Buckle up…its Blueberry picking time

The resettled community of Petites, NL. Photo courtesy of Paul Graham 2013/

Blueberries feature large in My Mother’s Cookbooks, muffins, pies, cakes, even vinegar. Some recipes have unusual names like Blueberry Grunt, Blueberry Bang Belly and Blueberry Buckle, a legacy of this delicious little berry’s reputation with those who came to live in Atlantic Canada.

Today’s commercial harvest of wild blueberries takes advantage of the natural Blueberry barrens of largely coastal areas of the region. But blueberries grow in other areas too, near timber cuts, at the edges of farm fields, along rail lines and in village green spaces. I am told the some of the best blueberries grow near grave yards…

Evelyn Mauger c. 1942

Evelyn Louise Mauger Morrison, born in the small out port community of Petites, Newfoundland grew up picking the blueberries which grew on the scarce acidic soil of her home. It was only logical that she would teach her children to appreciate the bounty of this sweet fruit which grew near their home town of Glace Bay, Cape Breton.

Petites, located on the Southwest coast of the island of Newfoundland, existed because of fish. The long history of migrant Basque, Portuguese, French, English, and the Channel Islands fishers eventually lead to permanent settlement of coastal areas of the island of Newfoundland. Evelyn’s Mauger family arrived from the Channel Islands, prior to 1790 to engage in the fishery.

Growing up in Petites in the 1920’s the rhythm of Evelyn’s early life was set around the arrival of the fishing fleet to it’s small sheltered and well equipped harbour. Transportation in the region was by boat, no roads existed. The arrival of the summer fleet brought a temporary end to the community’s isolation. Boats arriving to off load their catch for processing by locals and to resupply before heading back to the fishing grounds. While others loaded the fish heading for Canadian and International markets. During summer, Petites was a bustling industrial community, but winters were remote and isolated. It is easy to imagine that the late summer blueberries which grew locally, would be a welcomed treat, but also a harbinger of the coming winter and its isolation.

Blueberry fields surrounding the resettled community of Petites, NL – Photo courtesy of Paul Graham. c 2013

That Evelyn would transform this traditional late summer activity of her home community to her family’s experience in the shadows of Cape Breton coal mines is not surprising. As long summer days began to shorten, and blueberries appeared Evelyn would gather together the children and the assortment of cans and containers which they would use to collect the precious fruit. The little band of children, some her own, others neighbour children, would wind their way through the pit yards, along the rail way spurs and on the side hills near the community’s grave yards in search of blueberries.

One of several small grave plots of Petites, surrounded by blueberries – Photo courtesy of Paul Graham

Once the fruit necessary for family consumption in treats like her blueberry buckle, was gathered, her children would sell their surplus fruit to neighbours, mostly seniors with no young children to do their berry picking.

Picking blueberries is no easy task… in addition to constant stooping, it takes a good deal of patience to stick with picking such small easily compressed fruit, it can seem to take for ever to cover the bottom of a container. Young enterprising boys learned quickly to gently invert the container of settling fruit just prior to offering it for sale. But the experienced older women, who were their customers were wise and on to the trick… taking the container out of the lads hands, “how much?” was the question. Hearing the price of 35 cents, the customer would tap the container, and reply, “how about 25”.

Evelyn’s berry picking crew

The annual task of berry picking served to raise additional monies for the upcoming school year, it also afforded Evelyn’s children an opportunity to share a little of her early life in Petites. She taught her children an appreciation of the natural world, the right places to look, the best picking styles, the patience necessary and the right recipe to use as reward for their hard work… a blueberry buckle.

Evelyn’s Newfoundland Blueberry Buckle

Ingredients:
1/4 cup Butter
1/2 cup Sugar
1 Egg at room temperature
1 cup All purpose flour
11/2 tsp Baking powder
1/4 tsp Salt
1/3 cup Milk
3 cups Fresh Blueberries
Crumb mixture:
1/3 cup Sugar
1/3 cup All purpose flour
1/4 cup Butter

Method:
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
2. Grease and flour an 8 inch x 8 inch square baking dish
3. Cream butter and sugar, add slightly beaten egg
4. Assemble dry ingredients in a separate bowl
5. Alternate adding milk and dry ingredients to the sugar / butter mix
6. Stir until incorporated, spread batter on to prepared baking pan
7. Layer blueberries on top of batter
8. Combine crumb mixture and layer on top of the berries
7. Bake about 40 minutes or until a cake is done.

Petites, Newfoundland:

Petites, Newfoundland is located on the southwest coast of the Island, about 50 km from Channel Port Aux Basques. The community which was resettled 2003, is accessible only by water, a short boat ride from its neighbouring community with road access, Rose Blanche.

Petites c. 2013 – Photo courtesy of Paul Graham

Exactly when Petites was founded by Europeans is unknown, the rich fishing area of Rose Blanche banks was the location of the French migrant fishery from the early 1700s forward, with official year round settlements beginning in the early 19th century. The records are scarce but in the 1845 census, Petites boasted 10 permanent families with a total of 61 souls, 30 of whom were under 14 years of age. By 1921 the population had grown to 210 souls in 43 households. The census of this period lists the oldest Petites born resident Elias Mauger1 born 1845.

Petites was conveniently placed to provide for the fishing fleet, in addition to having a sheltered harbour, in close proximity to rich fishing grounds, the community is graced with pools fed by spring water. Additionally, the large granite deposit which dominates the landscape was desirable enough to support a quarry, some of the cut stone making its way into the courthouse in St John’s.

Some of the cut granite leftover from Petites’ stone industry – photo courtesy of Paul Graham 2013

A community of fewer than 250 residents, Petites boasted no less than 12 stores catering to almost any need. The economy of Petites was the fishing industry, but also its related industry of local trade and supply by boat. By 1900, that was beginning to change, the interior regions were opening up as timber companies drove roads, and built mills, drawing young people to the timber towns which seemed to appear over night.

By the last half of the 1930’s, the community of Petites was long familiar with the exodus of young people leaving to seek work and life outside of the community. A position as a domestic in the home of a Glace Bay physician would lead Evelyn to meet and marry Stephan Morrison.

Although strongly associated with the coal industry, Glace Bay, NS has strong association with the fishing industry as well, the links between the two communities are many. The family ties which developed over more than a hundred years of trade, shared fishing grounds, challenge, and tragedy provide an enduring link between the two communities.

Footnote:

  1. The Mauger/Major Family in Newfoundland appears to have been founded by one Elias Mauger born about 1725 in Guernsey, Channel Islands, who settled in Fortune Bay, NL. The Mauger family of Petites were of three brothers, Phillip, James and Elias all born in Fortune, and all probable descendants of the original settler Elias Mauger.

Resources:

  1. “Growth and Development of the Wild Blueberry” Wild Blueberry Fact Sheet 2010. Department of Agriculture, Aquaculture and Fisheries, Province of New Brunswick. (2021)
  2. “Exploration and Settlement” Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage Web Site (1997) https://www.heritage.nf.ca/articles/exploration/exploration-settlement-default.php (2021)
  3. “Voluntary Settlement – the peopling of Newfoundland to1820.” Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage Web Site (1997) https://www.heritage.nf.ca/articles/exploration/voluntary-settlement.php (2021)

The contemporary photos were generously shared by Paul Graham, a Petites descendant who shares ancestry to Evelyn’s Grandmother Elizabeth Groves Mauger.

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