Islanders were proud to show off their livestock in P.E.I.'s Bygone Days

·6 min read
The thoroughbred stallion Saint Sylvestre, winner of Grand Champion Thoroughbred Stallion at The Royal Winter Fair in the 1920s. He was owned by Raoul Reymond, who emigrated with his wife from Switzerland in 1925, buying a fox farm in Southport. He and his wife became operators of Dalvay By-The-Sea in 1959.  (PARO - image credit)
The thoroughbred stallion Saint Sylvestre, winner of Grand Champion Thoroughbred Stallion at The Royal Winter Fair in the 1920s. He was owned by Raoul Reymond, who emigrated with his wife from Switzerland in 1925, buying a fox farm in Southport. He and his wife became operators of Dalvay By-The-Sea in 1959. (PARO - image credit)

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 few weekends CBC P.E.I. brings you one of Dutch's columns.

Back in the days when most Islanders lived on a farm, they had only to say "I just got home from the Royal," and their friends would turn green with envy.

The Royal was and is the Royal Winter Fair, held every November in Toronto — except 2020, when it was cancelled by the COVID-19 pandemic. Tens of thousands of spectators come to mingle with judges and entrants and see the best in Canadian agriculture. According to its website, organizers are planning for the 99th annual fair to go ahead in 2021.

Dutch Thompson is an award-winning historian and storyteller. He has published a book about P.E.I.'s bygone days.
Dutch Thompson is an award-winning historian and storyteller. He has published a book about P.E.I.'s bygone days.

A win at the Royal was a big deal then as it remains today, whether it's for pickling or prize-winning pork, horses or Holsteins.

Islanders have always won more than their share of ribbons and trophies at the Royal, for things like Guernsey or Jersey cattle, Percheron or Belgian heavy horses, fancy chickens, or potatoes.

6 generations of winners

Vimy Jones was born in 1917, to Katherine and J. Walter Jones. They farmed in Bunbury and in 1940, Walter became premier of P.E.I. He was an innovator, and was instrumental in introducing the potato crop to the Island. In 1935, he received the King George V medal as the best farmer in the province and so later was known as the "farmer premier."

Vimy Jones Siegrist of Bunbury, P.E.I., was the last surviving child of famous 'farmer premier' J. Walter Jones.
Vimy Jones Siegrist of Bunbury, P.E.I., was the last surviving child of famous 'farmer premier' J. Walter Jones.

"He was the first master breeder of Holsteins in Canada," Vimy told Dutch. "He really had, for some years in the '30s, the best herd of Holsteins in Canada, and he started it all himself right from scratch."

That began around the time Vimy was born, she said. "So as far as I was concerned, it was cattle and horses."

Her grandfather Franklin Bovyer also farmed in Bunbury, and was famous for breeding prize-winning silver foxes.

J. Walter Jones grew up on his family's farm in Pownal and first become an educator, teaching at several P.E.I. schools, an award-winning athlete, and later an agronomist and then premier. He won the King George V medal in 1935 for the best farm in P.E.I.
J. Walter Jones grew up on his family's farm in Pownal and first become an educator, teaching at several P.E.I. schools, an award-winning athlete, and later an agronomist and then premier. He won the King George V medal in 1935 for the best farm in P.E.I.

"We still have trophies that he won at The Royal in 1924," Vimy said. "When my granddaughter [Vimy Henderson] showed a pony at The Royal last fall, she was the sixth generation to have exhibited at The Royal."

Vimy Jones Siegrist died in 2011 at age 93.

Vimy Henderson with her pony Flirt was champion in the pony hunter class at The Royal in 1997, and was the 6th generation of her family to show at the fair in Toronto.
Vimy Henderson with her pony Flirt was champion in the pony hunter class at The Royal in 1997, and was the 6th generation of her family to show at the fair in Toronto.

Calves were fox feed

Another frequent winner from P.E.I. was Angus Johnston from White Sands, who collected dozens of red ribbons

For years, he and his father, Albert, were butchers and meat peddlers in Murray River.

Angus Johnston of Murray River was a meat peddler and an award-winning chicken showman.
Angus Johnston of Murray River was a meat peddler and an award-winning chicken showman.

"I used to sell meat to Mrs. MacKay when she had the old cookhouse," Johnston told Dutch. "Probably in 1929, '30.... She fed the fishermen. Great woman she was, and a great family, yeah."

Johnston said he and his father would go to different farmhouses or see cows out at pasture, and drop in to see if the farmers wanted to sell any. They were all kinds of cattle, too — beef and dairy cows.

"When my father first started butchering in Murray River, there were no young cattle — the calves were sold the minute they were born, for fox feed."

Some of those foxes may have belonged to the Joneses in Bunbury, and become champions at the Royal.

Quite a school project

But Johnston didn't become famous for raising cattle — as a boy, he raised barred rock chickens.

The barred Plymouth Rock chicken breed was developed in the U.S. in the late 1800s and was the most popular breed for about 100 years. Angus Johnston of Murray River won many prizes for his barred Plymouth Rocks.
The barred Plymouth Rock chicken breed was developed in the U.S. in the late 1800s and was the most popular breed for about 100 years. Angus Johnston of Murray River won many prizes for his barred Plymouth Rocks.

"I used to bring in eggs from Ontario, and set them and raise chickens out of them. Showed them at school fairs. When I was 12," he said, showing Dutch where he had accidentally sawed off the end of his thumb while making a cage to carry the chickens to school.

Those barred rock poultry are handsome birds, with their eye-catching black-and-white stripes.

In 1947, Johnston packed up his knives and meat saws and moved to Toronto. Then in 1954, the family moved to Fonthill and Welland just west of Niagara Falls. Angus went back on the road, making lots of new friends as a meat peddler. However he didn't travel by horse and wagon this time, but instead had a refrigerated Chevy truck.

The family owned a few acres where they could keep some hens, and Angus rekindled his chicken-raising hobby.

Soon he was setting records at the Royal: one year he won 86 of 91 prizes at the fair. He also showed and won with his poultry at dozens of other fairs in Ontario.

'Shipped cornies to B.C.'

"I just happened to have an eye on the type. Type means a lot, feather means a lot," he said. "Sold a lot of them, I shipped cornies to B.C."

Them big shows, you have to wash your chickens, soap and water then rinse them with vinegar and warm water. — Angus Johnston

Johnston was more proud of shipping his chickens across North America than all the prizes he won.

You might wonder how one prepares a chicken for judging at the Royal. For Johnston, it was with a bottle of shampoo and a bar of Irish Spring soap.

"Oh sure, them big shows, you have to wash your chickens, soap and water then rinse them with vinegar and warm water," he said. "Make sure their toenails are clean. You got to make sure they don't have too many spikes in their head, their comb."

Johnston moved home to P.E.I. in 1974 and worked as a butcher in Montague, where some of his customers were the same ones he'd had more than 25 years earlier as a meat peddler.

He eventually retired, but kept his hand on the knife working part-time at the Co-Op and at the Queen Street Meat Market in Charlottetown, and dusting off all the red ribbons he'd won at the Royal.

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