muskrats with leg-hold traps in Jim Harris Lake – this was before the advent of the conibear-style of humane traps – but I never mastered the trick of creating an effective drowning set. After two animals escaped by chewing off their foot I gave muskrat trapping up as a lost cause.
My introduction to guns was gradual and appropriate. When I was about 12 my father and Walter Wright would often spend a few Saturday night’s in the fall at Walter’s ‘camp’ on the Sissiboo road. Walter’s son Wayne and I were often permitted to accompany them. The memory of trying to stay awake in the glow of the coal-oil lamps, with the wood stove cranked up to red hot, and with the home of country music, “WWVA” Wheeling, West Virginia, blaring through the speakers of the old battery operated radio continues to be vivid. Lee Moore and Juanita generally had a 15 minute show at 10 pm and the objective was to stay awake until these, our friends, had finished their performance.
On a usual Saturday we would get to the camp before dark, which meant that my father would have had to close his shop probably around four o’clock. Upon arrival Wayne and I would take the old 20-gauge and go out and see if there might be a grouse in the apple tree up behind the camp. If not in the evening, we’d try again in the morning, and again at mid day an hour or so before we left for home. I believe our Sunday excursions were illegal as Sunday hunting was not allowed in Nova Scotia in the 1950s. By the time I was 13 I was venturing out alone with the 20-guage when Wayne was otherwise occupied. We usually bagged one or more grouse on a trip to the camp but occasionally came up empty handed.
By the time I was 14 my family had moved to the Digby side of the River to the Earn Davis house. I was now situated about a little less than half way up the hill between the River and the top of the ridge by the ball field. The ball field marked the first piece of level ground available for such a development, ground not directly affected by the incised erosion of the River over the past millennia. Rolling out immediately behind our house to the west was a series of fields and to the north some bush, both of which carried on until they intersected the Lansdowne Road. I transferred my rabbit snaring initiative to this new territory and had some better success. The price of rabbits had now gone to the grand sum of 75 cents.
In my 14th year my father arrived home one fall afternoon with a Savage model over and under single shot .22/410. The gun broke down for loading like most shotguns and had a button on the side by which the firing pin was switched to activate the desired caliber. I used the gun that fall in my ventures up the hill and into the woods. It disappeared that winter and reappeared again the next fall and then remained in my possession until the summer of my 18th year. At that time my father retrieved “his gun” and sold it as I was off to University and would no longer need it. It was the perfect firearm for a kid chasing rabbits and grouse, and it was even put into action on ducks and pheasants.
A year prior to the gun arriving at the house, there also arrived a hound. It was not something I had been pining for but I guess there was an idea that the boy needed a dog. In any event the dog arrived, and I undertook my first construction project – a dog house – and Nipper, a 15 inch beagle, joined the family. However, it was clear he was to be something other than a house pet so I set up a winter kennel for him in the barn.
A couple of the other guys had hounds; Gary Gesner an older female blue tic/beagle cross and Wayne Wright a young 13 inch male beagle. With the advent of the shotgun and the dog the interest in snaring rabbits quickly waned – we had another way of hunting. Nipper was young, excitable, and had a somewhat haywire trait that appeared in his first year never left him. In his mature years it manifested itself in his being hot on the trail of a rabbit, generally at some distance because he tended to be fast, when the pitch in his voice would change to one of sheer terror and he’d make a beeline to either the last place he saw me or the truck, howling all the way. He’d find the truck, or me, and all would be well and he’d go back to scaring up another rabbit and away he’d go again for another half hour or 45 minutes. Gary’s dog was short-legged and reasonably slow such that the rabbits did not light out for the next county; she was good to work with and usually came when called. Wayne’s dog was bit faster than the female, could do good work if he set his mind to it, but had a bit of an aggressive chip on his shoulder.
We often would take the three dogs out together and there would be anywhere from three to seven of us on a hunt. The intent would be to get into the woods about 10.30 or so in the morning of a day when there was light snow on the ground but the temperature was near or above freezing so the scent would be good. The ideal habitat was thought to be relatively open, young, clumpy mixed hardwood and softwood stands with reasonable visibility. The intent was to work off a woods road with each of us having a station on which we would wait for a dog to drive a rabbit past. It was clear that the rabbits generally enjoyed the chase because we often watched them stop and wait for the dog to catch up, and most times with an apparent smile on their face. We’d stay at the appointed task until perhaps 3 pm, bag anywhere from a couple to a dozen rabbits, and go home with tired dogs to their well deserved supper of scraps and dog food. Occasionally we’d roast an early morning rabbit over an open fire for an early afternoon snack. The price of rabbits, not badly damaged, was now up to $1.00 per.
Nipper stayed with us for about six years until the summer I left for university when I gave him to Bert Mayo, a hunting friend of the family who had used the dog and quite liked him. Nipper apparently died about three years later. In sad retrospect, tying a dog outside for most of his life leaves so much to be desired.
In terms of other huntable species, I tried to follow directions in Outdoor Life about taking foxes by walking them down via their tracks in fresh snow. The theory was that on a frosty clear afternoon they would often bed down for a short nap in the sun in the lea of a snowdrift out of the wind and could be approached via stealthy tracking. No success, but I did manage to get the process down to the point where I put one up one afternoon from a bed in the middle of a large hay field.
I managed to bag the odd duck in the river north of town, but they were very difficult to get close to except at high tide because of the configuration of the river bed and decoys were not a possibility to which I had access. Pheasants had been introduced into the area few years before the .410 arrived, and had been extremely successful to the point where Merrill Handspiker and I put up 28 in one corn field late one summer afternoon. Unfortunately, the hard winter the year after I had access to the shotgun did the pheasant population in and they were not available during my high school years.
Whitetail deer, actually introduced to Nova Scotia in the general Bear River area in the early part of the 20th century, were not very plentiful in the vicinity of the village in the 1950s. I can only recall putting up perhaps 2 through the years when I wandered the valley sides and the upland surrounding the community. Their incipient return was predicted on my first Xmas home from university when I discovered a herd of five that had taken up winter residence under a thick stand of hillside hemlock no more than 500 yards from my house. Crows tended to be another potential source of game but I never had much success bringing them to my burlap mock-ups of an owl decoy.
Moose were likewise a rarity in the mainland Nova Scotia of my day. My first moose encounter was c 1945 when my sister and her friends took me out the Lake Jolly road to view a cow which was seriously affected by ticks and brain worm, the latter a deadly parasitic affliction that occurs in moose where their range overlaps with whitetail deer. My only other Nova Scotia encounter with moose was on Sixth Lake Stream in the spring of 1960 when Eddie Peck and I, just before reaching the mouth of Whitesand Stream, encountered a cow moose partway across the river. She retreated back to a young calf on the bank. The bristling hair on the nape of the neck suggested to Eddie and I that following the pair into the woods for a better look was probably not the right thing to do.
Interestingly, my intense passion for fishing cooled once I left behind Nova Scotia and my teenage years. I must admit, however, that the opportunity to take two and three pound brook trout on Ontario’s Hudson’s Bay-destined Sutton River and to take large lake trout and grayling in Nunavut’s Thelon River fulfilled the dreams of childhood. I became reengaged in hunting whitetail deer in the early 1990s and continue it today primarily as an excuse to get together for several days each fall with good companions with whom I had worked for over two decades.
On a second post script, a number of us enrolled at Acadia in the early 1960s, probably a half dozen guys, took shotguns to school every fall in order to seize the opportunity of a good population of ducks and geese out in the diked marshes behind the football field. Those guns and the associated ammunition were in the residences for most of the fall term. Notwithstanding the fact that such actions today would run afoul of gun storage legislation, can you imagine the administration of any institution of higher learning condoning such activities today? Times have certainly, and appropriately, changed!
Working for a Living
My first money-raising activity was collecting bottles. I discovered early that I could exchange bottles for money, that money allowed the purchase of candy, ice cream, and popsicles and I liked those things.
In my bottle collecting business I had no scruples – both beer bottles and pop bottles could be returned for cold hard cash; I took on which ever I might come across. Beer bottles tended to be a little more prevalent than pop bottles in and around the village. This probably derives from the fact that drinking was looked on with some distaste by the community churches, and that there were no places where an adult could properly dispose of bottles in town without being subject to some criticism, direct or indirect, by the more pious residents. Additionally, there were no drinking establishments in the village – even the Legion was dry – and the nearest liquor store was in Digby some 11 miles away. There was always a bootlegger somewhere near the fringes of the community, and as long as they did nothing to create complaints the Mounties tended to leave them alone.
The best place to look for bottles was in the River. Almost everything not wanted by the community ended up in the river because the tide came in twice a day and removed the undesirables, except for those that would sink, at no expense. The second favourite spot was the River Road, particularly in the spring. Annually, alone or with a friend (more than often as not alone, for with friends you were forced to share the spoils), I would make the trek down the River Road perhaps for a distance of three miles for beyond that experience showed that bottles were not plentiful. Inevitably I’d come back with a good haul, and at two cents for quarts and one cent for pints I could get into significant money. The third place for bottles was about a 100 yards up the road along Campbell Brook. There were a few men from out of town who made the traditional Saturday evening trip to Bear River with their wives. While their wives were shopping these gentlemen would beeline it to the bootlegger, pick up a quart or two of beer, and retire to a little secluded location on the Brook road to consume their prize. At first I just found the bottles at their selected rendezvous. Later as I got older I figured out their timing and on some slow Saturday nights I would show up before they were done and wait for the bottles. They never seemed to mind. I knew the individuals by sight but because they were from out of town never knew their names. I still have an urge to stop the vehicle and collect any bottle I see along the highway. Additionally, I cannot simply walk away from the empty bottles at our deer camp and I’ll inevitably drag them home and dispose of them for cash. My wife would say I’m simply cheap but it all stems from my childhood values.
By 1953 I became engaged in the landscaping and gardening business with most of my employ centered on little grey-haired widows with big houses. These widows represented the remains of social and financial elite of the community from its turn-of-the-century heyday. At least in a couple instances they tended to favour my services because I would provide a quality product at a price that undercut the one or two men in the community who were doing it to support families. My landscaping efforts were largely directed to mowing grass and edging flowerbeds. On occasion I also planted flowers, pulled weeds, mowed side hills with a scythe, created flowerbeds, and transplanted trees that I had collected in the woods. In the end I believe I was probably charging all of a dollar an hour. Initially I borrowed my brother-in-law’s gas mower; I later used one that my father had purchased. I sometimes had to push the mower a mile or more across town to get from one job to the other.
Seasonal work included picking strawberries at Peter McGregor’s farm for five cents a quart, picking and selling wild blueberries door to door, picking green beans on a weight basis, perhaps at 10 cents a pound, splitting and piling firewood, digging dandelion greens in the spring and selling them to a customer list built up over a few years (funny, some people objected when I dug the dandelions off their property and then tried to sell them their own weeds!), helping local part-time farmers with the haying (I actually went through the change from loose hay to bails), and water boy on the pulpwood boats.
The latter was a rather unique opportunity I managed to get into at the age when I could hardly carry a full pail of water. The Lincoln Pulp and Paper Company produced peeled, four foot conifer pulpwood in the Bear River area for its Lincoln, Maine mill. I do not recall pulpwood being moved out of the community by water during the immediate post war period but direct transport commenced again, at least in my memory, c 1949. Traditionally the fiber had been brought from the woods to the wharves in Bear River where it was stored. My first recollection is of a large flat bottomed scow being pushed up the river by a tug and then tied up at the best of the three pulp storage wharves on the River Road. The tug would then usually go out on the tide and spend the next few days at Digby awaiting the loading; occasionally they would tie up in town at one of “The Lincoln’s” older wharves on the Annapolis side of the River.
On the afternoon of the arrival of the scow the word would go out by phone, and by neighbours where phones were not to be had, to all able bodied day workers in and around Bear River that loading would commence the following morning at 7am. By 6.50 am the wharf would be crowded with as many as one hundred men who would spend the next 11 hours pitching pulp by hand onto the scow. Part of the crew would work on the scow organizing the load and in about two and a half days the scow would be loaded and awaiting a favourable tide on which to be picked up by the tug. Later the scow was replaced by a small freighter with winches and wood would be winched on board, initially stashed in the hold and later, when the hold was full, on the deck. It took about two days to load the freighter. Cheques were issued to every man (and water boy) present at the at the Lincoln office as soon as the boat was loaded.
The scow required a minimum amount of water to be flowing under it at low tide so a low dam of gravel and rock from the river bottom was set up to divert the river toward the Annapolis County shore immediately downstream of the bridge. A side benefit of the diversion was the creation of the large pool immediately downstream of the bridge which would hold fish during low tide. An uncle employed by Lincoln Pulp and Paper, Laurie Thompson, usually ran the dozer that constructed, or better reconstructed, the dam and I can recall at least two separate instances watching from the bridge as he diverted the course of the river.
I believe I was employed as water boy for three of the last four loads of pulp that left Bear River by water. On the last occasion, when I was in grade 9 in the late winter of 1957, I was given time off school to participate. That was the last pulpwood boat loading in Bear River that I can remember. I believe the last load went out by freighter, the previous shipment in March of 1956 had been by scow, and the one previous to that by freighter. I have no recollection what I was paid for the job – it would have been some hourly rate I assume. The men on the wharf treated me well. I was not allowed to go on the ship (assumed too dangerous) so my bucket would get passed to one of the ship-board workers and moved around as appropriate. The water came from a shallow well across the road at the foot of the retaining wall at Mrs. Annie Barr’s house. The well often had a trout in it to manage the bugs, and in fact I even re-established the trout of my own accord one year after one went missing.
My steady job during my teenage years in Bear River was janitor of the United Church. I was initially hired for a trial period of a few months at the princely sum of $11 per month when I was 11 years old. I must have worked out OK during the trial as I continued at it until I left for university at 18. The job involved keeping the place clean, including dusting, firing up the furnaces in the fall and winter and getting the building ready for Sunday service at 10.30 am, putting on the odd fire mid week for a special occasion, putting in the annual supply of wood, and keeping the grass mowed and oh yes, ringing the old ships bell at 10.00 am and 10.30 am every Sunday to call the village faithful to worship.
The church was large and uninsulated and getting it warm in the winter was a task that needed some thoughtful consideration. On a usual winter day I would arrive at the church by about 5 am, kindle a fire in the two furnaces, fill them both up with wood, and then stretch out across three straight back hardwood chairs next to the furnaces and catch another 40 winks. About 8 am I’d fill the two furnaces again for a second time, and then I’d top both off around 10 am just before the service. That would usually be sufficient to get the temperature up to a pleasant level on most winter days.
If the forecast indicated a particularly cold Sunday I would occasionally put the fire on Saturday night, and close both furnaces down to try and hold them until 5am. Usually they would be spent or almost so by the time I arrived at the church in the morning, but the effect of the overnight fire made getting temperatures up to grade on Sunday a practical experience. You can be sure that I was made well enough aware by any number of parishioners if the temperature was not to their liking.
My first real summer job was in 1959 working as a pot washer in the staff kitchen of The Pines Hotel in Digby, the same establishment at which my mother had waited tables in the late 1930s. It was not a glamorous job but one in which I took sufficient pride to do a job which rated unanticipated special praise from both the cook and cookee. The job meant bunking in the staff quarters at the hotel and, even though I was probably one of the youngest employees on site, becoming engaged in some of the activities. One of the highlights of the season was the staging by the staff of the musical Annie Get Your Gun and I had a chance to be part of the chorus. We were much appreciated by the hotel guests who chanced to view our four performances in mid-August and you can be sure the practicing was as much fun as the actual performances.
One of the other experiences of the summer that stays with me 45 years later was attempting to suck out the core of a two inch boil on a fellow staffer’s arm into a heated milk bottle using a vacuum created by pouring cold water over the bottle which had been strategically placed over the boil. It did not work as the boil was not quite ‘ready’ to let go; it sure hurt though and brought tears to his eyes. He had it lanced the next day at the hospital and was off work for several days as a result.
In 1960 I had again applied to The Pines when late in late May a completely different job-to-die-for unexpectedly became available. About five miles south of Bear River on the Lake Jolly Road there stood one of a series of fire towers emplaced by the Nova Scotia Department of Lands and Forests to use as a platform from which to as early as possible spot the breakout of fire in the forest. The fire tower watchman, a local chap George Fletcher, had unexpectedly taken ill and would not be able to attend to his duties for the rest of the season. The Department of Lands and Forests needed a stand-in. I phoned the Chief Ranger, Alfie Banks, and enquired as to whether he might consider me for the position. I suspect he and my father had already discussed the matter and the fact that my father suggested I should phone helps lead to that conclusion. In any event I went through what might be described as a bit of an interview on the phone and the job was mine as soon as I was through my last exam. Wow! A real job at something that was in any event my avocation – protecting the forest! (My fire bug tendencies were now something of my past!). The tower was probably about a mile and a half from Morganville, site of the nearest occupied dwellings. At the bottom of the tower was a little one-room cabin, very clean and appropriately outfitted for batching. The intent was that for grub I’d walk out to Bear River and acquire additional foodstuffs when inclement weather allowed.
I was not required to be aloft in my perch until perhaps 9.30 am when the dew would have been dispersed by the sun and the on-shore breeze would be starting to pick-up. Afternoons required that I remain at my post until at least 7 pm when the humidity would start to generally rise a bit and the temperatures would correspondingly go down. On really hot days with low humidity keeping a watch until 8.30 or 9 pm was to be expected. I did not mind the heights or the climb up and down. I was also only about a half mile across country from one of my favourite fishing holes (The one rainy afternoon I tried it proved the hike would be a challenge as I got soaked within 10 minutes of leaving the cabin!), and I was going to be paid; it seemed heaven sent!
My tools consisted of a stationary circular topographic map, appropriately oriented, mounted on a wooden base, perhaps plywood, with a metal sighting device fixed to rotate above the map. The sighting device was centered on the map at the location of the tower and by rotating it around its axis it allowed me to get an instant directional read on any smoke I might see. I also had a radio telephone which I was to use to report any smoke. At about 1 pm on perhaps my third day I spotted my first smoke. It was north in the vicinity of Digby. I phoned it in. After only a minute of discussion Alfie confirmed that my smoke was the arriving Saint John Ferry. While I came away from that encounter somewhat embarrassed we had unintentionally tested the system and it had worked. (I have often wondered whether his faith in my intelligence had been shaken up by that experience!) I spotted one other distant smoke on the horizon off to the southwest a few days later but I was never informed what may have been the cause.
About two weeks into my most-perfect-of-jobs Alfie arrived at the tower one afternoon to inform me that he had instructions from Halifax that my job was to be taken over at the beginning of the week, three days hence, by a recently army-discharged local who had just returned home with wife and family. Nova Scotia was even in the late 1950s, still operating heavily on political patronage, and the discharged soldier’s father was a known strong Tory. A quiet word to Halifax by the local bagman and I was out and the soldier was in. Unfortunately there was little Alfie could do but follow direction. My father was some angry and I believe gave a couple of the local Tories a piece of his mind; politics was not something in which my father appeared to have previously taken any active role but I suspect this incident drove him into the local Liberal fold, had he not been there before. I never had the sympathy which many felt for Robert Stanfield when he did not make the grade federally; his rejection at the hands of the Canadian public mirrored mine at the hands of his Nova Scotia Conservatives.
Some of the Girls I Knew
My first focused connection with the fairer sex occurred over about a 12 to 14 month period when I was perhaps in the range 9 to 11 years in age. For what ever reason I became fascinated on one Judy Marshall, an attractive demure blond girl in my class at school. Our mothers were good friends. This fascination eventually led to our sitting together at the Friday night movie, and one night my arm gradually make its way over the seat and around her shoulders. For some reason she appeared to at least be willing to put up with my forwardness in this respect and it wasn’t long before we fell into a standard routine – we would both make our way separately to the movies, we’d manage to arrange to sit together, soon after the lights went down my arm would snake around her shoulders, and we’d stay so attached for the remainder of the feature. At the end of the movie we’d simply leave the theatre and go our separate ways.
During all this interaction we rarely spoke, and we rarely spoke at school – both a bit too shy and with as yet insufficient conversation skills to deal with the other sex. We got a little teasing from friends at first but it soon drifted away and our “relationship” simply became routine amongst the kids. Mrs. Yorke did warn me in so many words one night in the snack bar that she did not want to see any “funny business” going on in the theatre – I was not totally certain as to specifically what she was referring – but I seemed to sense that her daughter-in-law had a less apprehensive concern about us and I felt no binding need to change our modus operandi. Over time other interests caused us to simply “drift apart”. We continued to travel through our academic years together until the end of Grade 11 when Judy went off to Saint Pat's Business School in Digby; for whatever reason the mutual interest of our early years never reappeared.
Diane Graham, Judy Marshall, Paula Harris, Ann Frost and Nancy Parker on the Eastern Star float in the 1959 Cherry Carnival Parade
(Photo provided by Diane (Graham) Nice, 2013)
The above photo captures a moment in the 1959 Bear River Cherry Carnival Parade with five of the girls of my Bear River youth; it is added here to give this essay some needed elegance, and besides its a neat photo and I missed that parade! Paula was a couple years older than I but for a number of years lived across the street. She married and was living in Ship Harbour, NS in 2011. Diane was my age but a year ahead in school and went to St. Pats Business School in Digby in 1959. She married in 1960, lived Clementsvale, divorced, eventually spent time working in Fort McMurray/Halifax/Ottawa, remarried and was living in Bridgewater in 2017. Judy is the Judy mentioned above. She went to St. Pats in 1960 and subsequently migrated to Halifax, where she married, raised a family, and spent a career working for Sears Canada. Nancy, like Judy, paralleled me in school, was the sister of one of my good friends, and eventually went into nursing. She married out west, spent time living in Denmark, and returned to Calgary where she was living in 2016. Ann was perhaps a year younger, married locally, widowed, and is the only one of the group to have remained in Bear River where she was living in 2017.
When I was about 13-14 I developed a mad crush on Shirley Mayo. Shirley was the middle of five daughters of Bert and Mary Mayo and was perhaps three years ahead of me in school. Her two older sisters, June and Joyce, had been two of the local Bear River teenage girls that 9 year old Allan Parker and I “saved’ from the clutches of those guys from away who had come into town to work on the pipeline and surge tank. That salvation cost too because one day in making sure the sisters got home safely – we often followed them at a respectable distance in consideration of their wellbeing – Allan and I took refuge from being seen by ducking under the bridge over the little creek that crossed their long driveway. Unfortunately there was a large wasps’ nest under that bridge which I immediately disturbed, getting stung at least three times. Needless to say I let out a bunch of screams and broke our cover. One of the girls heard the commotion and came running from the house to ensure no one was hurt; I’m sure she left, after expressing appropriate concern, stifling a muffled chuckle in her throat. The older girls left the community shortly thereafter and it was a natural progression that I eventually transferred my unrequited love to another Mayo, younger sister Shirley.
Shirley was attractive, had light brown hair, and wore glasses and was perhaps three years my senior. She wore her hair short and it certainly caught my attention because to this day I much prefer women with short perky hair styles. She also had good solid ankles that looked really first-rate in white bobby socks and sneakers. Why her ankles caught my attention I have no idea but I continue to be partial to such ankles even today. The major difficulty with our “relationship” was that I was simply too shy to do much else than say hello when she passed on the street. I sure she must have intuitively known of my attraction to her – if for no other reason than seeing my tongue rolling out onto the pavement every time she passed. She was a kind soul and maintained a polite and non-encouraging arms-length distance from me the kid. Over time my attention naturally turned to other, more attainable and less idealistic female friends.
One day when I was in about Grade 8 I was casually invited by one of older Grade 10 girls to join her later in the evening, if I was interested, at her baby sitting assignment. Now even though this girl was older I knew her somewhat more than incidentally because I’d begun to flirt a bit with the Grade 10 girls in the next room - my cousin was part of that entourage - and it suited both our purposes. She was reasonably outgoing and physically quite well endowed. Out of curiosity I showed up at the house at perhaps 9 pm, and was informed that the parents were scheduled back at about 10.30 pm. We spent about an hour innocently talking and kibitzing around when I decided it was time to leave just in case the parents arrived home unexpectedly. She walked me to the back door and we stood there, in pretty close proximity, with her in some mild state of expectation and me in some state of quandary as to what my next move should be. Accompanied by a few bits of a now whispered conversation this state of affairs continued for some minutes until, without any warning, she unexpectedly took my hands and placed them on her breasts.
I was suddenly struck with that same feeling one has when he has a weasel up his pant leg, “What the hell do I do next!” So I pecked her on the cheek and bolted out the door! Although we continued to interact for the rest of that spring in school, neither of us ever said anything about the baby sitting incident. In June she graduated from Oakdene and went down a separate path; for whatever reason she never invited me to another baby sitting session.
In the summer of 1957 when I was 15 my attention was drawn to a new girl in town, a Polish girl by the name of Lucy Hancharyk, perhaps a year younger, who had recently moved in with her grandparents on the Morganville Road a bit south of the former location of my grandparents’ farm. Lucy was attractive, blond with short hair, quite outgoing and it took little time before she had become part of the group of local Bear River kids that attended Ira and Marion McCormick’s shop on Saturday nights to dance to Elvis and others of that era on the juke box. I finally got up the courage to ask her to dance and we struck up a bit of a comfortable relationship and so I asked if I could walk her home. And oh my God, she said yes!! To me, if you can believe!
So off we struck at about 9.45 pm (stores in Bear River generally closed at 9 but the McCormicks provided a little bit of grace to the teenagers) with a distance of 2.5 miles before us, and me with another 2.5 miles back. We followed that routine for three Saturday nights in a row. I have no idea what we talked about but I was aware that I was still not an exciting conversationalist. By the middle of August Lucy no longer appeared in town on Saturday nights. I discovered later that I had been ‘thrown over’ for an ‘older’ guy with ‘wheels’. At least the redirection of her attention allowed me to get home at a decent hour (it would be 1 am if I ran a bit on the return journey) and be reasonably awake for my duties in the church choir on Sunday morning.
About two months into my first year in Digby Regional High I struck up a casual relationship with a brunette in Grade 12. Sometime in November the high school was participating in a late afternoon/evening volleyball tournament in Yarmouth to which we gained access by a two hour school-bus ride. As one would anticipate this girl and I some how managed to share a seat near the back of the bus and needless to say we got a little obviously “actively cozy” on the way back.
Well, a day or so later, perhaps on the subsequent Monday morning, all hell broke loose at school. Apparently a spent condom had been found on the bus when the driver had done the scheduled cleaning on Saturday morning and its presence had been reported to the principal. The fingers of suspicion were all pointing at yours truly. Probably by noon I had been apprised of the rumor by one of the other students and the fact that I was the prime suspect. I knew I was totally innocent of the charge at hand but nonetheless I was the new kid on the block, and a kid from “the sticks”, and there might be little sympathy from the administration.
And where would I have acquired a condom in any event? I’d probably only ever seen one by that point in my life, and that probably a bragging trophy in some 18 year old’s wallet. They were not a common commodity available off the shelves in the drugstores of the day and I sure as heck was not going into the L. V. Harris Drug Store in our small village and tell Ethel Woodworth or Goldie Henderson, both single ladies, or even L. V. himself, that I needed condoms!
Later that afternoon, or perhaps the next morning I was approached by one of the Grade 11 girls, Shirley Potter, who, although she had been on the trip, must have been acting as a student council representative. She looked me straight in the eye and asked me if I’d been responsible for the condom. I looked her right back in the eye and emphatically said “No!” She got the same answer from the girl with whom I had been sharing the seat, and to Shirley’s credit, she accepted our version of events and reported same back to ‘the powers that be’. That appeared to terminate my perceived involvement in the matter; I still owe Shirley Potter for that one.
I was never made aware if school administration pursued the matter any further, or if they ever found the source of the errant condom. I did experience the somewhat open disdain of the school phys-ed teacher for about four weeks but he too finally let the situation go and by the middle of basketball season we appeared to be OK and continued so until the end of my career in Digby Regional High. The young lady and I continued a bit of a relationship until Xmas and then went our separate ways.
I went to the spring prom that first year in Digby with Donna Lewis from down St. Mary’s Bay way, perhaps Barton. A delightful and very attractive girl whose simple presence left me tongue tied and totally inadequate when around her; she likewise was somewhat shy. Needless to say we had a tough time communicating and nothing came of that venture.
During the late spring and summer of 1958 I began attending Teen Town at Cornwallis with my good buddy Keith Henshaw and there I met Betty Baxter from Deep Brook. She invited me to ‘help her’ baby sit one Saturday night and like the Everly Brother’s song said “we [quite innocently] fell asleep” and woke just in time for me to make myself scarce before the parents came home. After that episode Betty found other ‘interests’.
In Grade 11 I developed a crush on classmate June Hawkins, and actually took her out to some school function. However, it became obvious that her father was not desirous of me having an involvement with his daughter so we both moved on.
During the summer of 1959 I was working and living at The Pines Hotel in Digby. Partway through the summer when downtown one afternoon I just chanced to run into Margo Webber, a year behind me in school but someone I’d come to know quite well through both High School and Teen Town. One thing led to another and before either of us knew it we became an item and stayed that way for the next 18 months. We were remarkably compatible and relaxed in and enjoyed each other’s company. I often stayed at her house in Digby overnight rather than hitchhike back to Bear River. I came to very much respect and enjoy her parents. However, by the time I was half way through my first year of University, and with Margo finishing high school in Digby, I came to the realization I needed some “freedom” to allow personal growth and to let any unanticipated future opportunity take its course. I broke off the relationship. It was a bit awkward the following year when she arrived at Acadia but we accommodated ourselves, perhaps somewhat uncomfortably, to the circumstances. I wonder if she has forgiven me yet.
Some Other Experiences
The Digby County Poorhouse in Marshalltown:
My mother’s cousin Guy Thomas and his wife Hilda (Isles) Thomas ran the Digby County Poorhouse in Marshalltown from the mid 1940s into the mid 1950s with the exception of a three year hiatus to accommodate a health issue. I believe they may have been the managers in place when the facility was closed in the mid 1950s. During the late 1940s I had the opportunity to visit the institution two or three times when I was five to seven years of age, staying overnight at least once. I include the reference herein as one memory continues to be highly vivid and a few others reasonably so. I still regard the experience as quite unique for a seven year old.
The facility housed the County indigents, those without the wherewithal, for whatever reason, to put a roof over their heads and food in their bellies. It also housed a few individuals with mental illnesses, commonly referred to as ‘insane’ in the vernacular of the day. The latter were kept under lock and key and a few were regarded somewhat carefully by the Thomases. I can still recall Guy having to go upstairs during one visit to quell the random shouting of one of the inmates. I know that at the time I was impressed that Guy and Hilda had the wherewithal to manage their somewhat unpredictable charges; in retrospect it probably derived to a great degree from the quiet confidence they exuded in carrying out their appointed responsibilities which in turn instilled respect and exerted calming control over the inmates. The real tragedy here of course was the fact that these individuals, so much in need of and so much deserving of professional mental health services, were in the alternative managed through an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ strategy, a strategy totally devoid of empathy for the individuals and totally devoid of any hope in their futures. In this respect alone the closure of the ‘poor house’ was long overdue.
The management strategy at the institution was that it be operated at minimal cost to the County with the achievement of that desired result designed to be accomplished via a farming operation. To this end the actual building that housed the residents was surrounded by an extensive cultivated field complex. Capable male residents were deployed in the farming business, and capable female residents in the domestic endeavors required to keep the institution functioning efficiently, and in this way residents contributed directly to their own maintenance, plus the maintenance of those not capable of participating. For the most part this approach had met reasonable success over several decades.
My most poignant memory of my visits to visit Guy and Hilda is an exploration into the basement of the institution with Guy when he pointed out some simple wooden boxes, perhaps six feet long and a couple feet wide and deep, both finished and under construction, and asked if I knew what they were. The interesting thing was that even at seven I realized they were simple, no-frills, coffins. I concluded on the spot that one of the macabre chores of a male resident was to make his own coffin and decided that I would want at all costs to avoid the Poorhouse for that reason. That memory, although it caused no later childhood trauma of which I am aware, continues to remain fresh and unsullied, perhaps because it is the closest I had been to the reality of death in my short seven years.
On one of these visits, probably c 1949, a little, somewhat misshapen, lady arrived during the day to have tea with my mother and Hilda. She received a very positive welcome from Hilda and I gathered from the conversation that she lived in close proximity to the Poorhouse and had more than a passing involvement with the facility. I can recall that she paid some positive attention to me but cannot any longer remember what my response may have been, although I would expect it was cautious. I have since come to realize that the lady was Maud Lewis, the celebrated Nova Scotia folk artist who was already at that point in her life immersed in the folk art that would later make her famous. Maud’s husband was night watchman at the establishment.
The Sea Cadets at RCSC Cornwallis:
I joined the Royal Canadian Sea Cadets corps at HMCS Cornwallis, in the late fall of 1954. To join I had to advance my age by a year and become 13 years of age. I have since found out that my Great Grandfather Riley likewise advanced his age by about a year and a half to join the “Boston Volunteers” in 1862 at the commencement of the Civil War. The practice had much more of a significant effect on his subsequent life than on mine.
Sea Cadet training was held at the nearby HMCS Cornwallis most Wednesday nights during the school year. We were transported to Cornwallis by military bus, not infrequently driven by my uncle, Ed Riley. At the main gate the bus was given a cursory wave-through by the Commissionaires, one of whom was likewise another uncle, in this case Dennis Riley. The Sea Cadets had a couple offices in one of the instruction blocks on the base. The usual practice was that we would ‘fall in’ for seven o’clock inspection and then be redirected to our training assignments. The first training period would last for about 40 minutes; there would be a 15 minute break, and then another 40 minute period. We would then fall in again for dismissal and board the bus for home at about 9 pm. It would be about a half hour into Bear River, another 10 to 15 minute walk and I’d be home by 10 pm.
There was a female version of Sea Cadets known as “Wrennets” and Cornwallis supported a corps as well. We never mixed (except at the annual inspection) and I believe that was probably to the detriment of the movement as we would have been likely able to hold recruits of either sex for an additional year. I envy the mixed cadet troupes of today.
One of my first tasks was looking after my uniform. Instruction on uniform maintenance was first imported to me by the quartermaster in charge of ‘stores’, and the fine points of how to do it by my mother. For the next eight years I looked after my uniform by myself; washing, pressing, polishing, replacing as required. Tying a proper bow on the hat band was an occasional challenge; they had to be small, neat, and appropriately pressed. Some guys never got the knack. We still wore the bib collars that had been the traditional garb for Navy personnel for generations; regulation pants still retained the button-up, bibbed front as well. We had a summer and a winter uniform, with the most significant change being the substitution of a blue-trimmed, white pull-over cotton summer shirt for the winter wool sweater. The most negative point about the uniform was its high wool content – one would itch!
Training consisted of involvement in practically everything that was Navy, and like Boy Scouts there were badges so there was incentive to succeed. We did navigation, Morse code, sailing, rowing, first aid, semaphore, shooting, gym, swimming, knots – the bowline and clove hitch are still favorites – and we marched! Cornwallis had a large indoor parade square so marching in inclement weather or in the winter was not a problem. Every spring there was formal inspection of the corps, generally by the CO of the Base but occasionally by a visiting senior officer from Halifax. For this we trained on the parade square for several weeks previous and we would get to be quite proficient. For the last practice the Cornwallis military band would appear and it would always be on tap for the annual inspection. Its very presence raised the quality of our effort several percent I’m certain. If the Inspecting Officer got overlong in his address to the assembled we were likely to see someone faint and collapse in formation; those still standing never flinched.
During the summer a number of cadets from across Canada could get into special summer courses for which there was some pay, probably at militia rates. I never managed to get involved in them, likely in the early stages of the game because I was not well enough qualified, and in the later stages because I was not prepared to give up my summer. I did attend two summer camps with the corps, a two week stint at HMCS Acadia at Point Edward Naval Base just outside Sidney in Cape Breton. There was always a competition in several categories to see which corps could garner bragging rights for the next 12 months. We did well but never conquered during my two summers at Point Edward.
Gary Gesner (left) and I (right) at HMCS Acadia, summer 1955
One of the events those summers was a trip out to sea in a minesweeper – Canada still had them in the 1950s. We also had an opportunity for a trip in one out into the Fundy from Digby. I recall that I early discovered that my affinity for being rolled about by swells was not strong. I believe it was on my first trip from camp that I was forced to move from the bow section below decks topside to face a rather wet and cold gale because my stomach was rolling at a different frequency than the ship. Knowing this for my other two trips allowed the development of a strategy to keep me from getting too green. Even today I am still cautious about ferry trips in rough weather.
I progressed in rank over the years and by the time I resigned from the corps in the spring of 1959 I had taken on the rank of Regulating Petty Officer, effectively the senior cadet. I believe I also may have been paid a small stipend for the additional bureaucratic work I assumed in support of the corps that year. Because we shared the office space it also gave me the opportunity to get closer to our officers, all civilian volunteers, and really appreciate the keenness with which they all, to a man, approached their assigned duties. There had been discussion of me going off to get a midshipman’s ranking during the summer, but while I appreciated the opportunity I knew I was going away to University in the fall so I passed on it. While I could have likely turned the midshipman ranking into an ROTC appointment, I realized I needed my summers to get practical experience in geology and those summer jobs and the scholarships would take care of my university expenses. I went down the other road.
That Sea Cadet experience, however, significantly shaped my life for the better.
The Nova Scotia Guides Meets:
Because of easy direct access into the Nova Scotia hinterland Bear River had always been a focus for American sportsmen looking for outdoor recreation opportunities. During the 1920s and 1930s sportsmen arrived in Bear River by the score looking for the guided trip to catch a trophy trout or, in smaller numbers, to shoot a moose. And the men of Bear River responded and seized the opportunity to supplement meager rural incomes with some good US greenbacks. Of critical importance in promoting this business was the capability of the male population from the Bear River Mi’kmaw Reserve to market to the American clientele both their inherent guiding skills as well as the still lingering mystique of the “Noble Savage”.
Falling out of this strong guiding ethic was a strong contingent of Bear River participants, both native and non-native, who participated at the annual Nova Scotia Guides Meet, the annual provincial competition for those with high caliber guiding skills. By the mid-1930s Bear River guides were competing and winning at ‘sportsmen shows’ in cities up and down the Atlantic seaboard and as far west as Chicago. The intensity of the American sports show tradition and the American sportsman to NS tradition took a bit of a hiatus during the WW2. However, with all the latent talent in southwestern Nova Scotia the annual guides meets appeared again shortly after the war. While the break during the war years (and the associated maturity) redirected most of the Bear River pre-war performers to other pursuits a few remained in the business, and another few remained interested in the business and the people attached thereto.
Local boy Malcolm Parker, and our landlord when we lived over the Trading Company, was one of the pre-war US show performers, for US show purposes billed as the Canadian Log Chopping Champion. Mal had outgrown performing but continued to retain a strong interest in the annual guides meet and the culture that had spawned it. During the early 1950s he with his family attended the meets regularly when they were held at Kejimkujik Lake, or “Kedgee”. Generally, the parents and the two youngest children would take a cabin for the week while the two oldest boys, Neil and Gerald, would get into the mood, tent in the campground, and cook their own meals over an open fire. Since there was plenty of room in the boys’ tent they sometimes took along an additional friend. In 1954 I was fortunate to become the additional friend along with their cousin Norman.
As an aside, the youngest of the Parker children, Michael, has become a skilled writer with a focus on Nova Scotia-centered historical topics. His early experiences at the guides Meets of the 1950s induced him to write Guides of the North Woods to capture some of the history and the characters that were the Nova Scotia Guides Meets.
Kejimkujik Lake is situated on the spine of the province of Nova Scotia, a few miles southwest of Highway 8 which joins Annapolis Royal to Liverpool. The trip by car from Bear River would take perhaps two and a half hours in the 1950s. The Guides Meet was focused on a campground along a slow moving stream perhaps 40 feet wide that emptied into the lake about two miles downstream. The site also boasted a couple nearby cabins that were rented to tourists, a couple small buildings used for administration, a stage a few hundred feet from the river, and a large dance hall.
The guides in the 1950s competed in several versions of canoe racing, of which the “four man” was deemed most exciting because of the potential for upsets, log rolling, swimming, greased pole walking (more of a crowd pleaser than a guiding skill), canoe jousting (ditto), fly casting, kettle boiling, moose calling, log chopping, and log sawing, both single and double. Prizes generally consisted of merchandize which had been collected from store keepers in the various communities from which the guides originated; usually there were first, second, and third place prizes. Supplementing the main competition was a junior division which accepted competitors up to and including the age of 17. A few of the events, with kettle boiling being the prime example, were designed to be held on the stage in the evening to provide early evening entertainment; dancing carried the latter evenings of the week to a 1 am finale.
One of the passive events was a campsite competition, the purpose of which was to have the guides demonstrate their ability to set up a comfortable campsite that would be the delight of any Bostonian fishermen. The competition was open to all comers, and judging was carried out by a panel of three who would arrive at the campsite unannounced and make their determinations based on apparent comfort, and obvious tidiness (keep the bedrolls appropriately laid out!), and cleanliness. Upon our arrival it became immediately obvious that the Parker boys had had previous experience in the competition, and that our first task was to get our tent site up to competitive standard. Physically, at least the way we put it together, a campsite had four basic requirements: i) the ‘mattresses’ (i.e., the floor of the tent) had to be designed from balsam fir boughs – not only did it make a relatively soft sleeping platform but it encouraged nature’s own air freshener to permeate the sleeping quarters; ii) the fireplace had to be uniquely designed to handle a number of pots and to discourage the escape of fire; iii) the campsite had to be clean of debris; and iv) the campsite required some form of wash stand for both dishes and personal hygiene. In addition, being in a campground we saw a requirement to establish boundaries and this required a fence which established the campsite footprint for the competition; it also kept interlopers from cutting across our better-homes-and–gardens campsite.
The first chore was to cut the poles for the fence. These poles most often came from small balsam fir trees, the branches of which were used for other purposes, including bedding. The poles would be then nailed (every good guide carried a supply of nails) in three rows to adjacent trees encircling the tent with the upper set about four feet off the ground. Larger branches off the balsams would then be woven among the fence rails and then voila, an enclosed space!
While a couple guys were building the fence a couple others would search out and acquire the balsam boughs for the tent floor. This floor was properly constructed by placing perhaps 10 to 12 inch balsam boughs in a row, stems toward the front, against the back of the tent, and then overlapping consecutive rows until the tent floor was fully covered with a thick, springy mat of balsam boughs. A really excellent floor would see the stems of the boughs actually stuck into the soil. Over this mat would be placed a canvass or rubberized ground sheet on which the sleeping bags would be spread out. Packs would then be neatly stacked at the head or foot of the tent.
After these two chores were finished attention would then turn to fireplace construction. The first campers on site got first dibs on all the rocks at the other unoccupied campsites so arriving early was to one’s advantage. Lastly, the washing stand would be constructed generally out of small poles (with the assistance of the ever present nails) and wash basins and pots would be hung on nails set into the adjacent trees. A final sweeping of all the debris from the campsite floor, using a balsam bough (what else!) and we were ready for inspection. If nothing else the competition was a godsend to some of the parents because they did not have to worry about the kids campsites turning into garbage dumps over the week. I can recall that in at least one year we won a prize; and in another were disappointed because we got beaten out by a bunch of adults.
These campsite construction practices put pressure over the years on the supply of readily accessible young balsam fir trees. I can recall in perhaps my last year at the event of doubling the distance required to search out the necessary construction material, and in that last year I believe I actually moved to chopping down eight inch trees as a source of material. I trust that the nail-ridden conifer trees in that campsite never go in front of a saw!
In the mornings the competition canoes, unless involved in a practice, would be looking unused and in need of a friend. We kids could ‘borrow’ them and paddle downstream to the lake. This we often did with the one stipulation that they had to be back by 12.30 pm prior to the afternoon’s competition. With one or two exceptions over the years we usually met the time constraints. Of interest in the two mile paddle to the Kedgee Lake was the proliferation of painted turtles in the river. Catching one would always be the challenge of the morning, and occasionally one of us would succeed. He was always turned loose, sometimes after closer inspection back at camp. Those little jaunts also allowed us to get our paddling together and it was via one of these runs that Eddie Peck and I decided we’d have a go at entering the Junior two “man” canoe race.
Eddie was a cousin of Neil and Gerald, lived in Bear River, and was in the same class at school as Gerald and I. Eddie’s uncle was Eber Peck, one of the domineering competitors at the Guides’ Meets before and just after the War; his father Watson Peck had become became one of the domineering competitors in the late 1940s and 1950s. Competing in these events had become so significant to Watson that he had installed a dry-land log rolling ‘trainer’ in the yard of his home. I always found it a bit too fast, but his boys, particularly Eddy, used it to their advantage in preparing for competition.
I believe that through some fluke, perhaps some of the competitors upset, Eddie and I actually got into the finals of the junior competition in that first year, and we may have even won a prize. In any event that meet was the beginning of a several year partnership where we competed in the canoe races, and individually in other events, not only at the Provincial meet but also at the Bear River Cherry Carnival as well as at one mid-September meet at Beaverdam Lake near Shelburne. We were always competitive.
There were a number of highlights of my involvement in the Guides Meets that have stayed with me over the years. I won third prize in the open moose calling contest one year. The calling was done from the stage in the evening; the judges were elsewhere on site and out of view of the competitors to keep the judging unbiased. I had never heard a moose in my life, in fact to that point in time had only ever seen one, in the spring of 1946, and that one was in the process of dying from a parasitic brain worm. In any event I was slotted about sixth in the competition, and this allowed me to listen to at least four individuals who had called moose professionally in the 1930s. Then it was me up on the stage and I ‘let her rip’. I was really in the competition for the fun of moment, the prize was icing on the cake.
When I was 15 Eber Peck’s 13 year old daughter rolled me off a log, two heats, over about 14 seconds. I used the “But she practices all the time at home!” excuse to keep my ego intact.
I distinctly remember my early amazement at watching some of the older guys bring water to a boil in a billy-can in three minutes using nothing but an ax, a knife, three matches and a piece of pine two by eight by twelve inches. There were a couple secrets in the process new to the uninitiated, firstly the use of a sharp “crooked knife” to make a shaving stick which received the first flame, the chopping of fine, readily combustible pine kindling, and finally the piling of that kindling in an organized fashion up around the sides of the billy-can. Using this method a three minute boil, with the assistance of loose tea, was a snap.
In 1956 at 14 I had a crush on the 16 year old whose parents operated the French fry booth and in which she spent most of her days working. I cannot even remember her name any more; she lived in Pleasant Valley (almost as good as Paradise or Utopia!) and the family concession stand was a regular at the Meet. I actually talked to her and, believe it or not, danced with her a couple times. Dances at the Meet were held under a roofed structure especially erected for the purpose. They would generally start at about Wednesday night and go through until Saturday night. Who was playing the music was always an early topic of conversation in any given year. Through the mid-1950s it was always the Beck Family, accompanied by a blind singer/guitar player named Fred McKenna, later of Sing-along Jubilee fame. While there was a bit of waltzing and fox-trotting during the evening the most popular dance was one in which the ladies lined up on the inside and the gentlemen on the outside, the couples would lock arms and then short-step their way around the hall in a circle, twirl, and the ladies would move on back to the next man in the circle and around the hall they would go again. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that dance but at the Kedgee Meets.
After the first year at Kedgee Eddie and I migrated our competition skills to the Bear River Cherry Carnival water sports, in those days held on the downstream side of the Bridge, generally on the incoming tide. The location made for good viewing and there was always a large cadre of spectators available. Canoe racing was the focus around which the water sports program was designed – and there would be several heats in the singles and doubles category until the top places were decided. Eddie and I used a technique common to most experienced singles and doubles racers whereby we would approach the starting line at an angle. This would permit the first three strokes to be used strictly for power allowing the canoe to straighten naturally. It usually gave us a significant advantage against the inexperienced at Carnival; it would often confuse an inexperienced starter however.
The four man event usually lacked sufficient participants for more than a single heat, and it could usually be counted upon to bring about at least one crowd-pleasing upset. Of the other events the greased pole competition was probably the most popular, the objective being that the contestants would attempt to walk out to the end of a 30-foot peeled spruce, liberally slathered with lard, to attempt to grab the flag attached to the end of the pole. It made for great amusement as contestant after contestant would fall in the river until, almost inevitably, in about round six (when much of the grease was worn off) Watson Peck would creep out on cat’s feet and snag the prize. Next as a crowd pleaser was the canoe tilting competition whereby a contestant would stand on the bow gunnels of a canoe, his partner in the stern with a paddle in the water as a steadying force, and with a 12 foot pole on which was mounted an air filled rubber ball about a foot in diameter attempt to knock his opponent on the gunnels of the other canoe off his perch and into the drink. Canoe upsets were not uncommon and the crowd loved it!
Log rolling was always popular but only if competent rollers were available. By the late 1950s, with the exception of a couple of the Pecks, most of the proficient local rollers had retired and competency had to be imported for demonstration.
A fourth unique event was tub racing , a sport where a contestant would gingerly place himself into a half of an old hardwood cider barrel, be given a canoe paddle, and asked to race his competitors a set distance. It is not an easy task because the tendency is for the barrel to go around in circles; the trick is to feather paddle in the desired direction. These craft likewise had a tendency to fill with water and dump their driver unceremoniously into the river. I was to discover later that the Mandan Indians of the Upper Missouri River used similar craft made from buffalo hide stretched over a wooden frame as their prime means of local river transportation.
It is interesting to note that Eddie Peck was still organizing the water sports for the Bear River Cherry Carnival in 2005 and his father Watson, watching from the shore, was still expressing the desire to be out there showing those young kids a thing or two! It is hard to separate us from the things we love!
I touch on this topic for a couple reasons; firstly because even then and certainly in retrospect I find the concept of a “speakeasy” (my term) in the vicinity of rural and conservative Bear River in the 1950s most intriguing. Secondly, because in later years in “Upper” and western Canada I have occasionally run into former members of the Royal Canadian Navy who, who upon discovering I grew up in Bear River, inevitably asked if I knew “Annapolis Polly”, wink, wink, nudge, nudge!
Now as I understand the circumstances “Annapolis Polly” was the name applied to a lady who lived in Upper Clements about ten kilometers east of the Cornwallis naval base. As I remember it Polly’s house was on the south side of and no more than 200 feet from Highway #1. The house was a simple rectangular two story building clad in typical maritime shingles and, at least in my memory, painted forest green.
By the time I was 14 I had heard of Annapolis Polly and all the associated hype as a result of my Sea Cadet involvement. The impression at 14 was that Annapolis Polly “serviced”, what ever that may have meant, the local ‘new entry’ crowd at HMCS Cornwallis. My memory suggests that somewhere during my teenage years the RCMP moved in and Polly’s was shut down for a period of time on a bootlegging charge; I have no direct knowledge as to whether that was actually the case. Certainly in my understanding Polly’s was an establishment that provided booze, after hours (with little concern for age limits) to young, homesick sailors; whether anything else was dispensed I have no firsthand knowledge although rumors were widespread.
I actually have two acute “memories” of Polly. The first was an encounter with her at an early summer Saturday night dance at Smith’s Cove’s Harbour View Inn in the year when I was in grade 11 and 17 years of age. My good buddy Keith Henshaw and I had attended this weekly event just to see what was going on. The place was packed with a mixed local and imported summer clientele, and there was at the back of the room a pay bar. At that time in our lives Keith and I, the good upstanding Nova Scotia conservatives that we were, were not into booze so that was not an issue. However, while we were standing back near the bar watching the crowd a lady with a bit of an ostentatious flair, probably in her 50s and dressed in black with extreme color highlights, approached the bar with a small retinue of 20-something males with short haircuts (obviously Navy). After getting her drink, she turned around and spoke to us, the two teenage geeks standing by the bar watching the events of the evening. I have no idea what she may have said, but it was positive, encouraging, and made us feel as though we belonged – we only found out who she was after the encounter. She probably had the same effect times ten on the Navy’s ‘new entries’ from Ontario and the Prairies and that is why her memory continues to live so acutely in their reveries.
I also have a second memory of stopping of at Polly’s house one summer weekend evening with a couple of the guys – who I can’t recall. My memory says the place was packed with some six to eight young ‘short hairs’ (Navy ‘new entries’) on the first floor but Polly was not to be seen. My memory suggests we only stayed a few minutes as we were not out crusin’ for booze (good conservative Maritimers, remember!). Which one of the guys that would have convinced us to attend Polly’s is beyond recall and was certain to have been someone outside our usual core group.
To High School in Digby:
In the fall of 1957 most of us who had just graduated from Oakdene’s Grade 9 program made for Digby Regional High School and Grade 10. We were, I believe, the first Bear River Grade 9 class to formally ship out to Digby following in the footsteps of perhaps three Grade 10 classes that had already pursued the same route. Prior to that a number of other Bear River students had individually elected to seize the opportunities offered by the larger Digby institution of higher learning. A few of our longstanding classmates from the rural Annapolis County were regrettably diverted to the high school in Annapolis Royal.
The contingent of twelve Bear River Grade 9 graduates making the transfer to Digby that first year included, along with myself, Nancy Parker, Gerald Parker, Alan Parker, Judy Marshall, Lionel McCormick, Edward Hubley, Gary Gesner, Edward MacDonald, Lawrence Frost, Wendell Benson, and Don Darres. We reconnected that fall with Nancy Cook from rural Lansdowne who had earlier been part of our class at Oakdene. 1957 also saw Edmund Read, Patricia Dukeshire, and Barbara Morine transfer into DRHS’ at the Grade 11 level. The bus that year also carried Diana Wright, Phyllis Cox, Norman Parker and Ann McDonald who were taking their Grade 12 in their second year at DRHS. The graduating class of Digby Regional in the spring of 1957 had hosted Bear River students Neil Parker, Donald Hardy, Shirley Mayo (sigh!), Judy Marshall, and Mae Morine as proud participants.
Digby was a distance of 11 miles from Bear River. The bus picked us up daily at the corner in front of the post office at about 7.55 am and deposited us there each evening at about 4.30 pm. It was about a 45 minute trip each way. We collected additional kids at Bear River Station, and in Smith’s Cove. For the most part the trip for my three years of high school was uneventful; a couple times we had difficulty with hills and corners near Bear River Station due to snow. I do not specifically recall us missing classes due to inclement weather but we may have done so.
Going to high school in Digby was something of a challenge. The Bear River contingent was walking cold into a situation where most of the receiving Grade 10 students had been together for at least a year, some since kindergarten, and we would be outsiders. Additionally there was no doubt that the Bear River contingent would be considered, at least to some degree and subtly or otherwise, a bunch of hayseeds from the sticks – that perception would be a challenge to overcome. Though no one admitted it, there was some apprehension on all out parts that first morning. But not to worry, within a week we were deeply ingrained in the system, and although much was still new, we adapted well.
Gary Gesner and I had had something of a leg up on the transition to school in Digby because for the previous three years we had been members of the Sea Cadet corps at HMCS Cornwallis. That corps was built around a nucleus of cadets from Digby, the largest population center in the area and as a result we had probably thirty acquaintances in the high school beyond the ten or so kids from Bear River already in higher grades.
Interestingly, my memories of high school are much more fleeting than those of Oakdene. We worked on a rotational system. I had always been quite capable academically and the transition did nothing to undermine that fact. I took one year’s worth of Latin, I enjoyed English, had to work harder in math – abstraction is not my forte , managed to do reasonably well in French (oh, to have been in immersion!), and was the first student to dimple the fender of the new driver education vehicle (they let me continue!). The rest of my courses have dissipated in the deeper recesses. I still can recall most of the teachers of that period, a couple of whom had earlier in their careers taught at Oakdene. They were a very capable and enjoyable group.
The school had a newspaper that was published every second week. I became involved and before I knew it I was circulation manager. That meant that every second Thursday my job was to try and hack copies of this Gestetnered “newspaper” to every student I could corner. Now I’m basically a shy person but had found that if necessary I could jump-start myself out of my shy phase and into my marketing phase. I’d first become aware of this when I began selling poppies door to door for the Bear River Legion, probably as a 12 year old, a task I carried out quite successfully for some three years. I believe this change of mental state is what allowed the average Joe or Jill to become at least passably adequate in the encyclopedia sales department as they transitioned through the trying-to-find-themselves stage. While I can’t remember, logic would tell me that the paper likely cost a dime and later during my tenure moved to 15 cents because making change became a pain. It contained nothing revolutionary or seditious, but there was often a column on an item of timely interest to the students so it would sell. The school had not been subjected to these in-your-face sales tactics and I was regarded with everything from frivolity to apprehension to danger when I would be seen approaching with a bundle of papers under my arm on Thursday. The end result was that newspaper sales went up that first year and we flourished.
Somewhere toward the end of that first year we were shut down by the administration, for what reason I cannot remember but likely for some article that would have been judged to have been in marginal, if not in poor, taste. We finally managed to get reestablished again about midway through my Grade 11 year with the intervening assistance of one of the teachers. I do not believe there were momentous occasions in regard to the paper over my remaining tenure in the school. I do sense we tended to be a little more conservative in content.
High school sports were interesting and I got involved. I played basketball and volleyball, neither tremendously well but as it was a small school they would try and utilize everyone who had even a glimmer of talent. I actually put up a hoop on the garage that first fall and worked at learning how to shoot. We Bear River kids were at something of a disadvantage because we had not been exposed to any of the typical high school sports, except for perhaps hockey and badminton. What I tended to lack in skills and stature I made up in desire and drive. One of the lasting legacies of my DRHS basketball career is some permanent dental work resulting from receiving the elbow of our six foot four center in the mouth as we both went up for a rebound one afternoon during practice. He got the ball!
Soccer and I became quite good friends to the point where I played halfback regularly. I did not have money for proper boots so I wore an old pair of Navy issue boots in their place. They worked reasonably well but left something to be desired on wet grass. In the second fall I severely sprained my ankle at practice and was off for about a month. I did make it back to participate in play-off games against Bridgewater High from Nova Scotia’s south shore.
I also got heavily involved in curling, again a sport we had never played before going to Digby. I got reasonably good at it to the point that in Grade 11 I threw second stone for Digby’s representative at the Schoolboy play-downs in Sydney. We all wore Mary Maxim sweaters, mine knitted my by mother specifically for the event. The interesting thing about curling is that it is the only high school sport that carried through into my adult life and became quite an after hours focus in the early 1970s.
I did not try out for high school hockey, primarily because my skating skills had never been honed to the appropriate level. In Bear River hockey was initially the sport played on a couple ponds on the margins of the community just after freeze up in the late fall. The fall period was preferred so we did not have to spend half the day cleaning off snow. Not infrequently we could be relatively snow free even at Xmas and I can recall spending a couple Xmas day afternoons on the ice. Later the Fire Department put in an outside rink and it provided an additional opportunity to skate, but there was no organized hockey. When I did play hockey I tended to play goal and, with my cast-off, missing-handle goalie stick, was reasonable at it. One evening when I was about 14 and while attending as a fan an inter-community hockey game in Digby the goal keeper for the Bear River senior team was injured and I was asked to go down from the stands and fill in. I did. We eventually lost 5 to 3 but I’d had my 15 minutes of hockey fame!
During my high school years I brown-bagged it; my mother usually put up my lunch. Now, while I’m not all that picky an eater I finally rebelled during the second half of Grade 11 over the cheese whiz sandwiches. I thought I had done rather well putting up with them for the better part of a year and a half but they got to the point where the same old, same old became exceedingly unappetizing. I still have an aversion to cheese whiz. We switched to peanut butter and jam and all was well with the world until the end of high school.
I can’t remember much about the clothes I wore with a few exceptions. The first was a series of shirts I bought with my own money that I thought were pretty classy for their day – wide vertical colorful stripes, snakeskin patterns, patters with gold thread, all worn with the tails hanging out and reserved for Friday and/or Saturday nights. If wearing jeans the cuffs were always turned up. I had a couple ‘white’ sport coats which I wore with great fashion aplomb – I can still remember one Saturday afternoon in May sitting on a boulder at about three o’clock in the afternoon at the end of a fishing trip, picturing just how ‘swishy’ I was going to look that night at the school dance, with, by the way, a red carnation. I also wore a sky-blue corduroy cap with a snap-on peak back and forth to school for about two years – where it may have come from I don’t know. I believe I eventually lost it.
In the end Digby Regional High proved to be a solid positive experience. My academic career continued to flourish and I graduated from the facility with a couple scholarships and bursaries designed to cover a good portion of the expenses for my next three years at university. There is no doubt in my mind that principle Courtney Purdy, a former teacher at Oakdene, had been influential in providing helpful recommendations on my behalf to some of the scholarship selection boards.
In the fall of 1960 I left Bear River for Wolfville and Acadia University. My time in the community since then has since consisted of periods of an occasional few days a year, the years becoming much more intermittent over the decades. After Acadia I did post-graduate work in geology at Queens University after which I joined the field geology section of the Ontario Department of Mines. With the exception of summers in New Brunswick and Manitoba in the 1960s my working career has all been in Ontario, initially as a geologist and subsequently as a manager with the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources. Three quarters of that almost 30 year period was spent working in Northern Ontario, the other quarter out of Toronto.
My job took me and my family to Ontario’s Thunder Bay in 1989 where I assumed responsibility for the Provincial field operations of the Ministry of Natural Resources from which position I took early retirement in 1994. Since 1994 my wife and I continue to reside in Thunder Bay where I have taken on the challenge of providing consulting services in the area of natural resource management to Industry, First Nations, and Government.