Rare Words and Old Readers – Changes in Farming
For a man who thinks he’s become a little rusty as a presenter, confessing he had given up public speaking some time ago, he certainly still knows how to fill a room and keep us hanging on his every word. Dr. Lawson Drake spoke about changes in farming, and with the room full, including many farmers, he did not raise himself up as an expert by any means. But what Lawson may be best at is observing life. He would have honed that skill as a biologist and inspired students with his passion for understanding living things.
He had a good start in life having been raised in the heavenly spot of Meadow Bank with its grand views of the West and Clyde Rivers and surrounding communities of St. Catherine’s and Clyde River. He could see how things were interdependent and, when managed well, the land could provide sustenance and sustainability for its rural communities. He may have gone on to achieve his doctorate, but I suspect it was to more fully understand the wonder that surrounded him each day. And with his gift of speech, he passes that sense of wonderment to us, despite his modesty.
Lawson began his talk highlighting that although PEI had been exporting products throughout its history, the last century saw farm acreage increase from a typical 100 acres to anywhere up to 1000 acres to accommodate larger production. Along with that, the number of farmers has decreased and, with those remaining, they specialized as dairy, potato, hog, poultry or beef farmers.
Changes in rural community life led to a disappearance of grist mills, blacksmith shops, general merchants, cheese factories, district dairies, local schools, and country doctors. Traditions like working bees where people banded together with their neighbours and those from other communities to complete the harvest and when schools began the year in mid-August so they could close for two weeks at peak harvest for children to go potato picking are now part of history.
Lawson posed these questions, “Did the changes in agriculture cause the changes in community life or was it the other way around? Or were both of these changes part of a larger evolutionary shift?”
He showed slides featuring pen and ink drawings from Meacham’s 1880 Atlas which give us an image of what farm life looked like 135 years ago, not unlike the farm where he grew up. He was a little skeptical that the properties of those days would be so neatly fenced and suggested the drawings portrayed an idealized view.
He offered a handout with a list of words and phrases that were common in his farm boy vocabulary, reflecting early farming days and now considered rare words almost forgotten by some and, for others, not even known. These words passed out of usage with changes in farming.
The first word was “Alsike”, a variety of clover, which he used to describe a typical crop rotation in earlier days. The first year of a rotation, a field would be ploughed and planted with a root vegetable like potatoes, turnips or mangels. In the second year, a grain would be planted like barley, oats, wheat, mixed grain and under sewn with three kinds of clover along with a grass like Timothy. A new meadow referred to the first cut of hay that you took from that planting, rich in clovers…coarse red clover, fibrous alsike and short and sweet white clover. In the next year, the Timothy grass would take over and be cut for one or two years in the rotation. In the following year, the field would be used as pasture or maybe ploughed to begin another rotation.
Fields of four to five acres featuring different crops and five or six-year rotation patterns are in the past. Where there were once several crops grown in succession before returning to the same crop, now, typical crop rotations are two or three years before replanting the initial crop.
He continued by asking the audience to suggest words from the list to discuss:
- A barrack was a structure consisting of a roof supported by four poles which was used to store and protect hay. Barns were not large in those days, so a supplemental structure was required.
- A mow “pronounced like cow” was an area in a barn open from the floor to the roof which stored hay.
- Black leaf 40 was derived from tobacco and 40% nicotine sulphate, basically a powerful tobacco juice. It was used to treat lice on hens. Farmers would sprinkle a few drops in the hens’ nests and the warmth of the their bodies evaporated the juice, the fumes flowing up over them and exterminating the lice.
- Humpty-dumpty was a container that held 2.5 dozen eggs and featured special separators to protect them from breaking.
- A firkin is a 9-gallon container or small barrel used to store butter typically in the cellar during the winter months when cows’ milk production fell off.
- For the full list of rare words, click here.
He finished off his talk with an excerpt from an “old reader”, a book of English literature from his school days that so eloquently describes the technique or art of using a scythe, authored by Hillaire Belloc in The Mowing of a Field, detailing the skill and pride taken in being a farmer. You can read the except, click here.
Lawson brought along an old newspaper clipping that he received from Roy Jewell featuring a Clyde River School Fair held on September 11th, 1928, where pupils from Meadow Bank, Kingston and Clyde River exhibited agriculture products, handcrafts and baking that were judged by a Miss Maszard, Mr. Edward MacPhail and Mr. Walter Shaw. Agricultural exhibits included oats, wheat, corn, potatoes, tomatoes, onions, cucumbers, beets, turnips, mangels, carrots, cabbage, sweet peas, crab apples and plums. Crafts included sewing, crocheting, embroidered linen, milking stool, nail box, hammer handle. Animals included livestock and chickens. Plants included potted geraniums, mixed flowers, tree leaves and weeds. There were also categories for drawings and writings. The list of winners are well-known names that in many cases represent parents or grandparents of those currently living in the area.
Thank you, Lawson, for an entertaining and thoughtful presentation that reminds us of how farming deeply connected our neighbouring communities.