Living in an area once known as the “world’s largest hayfield”1, I am enjoying the industry of local farmers. The hectic hay making and blueberry harvest has me thinking about haying and drinking vinegar /Shrub. The ‘drinking vinegar’ recipe in the My Mother’s Cookbook Collection is for Blueberry vinegar. The handwritten “Aunt Emm” in the top right corner attributes it to Mum’s Great Aunt Emmeline Ethel Lyons McRae.
Aunt Emm born 1871 in Chatham, NB moved to the Travis family farm in Blissfield, NB as a child. With the except of a short period after her marriage in 1890, Emmeline lived on the McRae family farm a few miles from where she spent her childhood. During her nearly 70 years of farm life, Aunt Emm, experienced first hand early farm mechanization and the challenges harvest time presented.
The transition from highly labour intensive harvest to one heavily dependent on mechanization began in earnest in the Victorian period. It would take advances in hay baling and storage for hay making to become fully mechanized. As late as the early 1970s, haying was still dependent, at least in part, on physical labour. The on and off loading of hay wagons and final storage in the hay barn was done by hand on many farms.
For farm women, like Ida Richard Melanson, Elizabeth Lirette Babcock and Aunt Emm, hay making time was particularly hectic. On many farms everyone, including women and children, were deployed during the hay harvest. Joining others in the field meant finding time for normal daily household and farm chores.
Europeans were attracted to Atlantic Canada for a variety of reasons, fish, timber, etc. behind it all were ordinary folks looking for opportunity to live, raise a family and own land. For most, it meant farming. Ida’s Richard family were among some of the earliest Acadian settlers to the region, arriving in the oldest European settlement in Nova Scotia at Port Royal, (now called Annapolis Royal, NS) eventually settling in the Acadian community of Beaubassin2 on the Cumberland basin.
Many Acadians were of a region Southern France known as Occitania3 their knowledge of farming on land reclaimed from sea marshes on the Southwestern coast of France prepared them for the challenges of living in a French colony in the lowlands of coastal Acadia4. Acadians were the first to construct the extensive dyke and sluice systems which turned the natural salt marshes of the Bay of Fundy into productive farm fields.
The expulsion of Acadians from the land they had claimed and lived on for nearly 90 years began in the region of Fort Beauséjour5 (Beaubassin) in 1755. Elizabeth Ann’s Lirette family, like Ida’s family were forced from their farms eventually settling in more remote north and eastern areas (like the Memramcook Valley) of the region. Their abandoned farms were eventually settled by New England Planters recruited by the Crown, many from Rhode Island and Massachusetts.
Aunt Emm’s Whitney family were among the New England Planters who settled the St John River valley prior to 1776. New England Planters like the Acadian’s before cleared and improved upon farm land, expanding dykes and sluice systems to increase their properties. By the 1850s, marsh hay from the Tantramar region began to dominate the hay market, its cost to produce significantly lower than other hay production areas.
At this time hay was the fuel of land transportation, and food for horses, cattle, sheep and to a lesser extent pigs, all of which were common on local farms. A farmer had to dedicate some land to hay or try to buy it on open market.
By the beginning of the Revolutionary war, it is estimated the more than 75% of the 20,000 citizens of the colony of Nova Scotia were relocated New Englanders. It was a group of Yorkshire families; and as well as Scots and Irish, mostly former military personnel, who helped to balance the rebel cause in the region.
Pre-war tensions were high and several delegations to leaders of the Rebels in New England were made seeking support for the local rebels in Nova Scotia, with little success. During the tensions in Boston sparked by the famous Boston Tea Party, a load of hay destined for the British military in Boston was burned on the dock in Halifax by rebel supporters. A ‘Halifax Hay Party’ of sorts.
Ironically. the conditions which convinced many New York farmers despite early interest, not to support the rebel cause, appears to have created the same effect in Colonial Nova Scotia. Rebel’s acting (vandalism, theft, torture, even murder) against those ‘perceived’ as loyal to the Crown, resulted in wide spread fear and drove settlers to the protection of the English Crown.
By the late 1770’s Loyalist refugees began to arrive in the region. Many of the earliest Loyalists settled in areas near those of their kin and neighbour New Englanders who had arrived earlier. Elizabeth’s Sears and McFee families arrived in the early portion of the Revolutionary war and settled on land in the Tantramar region where they would farm for generations.
Emmaline’s Lyons family were Loyalist farmers of Westchester county, New York. Farming would not be their primary focus in New Brunswick. Arriving after the of evacuation of New York in November 1783, they found the prime farm land either already settled or granted to those with greater means and influence. The arrival of United Empire Loyalists pushed Acadians off their claimed land, forcing them to settle on even more remote, poor farming areas in the north and east.
The Miramichi region although strikingly beautiful does not provide a great deal of prime farm land. The areas of the valley like Blissfield, Bloomfield Ridge, and Douglasfield which boasted good farm land were settled and became the backbone of the supply of food and hay used in the local lumber industry. Islands and low lying interval land was often dedicated to pasture and hay fields. Interval lands although graced with some of the best soil in the valley are prone to spring and periodic flooding and could not be used reliably for other crops.
Marsh hay from the Tantramar region continued to grow in dominance eventually the area would become known as ‘Worlds largest hay field’. Hay produced in the area was shipped to other provinces and to the New England states.
The task of providing food and beverages for harvest labourers7, fell to farm women. Ida born 1881, grew up on her family’s farm in Haute-Aboujagane, Westmorland county, Elizabeth Ann born on the Lorette family farm a few miles away in Upper Sackville, NB, were introduced early to the task of preparing food for the haying crew. Lunches of sandwiches, often made with thick slices of homemade bread and whatever filling was available, possibly bread and molasses. Tea and water were the primary beverages, If the hay field was close to supply of water the effort required was substantially reduced. Those with resources invested in providing a fortifying beverage, drinking vinegar was popular during haying season, the fruit, sugar and micro -nutrients made it a logical choice for those working in the hot sun.
During the first world war marsh hay was shipped to support military operations in Europe, but by the mid 1920s the end was in sight. No more would hay ship from New Brunswick to other provinces and beyond, at least not for the next century or so…
2021 hay season has seen a bumper crop from the hay fields of Atlantic Canada thanks to abundant and well timed rain. At the same time drought on the Canadian prairies has placed many cattle operations in Saskatchewan and Alberta at risk. Once again marsh hay from the Tantramar Marshes will be shipped out of province to feed livestock elsewhere. Ironically, the climate warming which is increasing stress on the farm operations in the western provinces and is also raising water levels in the Cumberland basin. The Tantramar marsh fields and dyke system are under threat from rising sea levels, without maintenance and accommodation for sea level change the area will flood, permanently ending the production of marsh hay.
Blueberry (drinking Vinegar ) Shrub
4 cups cleaned, washed and well drained blueberries
3/4 cup white sugar
11/2 cups Wine vinegar or Apple Cider vinegar (divided)
1. Place fruit, sugar and half of the vinegar in a non reactive saucepan
2. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 5 minutes
3. Remove from heat, add remaining vinegar and decant into clean and sterile jar, cover and place in a dark place for 7 days.
4. After 7 days, strain through a cheese cloth in to clean jar.
4. Refrigerate, until ready to use. Dilute with water (or soda water)
This vinegar, undiluted is wonderful on salads and in other recipes where vinegar is used.
Emmeline Ethel Lyons McRae
Born: 18 June 1871, Chatham, Northumberland County, NB
Died: 1 Sept 1960, Blissfield, NB
Parents: Charles Benjamin Lyons and Elizabeth Travis Lyons* Elizabeth d/o Elizabeth Carney and Peter Travis; Granddaugther of Huldah Whitney Travis and Jeremiah Travis.
Married: Alexander David McRae (17 May 1858-6 Dec 1942) on 29 May 1890
Emmeline, born youngest into a family of 9 children, was 9 years old when her family moved to Blissfield from Chatham, NB. It appears the family moved to the Travis farm around her Grandmother Elizabeth Travis Lyons’ death in 1881. Emmaline’s life was one tainted with loss. Like many of the time, the Lyons family was impacted by childhood mortality, two of Emmeline’s brothers, died as young children. A few weeks prior to Emmeline’s wedding, her mother Elizabeth died. Her sister Letitia’s early death at 31 year old, leaving several small children was a pattern repeated later in Emmeline’s life.
After their marriage Alex and Emmeline spent time living in Bartlett, Carroll County New Hampshire. The farming town in the White Mountains boasted a railway link and was conveniently located near a booming lumber industry. While they lived in New Hampshire their son, Charles Edwin was born. By 1900 and the birth of their daughter Olive May the family had returned to Blissfield and the McRae farm.
Sadly, loss would visit Emmeline again. In 1924, during the birth of her second child, both Olive and the child died. Emmeline and Alex would raise their 6 year old granddaughter, Eva. In 1929, their only son Charles Edwin died from Influenza Pneumonia at 31 years old.
Alex’s death in 1942 brought the formal transfer of responsibility for the farm to Eva and her husband Stewart Walls. Emmeline would live with their family until her death in 1960.
Blissfield, Northumberland County, New Brunswick
is located on the Southwest Miramichi River Valley, north east of Doaktown. The area was settled by Europeans prior to the first major land grant in 1809. The Ephraim Betts sponsored grant contains no less than 61 settlers and land parcels including one which would eventually become the McRae family farm.
The Miramichi River drains a full quarter of the province of New Brunswick. The generally deep river valley of the southwest branch widens at Blissfield creating meadows and fields conducive to farming. The McRae farm straddled both the south and north sides of the Southwest Miramichi River, with the farm house on the southside. Sometime prior to 1900 a new farm house was constructed on the north side on the site of an early roadhouse known as DeCantillons. The house which still stands incorporated a portion of the road house structure, the barn was built on an existing stone foundation.
The decision to locate the farm house and barns on the northside of the river was a practical one, the northside had become the ‘primary’ route from the capital of Fredericton to Northumberland county seat and market center Newcastle, NB. The new location was also only 2 miles from the recently completed railway.
Eventually, the mixed farm income would be augmented by the addition of two rustic riverside cabins and conversion of the farm house to accommodate ‘American Sports Anglers’ who came to the Miramichi River Valley in pursuit of the Atlantic Salmon.
**Ida Richard Melanson and Elizabeth Lirette Babcock will be featured and profiled in a blog which will be released on Thursday, September 23, 2021, stay tuned.
References and Resources:
- World’s Largest Hay field is a term which once applied to the 20,000 ha of reclaimed salt marsh land known as the Tantramar Marsh. Located on the isthmus of Chignecto, which borders the provinces of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, Tantramar is a corruption of the French word tintamarre, meaning ‘din’ or ‘racket’, a reference to the thousands of migratory birds which visit the marsh.
- Beaubassin was a community on the Cumberland basin of the Bay of Fundy founded by Acadians. Beaubassin, a short distance from modern day Amherst, NS, was a farming community located near the fertile marsh fields they reclaimed from the Bay’s salt marshes. Beaubassin, located south of the Missaguash river, is where the expulsion of Acadians by the British Crown, after the territory fell to Britain, originated. https://www.historicplaces.ca/en/rep-reg/place-lieu.aspx?id=13964
- Occitania –https://www.nationalia.info/profile/32/occitania
- Acadie – https://acadie.cheminsdelafrancophonie.org/en/geographical-areas/new-brunswick/
- Salt Marsh – https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/saltmarsh.html
- Fort Beausejour, Fort Cumberland National Historic site: https://www.pc.gc.ca/en/lhn-nhs/nb/beausejour
- Harvest Labourers: Early years of farming in the Atlantic region was labour intensive, large families with multiple generations working the farm were common. Even with this extra labour, harvest time meant increased labour, family filled what they could but extra hired help was also required. In some areas teams of labourers would move from farm to farm helping with the harvest. These mean often slept rough, may be in the hay loft and depended upon the meals supplied by the farmers wife.
- Sackville and Tantramar Marshes: https://tantramarheritage.ca/resources/tantramar-history/
Acknowledgement: I would like to acknowledge that the land on which I live and write about is the traditional unceded territory of the Wolastoqiyik (Maliseet) and Mi’kmaq Peoples. This territory is covered by the “Treaties of Peace and Friendship” which Wolastoqiyik (Maliseet) and Mi’kmaq Peoples first signed with the British Crown in 1725. The treaties did not deal with surrender of lands and resources but in fact recognized Mi’kmaq and Wolastoqiyik (Maliseet) title and established the rules for what was to be an ongoing relationship between nations.