VIII. Nova Scotia – The Homeless Years

(1) Loch Broom

Faced with further unemployment and the care of a family, Dad began to think of emigrating. The Canadian Department of Agriculture and the Canadian National Railway painted rosy pictures of Canada as a land of milk and honey – all one had to do was milk the cows and look after the bees. They held out a choice between British Columbia and the Maritimes, and as the Maritimes were closer to Denmark and the climate and topography were somewhat similar, the decision was made: we would become Nova Scotians. Dad was registered in the emigration records as a gardener, not as a farmer. Perhaps he had thoughts of having to milk twenty or more young cows by hand as he had done while in his teens, or he may have had visions of a western round—up and the inhumane branding of cattle and dreaded the prospect of having to do that sort of thing.

We sold our furniture to raise money for our tickets. Ludvig bought a beautiful cabinet with a glass front, made for us by Onkel Jens Holm; when I visited Ludvig in 1980 he had it still, standing in his room in the senior citizens complex where he was living. We visited friends and relatives in various parts of the country, not knowing whether we would ever see them again. During the last week of March, 1929 we sailed from Copenhagen on the “Hellig Olav”, a Norwegian ship named after the first Christian king of Norway, St. Olav. Our journey took us to Oslo. Along the coasts of Sweden and Norway the birds were singing and the farmers were working in the fields.

Our part of the ship was divided into cubicles; the walls did not reach either floor or ceiling but did provide some privacy. Mother had influenza on the way; she was not seasick – she had too much seafaring blood in her veins to ever suffer that malady, but was lying on her bunk when a Polish woman rushed in and retrieved an orange which had rolled into our quarters from hers. The language barrier prevented communication.

I remember nothing of Denmark [Norway?], but have a vague recollection of running down a long corridor on the ship. That was a runway made to order for a boy of three.

On April 6 we landed in Halifax. A cold rain was falling, and snow covered the hillsides. Spring came later than in Scandinavia. After a night spent at Pier 21 we travelled by train to Stellarton and from there on the Short Line to Loch Broom, where we were met at the one-room station by Mrs Dearborn with the horse and express wagon. It was still raining as Mother and I rode in the wagon and Dad and Mrs Dearborn walked alongside through the mud to the farm. Contrary to the expectation of many immigrants, the streets were not paved with gold; this road had never seen gravel. Mother’s spirits were never lower. She knew only three English expressions: “Yes”, “No” and “How do you do?” Dad remembered some English from his school days, and on a number of occasions acted as interpreter for other Danish immigrants.

Mrs Dearborn had been adopted as a child by a MacLean family at Loch Broom, and Mr MacLean, now in his eighties, was still living on the farm. He was a fine old gentleman, and attended the Presbyterian church in Durham whenever he could manage it. Part of Mother’s job was to look after him. There was a dog named Rex who looked after me.

Not long after our arrival we found our way to the United Church in Pictou. We walked on the railway bridge from Loch Broom to Brown’s Point. (That bridge and the Short Line have long since disappeared.) But what sort of welcome would we receive? And what if the service was very different from the Danish services we were used to? We need not have worried. The first item in the order of worship was the Doxology: “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God almighty” We joined in with “Hellig, hellig, hellig, Herre almaegtig”, the Danish translation of the same hymn. After the service Dr. Webster, a dentist, drove us back to Loch Broom in his car. We had found a church home.

Mr Dearborn operated a milk business in New Glasgow and managed the farm in Mr MacLean’s old age. He appeared occasionally. Dad found him to be quite untrustworthy – he sought immigrants to work for him and took advantage of them. At one time Dad wrote him suggesting that the farm needed fertilizer; if Dad bought the needful, would he pay for it’? Dearbom replied with a letter stating that he would. The next time Dearborn arrived at the farm (after the fertilizer had been purchased and spread) Dad handed him the bill.

Dearborn objected: Dad had made the purchase, so he would have to pay for it. But Dad had kept Dearborn’s letter and held him to the agreement.

The Dearborns warned us to have nothing to do with the neighbours as they were all scoundrels. We soon learned who the real scoundrels were. The neighbours could not have been kinder.

ln Denmark the depression had come in the 1920s, and was growing worse. Mother’s parents were finding it increasingly hard to make a living. We at least had a good roof over our heads, and Dad was confident that the Birkholms could have a better life in Canada. So they joined us in the fall of 1929, with Johannes, Ester and Mille. Ester and Mille attended school in Nova Scotia, Ester for a few months, Mille for two years. During the four years my grandparents were here they lived in several places: with us at Dearborn’s; at Dearborn’s after we had left; in Glencoe far up the East River of Pictou; and at the Thompson place on Beeches Road (now Brae Shore). I remember a warm blue sweater Bedstefar made for me on his knitting machine. At first I folded the sleeves up to the elbows, but as time passed I grew into it.

Viggo, Magda, maybe Flemming peeking over her shoulder, Magda’s sister Mille, their parents Karen and Christian Birkholm

Karl Mogensen joined us in Loch Broom after his unsuccessful attempt to find his brother in the west. He made our home his headquarters, and worked in Loch Broom for a family by the name of Allan. Later he obtained long term employment and a good home with William MacKay and his sister Kate on their farm in Bay View.

Dad’s youngest sister Sofie and her husband Julius Pedersen also came to Nova Scotia and settled on a farm in Loch Broom. Julius had worked in Manitoba prior to his marriage and liked the new land. Two children were born to them in Nova Scotia, I remember my fascination on seeing Faster Sofie nursing Niels. Sofie was corpulent, that made the sight more interesting.

Gradually other Danish immigrants were discovered: Jens and Thyra Johannesen (Johnson), Dan (the Baker) and Asta Christensen, Christian and Ellen Eriksen and their two sons, Svend Svendsen who lived with us for years, Ben and Bodil Skakke, Ernst and Marianne Trier Hansen, Dr. Larsen the chiropractor and his wife, Oskar Jensen and his Polish-born wife, Albert Christensens, Hans Jensens, Martin Petersen who was bandmaster in Pictou and our mailman for some years, Peter Thomsen and others, all living in Pictou County, and most of them arriving within a year of our coming.

Times were difficult and we tended to care for each other as extended family or at least old friends. When a man lost his job and his family had nowhere to go, they could find a temporary home with another Danish immigrant family. Johannesens and my parents were perhaps the most generous in this way.

(2) Bay View.

We stayed at Loch Broom until August, 1930. Once Dad was wise to Dearborn, and Dearborn knew it, we got our walking papers. We had one month to get out.

But where could we go? We knew so few people and had so few connections. It was those “scoundrels” of neighbours who came to our rescue. One of them put Dad in touch with a job opening near Pictou.

Seaforth Manor

“Seaforth Manor” was a lovely old house on Beeches Road. The front part was built of stone, and dated from about 1803. The rear was wooden and newer. The ground floor contained (when we were there) a large living room with a fireplace and a piano, a “den” which also had a fireplace, a dining room, a kitchen, a sunporch and one smaller room; at the rear was a “dairy” or back kitchen. Upstairs were several bedrooms, and two staircases led from the first floor to the second. We occupied the “dairy” and one upstairs bedroom. Also on the property was “the cottage” which was useful only in summer as it was very drafty. There were the usual barns and sheds, an orchard with apple and cherry trees and a good garden with strawberries, etc.

The cultivated acreage was small, and the possibilities for viable farming were slight, unless one concentrated on something like poultry which did not require much land. All in all the property was an excellent one for someone who worked in town and could afford to subsidize the farm; the quarters at the back were just adequate for a small family who could do the work.

W.C. “Billy” Ross was a United Church minister who had gone into educational work. In the days when Pictou Academy was the most prestigious if not the only high school in Pictou County and there were no school busses, young people had to board in town if they wanted to avail themselves of secondary education. A “Boys’ Home” was built on the edge of Pictou and a “Dean” was hired to supervise the boarders and run the establishment.

This was the position occupied by Mr Ross in the 1920s, and in Pictou and environs he was known as “Dean Ross” to the end of his life. He, his wife Victoria, their three sons and Mrs Ross’ sister made their home at Seaforth Manor. By the time we arrived the Boys’ Home had been closed and Mr. Ross had become the Principal of Mt. Allison Ladies College in Sackville. Now the family spent their summers on the farm and came down for the occasional weekend during the school year. They were thinking seriously of selling the property when we appeared on the scene, looking for a job and a place to live.

The contrast between the Rosses and the Dearborns could hardly have been greater. Mr. Ross had been raised on a farm in Blue Mountain in an isolated part of Pictou County and had served in the armed forces during the First World War. He was a lovely person. Mrs Ross‘ father had been a seacaptain, sailing out of Yarmouth, and she was inclined to feel her exalted social status. When speaking to us, each referred to the other as “Mrs Ross” and “Mr Ross” – a clear indication that although they used our first names we were not to use their first names. But such was the custom of the time.

The Rosses were gracious and kind. We were allowed to use their extensive library, which contained copies of “The National Geographic”, “Nations of the World”, “Stoddart’s Lectures”, the works of Dickens and many other authors. The first book Mother read in English was “David Copperfield” from the Ross‘ library; she had read “Oliver Twist” in Danish some years previously. I also read Copperfield while we lived there.

Their youngest son was four years older than I, and I received the clothes he and the older boys had outgrown. When ice cream, bananas or oranges were making the rounds, I was always included. Years later Mrs Ross told me of giving Mother an orange and making her eat it on the spot to prevent her from saving it for me to have later.

For a time Margaret MacKeil (later Mrs Alfred MacMaster) worked for the Rosses as a maid. Margaret has told me how I would follow her around and ask questions. I was anxious to know the English words for everything. Gregor Ross, the second son of the family told me many years later that I had a strong Danish accent when we first arrived at Seaforth.

Living near Pictou, we were able to take in The Pictou and North Colchester Exhibition. Mother ambitiously made her first ever batch of butter, entered it, and won first prize! When the time came to go home Dad had to stay with the cattle, so Mother took the reins. She had never before driven a horse, but Nell set the pace and the direction and we arrived home in record time. Mother found it impossible to rein her in along the way.

Mr Ross had a brother Jack who was an alcoholic. Jack was a whiz at mathematics and often worked as tallyman in a sawmill. Sooner or later however he would lose his job when he didn’t show up for work, and would arrive at Seaforth whether Billy was there or not.

One year Billy set Jack up in the poultry business on the farm, renovating part of the barn to accommodate the hens. Mother remembered Jack and a friend coming home drunk and going to work cleaning and candling the eggs in a little room off the dining room; several times Jack fumbled and dropped an egg, looked down at it as it fell to the floor, and said, “Good-bye egg”. The venture was not a success, and Jack died years later without ever having conquered his addiction.

Mr Ross had a car, and once when we were out for a drive I asked him if he would accelerate to sixty mph – that being the fastest I had ever heard of anyone going. But fifty was his limit. It was just as well that he didn’t go any faster; the road to Pictou was gravelled but the other roads in the area were of dirt and sometimes impassible in the spring. Onkel Julius also had a car, but it was an older model and I could not imagine it going sixty.

I have been told that once when I was out for a drive with the Rosses I spied a store and mentioned that this was the place where I was not to ask for ice cream. The Rosses often made ice cream themselves. They had an ice box, and ice for it was cut on the ponds in winter and delivered in summer.

At first Dad was paid $30 a month, plus housing and farm produce. But the farm was not paying for itself in the lean years, and Mr Ross could not afford to subsidize it, so Dad arranged to keep it in shape “for free” and get what he could out of it. Our income from then on was less, but at least we did not have to pay rent and we had a wealth of healthy home-grown food. Dad bought our groceries on his weekly trip to town, and paid for them with eggs and other farm produce. Sometimes he would bring home a treat: a Nielson’s Jersey Milk Chocolate Bar, priced at 5 cents; Mother would cut it into 12 or 16 pieces and dole them out.

There was a summer resort at Seacrest, a short distance from Seaforth, and there also we sold milk, eggs and vegetables.

In the Pictou County Atlas of 1879 Seaforth is probably the farm marked “W.A. Mackenzie” and Seacrest is the “Hospital Lot” nearby.

Mother’s parents spent four years in Pictou County. They were in their fifties when they came to Canada, and Grandmother never did learn much English. One day when Mr MacLean was ill she tried to take his temperature rectally, as she had learned to do in Denmark. The old gentleman knew nothing of this method and objected vigorously. I don’t know who won the match; in any case the event was not a happy one.

Bedstemor was not content in this country, found it hard to adjust, and had some health problems. Bedstefar had a more adventuresome spirit and might have stayed. But the economic prospects were poor. In 1933, with Ester and Mllle, they returned to Denmark. Johannes remained in Nova Scotia for another year to save money for his ticket home before joining them.

Faster Sofie too found it difficult to adjust to life in the new land. She and Julius and their two children moved back to Denmark in 1934.

(3) Caribou.

There seemed to be no future for us at Seaforth, and Dad wanted to start farming for himself, with his own stock and machinery and preferably his own land. So on May 1, 1934 we moved again, this time to the Caribou end of Bay View School District, to the farm marked “Alex MacKay” on the 1879 map. By then it belonged to Kate MacKay, sister and housekeeper for William MacKay, Karl Mogensen’s employer. She had inherited it from a bachelor uncle. It was run down and the buildings were old. The house has been renovated at least twice since those days, and at time of writing is occupied by Margaret (MacKeil) MacMaster.

The house in Caribou in 1937

The house was probably built in the 1830s, and by the same carpenter who built the house Julius and Sofie occupied at Loch Broom and the house we later owned at Abercrombie; the lay-out was the same. There was no electricity. We used kerosene lamps for a while, then bought an Aladdin lamp; it was something like a Coleman lantern but designed for use in a house. There was a pump in the yard, and fetching water for the house and barn was one of my chores, along with keeping the woodbox filled. When I started carrying water I began with one 25 lb. cream can; then as I grew older I graduated to two 40 lb. cream cans. It was a matter of pride as well as efficiency to carry as much as I could at a time.

Dad used to get up at 6 or so in the morning – a little earlier in summer, a little later in winter. He fed and milked the cows, and came to the house for breakfast at 7.30 or so. He seldom finished work until well after dark, even in summer.

We had two horses, Maggie and Jiggs. Their names belied their temperaments: Jiggs was skittish and Maggie was lazy. They were poorly matched. The choice of names was mine.

Karl Mogensen had bought a gramophone at an auction, and with it a box of old 78 rpm records, mostly cowboy, railroad and love songs. The machine was portable and of the wind-up variety and was stored with us. One of the records contained the song, “The old grey mare, she ain’t what she used to be.” One day l took the machine to the pasture and played that song to try to get a rise out of Maggie, but without success.

I gave most of the cows names that were nearly unpronounceable. The exception was Bessie, the leader of the herd; when Dad stood at the stable door at 5 p.m. and sang, “Come along, cows”, old Bessie raised her ears and started running for her stall and feed box with the others following at a more sedate pace. We usually had about ten head of cattle.

We separated the milk with a hand separator and sold the cream. The skim milk was fed to the pig, the calves and the chickens. We drank whole milk.

In the fall the family pig was killed, usually with a blow on the head followed by a cut throat.

He/she was hoisted by the hind legs on a tripod, dipped in scalding water, shaved, and cut in pieces with a hand saw and a butcher knife. While Julius and Sofie were with us we would make potted head or head cheese; we would also make sausages, using the intestines as casings. Svend Svendsen used to talk about making use of every part of the pig and sending the squeal to the Ford Motor Company for a horn. There was usually a bull calf to be butchered as well. The meat was salted, or placed in cold storage at the Pictou County Dairy in Stellarton.

Of course we had no refrigerator, nor even an ice box. Some people cut ice on the ponds in winter and stored it in sawdust. In the towns it was peddled from door to door twice a week, and the kids would gather in the hope of getting slivers of ice to suck; but in the country we had no such service. In any case ice would not have kept meat frozen through the summer. On the farm we used the cellar floor or the well or a stream to keep food cool. We preserved peas by drying, meat and vegetables by canning in Mason jars, and eggs by placing them in something called waterglass.

Each spring we bought 300 day-old chickens, and Dad slept in the brooder house in order to stoke the coal stove through the night. The temperature at floor level was kept at 90 degrees Fahrenheit until the chicks had begun to grow feathers and could manage with less heat. In the fall the roosters and the old hens were killed; in the early years this was done by cutting off their heads with an axe, but later Dad learned to use a knife with a curved blade, thrusting it into their mouths and cutting their throats from the inside. We hung them by their legs in the stable, and plucked them, their blood running into the gutters. Then Mother eviscerated them – her hands were smaller than Dad’s. We sold the good chickens in town; there was often a deformed one to keep for ourselves. Later Dad made use of the services of the Department of Agriculture and had the roosters caponized; without their sex drive they put on more weight (typically weighing eight lbs. instead of six) and we made more money. Caponization also gave the females some rest.

At five months the pullets began to lay, and at six months they were in full production, laying small, “peewee” or “pullet” eggs to begin with.

The eggs had to be candled to make sure they were fresh and without blood spots. This involved having a light bulb or a lamp in a black sleeve; there was an egg—sized hole in the sleeve and we held the egg up to the hole. The effect was something like an x-ray or fluoroscopic examination. We also weighed the eggs. Those under 18 oz. per dozen were peewees. 18-22 were pullet size. 22-24 were medium. 24 and over were large.

I learned to feed the animals, milk the cows, curry, harness and drive the horses and do most of the jobs associated with farming. I particularly enjoyed haying: cutting and raking it with the horse-drawn mower and rake, sinking the pitchfork into the Timothy and clover, turning it for drying, coiling and stacking it, hoisting the forkfulls over my head and placing them on the load, unloading with the hayfork and stowing it away in the mow. The hayfork was a mechanical gadget, attached to a carriage which ran on a track; the track ran just under the peak of the roof and extended the whole length of the barn; the horses pulled
the carriage and provided the power that enabled the hayfork to lift a whole stack of hay off the load and deposit it somewhere in the middle of the mow. It then had to be moved by hand with the pitchfork and stowed under the eaves to make room for the next hayfork load; this was the hottest and most unpleasant job of all.

The scythe was used to get at the hay and grain standing in the corners of the field. I became fairly proficient in its use, but could not of course keep up with Dad. I remember Dad saying that in the old days a good workman could cut an acre in a day with a scythe.

Mother always made root beer in harvest time, starting with Hires Extract and finishing with several gallons of the beautiful brew standing on the cellar floor for cooling. Root beer is still my favourite soft drink. And of course there were always cookies to eat with the root beer.

I did not enjoy hoeing the garden, – or thinning turnips, which was much the same thing. I never wanted to be a farmer, and preferred to spend my time reading. But I belonged to a garden club (one of the forerunners of 4H). Along with the local calf club the members visited a number of farms and learned to judge cattle and crops. As a member of the garden club I had my own little plot to cultivate under Dad’s guidance. Members of the calf club had calves to raise.

Mayor Tom Hooper of Pictou, who had the reputation of being one of the most profane men in the County, had a farm just inside town limits. (Dad used to refer facetiously to “His Worship the Mayor”.) One of his Ayrshires, Onslow Lass, was a world champion; she was getting up in years but still looked good and produced very well. She was an object lesson for us kids, and I remember visiting the Hoopers with the others and having to “judge” her or compare her with a couple of younger cows in the same herd; I had been told of her existence and recognized her when I saw her, and that gave me an edge over some of the other members. I also Iearned rough carpentry on the farm, and that skill has stood me in good stead over the years.

There was a blacksmith shop in Lyons Brook, and once in a while we took the horses there to be shod. It was an exciting place to visit. There was always an air of uncertainty and danger; one could never be completely sure that the horse would be cooperative. And the fire, the sparks, the hot iron sizzling in the cold water, the bellows, and the paraphernalia hanging on the walls and from the ceiling added to the excitement.

Whether by accident or intention I largely missed one element of farming: that was the breeding of cattle. I remember Dad walking the cows down the road to visit the nearest bull; he said that the bull “did something” to the cow. But I was not given a chance to watch, and I lacked the application to the human species. True, there was something in the Bible about Lot and his daughters, as well as David and Bathsheba and other fascinating stories, but somehow I failed to make the connection until a couple of the boys at school came to my assistance. When they told me the facts of procreation I couldn’t believe they really were true. But as time passed they made more sense. It was not a subject I could discuss with my parents. Having a brother in those years would have helped.

The house was heated largely by the kitchen stove. There was also a heater in the living room, but that was used only on the coldest days of winter and on other rare occasions. There were registers in the ceiling which tended to keep the frost out of the upstairs rooms. But I clearly remember undressing behind the rocking chair in the kitchen and making a mad dash upstairs to bed (where a hot water bottle might or might not be waiting), and making a similar dash for the kitchen in the morning. My impression is that in winter baths were taken with somewhat less regularity than the traditional Saturday night frequency, but I could be mistaken. One expected to see thick frost on the windows on winter mornings. Each fall the houses were banked with fresh sawdust or seaweed, and
in the spring the banking was removed and spread on the fields.

One summer toward the end of our stay in Caribou the house was to be renovated and a furnace installed. We chased the hens out of the henhouse, Mother scrubbed the building down with Lysol, and we moved in. A few weeks later the hens got their quarters back.

We had a washing machine, and supplied the power by hand. The machine consisted of a wooden tub on legs, with a vertical handle that went back and forth horizontally. The handle activated a horizontal bar which in turn, through a system of cogs, caused a vertical rod to make a circular motion; the vertical rod in turn was attached to a gadget that looked like a miniature milking stool; the stool circulated inside the tub. Tub and stool were of wood; plastic had not been invented. This modern invention was a vast improvement on the old-fashioned scrubbing board. The water still had to be heated in large tubs on the
stove. Soap powder was unknown; Mother shaved slices off large cakes of Surprise soap and dropped them into the hot water.

The churn in which we made butter was also a technological marvel, at least compared to the older dash churn with the vertical handle. In the evening, while reading the newspaper Dad or I would leave one hand free to move the handle back and forth. The handle somehow caused the barrel containing the cream to rotate. If our attention was centered too deeply on the reading matter Mother would inform us of the change in sound which indicated that it was time to stop churning and to pass the substance on to her for completion. I was too interested in what I was reading to fathom the technical details of the mechanism, so am unable to furnish a more accurate description of the churn.

Another improvement to our standard of living was the installation of a home—made hot water tank attached to the kitchen stove. The water passed through a pipe into the firebox and back into the tank. Somehow there was always air in the pipes. If silence is golden, the rumble it made may go a long way toward explaining our poverty. But we got used to it.

Of course Mother had no electric iron. She had several sad irons which stood on top of the stove, and a handle to lift them with.

At Loch Broom and Seaforth furniture was provided. But at Caribou there was no furniture worthy of the name. It was then that Dad built the first of several tables. There was a small stack of hardwood flooring in the barn at Seaforth, and from that he made the top of the table which my parents used in their kitchen or dining room for over 50 years and which I have in my kitchen until 2000. In 1935 Svend and Karl gave my parents four Bass River chairs for their tenth wedding anniversary; three of them are still in use. The Ross family had a wicker rocking chair which they had relegated to the barn. We liberated it and Mother upholstered it. It was our best chair for some years – indeed, our only easy chair. I took it with me to university in 1944 and left it in the old Pine Hill Residence when I moved from there in 1950. The Rosses gave us the buffet which is still in our dining room, it had been made by his grandfather at Blue Mountain more than a hundred years ago.

There was little attempt to get matching furniture – or matching anything. We were happy to have items we could use.

Mother had a sewing machine which she operated by hand, and Svend attached an electric motor which she could activate with her foot. With it she transformed flour bags into underwear and lengthened and shortened various items of clothing.

In the winter there was firewood to be cut and hauled home with the horses and the bobsleigh. When it was all there, stacked up in the yard, a gang of men would arrive with the saw and a diesel engine. They would place the sticks, mostly hardwood, on a carriage and push wood, carriage and all into the path of the circular saw. Two men would have the task of bringing the wood over to the saw, one would move the wood between cuts and make sure the resulting pieces were the proper length, and a fourth would clear away the stovelengths of sawn wood. Mother would have extra work feeding the men, and I would be pressed into doing the dishes. Then there was a job tailor-made for a boy of eight or ten — stacking the wood so it would dry properly and carrying it into the house as needed.

A similar occasion was threshing. Whereas I was always around for the hay harvest, l was generally in school at threshing time, so I pretty much missed out on the dirtiest and dustiest job the farm afforded. Again there was a crowd of men for Mother to feed.

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