Food and travel in P.E.I.'s Bygone Days

Reginald (Dutch) Thompson's column The Bygone Days brings you the voices of Island seniors, many of whom are now long-departed. These tales of the way things used to be offer a fascinating glimpse into the past. Every second weekend CBC P.E.I. will bring you one of Dutch's columns. 

These days folks on their vacation travel great distances just to sample various types of food and cuisine. And of course P.E.I. has a proud history as a food destination. We have a deserved reputation among foodies. We have great chefs cooking fresh seafood and vegetables served up with succulent new potatoes, especially this time of year.

About 100 years ago the foodies came to P.E.I. by steamer and by the railway.

They would spend the summer in resorts like the North Shore Inn in Malpeque. It's gone now but it was famous for its food, they had great chefs and people came from all over North America to eat roasted golden plover. The tourists would shoot the plovers and bring them back to the resort where the chef would cook it for them. 

Around 100 years ago P.E.I. had huge flocks of golden plover — thousands of them would come through P.E.I. every year in spring and fall. They must have tasted pretty good because they were hunted to near extinction right across North America. In fact, it's now on the endangered species list.

The Pleasant View Hotel, in Hampton on P.E.I.'s South Shore next to Victoria-by-the-Sea, was also famous for its fine accommodations and its tasty home cooking. Now it is a huge wooden three-storey hotel overlooking the Northumberland Strait. 

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Grandmother prepared meals

"They had as many as 60 guests in the summer come in there," said Mac Dixon, 84, the grandson of the Smiths who ran the Pleasant View.

"My grandmother prepared all the meals, prepared them. She didn't wait on tables or anything of course she had help for that and had help to peel potatoes and stuff like that. But she prepared all the meals and she'd be up at three in the morning with two home comforts stoves, wood stoves going, preparing the meals for them for the day."

Dixon said the reason she got up early was so she'd be able to put the fire out earlier, in the heat of the day. 

Pat Martel/CBC

Dixon said the guests, many from Boston, Toronto and as far as Calgary, would arrive hungry when they got off the train at the Breadalbane station. His grandfather would pick them up in a three-seated coach and take them back to the Pleasant View.

"And my mother would come behind with the express wagon — she was only a little girl then  — and take in the luggage, the trunks, they'd be trunks. They wouldn't just be suitcases. They'd be trunks because they'd had to stay through the entire vacation, they had their families, they'd come with their families and they'd stay, well, until school opened again. It was a full summer's vacation."

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A 1912 railway timetable/tourism brochure extols the pleasures of P.E.I. and some of the recommended attractions at that time. The brand new 1911 jail was listed as a "must-see" for tourists.

"The charms of P.E.I. include bright skies, bracing air and pastoral scenery. There is an engaging restfulness about the place and its people and the ocean is always within sight," it said.

There were 21 boarding houses and 49 hotels listed, including the Pleasant View Hotel. It cost $1.50 a day or $7 a week — all meals included.

Dutch Thompson

The trains, of course, are long gone from P.E.I. as are the steamers — coal-fired steamboats running regular schedules that came to ports such as Summerside, Cape Tormentine, Cape Mount Stewart and Georgetown.

The S.S. Harland ran twice a week between Charlottetown and Victoria. If they had passengers on board to come to the Pleasant View Hotel they'd give a blast of the whistle out front of Hampton. Then they'd hitch up a horse and probably go with that three-seated coach, head for Victoria down to the wharf to take the passengers in.

Harold Dunphy was born in Millview in 1910. He farmed all his life and he was noted for his wit and wisdom. He was a great talker and storyteller. He'd start off the story by saying "now maybe you know or maybe you don't" and then he'd tell a great story. 

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Back in the 1920s, Dunphy and folks as far away as Flat River, down by Wood Islands, herded their cattle and sheep all the way into Charlottetown. This would be a procession of men and boys kicking up a dust storm on the clay roads, all on foot of course, driving their cattle and sheep with poles and sticks heading for the butcher shops and meat markets in Charlottetown.

"Everything went live then," Dunphy said. "It was a hell of a job to get them into town."

Dunphy said it would cost a quarter to get a meal in town, or $2.50 for 10 people to eat at a restaurant.

Huge lunch pails

There's lots of stories about the prodigious appetites of the railway workers. The late Harold Gaudet was a railway man born into a railroading family. In fact, he wrote a book about his years on the railway.

The railway men were constantly away from home, so if a boarding house served up good food, and lots of it, word soon got around. 

Dutch Thompson

One example was Maggie Lappen. She ran a boarding house on Hillsborough Street in Charlottetown that was a favourite. The railway men carried huge lunch pails and the biggest of all was Paddy Smith's. 

Smith was the grandfather of Gaudet's wife. When he left the railroad, he ran a grocery store on the corner of Prince and King streets. That's how Gaudet had the good fortune to get Smith's large, red lunch box.

"It was bigger than these tool boxes you used to get because they carried everything. They carried salt and pepper, tea, coffee, whatever —eggs, everything like this. Some of the men had pannikins … they were a flat thing you could put your meat and potatoes and stuff in that."

Gaudet's father and uncle were railway men out West in Manitoba and there's a funny story he tells about them.

They first went out West on the harvest excursion train to work in the wheat fields. One day they spotted some ducks on a pond on the farm where they were working so they borrowed a shotgun. They snuck up on the ducks and they shot four of them. They proudly took them back to the farmer's wife to cook up for supper. She let out a curse and threw them out of her house. 

Turns out they shot her tame ducks.

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