There are certain recipes in the My Mother’s Cookbook recipes which can be altered to create what Mum called “Best” versions, made with ‘rich’ ingredients, margarine replaced with butter, milk with cream, increased sugar and fat. These ‘best’ versions appeared only on special occasions…like the first spring strawberries marked with the ‘best’ strawberry shortcake.
Alma Myrtle McPherson was born in Springhill, NS in October of 1889, her father Angus was second generation Cape Breton born coal miner of Scottish ancestry. Annie B. Coleman McPherson, Myrtle’s mother was also of mining stock, she was born in Albert Mines, NB1 where her Yorkshire mining family settled during the 1850’s. The Coleman family mining roots extend back beyond the family’s immigration from England first to Nova Scotia then to New Brunswick. Generations of women after women raising their families in coal mining towns, in company towns.
Company town, single industry, model town, planned town, workers town were towns and infrastructure built to serve the workforce of a single industry, often a single company. It was especially common in ‘boom’ towns, where local infrastructure was inadequate to meet the needs of a burgeoning population.
Textile mills, sawmills, mines, pulp mills, and many other mines, and factories had towns develop around them to serve their workforce. Company owned houses for rent, company stores supplied staples, everything a family needed, shoes to flour and oatmeal, all conveniently docked from the miners pay envelope.
Company owned towns quickly became the business model of choice, one typified by abuse of power and financial gain on the backs of people with little or no choice. A ‘company town’ represented a financial opportunity for company owners, debt and poverty for workers and their families.
Albert Mines, NB; Springhill, NS and New Waterford, NS were company towns in the truest sense. All three owed their existence to mining and the miners who toiled underground in dangerous conditions.
Conditions in company rental homes were over crowded, the houses had no sanitation, no insulation and limited heat. The water source was some distance and in the case of areas of Cape Breton shared with the mine stables.
Myrtle and her Mother Annie were expert at keeping starvation at bay. Depending upon bread, porridge, potatoes, and a short supply of protein. Small amounts of protein were stretched with pork fat in stews and other dishes. Fish, also appeared in various forms fresh, smoked, salted depending on availability and ability to pay. The diet of mining families was limited and repetitive.
Most families grew potatoes in their limited back yard. Local harvest of wild game and fish was difficult except during production shut down periods. Miners worked 10 hour days 6 days a week, but production shut downs occurred frequently, leaving families without income. Mining families like the McPherson and Coleman families did not have farms to return to during shut down periods as some miner/farmers had.
In June and July wild strawberries and woodland strawberries ripen across Canada. They can be found in most areas, at the edges of roadways and even in poorly kept lawns. The tiny fruit are well worth effort of the tedious picking, sweet and tasty they lend themselves to enjoyment in a variety of forms… served with cream and sugar, preserved as jam but most frequently as strawberry shortcake.
Strawberry shortcake2 first appeared as early as 1588, but it would take until the 1850s for it to experience widespread popularity. Myrtle and Annie might well have saved a bit of wheat flour, sugar and fat to make shortcake.
Myrtle married William Davis in 1904, and settled in New Waterford, NS. Bill a Glouchestershire, England born multi generational miner worked for the British Empire Steel Company (BESCO). Myrtle’s parents Annie and Angus McPherson also moved to New Waterford during the early boom years to work in the some 16 collieries owned by the company.
Labour disputes between miners and British Empire Steel Company (BESCO), were frequent as wages began a downward trend. BESCO, began their ownership with an intention to break the miners solidarity to the United Mine Workers of America. In January 1925 at the end of the current contract BESCO refused to negotiate with the union. On 2 March, BESCO stores refused all credit to miners. This act effectively served to starve miners families out, putting pressure from families on miners to cease their support of UMWA. By June mine families were in dire straits, food was scarce.
Spring trout, clams, smelts, etc which could be harvested locally by women and children would have supplemented the family’s food resources. Berries, particularly sweet strawberries would have been scooped up and eaten by the hand full. Those which made it home might just have had a dusting of sugar, and if they were fortunate maybe accompanied by a bit of whole milk, from a generous neighbour’s cow. 1925 would not be a year for celebrating strawberries…
On the morning of 11 June 1925, a riot erupted, provoked by well armed company police force. Just shortly before noon during a rush of the crowd by company police, a private police officer took direct aim at Bill Davis’s chest, killing him instantly.
Bill Davis’ murder was met by renewed resolve by fellow miners, the events would eventually see the government side with the company ordering troops on to the streets of mining communities across the region. Miners set up a fund for Myrtle and the family but her oldest son Thomas3 would seek work in the mine to provide for the family. In September of 1925 Myrtle gave birth to her 10th child a boy, she would eventually use some of the money from the fund to purchase a stone grave marker for her husband Bill Davis.
When I prepare Mum’s best Strawberry shortcake recipe, which I do at least once each season, I use the sweetest local commercially grown berries available. Harvesting wild strawberries is a thing of the past just as boy miners and company homes are of the past. But the hard won improvements in safety, working conditions and fair wages endure…
Best Strawberry Shortcake
2 cups of All purpose flour
1/4 cup of sugar
4 tsp baking powder
1/4 cup vegetable shortening
1/4 cup plus 2 Tbsp (reserved) cold butter
1 tsp salt
1/4 tsp soda
1 cup Buttermilk or soured milk
1 qt strawberries hulled and clean
2 Tbsp sugar
1/2 c Whipping cream
pinch of salt
1/2 tsp sugar
1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract
1) Add 2 Tbsp sugar to prepared berries, and toss gently set aside to mascerate.
2) Preheat oven to 425 degrees F.;
3) Sift flour and other dry ingredients together in a mixing bowl;
4) Cut shortening and cold butter in to the dry ingredients using a pastry blender, until mix reaches a med crumb.
5) 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 in a 9in x 9in square pan;
6) Bake 20 minutes until slightly golden brown on top.
7) Whip cream, add salt, sugar and vanilla continue beating until soft peaks form.
8) Once the short cake is cooled, serve with berries and cream.
Explanations and Resources:
1. Albert Mines, NB was a mining community which developed at a site in Albert county NB, where Abraham Gesner, used a recently identified ore called Albertite. Albertite is a black shiny rock comprised of hydrocarbons which Gesner was able to use to discover kerosene. Kerosene was the first replacement for whale blubber as lamp oil. From 1854 until 1884 Albertite was mined and sent to Boston for use as lamp oil. Albertite was the beginning of petroleum extraction which would ultimately lead to the oil and gas industry of today.
2. Strawberry shortcake appeared first in an English Cookery book of 1588 according to industry sources.
3. Thomas Davis the oldest son of William Davis and Alma Myrtle McPherson Davis, was named for the older brother of William Davis who died in one of the worst mine disasters in Canadian history. Thomas Davis died on 21 February 1891 in the Springhill mine explosion. Thomas was one of 17 boys under 16 years killed that day, a total of 125 men died in the explosion.
4. Albert county Museum https://www.albertcountymuseum.com/mining
5. Glace Bay’s Miners Museum at https://www.minersmuseum.com/