I’m going back in time to approximately 50-plus years ago. Lobsters were being fished in abundance and lobster factories along our shores were booming. My existence was perhaps just being considered about that time. I, however, have been talking to some highly respected people who remember those years as if they were only yesterday.
There were no social programs or unemployment insurance. If a person didn’t want to work, they could get awful hungry. Seasonal workers made up most of the local population. Those people had to budget every penny just to survive 12 months of the year. Pictou Islanders being fisherman and farmers were classified as such. The spring lobster season was the first employment to be had each year. The herring run followed the annual lobster season. Herring fishing was very messy work and often not very lucrative. The boats used were much smaller than those of today and herring was sold for $2 per 300 pound barrel. Therefore, some Pictou Islanders would opt to go to Cape Tormentine, NB, Brunswick and seek employment at that lobster factory.
Lobster season in that area runs from August 15th to October 15th. Some Pictou Islanders who choose to work in N.B. were Punch Patterson, Duncan Rankin, Cameron MacDonald, Arnold MacMillan, Keith MacDonald, Anderson MacLean and Frank and Bush MacDonald. Gilbert Shaw from Caribou would usually also accompany these men on their annual adventures. There were even a few times when young son Cecil Rankin would accompany his father to the Cape.
The Cape Tormentine fall lobster season was a very productive business. Thousands of pounds of lobster were caught daily from those waters. Lobsters from surrounding communities would be shipped to the Cape Tormentine lobster factory for processing. Because of their abundance, the smaller canner lobsters were shipped in wooden crates via dump truck. Those lobsters were usually in pretty poor condition upon arrival at the factory especially on warm days. The larger market size lobsters were also shipped in wooden crates via boats called smacks. Those lobsters however would be submerged in salt water until being processed. This would keep the lobsters alive longer for shipments to other places.
Extra help was required in the weighting, culling and processing of the lobster as they arrived at the factory. Some Pictou Islanders worked in an area that they refereed to as the slaughterhouse. That part of the factory was where the lobster was culled. This meant that the live lobster was separated from the ones that were dead or close to dying.
There was a large two-storey boarding house on the waterfront that was made available for the work crews. Their room and meals were included in the $34 per week’s wage. Some of the Pictou Islanders would sneak into the cookhouse after hours and whip up steak, lobster or whatever for a bed lunch. This has me remembering a story that I had once been told about Anderson MacLean’s eating habits. Anderson used to work for a Mr. Robson as a potato picker on PEI in 1945. It appeared that Mr. Robson’s faithful dog died on account of there was never anything left for the dog to eat after Anderson finished his meals. I’m thinking now that it was probably much cheaper for Anderson parents to have him working at the Cape rather then being at home on Pictou Island.
Now the factory truck drivers at the Cape boarded on the lower floor of this boarding house while the Pictou Islanders had their living quarters on the upper floor. Wiring used for lighting was very crude in the old boarding house. The wire that supplied power for lighting to the upper floor merely ran from the fuse box located on the lower level. The wire ran along the wall and up over the top of the door. The power switch was located on the bottom level. The Pictou Islanders would amuse themselves by playing cards during the evenings after a day of working. The truck drivers on the lower level would jokingly pull the power switch leaving the top floor in darkness. This was something that the islanders would tolerate for just so long. Gilbert Shaw was selected to unscrew the light bulb and stick the end of a bottle opener into the socket. I have been told that every fuse in the fusebox was fried. Well the boys below were not to be outdone. They replaced the fuses but put a copper penny under the fuse that provided the power to upper floor. A flash of fire flew over the door of the upper floor when the power switch was turned on. I am informed that this experience kind of rattled young Cecil Rankin. He was a little leery of what would happen next. I have been told that it didn’t take very long for him to find out.
The heat for the building was provided from an old coal burning pot-bellied stove on the first floor. There was no chimney but rather just a stovepipe that protruded through the second floor and out through the roof. Any heat that was distributed from the stove on the first floor would be quickly felt on the top floor. Bill Brown was a truck driver from River John who was also working at the Cape. On this one cold fall night, Bill and the boys on the bottom floor decided to have some fun with Arnold, Cameron, Punch, Duncan, Keith, Bush, Frank, Anderson, Gilbert and Cecil. Their plan was to build a roaring fire in the stove and show the boys from Pictou Island what warmth meant. A fire was lit but the coal wouldn’t flair up as much as they wanted it to. A jug full of kerosene oil was then poured over the burning coal. It was probably the whooshing sound going up the stovepipe that alerted the Pictou Islanders as to what was happening. Arnold, and Duncan immediately pulled the stovepipe apart while Anderson began pouring buckets of water into the pipe and into the stove below. Well this really created a predicament. The boys were laughing so hard that they didn’t realize what was happening. The water going down the stovepipe and into the stove had the burning oil running out of the now red hot stove and all over the floor. The truck drivers on the bottom floor were running around with brooms and towels beating out the flames that were now flowing under their bunks. Cecil had enough. I am told that he yelled over his shoulder as he was leaving the building, bring my suitcase, I ain’t coming back.