Spring Harvest – Rhubarb…and biscuits.

My Mother’s Cookbooks contains several recipes featuring Rhubarb, pies, crumbles, cakes, buns, chutney and cordials. The first Rhubarb in our house each spring, was stewed and served with fresh Buttermilk biscuits. Sometimes, simple is best.

A patch of rhubarb growing in the back garden, and a best family ‘Biscuit’ recipe is all anyone needs to celebrate this spring harvest. Despite several versions of biscuits, the My Mother’s Cookbooks ‘best biscuit recipe’, the one Mum used most, especially over the last 30 years of her life, was supplied by her daughter in law, Darlene Horncastle Lyons.

Rhubarb although treated and viewed as a fruit, it is actually a veggie. Used for thousands of years as medicine, eventually becoming known and used for its tasty, all be it sour, stalks. Rhubarb’s early harvest and that it grows without much cultivation makes it a favourite of home gardeners today.

c. 1885 Workers including children posing by equipment in the Marysville, cotton mill, Marysville, NB Photo courtesy of the Provincial Archives of New Brunswick image # P5-416.

Darlene’s recipe, originated with her Mother Eleanor Jackson’s family. Eleanor born 1929, in Springhill, New Brunswick grew up with a keen appreciation of her Scottish roots. Her Jackson family was one of 6 families who settled Scotch Lake, New Brunswick beginning in 1820, when they arrived in the colony from Roxbourghshire and Dumfrieshire Scotland.

H. O’Neill Cake and Pastry delivery wagon Fredericton, NB. c. 1908- Photo courtesy of the Provincial Archives of New Brunswick Image # P119-431

What we in North America call biscuits are really a 19th century ‘convenience’ food. The bread like savory treats, are not to be confused with ‘biscuits’ found today in the United Kingdom, which are sweet treats (cookies to us). Quick breads of this type, usually made with baking powder, and/ or soda, flour, shortening and milk, are referred to as tea biscuits, baking powder biscuits or as just plain biscuits. Those containing ‘Buttermilk’ have the additional boast of leavening and flavour tempered by the additional acid provided by the buttermilk.

So, was it Scottish and Channel Island (where they had been traditionally a favourite) immigration which served to ingrain ‘Biscuits’ in our tradition? I suspect a combination of factors, tradition certainly but in addition to their convenience (not having to wait for bread to rise), their lower cost (yeast was more expensive), the need for high energy foods, and that they appeared regularly in the logging camps of the region, all contributed to their ongoing popularity.

Eleanor probably chose them for their ease and speed of preparation as well as tradition. Like many other women of her generation, Eleanor worked outside of the home. She began her working career prior to her marriage in 1948. By 19 years of age, Eleanor was already a skilled factory worker, a leather (shoe) Skivor1. The choice to continue working after marriage was one unavailable to previous generations of women, but open to Eleanor. Eleanor worked at the same factory during the majority of her adult life, while she was raising her 3 children and until her retirement in the 1980s. The Hartt Shoe factory closed in the late 1990’s.

Hartt Boot and Shoe Company factory c. 1940, Photo courtesy of the Provincial Archives of New Brunswick Image Number P194-466

Florence McKinley born ~1905 in Chelmsford, New Brunswick probably began her factory work at 15 years of age, after her father’s death in 1920. Two of Florence’s older half sisters Emily and Melanie worked at the Gibson Cotton mill in Marysville as early as 1898, both Melanie and Emily would marry and return to the Miramichi to raise their families. Florence and her widowed mother Elizabeth would remain in Marysville, NB.

By 1951 when Florence, then a 44 year old cloth inspector, married Sidney Nash, Florence had enough working in a factory. 29 years, in the dusty, hot, noisy and dangerous environment of a textile mill had taken its toll, and for the first time she had a choice.

Florence’s Scottish heritage through her father’s family and the close proximity to other Scots during her childhood pretty much assured biscuits appeared on the family table. Elizabeth, Florence’s Mother might well have had a rhubarb patch in the back garden of her rented tenant company home in Marysville, NB.

Here is the My Mother’s Cookbooks ‘Best Biscuit’ recipe and one for Stewed Rhubarb too!

Buttermilk Biscuits

Darlene’s Buttermilk Biscuits

2 cups of All purpose flour
1/4 cup of sugar (optional)
4 tsp baking powder
1/2 cup vegetable shortening
1 tsp salt
1/4 tsp soda
1 cup Buttermilk or soured milk

1) Preheat oven to 425 degrees F.;
2) Sift flour and other dry ingredients together in a mixing bowl;
3) Cut shortening in to the dry ingredients using a pastry blender, until mix reaches a med crumb.
4) Add buttermilk and mix gently. Place on a lightly floured surface, and shape into a 9 in x 9 in square of dough.
5) Cut in to pieces, and place on a cookie sheet;
6) Bake 20 minutes until slightly golden brown on top.

My Mother’s Cookbooks Stewed Rhubarb:

1 pound of rhubarb
1/4 to 1/2 cup sugar (to taste)
1/4 cup water
1) In a saucepan bring water and sugar to a boil to dissolve;
2) Add Rhubarb and return to a boil,
3) Reduce heat and allow to simmer, stirring often, until the Rhubarb is soft.
4) Cool, refrigerate in a covered container.

*** I recommend adding a 1/2 tsp of ground dried ginger or 1 Tbsp of fresh ginger chopped.

Young boys among a group of workers at the A.R. Loggie Mill c. 1900 Photo courtesy of the Miramichi Heritage Family site.

Women and children Factory workers:

From the first investment plan Odbur Hartt proposed, women and children were included in his factory’s proposed work force. His plan of a workforce comprised of 2/3 young men and 1/3 young women was both an operational and financial. Women and Children were essential to the success of factories like Hartt Boot and Shoe Company. Women and girls were needed for their fine motor skills, young boys and girls could get to places between moving machinery no adult could fit. It of course was also helpful that women were paid less than 50% of the wage of men, children less still.

The Gibson cotton mill in Marysville, had a similar work force from its beginning in 1885 , but Gibson’s ‘model town’ town meant workers could rent a house, (including a small garden), purchase clothing and food at the company store. From the wake up whistle to the shift end and beyond, the lives of factory workers of the Marysville Cotton mill revolved around the factory. 60 hour work weeks were usual for all workers, women and children included, 6 days per week, with a 1/2 day on Saturday and Sunday off.

Miramichi Mill workers including young boys c. 1900 Photo courtesy of Our Miramichi Heritage family site

Children workers were not new or limited to textile and shoe factories, young boys had been employed in saw mills and value added mills across the province since early days. The development of high technology industries, such as cloth and shoe making, changed the physical demand and permitted the addition of women and girls in to the workforce.

By 1900, social reformers, and churches had begun to complain of the working conditions, the injury, and loss of life particularly of children in factories. In 1904, after a task force to recommend changes, children under 14 years of age were not to be employed in New Brunswick factories, except under unusual circumstances. Things did not change quickly in that regard. The 1921 census reveals widow Elizabeth Ashton McKinley living in a rented brick row house in Marysville with 4 of her children, Elmer, Florence, Eldon and Burton. 13 year old Eldon, his older sister Florence and brother Elmer are all labourers in the cotton factory.

Better working conditions, air quality, washrooms, lunchrooms all eventually came to the factories but only after hard won battles, many deaths and injury of workers. Factories or as we call them ‘manufacturing and processing plants’ remained a heath and safety battle ground well into the 1960’s.

The crowded working conditions, poor sanitation, and poor ventilation in the factories of the 19th century made them public health battle grounds during the Influenza pandemic of 1918. In 2021, the issues in factories continue as Covid 19 threatens those who toil at repetitive and under valued work.

Explanations and Resources:

  1. Leather ‘Skivor’ is a worker who thins, tapers and shapes leather as part of the shoe making process.
  2. ‘New Brunswick workers in the early 20th century’ Silhouettes – Associates of the Provincial Archives 2013.
  3. LHTNB – Labour history in New Brunswick “https://archives.gnb.ca/lhtnb/Resources/Bibliographies/Articles_en-CA.aspx”


4 thoughts on “Spring Harvest – Rhubarb…and biscuits.

  1. What a wonderful read today with the recipes and all the history. Thanks so much for all the labour of love you have put into this book.


  2. Many thanks for the excellent history lesson and recipes! Especially relevant personally as I lived near the cotton mill as a child( and wondered what went on inside),, and my grandfather worked at Hartt shoe factory ,, basically till the day he died! I really appreciate and look forward to your stories.

    Liked by 1 person

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