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.
Farmers who needed to fertilize their fields in Prince Edward Island's's bygone days of 100 years ago or more weren't able to simply make a trip to the store for chemical fertilizer.
Nurturing the soil had to be done naturally — as a good deal of fertilizing still is today — with manure from their farms or a neighbour's, as well as a variety of other natural sources that may come as a surprise to modern gardeners and some farmers.
Boswell Robertson farmed his entire life on Munn's Road, east of Souris. Robertson said his uncle and farmers on the North Shore of P.E.I. used to spread kelp, a kind of seaweed, on their fields.
"The kelp I guess came in there was beyond everything, they'd spread that on and the potatoes the next year would be beyond anything. It's good for anything I guess," Robertson said.
He said he recalled farmers planting potatoes in fields where they'd spread mussel mud — nutrient-rich mud dredged in winter from the bottom of the Island's rivers where mussels grew.
"And you'd get a good crop too," he said.
Lobster shells as fertilizer
Robertson also remembered getting lobster shells from the local cannery, Johnston's — there were lobster canneries in just about every port 100 years ago — and spreading those on his fields as fertilizer.
You could put the kelp right on the land with nothing and it would grow grain to beat hell. — Roy Clow
"The field would be pretty nearly white with seagulls when you spread them on, but they made the turnips and mangles and potatoes grow too," Robertson said.
Chemical fertilizers are expensive because they're created using petroleum, so even now farmers are seeking out cheaper and more environmentally friendly alternatives. In some cases that means returning to their grandparents' or great-grandparents' way of farming.
For many years, the cook at those lobster factories was Nellie Young, born Nellie Mossey in Souris in 1906.
She cooked four big meals a day, plus she baked biscuits and pies and bread every day, feeding dozens of fishermen and cannery workers, working six days a week and taking home $10 a month. She cooked a lot of beef, pork, and beans, but no lobster.
"No, oh no, it was too expensive," said Young. "There was men come down every day for a load of shell for the land ... put them on the land for fertilizer." The only meat that was canned was meat from lobsters' claws, legs and tails, she said.
Just mix in some seaweed
Roy Clow's father, Jim P. Clow, farmed in Murray Harbour North. Jim mixed cow manure with the kelp that washed up along their shore after a storm.
"I'd fork manure till my hands was blistered — blisters on the blisters I think! We'd mix kelp in with it that we'd haul from the shore ... rockweed and broadleaf," he said. "I've seen beds of kelp come ashore, I bet you there'd be 500 cartloads, easy. And all the farmers would make for the shore."
The Clows would pile the kelp outside and mix it into a variety of types of manure from the farm.
"We'd dump so many loads in the cow manure pile, and so many in the horse manure pile, and so many to the calf houses and the sheep houses — it was real good, you could put the kelp right on the land with nothing and it would grow grain to beat hell, or wheat ... it was really good stuff," Clow said.
Clow said as he worked he would find dulse, a tasty kind of seaweed, and eat it as a snack. "It was as good as having a slice of bread or a biscuit or something," he said
Cow manure is versatile too — it has been used as a home remedy: people thought one cure for tuberculosis was to work in a stable forking manure, which probably had more to do with exercising than the manure. Before breakfast was thought to be the best time of day.
Cow dung cure
Years ago some Islanders also rubbed cow manure on their throats to treat diptheria.
And then there was horse manure tea, sometimes called "dung water": a concoction of manure, ginger, molasses and the herb aniseed. It was supposed to cure pneumonia and fever.
This was the last cure to be tried: if this didn't work, nothing would, and the cure might just kill you.
Herb Schurman, born in 1911 in Summerside, talked about this unusual home remedy. He remembered it being used by a man he knew, Jimmy Mayhew, who got an infection in his finger but refused to see a doctor.
"He sharpened up his knife ... and he cut that finger off just above the fingernail. And do you know what he put onto it? A hot cow plaster. And he lived for a long, long time," Schurman said.
"Cow manure was quite common for cuts and things like that, years ago."
According to Schurman, the hotter and fresher the manure, the better it worked! This remedy was not only used on P.E.I. The great folklorist Helen Creighton recorded people all over Nova Scotia who also used the cow dung cure. And if Helen Creighton says it's true, then you know it's not a load of manure!
More from CBC P.E.I.