Pictou Island Christmas 1959

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The weather during the month of December 1959 remained mild, middle to high 30s Fahrenheit, the wind blew hard from the south nearly every day and it rained a lot.

Jimmie MacDonald and wife Viney were found deceased in their burnt out home on December 10. Consequently, over the next several days, Arnold MacMillan kept his boat in the water and continually transported people back and forth. The winds changed around to the north on December 18 and snow flurries were common over the next few days. Arnold hauled his boat from the water on December  21.

December 22nd was a cold day. The temperature was 20 degrees Fahrenheit or –10 Celsius. On that morning, a modest wind was blowing from the north. Dark clouds whisked across the sky with light snow falling. Three more days until Christmas and 49 Pictou Island school children including myself grades primary to eight were overly excited. I was in Grade 2. This was our big night to present our Christmas concert to out neighbours and families. Our teacher Dave MacKay had spent much time rehearsing the program with us. As with every year, we were all going to put on one big show. This was an annual event which few Pictou Islander’s would ever miss.

Other island school children aged 13 and 14 who were in grades nine and up were now required to attend either Pictou Academy or East Pictou Rural High. These kids were boarding with families on the mainland while attending those schools. Weather permitting, they would try to be home every other weekend with their families when the ferry was running. However it was difficult during winter months to visit more then once or twice with families. The cost alone to their parents to pay for them boarding plus the plane flight from Trenton was often to much.

Those children who attended high school on the mainland in 1959 were: Rosemary Turple, Judy Rankin, Francie Munro, Dolina MacCullum, Carolann Rankin, Martin MacDonald and Martin MacCullum. These kids were also very excited for this was to be the day that the mail plane would transport them home to be with their families for the Christmas holidays. They were also anxious to witness their younger brothers, sisters and neighbors show off their talents at the Chritsmas concert that night.

Alton Woodside, nicknamed the flying farmer, would fly his two-seater plane from Summerside, PEI to Trenton airport, pick up the mail and passengers, “one at a time” and transport them to Pictou Island.

Although it was now extremely cold, the Northumberland Strait ice had not yet come down but it was late in the year and all fishing boats had been hauled from the water for the winter months. The last, as I previously mentioned, was Arnold MacMillan’s boat being hauled just the day before. The small plane and the island’s ice boat were the only means of transportation throughout the winter months.

Shortly before 12 noon, the plane arrived with mail and its first passenger. It landed with snow skis on a frozen field blanked with a few inches of snow behind the home of Howard MacLean. By this time the wind was coming from the northeast and snow was starting to accumulate. Concern was rising among the islanders as to how many more trips this small plane could make in those weather conditions.

All but two of the scholars were hastily transported from Trenton to the island in what seemed to be a short time. After landing on the island, Woodside deemed it unsafe because of the poor visibility and increasing winds to return for the two remaining students. Winds were becoming so strong that Woodside could not even return to his home in PEI. His small plane was tied down in Howard MacLean’s field to prevent it from overturning in the wind.

Rose Turple and Martin MacDonald were stranded on the mainland. The two were extremely disappointed for they longed to be home with their families and friends for this traditional Christmas concert. Not being able to do something at that time was rarely in a Pictou Islander’s vocabulary, especially for Vincent Turple Sr. and Arnold MacMillan. The two men, being neighbours and the best of friends, decided to launch Arnold’s new boat and make the seven-mile trip to Caribou and get the two remaining children.

During September, Arnold had purchased a new forty-foot boat from a boat builder in Cape Tormintine New Brunswick and had named her GEA. Arnold had hauled the GEA onto the shore at the wharf the day before but had not yet prepared it for the winter. Dad and Arnold figured that this trip would be a good test to see just how good a sea boat that the GEA was. Their idea quickly spread and many islanders thought that the two men had lost their minds to think about going out in such a storm. However if they needed any assistance, most islanders were there to help. John Angus, Duncan Rankin, Spike MacDonald, Theodore Maclean, Vincent Turple Jr, Cecil Rankin, Ernie Rankin, Vernie Rankin, Edward Rankin, Duncan and Roy MacCullum, Charlie MacMillan and others assisted in launching Arnold’s boat.

My father called his brother Lester who lived in Pictou and asked him to drive the kids to the ferry wharf in Caribou. My father and Arnold were then on their way.

It was about 3:30 that afternoon when Dad and Arnold arrived in Caribou. Going to Caribou was fairly easy, the boat was going with the wind and the sea, it was the return trip that would be a concern for they would be heading directly into the storm. Their two passengers quickly climbed into the boat. There would be about one hour of daylight left when they headed back to Pictou Island. By this time a real fierce noreaster was howling and the swirling snow made visibility almost impossible. Because of the poor visibility, Pictou Island could not even be seen. Both men, however, had made this voyage hundreds of times before in all kinds of weather. They calculated the tide and wind, set their compass and started out.

Rose and Martin climbed up under the bow of the boat and were able to keep fairly warm and dry there. Dad and Arnold however were out in the open. Boats were not built as large or with cabins like today’s fishing vessels are. Arnold was at the steering stick expertly navigating through the blowing snow and into the gigantic waves. There were no automatic bilge pumps during those years so dad was steadily manning the hand pump. Every wave would put the bow of the boat under water and the spray would sweep over the length of the boat. The salty spray would freeze when it landed on dad and Arnold’s faces. A swipe of their hand would wipe it away.

Pictou Islanders had a party line phone system with wall crank phones. This meant that anyone could pick up his or her receiver and listen or talk when someone else was using it. Now the overly concerned islanders had their ears to their phones listening for any news of the people in the boat. Most homes overlooked the water and most were glued to their windows looking for any sign of the little boat. However, all that could be seen was giant white caps coming of the large breaking waves.

It was almost dark when Janet Rankin spotted the boat almost to the island wharf and relayed that message over her phone. Other then being a little wet and cold, they had made it safely back to the island. John Angus MacMillan, who operated the snowplow, hauled Arnold’s boat back onto the shore. We Pictou Island children conducted a joyful school concert with Santa Claus making an appearance on that December 23  in 1959.