My father’s traphouse

Community Featured Online First Pictou Island Memories

One-room community schools in Nova Scotia, including the one on Pictou Island, were in the process of closing their doors during the late 1950s and 1960s. Students in grades 9 and up were required to attend newly built superior high schools. Advanced elementary schools were also being considered for grades 9and under.

Many Pictou Islanders didn’t want their children leaving their homes and moving alone to the mainland to attend the larger Pictou Academy or East and West Pictou High Schools. Several families began leaving their long time roots on Pictou Island and moved to the mainland. We were one of those families in 1964.

I was in Grade 8 and would be required to attend West Pictou District high the following year. I was also the youngest in our family and I’m speculating that my parents didn’t want to see their little boy move away alone. My parents purchased a house from Donnie Shaw in Central Caribou and we moved from the island on September 2st

Moving ahead to the following year. 1965 was a cold winter with lots of ice in the Northumberland Strait. My brother Vincent and brother-in-law Scott rowed a dory across from Pictou Island on April 19th. There was to much ice in the strait for a fishing boat to manoeuver through on that day. Arnold MacMillan made the first trip through scattered ice from Pictou Island with his boat GEA on April 21st and stayed that night with us in Caribou. The ice was beginning to scatter even more and south winds was keeping it on the back side of Pictou Island. Arnold made a few more crossings over the next few days. My father and  Arnold loaded my dad’s tractor on Arnold’s boat at the factory wharf in Caribou on April 29th and transported it over to the island. They used the tractor to haul their traps from their shanties to the wharf. Mother and dad were able to return to our island home on May 5th but there was still a lot of ice in the strait. My older sister Rosemary and I remained at our home in Caribou as she was employed at Stedmans (five & dime) in Pictou and I was going to school.

The May 1st lobster season was delayed and rescheduled to begin on May 7th but the Northumberland Strait was still full of ice. Still some scattered ice around on May 10th but Dad began to set a few of his traps using ice poles for buoys. My father’s first haul in 1965 was on May 14th and he caught 127 pounds of lobster that day. Canners sold for 55 cents per pound and Markets sold for 60 cents per pound. My mother was baking bread and had a good fire burning in the kitchen wood burning stove on June 10th. No one had realized that frost had probably heaved the unheated house during the winter and had cracked the chimney. A fire broke out in the attic and our old farmhouse burnt to the ground.

About this time, trap houses were being built at the Pictou Island wharf and at the East End breakwater. Fishermen would store their wooden lobster traps in these buildings over the long winter months. A section of these buildings could be partitioned off and used as living quarters during the lobster season. Several Island residents who had left the Island would return and stay in their shanties during that time.

My father had a trap house built on the shore bank just up from the island wharf. Dad’s trap house was probably 20 x 36 feet and was built with ¼ inch plywood with sheets of tin nailed on its roof. Now that the old farmhouse was gone, Dad partitioned one end of his trap house and we used that for our living quarters. He had build bunks along one wall for my brother Vincent and I to sleep on. I always thought that I was the lucky guy for getting the top bunk. It wasn’t until it rained that I realized just how lucky I was. I would lay many nights on that top bunk next to the roof and listen to the rain hitting the tin. Sometimes that noise would be so loud that even the transister radio beside me could not be heard.

A pot bellied stove provided the heat for us on cold damp days. We would usually get a good fire burning with dry trap lathe and then bank the fire with coal in the evening. Lighting at night was provided from a Coleman camping lantern that we would hang from a ceiling beam. This lantern provided ample lighting for playing cards or reading magazines in the evenings. Those older lanterns had to be manually filled with namta gas. Dad used to have a glass gallon jug filled with kerosene oil which we would use to douse the trap lathe with before lighting in the stove. This would enable a quick start of the fire. He also had a glass gallon jug to transport namta gas for the Colman lantern. I remember one cool May evening when Dad and I sailed over to Pictou Island from Caribou. Dad had work to do in the boat so I went up to the shanty to light a fire and warm things up. I first placed the dry trap lathe in the stove and grabbed the first glass jug that I saw not realizing it was the namta. I sprinkled a wee bit here and a wee bit there. I threw the lit match into the stove’s open door and the cover on the top of the stove was like a missle as it sailed up and hit the tin roof. I suppose that was one quick way to clean out the stove pipe.

There were three fish buying companies that bought and processed the lobster catches during those years. There was Maritime Packers,  E. P. Melanson and M. Patural.

Maritime Packers had a cookhouses built at the wharf and one at the East End breakwater. Fisherman who were now living in their trap houses would have a place to get and consume hardy meals.

The cookhouse was also a plywood building approximately 20 x 30 feet. One end of this building housed the storeroom and kitchen. The other end had two long tables set up with wooden benches on either side. I can envision the faces of fishermen who have since departed and bring to mind the stories they would tell while sitting at those tables. To name a few there would be Art  Ferguson, Cameron MacDonald, Kenny, Spike, and Melvin MacDonald, Lorne and Arnold MacMillan, Vincent and Wilard Turple, Duncan MacCallum, John Angus MacMillan, Punch Patterson, Campbell, Gordon and Clyde MacCallum, Henry Dalton and Bobby Bone.

Except for Sunday, each day would usually began for us at approximately four a.m.  After washing the sleep from our eyes we would venture toward the cookhouse. Fresh coffee was always a refreshing aroma to get one motivated. One never went away hungry when sitting down to a meal in these establishments. I remember some of Pictou Island’s finest cooks doing the baking and cooking at the wharf cookhouse. Janet Rankin, Loraine MacMillan, Thelma MacDonald and Ona Glover provided the best of meals for us fishermen. We never knew what each day might bring on the water so a large breakfast was always welcomed. Everything was set on large plates and containers in front of us and we helped ourselves. I would be fascinated watching some fishermen such as Gordie Gratto stack three, four sometimes five eggs on his plate. These eggs could be fried, scrambled or boiled. Also added to the plate would be many strips of bacon, sausage and slabs of ham and all the toast and jams one required. Pancakes and porridge also lined the tables. If one wished to drink a quart of milk with their meal, it was available. If so desired, these ladies would also pack each fisherman a lunch can to take in their boat for a fee of .75 cents. Believe me, these cans would be packed to the brim. The cost per each meal was $1.75 and was charged to each fisherman’s account. I can’t begin to imagine what a similar meal would cost in a restaurant today if one would be available.

These cook houses ceased operation I believe in the 1970’s. I don’t know if we perhaps had eaten all the profits or if it became too difficult to transport fresh produce from the mainland to the Island.