It takes a village…

This story was written 1999

With the many luxuries we have today, one can only imagine what life was like many years ago. No indoor plumbing, no electric lighting, no instant heating at the touch of a button, no shopping malls, no telephones, no televisions, no plastic credit cards. The list can go on and on. However we still often hear the phrase, “Those were the good old days”. The following is a story told to me by 92-year-old Laura Lewis who resides at the Shiretown Nursing home Pictou.

Five lobster canning factories were in full operation around the shores of Pictou Island during the late 1800s and early 1900s. Fred MacGee owned three of these factories with one being situated on the shore behind George Rankin’s property north from the island wharf. Local fishermen would land their daily lobster catches at these factories for immediate canning processing. People from Pictou Island, PEI, New Brunswick, Pictou, Caribou, Seafoam, Cape John and River John areas came to work at those five fish processing plants.

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Fred MacGee would ship the canned lobster from Pictou Island to the mainland in boats called smacks. Some of these smacks belonged to MacGee while others were contracted out to other fishermen. The canned-boxed lobster would then be shipped via rail to various destinations throughout Canada and the United States. Laura’s husband Parker worked as plant foreman at the lobster factory behind the Rankin property during the early 1900s. That was the last lobster factory to operate on the island and the last case of Pictou Island lobster was canned at this plant in 1923.

Laura recalls the names of some fishermen who would fish and anchor their boats off shore at this location; some locals being her husband Parker; my grandfather Elias and his twin brother Charles; Jack (Happy) MacDonald; George, Lauchie and Ernie Rankin. She recalls Lee and Clarence Nicole from Murray River and John Stewart from Dover. Laura will reminisce about how the fishermen would use a home made anchor when anchoring their boats in the water. They would, as Laura recollects, cut a good-sized tree from the woods and embed the tree trunk in cement that would then be sunk in the water some distance from shore. The small boats of that time would then be tied to branches from the sunken tree.

There were at least six bunkhouses that had been built on the bank just west of the factory. Most Prince Edward Island fishermen would stay in these camps rather then sailing back to the island every day. The large cookhouse plus many storage buildings and bunkhouses created a small village at this area.

After the lobster factory ceased operation in 1923, the cookhouse was used as a summer residence by anyone who wished to use it. Laura and Parker raised a family of two girls, Diane and Dorothy and one son Fred during the 1940s and early 50s. Their home was on the mainland but they spent many summers residing in the lobster factory cookhouse on Pictou Island.

Laura tells me of one particular time when Parker was going to take his small children smelt fishing and instructed them to dig some worms. Diane and Dorothy returned overly excited yelling that they had found the biggest worm ever. It turned out to be a snake. That could have been bait for the fish that got away.

I have been shown pictures that Mrs. Lewis has of that old factory and it was quit a little village at one time. Laura’s daughter and son-in-law, Bill and Diane Hayman from Lyons Brook, have since built their summer cottage on the bunkhouse site. Fred and Kay Langille from Central Caribou have constructed their summer cottage on the cookhouse site. Nothing remains of the once thriving lobster factory where much activity occurred many years ago.

jimturple@eastlink.ca

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Jim Turple
Jim Turple is a retired councillor for the Municipality of Pictou County who has ties to Pictou Island. His column, Pictou Island Memories, appeared in The Advocate for many years and is now living on through social media via our website.