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Of toe corks and tomatoes; symposium explores history of County’s South Shore

By Sharon Harrison
Local authors, historians and residents shared stories and history of the County’s South Shore, Saturday at a symposium hosted by The South Shore Joint Initiative (SSJI).

“What the South Shore Joint Initiative is doing is bringing attention to the South Shore and our goal is to get permanent protection for the Ostrander Point Crown Land block and the Point Petre Wildlife Area which are the public lands on the South Shore,” said Cheryl Anderson, the group’s vice-president.

“We’re working on that, but we are also supporting the work the Hastings-Prince Edward Land Trust is doing. They are working with private individuals to preserve the land in the ways that they can, so this morning we had Dick Bird here from the Land Trust who was talking about the Rose property that has been purchased on Ostrander Point Road and the Hudgins house which is on the Rose property,” she said.

The day’s agenda included presentations by author Orland French, who explained the geography and geology of the South Shore. Sacha Warunkiw covered the history of the European settlement of South Marysburgh in his presentation about the United Empire Loyalists arriving here and the many personalities that developed the area.

Prince Edward Heritage Advisory Committee member Liz Driver spoke about why people value history and heritage.

“Liz Driver did a presentation about heritage and why it is so important and she was showing us pictures of the Walmsley house which has been totally restored and it’s beautiful and is a wonderful example of unique architecture,” said Anderson.

Author and historian Marc Seguin addressed the County’s lighthouses and the crucial role they played in 19th-century shipping, discussing the reasons for their existence.

Sarah Moran read several excerpts from Nelson Hicks’ journals. Born in 1873, Hicks’ fascinating farm diaries depict everyday life of a local farmer from the time.

“Hicks was writing his diaries from about the early 1890s, certainly through into the 1940s, and he wrote a diary entry virtually every single day for that whole period,” said Moran, who has most of his diaries with the exception of some years which have been lost.

The dairies were being held in a suitcase by Vicki Emlaw who had been transcribing them, but no longer has the time to continue with the project so Moran has stepped in to take over. Moran brought a few of the diaries with her, dating from the 1890s and 1920s, together with some accounts books.

Attendees were able to carefully handle the fragile books, admire the exquisite penmanship of the time, read the simple and sometimes revelatory entries and even enjoy the distinctive smell of the old journals. It was also interesting to see how Hicks’ handwriting evolved through the years.

Moran noted that very occasionally Hicks didn’t write an entry, providing the example of Floral’s 16th birthday party. She explains that Floral Minaker, who passed away earlier this month at the age of 106, was Hicks’ daughter (and Emlaw’s grandmother).

“Her 16th birthday was in 1928 and she had a really big party and the next day Hicks didn’t write a diary entry,” said Moran to audience laughter. “I don’t know if he drank or didn’t drink, but you wonder if that’s why he didn’t write a diary entry the next day,” she added.

Moran read from one week’s worth of entries which she said “illustrates the hard and very diverse work of a farmer which was all about self sufficiency.”

Hicks talks about doing some blacksmithing and his first experience of putting on toe corks.

“The toe corks weren’t for him, they were for a horse,” said Moran, explaining that toe corks were metal pegs that were screwed into the horses shoes that would act like cleats, so if it was really muddy ground, the horse could get some traction and they could keep plowing for longer than they would otherwise be able to do.

“Like all farmers, he had to be a carpenter, a fisherman, a blacksmith and he was doing all of these chores although with a lot of help from other people.”

As Moran spent time transcribing the diaries, one of the things she realized was many of the people mentioned in the diaries were relatives.

“It’s very interesting because they were a very tight community in South Marysburgh and all knew each other very well and were constantly helping one another out,” said Moran. “And many people who live here today are descended from these people.”

Hicks married Mirt who was a Spafford. Moran notes that Spafford was a captain who ran a life-saving station at Point Traverse which had been mentioned in Seguin’s earlier presentation.

“Hicks’ wife was the daughter of that man,” said Moran, further noting that three brothers from the Hicks family went on to marry three sisters from the Spafford family.

In an entry dated Oct. 20, 1903, Hicks describes how it was a long tomato harvesting month because the frost hadn’t yet come. At the height of the canning industry, tomatoes were driven by horse and cart to the two major tomato canning operations in the County. Finally on Oct. 26, Hicks’ entry states, “I drew in my last load of tomatoes.”

Moran worked out Hicks had drawn in about 1400 bushels of tomatoes that month – with 53 pounds of tomatoes per bushel.

Moran notes that in 1903, astonishingly, the people of Prince Edward County were working hard to grow and produce a third of all the canned vegetables and fruit in Canada.

“Those are some of the things that come out from these diaries,” said Moran, “and fortunately we have lots more of them to go; years and years ahead of us.”

For anyone wishing to follow the tales of an early 20th-century South Shore farmer, Moran is gradually transcribing the journals. The transcripts, which retain original spelling and grammar, appear monthly in The South Marysburgh Mirror with October’s edition featuring October 1928. Archived editions are also available at southmarysburghmirror.com.

Stories about the area, its history and the people who lived here interspersed the day’s speakers as tales were shared about the unique settlement history of the South Shore, many of which have been passed along through generations of families.

“What has been really neat about today is that people have been here that have a lot of connection to the land in the South Shore and in South Marysburgh,” said Anderson.

Anderson said it is hoped the fall symposium will become an annual event for SSJI, along with other community events throughout the year.

“We are committed to doing an event like this again next fall. Last year, our event was to bring together all of the provincial and federal organizations to make a commitment toward saving those two pieces of public land so it was a little bit more of a workshop,” said Anderson.

“We are also working hard to help the community realize what we’ve got,” she said. “Having the community involved is how we will be successful.”

For those wishing to find out more about the South Shore Joint Initiative or to join the cause, visit ssji.ca.

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  1. Renee says:

    I love reading Nelson Hicks journals and look forward to it in each issue of the Mirror.

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