LYONS BROOK – Looking back, it seems somewhat amazing to Sandy Mackay that he is living on the land that his great-great-grandfather purchased in 1816.
“The farm itself was originally homesteaded in 1810 by David and Helen Pottinger but in 1815, Mr. Pottinger was killed by a falling tree,” explains Sandy. “On March 21, 1816, my great-great-grandfather, Alex Mackay, bought the property from the widow.”
The significance of the occasion was lost on the Mackays until just recently when Sandy was helping to organize the PA 200 events.
“Our farm was purchased by my family the same week that Pictou Academy was chartered.”
The family farm is now celebrating 200 years of Mackay occupation and they are hoping others will join in the festivities.
A family reunion is taking place on August 6, but the entire community is invited to come out and see the property.
“When Sandy’s grandmother passed away in 1929, her sister came to live at the farm to help take care of the kids,” he explains. “My father was only three at the time. Then my grandfather’s sisters came to live there. There was one sister left from my grandfather’s generation when the PA 200 celebration planning began and she passed away last week so we decided it was a good time to have a family reunion, and 200 years is a nice number.”
They expect about 30 family members to attend as well as friends and members of the community.
“A lot of people had a connection to this farm,” he notes. “There are some people still in town who used to work here as a farm hand.”
The land was an active farm until 1960, growing various vegetable crops which they were selling at markets, as well as a little bit of dairy, beef and poultry.
The same kinds of items were grown when the farm originated in the 1800s.
Of the 100 acres left of the farm, half of that has now become forestry.
“The way the water drains on the property, it creates black earth which makes for very fertile soil which is why they stuck with the vegetables,” says Sandy.
The original house on the property still stands in behind the ‘big house’ which was built in 1924.
“At any given time there would have been two to three generations living in that house,” he says. “We are the fifth generation and my children are the sixth.”
The original house was meant to be used as storage until the passing of Sandy’s grandmother when all of the sisters began to arrive. Since then it has been used occasionally in the summer as a cottage.
“It’s rarer and rarer that families stay on the same land for so long we don’t know if we’ll be here the next 200 years so we want to have a celebration,” he explains. “Anyone is welcome to come out around 2 p.m. August 6 and in the evening we are having a family ceilidh.”
It’s an informal event so people can drop by and check out the land, maybe pick a piece of rhubarb.
“The rhubarb patch has been maintained over the years,” explains Sandy’s wife, Ruth.
“There’s a huge lot of land where the rhubarb has been regularly planted and still grows to this day and we’ve done very little to it. When our kids were young it was like a communal rhubarb patch for the neighbours.”
There are also a number of fruit trees growing in mini orchards on the property.
“In Sandy’s grandfather’s day, the farm really became an iconic farm because he was a very forward thinking man,” notes Ruth. Alex D. Mackay, Sandy’s grandfather, was part of the movement to create farming co-ops and was also involved in the first Farmer’s Mutual.
“He wanted to make life better for farmers and for the community in general,” says Sandy, adding his grandfather was a councillor back in the day.
“They (the farmers) used to pool their money together and purchase machinery they could share amongst themselves,” says Ruth.
But much of the property remains similar to the former glory days with the Trans Canada Trail (formerly the shortline) running through the property.
The three cisterns created to catch water are still on the property as well as the man-made pond.
“They had to make sure there was never a shortage of water because they had cattle,” explains Sandy.
He says the icehouse is also still standing, a structure created with a large pit to store ice from the lakes in the winter.
“They would cover it with saw dust and eel grass and it would last through the summer, acting as a refrigeration system of sorts.”
The pumphouse also remains, which was once used as a summer kitchen so the workers could get fed without heating up the house.
The large barn, however, is no longer standing.
“That was the biggest change, I think,” says Ruth.
Sandy says part of the barn blew down on Superbowl Sunday in 1991 while the remainder was torn down as entertainment for teenage boys, the Mackay’s son and friends.
In 1969, a new piece was added to the ‘big house’ and they have made renovations to that area, but much of the remainder is the same.
“There are still remnants of things like old barns and fences around the property,” says Ruth.