Fraser Hollett was one of my oldest friends; he knew me from day one, since he was my Grandfather. During our times together we often discussed history – where he’d been and what he’d done throughout his 84 years. He was born in Great Burin Newfoundland in 1926, the son of relatively well-to-do merchant sailors. The eldest of 7 children, he lost his mother when he was 3 years old, endured the stock market crash of 1929, and a great tsunami smashed into the coast and his village, devastating his family’s operations. You see, like now, so much credit was extended (even at the municipal level) that with one or two ‘unforeseen’ events, the odds were quickly stacked against any individual or business who was over extended on either side of the credit market – debtor or creditor. It’s like that saying, ‘if you owe the bank $100,000 and you can’t pay, you’ve got a problem. But if you owe the bank $100 million, the bank has a problem.’ In tiny Great Burin, Fraser’s family was near the top of it all, extending credit to many of the local fisherman and their families – a profitable but risky position. Insurance, though it did exist, was taboo to some religious folks and my Great, Great-Grandfather was one of them. Even though he was encouraged by his son, who had been educated at the University of Toronto on all of the latest and thriftiest business practices, the head of the family and the head of the business refused to insure his company – a mistake. The tsunami wiped out the codfish business (the primary means for local trade), and though it took a while, this eventually wiped out the Hollett’s entire operation. Many of the locals couldn’t pay their debts and that was that. Times were tough back then in Great Burin and thrift was the foundation for survival.
“When God was done creating the world he stood back and threw rocks at Burin”
Let me say now, that I was from a merchant family and we lacked nothing. Others on the harbour considered us over-indulged.
This story is about my best friend, who later joined the navy and who was badly burned when his ship was torpedoed in the North Atlantic. They never could remove the scars from his face. His pension gave his family a little more to eat.
My friendship with him started long before that, however, and that’s what I want to talk about. My brother was eleven months younger than I was. He died at 58 and here I am, at 84.Tony, my lifelong friend, was my brother’s age. He had a caring home and never would have made the mistakes my family seemed to be making. They opened their arms to the world and shared what little they had.
Thankfully, they opened their arms, and despite all of the wealth that my family had, they accepted me as Tony’s friend and I began my long life of learning; how to ‘set’ a hen on as many fertilized eggs as possible and to protect her nest during the ‘setting;’ how to watch for the first edible green leaves in the spring (we had none all winter), watch for the dandelions at the bottom of the fence rows where it was warmer and they were protected from snow drifts and freezing wind.
Dandelions are so good boiled with corned beef and a steamed pudding sitting on top of them while they cooked. Don’t forget the raisins. Dandelions are also good if you use only the white bottoms from under the ground, and stir them around with small pieces of bacon. Leave the bacon fat in the pan and mix it with the pieces. Add a nice, thick white sauce, mix and eat. Oh yes, and lots of white pepper! It’s called the ‘good old days’ to an 84 year-old.
Food was an important part of Fraser’s life. A hell of a great cook, food was really one of his favourite topics of conversation. Although he had access to a great variety of produce at the end of his life, produce was very limited in his early days in Great Burin. In fact, food preparation was very much routine. Once a week, Fraser’s family ate meat and the accompanying side dishes were repeated on a similar schedule.
Some people obsess about ‘local’ and ‘seasonal’ products and that’s okay, but in much of the world and throughout most of history local and seasonal food stuffs weren’t the hip choice for foodies, they were the only choice for almost everyone, period. So, as much as I see the great need for Western Culture to get back to being thrifty, part of me feels that with regards to food we ought to get it while the getting is good and be thankful for modern technologies like jet travel, which have enriched our lives in so many ways. We’re quick to curse technology and damn progress in the name of saving mother earth, but few of us can really imagine what life was like before central heat, insulation, and double-pained windows. If you lived in Great Burin in the 1930’s thrift was not an option as it has been in recent decades. Today, you can leave the lights on, run the ceiling fan all day, or let those chicken breasts or avocados spoil in the back of the fridge, and nobody is going to rap your knuckles with a ruler. But back in Great Burin you ate what was there and any imprudence in planting, harvesting, storing or processing the food was very devastating when you came to the dead of winter.
And you Talk about Thrift?
“The 24th of May is the Queen’s birthday. If we don’t get a holiday, we’ll all run away.”
Planting: It was the 24th of May and the year was 1940. Children who thought they were getting a holiday spent the day lugging manure from the barn to spread over the garden, and then every spare hour they had until the earth was warm enough was spent digging it in. Remember, there was no electricity, no rototillers, and the only horse that might pull a plough was used to drag the big tanks of fuel to the lighthouse on Dodding Mountain.
A morning was picked and all of the very old people were helped out to the gardens and they had the discussion as to whether or not the earth was warm enough for planting. Some so old they could hardly stand up straight again after they grabbed a handful of earth. This process sometimes happened a few times.
Now it was the men’s turn. The first chance they got they took off the storm windows and took them to the garden. Years before, frames had been made for the seed bed and they remained there for many years. Now it was time to plant things that still might freeze: lettuce, cabbage, basil, turnip, leafy herbs, etc.
The seeds were planted and then covered with the storm windows which stayed until they were ready to be planted in the open garden. A few days before planting, the windows were taken off to expose the plants to the natural weather.
Sometimes, smudge fires had to be lit in the garden in the evening, so that the smoke would spread over the delicate new plants to keep the frost away. On smaller patches, they spread out white sheets and held them down by pound size stones to cover any plants that might freeze.
Fishing: The men fished and the women worked in the garden. After school, the teenage children went to the fishing stage with hand tubs and filled them up with fish guts, etc., took them to the garden and spread them over the plot where the potatoes were planted. It was covered then with shovelfuls of earth to keep the flies away. That would all happen again when the potato leaves were about three inches above the ground.
It is difficult to imagine in today’s world, such an operation being carried out without the aid of refrigeration or electricity, or in most cases, any type of motorized machinery in the garden.
It was an island. There were no vehicles of any kind. I did not see a tractor until I left in 1943. So, we had to be thrifty. We could only exist by being thrifty. Birch bark covered our wounds. A vinegar-soaked cloth often stopped our headaches, a neighbour delivered our babies and a neighbour also washed and prepared our dead for burial.
It was a great life and so is my life today. The only thing that makes the present one a little better is the addition of 4 children, 10 grandchildren, and 3 great-grandchildren.
So many times, Fraser and I discussed techniques and ideas, practical skills and knowledge that have long since been forgotten in most communities in North America. Both he and my Grandmother, Joyce, grew up practicing these thrifty ways on a daily basis.
Though they finished their lives in the comfort of condominiums, and with all of life’s current luxuries--electricity, refrigeration, and indoor plumbing--they understood that it wasn’t so long ago that it took real back-breaking, hard labour to not only grow food, but to store and prepare it as well. All proteins were brined in salt and either smoked, dried, or canned. My Great-Grandmother canned whole ducks, in 1 quart jars, preserved with a piece of salt pork. The extra eggs were kept in a 50 gallon barrel full of salt, and the kids would dig into the salt to retrieve the eggs that were to be cooked. Only the heartiest vegetables like potatoes, turnips, rutabaga, and cabbage could be stored through the winter, and this too was an art. Miscalculating the moisture or the rodent population could cost a family dearly in lost food. Cabbages, my Grandfather told me, were hung from the ceiling in their barn, suspended in a large fishing net so that vermin couldn’t dig into them, and also to allow for air flow so that they could prevent rotting. No nonsense, just thrift.
Great Burin Newfoundland
The winter potatoes kept in the outdoor dug-out walls in the cellar were picked over. The softer ones were given to the sheep and cows and the good ones were put in a warm place to sprout and use for seed a little later.
Turnips (a favourite) were long gone and what was left of the carrots were grated and turned into soup made with fresh milk rather than water, salt and lots of white pepper, and cream skimmed from the big pans which sat for hours and was then put on a not-too-hot lid on the wood stove to be pasteurized. Good soups! With a carrot and pepper taste--great for children who had to walk home through waist-high snow with stiff winds blowing in their faces.
To be clear, a wood stove used in those days would have ‘hot spots’ in close proximity to the burning wood. A ‘not-too-hot lid’ would allow the cream to ever so gently simmer and, thus, pasteurize.
If you were to see people like my Dad walking along the fences on his property you’d think he was checking them to see how they survived the winds and snow of winter. You would be wrong. He would be checking the area where the fence touches the ground. That’s where the first little sprouts of green appeared from the dandelions. He would wait a few days and then send us kids up to pick enough to put in the pot with corned beef, turnips, carrots, potatoes, and a peas pudding. The pudding was peas tied up in a cloth and boiled with the rest of the dinner. Then, while they were still in the cloth, they were put in the towel and mashed with a potato masher until all the liquid was out. Take it out of the cloth and you have a solid mass of cooked yellow peas, which you can slice. A dole of fresh churned butter enhanced the taste with a little more pepper. You can tell that I love pepper! Of course, the fact that it was cooked in all those tastes from the corned beef, cabbage, turnip, carrots, and potatoes made a real difference.
I can’t be sure since I never asked him, but I know that Fraser hated the cold. I can only imagine that in those days, and in that part of the world, it could be darn cold and damp at least 3 out of 4 seasons. Perhaps, and this is only my best guess, he loved black and white pepper because it actually warmed him up. It can do that, you know. So can cinnamon and many other lesser-known herbs and spices. Like so much other useful knowledge, knowledge of the properties of plants and their healing, soothing benefits have largely been lost in our modern North American culture. Herbal medicine is re-emerging, and it’s worth learning about.
Along with the early dandelions, there were sour docks and of course rhubarb. It was looked forward to and you would see children grabbing a stick from the garden and eating it on the way to school, getting every last succulent bit of fiber and sweetness from it. It was the first taste of anything fresh and growing since the previous fall.
At that time of year, many of the sea birds came back, and it made no difference what size they were. It was food and it was fresh and fresh was the operative word. We had small water pigeons that were oh so tasty, and then there were saltwater ducks.
The younger men walked across the island on cold winter days with their dogs, and hid in the rocks along the shore. When a flock of about 100 ducks flew in close to the shore to feed on the one shell in their midst, loaded with buck shot, the men would drop up to 25 or 30 ducks, fresh and filled with nourishment from all the little fish they had eaten.
It was also the time when most of the cows were calving. They were fed on their mother’s milk.
In those days, it was a big deal to own a cow in Burin. The Holletts owned one and she certainly provided amply for many years. Modern farming has allowed us many luxuries and it’s scientifically amazing how much yield farmers can achieve with modern technology. On a small scale, however, many old world, thrifty, farming techniques can save a family money and enrich their lives. Though it isn’t common knowledge anymore, thrifty farming is being practiced all over the continent. A family cow may not be practical, and in suburbia it’s probably not legal, but a chicken coop is a very thrifty addition. A broad of chickens will make a garden thrive, provide ample eggs and meat without requiring great effort. Children can certainly participate in these light-weight chores – learning valuable skills all the while.
She was named before we got her. She came to us on our small island of Great Burin in a crate--a very large one--on the deck of a sailing ship that came to Newfoundland from Prince Edward Island.
My Dad knew a farmer from earlier trips to Prince Edward Island and he asked him to choose a good ‘milker,’ and he would pay three hundred dollars for her; a steep price in 1939!
“Send her in the fall,” he told him, “when our ship comes to pick up a load of potatoes.” The potatoes were to go to Newfoundland for the people’s winter supply. So that’s what they did. I’m glad I didn’t have to clean the deck of the ship off every morning. Someone had to milk the cow every morning and every evening, too.
There would have been no communication with home once the vessel left Prince Edward Island, so after a week we watched every evening, after school, to see if we could see a ship on the horizon.
Finally, the day came and then there was the real wait; it would take about another nine or ten hours after we saw the ship on the horizon. Eventually, the vessel came slowly towards the shore with crew members surrounding the deck with poles, making sure the ship wouldn’t hit bottom. By this time, there were also crew members in dories guiding the ship in so she would be broadside to the beach.
Heart was led out of her crate, and oh my God, I saw the ugliest cow that I have ever seen, poor thing! Manure on both sides of her hind quarters, almost up to her backbone, one horn broken off half-way up. She was the saddest shade of brown, except for the white heart in the middle of her forehead and a long strip of white going along her back bone and down her tail.
Her udder was so big that it hit the larger stones on the road as she walked. As she walked in the green grass when the hoisting equipment was removed, we noticed that a quarter of her udder was bruised, and when we carefully pulled on her teat, it wouldn’t give milk. My dad came to me and asked me if I would heat some ointment and rub it on the udder and he would give me $10 (about $200 now!). All went well and it healed within a week.
Now let me tell you about all the good things that Heart gave us: fresh milk to supply a family of nine for twenty years, as well as fresh cream for a family of nine – try it on warm blueberry pie!
We didn’t have electricity so we used a hand separator. We put the cream in the big wooden churn and in about an hour, we had butter.
Every spring, we bought two little piglets. We gave them the separated milk and watched them go. We made bacon and ham to last through the winter. With no electricity, that was the only way we could preserve the pork. My mouth waters right now as I write and remember the crackling on those pork roasts.
My wife’s mother would prepare for the period when the cow’s calving time would come and the cow would ‘dry up’ and there wouldn’t be any milk, by filling quart sealers and boiling them in water. They would last for months.
To get down to basics, Heart also provided the best fertilizer to spread over the hay fields and to dig into the vegetable gardens.
Then there was a calf every year. We kept them for five weeks and fed them only Heart’s milk for the first two. By that time, Heart wanted to roam the hills and valleys for green grass so we made little dumplings of corn meal and egg and opened the calf’s mouth and popped them in. Mother Heart wouldn’t be home from feeding on the hillside until 4 p.m. At the end of that time, the calf was slaughtered and packed in large sealers—put through the boiling process—and stored for the winter.
It was around the time that the war was starting in ’39. We were still Britain’s oldest colony and being treated that way. People on the dole were expected to live on $2 a month. Every ounce of food had to be watched and it was. Our village had around 20 cows. At 84 and looking back, I can tell you that there are more people around from the ‘cow families’ than from those that didn’t have a cow.
Oh, I almost forgot to tell you that we had to fasten a barrel stave across Heart’s horns. Without it she tore down every fence that was in her way.
Fraser once told me that the kids in the ‘cow families’ excelled in school compared to the ‘no cow families.’ I can’t be certain it’s a fact, but on $2 a month, one would be hard pressed to put a nourishing meal on the table. There’s nothing thrifty about the dole or the welfare state overall and now more than ever we see it snuffing out the entrepreneurial spirit and basic work ethic. With all the modern luxuries we enjoy today, the consequences of anti-thrift can be temporarily diverted or avoided. In other places in the world, and in Great Burin so many years ago, these consequences present themselves much more quickly and harshly. If you failed to take action and pay attention to thrift and the best practices of the day, you may not have made it through the winter.
One fact about economies is that they are always changing. The economic powerhouses of today may very well fall on hard times one day. Industries rise up and fall and so do nations. It’s up to the individuals and families to pay attention to history, learn practical skills, and apply thrift whenever possible in order to thrive in even the harshest of winters.
Thriving Pioneers: Grateful for the Chance to Work Hard and Build a Better Life
(These excerpts are taken from: The History of Burin, South Coast Printers Limited, 1977.)
“Freedom seems to be the key word in the early settling of Newfoundland. People from the Mother Country, Ireland, France, and other European countries, who were fleeing from restraints of some kind, wanted freedom to work, freedom from the conflict of wars and feudal lords, freedom of religion and freedom to live their lives according to their own standards. Glowing accounts of the wealth of recently discovered lands were brought back to these countries so that people were willing to sever ties with family and friends to make for themselves a new life in a difficult and foreign land (pg.15).”
“All the raw materials at hand were used to the greatest advantage. The trees, when cut were used to build houses and also as firewood to be used in their crude but, to us, interesting fire-places or in openings in huge chimneys. Fish, sea-birds, wild animals and berries supplemented by flour, molasses, beef and various other commodities which were imported from England and the New England States of America constituted their chief source of diet.
These resourceful people were soon able to add a few extras to their diet by keeping hens, ducks, geese, sheep and goats. Sheep provided wool from which clothing and blankets were made. The more affluent families kept cows and horses – cows for milk to provide cream and cheese and eventually fresh beef, and horses as a means of transportation or for hauling wood form the distant forest. In some cases, shacks were built inland and whole families moved there during the winter in order to obtain easy access to firewood or to obtain logs for building purposes.
The time was marked too by the fact that families could subsist alone on coves or inlets and by lonely ponds. Their material income was largely limited to the basic requirements: food, clothing, and shelter, so they were content to settle anywhere provided there were opportunities to obtain a meager living: and loneliness had no terrors for them (pg. 18).”
“The houses of these days were generally small and compact with low ceilings, an open fireplace or an iron stove. In later years, the low ceiling one-room houses gave place to the two story gable roof Elizabethan type houses with beams below the ceilings. Some of these may still be seen in the older sections of the Town. The women, besides working at various chores such as tending the garden, bringing water from nearby wells, keeping the houses and its inmates clean, knitting articles for wear, providing firewood and cooking the meals, also helped in the stage preparing the fish for salting and spreading it on flakes to fry in the sun: while their men folk were harvesting the fish. They worked from early dawn to far into the night making true the trite saying, ‘a man works from sun to sun but a woman’s work is never done.
The children also had their chores to do according to their age and ability. The boys worked in the gardens, tending the young plants, carrying the water, splitting the firewood, or working in the stage processing the fish, and learning to row a boat. The girls would help the mother in the home, look after the younger children and play outdoor games of various kinds (pg. 19).”
“Medical care was a minimum in those days…However, outdoor life, hard work, food such as fish, sea birds, fresh home-grown vegetables and wild fruits helped greatly to produce a sturdy race. The will to work, the need for a better standard of living were factors in laying the foundations of a sound and progressive community in the rocky forbidding terrain of Burin (pg. 22).”
I am of the thinking that most people raised in Western Cultures have largely lost the gritty, thrifty spirit that motivated the pioneers who broke trail and created our communities. Many other cultures have been far thriftier for decades. Those cultures are ascending, their quality of life is improving. Here in the West, we consume more than ever but don’t produce like we used to. Rampant obesity, a payday lending boom, and government takeovers of major corporations are not indicators of a bright economic future. But, that’s a topic more suitable for our muses in ‘Anti Thrift.'