Kindness with a side of German Apple Cake

Most of My Mother’s cookbook recipes are handwritten, a distinct few are typewritten in a cursive font. I have never seen this contributor’s handwriting, the cursive typewritten “Gussie” was her only signature.

Augusta C. Deuchler Mills was a typist. The 1925 census of Staten Island New York reveals Gussie’s career as a typist began early, before 16 years of age. In her late 50’s in 1968, Gussie and her husband Carl were retired residents of Carl’s home community of Advocate Harbour, Nova Scotia.

Augusta D. Deuchler c. 1923

The first and most significant shift for our family came in 1968 when my Dad entered ministry with the United Church of Canada and we moved to Advocate Harbour. Reputed to have been named by European explorer, John Cabot, Advocate is nestled on the shores of the Bay of Fundy at the mouth of the Minas Basin. Tucked between Cape D’or and the mighty Cape Chignecto. Advocate and surrounding area had been a major shipbuilding center during the age of Wood, Wind and Sail, by 1968 it was reduced to a shadow of it’s former glory.

My parents could not have known how difficult this change would be for our family, Mum in particular, or the extent to which the little woman, with a thick New York accent, would play in helping us settle into a new community and into our new role as the Minister’s family.

Two friends, left Evelyn Lyons and right Gussie Mills enjoying a family BBQ at horseshoe cove, NS c.1971

Gussie’s kindness came in many forms… Her support of our family, particularly my Mother was unfailing and instant. An organizer by nature, she quickly assumed the volunteer position as ‘secretary’ to my father. She nattered at him for his bad handwriting and tut-tut-ed at his atrocious spelling.

But it was her underlying kindness which left the greatest impression. The fine china she gifted knowing the countless large lunches Mum was expected to hostess1. Or the large pots of fish chowder and plates of German Apple cake awaiting Mum after a busy day being the Minister’s wife2.

It was certainly not a given that my parents and the Mills would become friends, as couples or individuals. Nearly 20 years her senior Gussie’s life and up bringing had been vastly different than Mum’s life in rural New Brunswick. Gussie was born and raised in the traditional German enclave in Port Richmond Staten Island, New York. Gussie’s father John immigrated from Hesse Germany to New York in 1894 and later married Louise, Gussie’s Mother. Louise, born in Stapleton Richmond County NY was first generation German American, her parents having arrived in the 1870’s.

German immigration to New York began in earnest in the 1840’s and grew steadily, by the 1860s German immigrants numbered 200,000. The Stapleton community of Staten Island became a center catering to the entertainment of the large German community. Gussie’s Grandparents John and Augusta Feldmeyer spent the early years of their marriage running one of the many Breweries; saloons; beer gardens and theaters which dotted the community.

The New York German immigrant community was close knit, family centered and insular in the period leading to the turn of the 20th century. By the time of Gussie’s birth, the nature of the community was changing, anti German sentiments fanned by the first world war were forcing the community to identify more as Americans and less as German Americans.

Despite the negative sentiments toward German heritage resulting from the period of the two great wars, Gussie remained justifiably proud of her ancestry, and of her small but close knit family.

Her choice to first share her family’s German Apple cake and then supply the recipe to our family is a great honour. Her cake was always delicious, but when served with a side of kindness it is out of this world, capable of forging friendships and bridging diverse experience.

Gussie’s German Apple Cake:

Ingredients Recommended Ingredients
2 cups corded, peeled and sliced cooking apples McIntosh or Gravenstein
1/2 cup sugar
1 1/2 cup all purpose flour
1/4 cup vegetable shortening
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
1 egg (room temperature)
3/4 cup milk
Confectioners sugar

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease and flour a 1/4 sheet pan.
2. In a mixing bowl cream sugar and shortening, add slightly beaten egg.
3. In a separate bowl combine dry ingredients.
4. Add milk and dry ingredients alternately until incorporated, do not over beat.
5. Spread the batter on prepared pan.
6. Arrange the apple slices on the batter in overlapping rows and dust with Cinnamon.
7. Bake ~ 25 -30 minutes until cake is cooked and lightly browned.
8. Dust with confectioners sugar before serving.

1Rural Churches in the 1960s often were not heated except for Sunday service. Many community churches supplied a fully furnished home for the Minister and his family. It was common practice for those communities to expect to use the manse for meetings, especially in winter.

2 The UCC at this time expected the Minister and his wife to be a ministry team. My Mother was interviewed as well as my Dad before he was accepted into Ministry. When he was called to a new pastoral charge, Mum was interviewed too. As the Minister’s wife Mum was expected to participate in all activities, from church suppers to United Church Women(UCW) meetings, etc. Sadly few recognized the challenges of doing this when the pastoral charge has 7 churches, 7 UCW groups, 7 sets of fund raising, etc. The Minister’s performance was in large part dependent upon his wife’s performance.

Augusta C. Deuchler Mills

Parents: John Deuchler and Louise Feldmeyer Deuchler

Born: 17 May 1909

The family of John Deuchler and Louise Feldmeyer Deuchler:
1. Margaret Deuchler m. Harry Baham
2. Delia Matilhda Deuchler m. William Filmer
3. Augusta D. Deuchler

Married: Carl Morris Mills

Died: 27 May 1994, Florida

When Gussie was born her mother Louise was a 27 years old homemaker, her father John a 37 years old foreman in a soap factory. Born youngest in a family of three girls, after completing grade 8, Gussie followed her older sister Delia into working as a Stenographer in an insurance company beginning about 1923.

The financial and social boom period which followed the first world war was experienced across the western world, but no area was effected more than the City of New York. The largest city in the country, New York had every modern convenience, skyscrapers, public transportation, and people, lots of people, some wealthy, many middle class, and a large group of working poor.

Carl Morris Mills c. 1925

In 1927 Gussie met and married Carl Morris Mills a young man from a small Nova Scotia village. Carl had followed his father and many others from his home town to the United States to find work. By 1930, the young couple are residing in the Bronx, Carl was working as a deck hand on a steamship line, and Gussie a typist.

One can only imagine the effects of the stock market crash on ordinary citizens, watching the tragic desperation in the immediate period following Black Tuesday, must have been horrifying and frightening. The lives of ordinary middle class families like the Deuchler’s/ Mills were forever altered and unrecognizable from the roaring 1920s. Suddenly, the risks were real, bread lines, homelessness and the threat of job loss and further insecurity was ever present. Yet growth in New York City continued as iconic buildings like the Empire State and Chrysler buildings were completed, as the gap between those with plenty and those with nothing, grew.

Despite the challenges during this period Carl would take his bride (and some of her family) to Nova Scotia, introduce her to his large extended family and to the little village which would eventually become her home.

Taken during 1934 visit of Gussie, Carl and her sister Delia to Advocate Harbour with the extended Mills family.

Living in a city with all of the conveniences came with benefits but also risk. During a commute to her job, Gussie was involved in a fatal train crash. Pinned in the wreckage she suffered a back injury which would leave her with limitations for the rest of her life.

Eventually, Gussie and Carl moved to New Jersey and into a suburban lifestyle, like many city residents of their time, home ownership was not a given but manage it they did. When it came time to retire they decided to pull up stakes and moved home to Nova Scotia. When I say they moved home I mean it, they packed up and moved their mobile home from New Jersey to Advocate Harbour, Nova Scotia, a distance of more than 500 miles.

Over the course of the next years Gussie and Carl would split their time between Nova Scotia and Florida. The Deuchler family maintained their close connections, Gussie and Carl would bring Louise Gussie’s mother to live with them in Advocate until her death in 1967. Winters were spent in Florida with Gussie’s sister Delia until Carl’s death in 1978. For a period after Carl’s death Gussie continued to return to Nova Scotia, but eventually she would settle in Florida until her death there in 1994.

Gussie and Carl Mills with their beloved dog Ginger. c.1965

A bit about Advocate Harbour, Cumberland County, Nova Scotia

Situated between Cape D’Or and Cape Chignecto, Advocate Harbour was built upon and still relies heavily on fishery and timber as economic base. In the 1800’s the vast stands of timber which lined the shores of the Bay of Fundy, and an abundance of fish assured the area’s settlement and growth.

Initially, timber was harvested and shipped to England. Soon enterprising timber and land owners realized the real opportunity lay in building and supplying ships. During the period from 1812 to 1900 the collection of coastal communities known as the Parrsboro shore produced 700 wooden sailing ships, the majority from 1860-1890. The communities grew and thrived, large stately homes, roads, shipyards, tramways, stores, lighthouses were all built to support the community and its primary industries.

Local ships captains and crews sailed the worlds oceans, Europe, West Indies, Africa, New Zealand, etc. These men and women created relationships and grew familiar with the exotic locations they visited. The close relationship between the communities of the Parrsboro shore and the New England region of the US grew and deepened. Aspiring young men and women from the region, inspired by the tales of the opportunities and attractions of cities like Boston, and New York, were drawn there, establishing even stronger links between the communities.

By 1900 steam technology had all be ended the need for wooden sailing vessels, despite that it would take until 1927 for the final wooden sailing vessel to be produced in the area. As shipbuilding transitioned from sail to steam, ships carpenters, shipwrights, caulkers, captains and crews were displaced. For a time the greatest export from the area were the ships captains, crews and the building tradesmen who found work on ships, in ports and in the manufacturing plants of New England. The link between the large centers of the Eastern seaboard of the United States and coastal Bay of Fundy communities endured well into the 20th century.

By 1968, Advocate Harbour was a community in shadow of its previous prosperity. The large stately homes and other buildings from the age of sail were still obvious, but the tram lines, wharves, and lighthouses were either gone or threatened. The population of the community was dwindling and aging, some of those retiring from their jobs in offices and factories of New England and central Canada returned, many did not.

The areas natural resources would serve to carve a path forward, fishing would remain a thriving and profitable industry, timber would continue an important source of income. The features of the natural environment which once drew men and their families to settle this challenging landscape, now draws visitors and tourists. Those drawn to the seascapes, the hiking trails, and museums from larger centers like Boston, New York, and Toronto might be surprised to learn that this small hamlet in Nova Scotia was once well known in the ports and shipping offices of the world. A few of the areas tourists might even have shared ancestry with those who continue to live in its awesome beauty.

Resources and Links:

Wood Wind and Sail links:

Staten Island history links:

That’s Gaelic not garlic

Of course a few of the recipes in my Mother’s collection are some I supplied her. One of those recipes is for traditional (Cape Breton) Oat Cakes, which comes from my husband Ray’s family.

Although my Mother’s family(Walls line) were Scottish, the Orkney Islands and Inverness shire, my husband’s family (Morrison/McDougall line) are highland Gaels. This distinction is significant. Not only were there regional differences in food, and culture but by the time the families arrived in the colonies, there was also differences in language.

Highland Village Historic site, Iona, Cape Breton: replica of an early Scottish settler home c, 2014

My Mother’s family, who were Presbyterian lowland Scots, had left behind their Gaelic language sometime in the prior 150 years, probably when it was first banned by the English. Ray’s family were Roman Catholic Highland Scots, supportive of the Jacobite revolution and steadfast to their religion and language.

Ray remembers his Granny well, her dedication to her faith, her Oatcakes and the cadence of her speech tinged with her Mother tongue. Ray recalls his father and Grandmother speaking Gaelic. He laughingly describes it today as spoken when they did not want others to know what they were saying or when he misplayed, while partnering his Granny in 45s.

Margaret McDougall c.1904

Maigret McDougald (Margaret McDougall) McNeil Morrison grew up in Bhreac Brook, East Bay, Cape Breton. Her McDougall family were Highland Scots, who arrived in North American, to St Jean’s Island (PEI) in 1772 with a group known as the Glenaladale Settlers.

Immigration to the eastern provinces of Canada during the late 18th and early 19th centuries was driven by hardship, famine, religious intolerance, war, etc. The Highland clearances drove many Scots to seek, a life, land and opportunity in North America. Although Scottish immigrants helped to settle the entire region a significant majority of Highland and Hebrides Scots either directly or indirectly settled in Nova Scotia, Pictou, Antigonish and Cape Breton counties particularly. This can be seen reflected in the names of communities baring Gaelic and Scottish names in the province, Airsaig, Barra Head, Iona, New Glasgow, Inverness.

Margaret’s family remained true to their faith and language traditions for 5 generations after arriving in North America. First on St Jean’s Island, where they were tenant farmers on land owned by someone else. And in Cape Breton where land grants were possible and where communities of former neighbours and family developed, assuring a new found level of autonomy and opportunity to maintain language and tradition.

Sadly today the Gaelic language in Nova Scotia has known a serious decline despite efforts to sustain it. A few years ago our Grandson Max who was 6, had no idea what the Highland Village Museum interpretative staff meant when she asked him “Do you speak Gaelic?” His response, delivered with wonderful Scottish intonation “No, I don’t care for the garlic” drew laughter twinged with loss. Traditional Gaelic music and food are very much alive in Cape Breton, evidenced by the success world wide of Cape Breton musicians fiddlers, singers, and the hundreds of thousands of Oatcakes which are made and eaten each year.

Oats and Barley are along associated with Scotland and the Scottish diet because they do well in the cool and damp climate. It is unsurprising that Oats and Oatmeal have played a critical role in the diet of the Scottish people including those in Nova Scotia (that’s right there are Nova Scotian Oatcakes too).

Oatcakes have become an iconic food of Cape Breton…and every family with Scottish heritage has their own best recipe. Visit most any Cape Breton Chowder house or restaurant and you are sure to see a version served as a side instead of or with dinner rolls and biscuits.

It not in the least surprising that Cape Breton Oatcakes have endured, they are a delicious, filling and portable. Oatcakes have graced many a miner’s can1, and helped them through 12 or more hours of hard labour underground. Margaret made many batches of oatcakes and it is likely a good many of them ended up in the lunch cans of her miner husband, and sons.

Here is the Morrison Family Oatcake recipe, enjoy!

Cape Breton Oatcakes

Ingredients: Recommended Ingredients:

1 cup Scottish oatmeal Red Mills Scottish Oatmeal
1 cup all purpose flour
1/4 -1/2 c sugar
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 cup vegetable shortening
1 egg
1/4 c soured milk or buttermilk

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F
2. Place dry ingredients in a mixing bowl, cut in shortening.
3. In a large measuring cup, combine slightly beaten egg with the milk, add to the dry mix, stir until incorporated but do not over mix.
4. Place the dough on a floured surface and press into a rectangle about 1/4 inch thick.
5. Cut in to squares (or score the dough in to squares) place on a cookie sheet and bake 10 – 12 minutes.

Buckwheat and River Rocks

R.G.O’Donnell’s Store – Carroll’s Crossing, New Brunswick c.1950. (Robert O’Donnell was the youngest brother of Florence O’Donnell Lyons).

My Dad had few memories of his mother and two of them involved food. The first was her sending him to the river to collect river rocks to place in the barrel of buckwheat flour to keep it from spoiling. His second memory was the taste of her Buckwheat cake. I make no claim about the effectiveness of My Grandmother’s method for keeping her flour from spoiling on warm spring days. I suspect my Dad’s memory was missing critical information.

You see my Grandmother’s life was cut short by septicemia and flu. Blood poisoning from a splinter of wood in her finger, from scrubbing wooden floors left her with heart damage. A bout of flu complicated by the heart problems, 3 years later, her life ended. Florence Marjorie O’Donnell was born 13 April 1899 and died just a few months shy of her 36th birthday, when My Dad was just 10 years old. Florence was the forth child born to Alice Ann Lyons and Maurice Medley O’Donnell she lived, married and died all within the tiny central New Brunswick riverside community of Carroll’s Crossing. Florence’s family roots run deep in New Brunswick and like her New England Planter, Loyalist and Irish progenitors before her, she used Buckwheat to feed her growing family of 5 young boys.

Is this Florence Marjorie O’Donnell Lyons? Sadly, we have no known photo of Florence…this is a photo cropped from one containing one of her sons and her husband, Tully.

Buckwheat, a commonly used ‘false grain’ (its seeds can be processed in to flour and Groats), came to the Americas in the 1600’s, possibly earlier. Buckwheat had major benefits to European settlers, it is nutritious, has a short growing season and likes nitrogen poor soil. In the early years of the province it could be said the three staples of the New Brunswick diet were buckwheat, molasses and butter. And that is small wonder, they do taste wonderful together…

Buckwheat was once so widespread that almost every farm in New Brunswick grew a crop of buckwheat. Of course in those areas where the soil was poor and the growing season short it was a logical choice. That areas where wheat, oats, hay also grew well, buckwheat was grown for personal consumption proves role buckwheat played in feeding families. From farmhouse tables to Lumber camps buckwheat was eaten. Interestingly buckwheat was not sold as much as bartered. The market being limited to citizens of towns and lumber camps since most folks with any farming capacity grew their own. In the mid 1800’s New Brunswick farms produced enough buckwheat1 to provide the equivalent to 250 loaves of bread in pancakes for every man, woman and child in the province. Buckwheat pancakes were eaten several times each week. By the mid 1930’s far fewer were eating buckwheat but in communities where the combination of lumber work, a short growing season and nitrogen poor soil, buckwheat remained staple in many homes including those lining the Miramichi River. It would take until the mid 1950’s for buckwheat to lose its hold on most rural communities.

Southwest Miramichi River, at McNamee, NB c. 1920

When my parents married, my Dad did not have access to his mother’s recipes, he had only memories. My Mum’s family did not have a tradition of buckwheat cake, pancakes yes, but not cake. Over the years My Mother hunted up recipes for and made many versions of buckwheat cake. Of course none of her efforts could quite compare with his young boy memory of his mother and the love she put in to her buckwheat cake.

Buckwheat, like many pseudo grains, when milled results in a heavier and darker flour than wheat flour. Cooks quickly learned that using a mix of buckwheat and wheat flour (when it was available) produced lighter baked products. In short they began stretching the wheat flour (which had to be purchased) with the buckwheat which could be grown or acquired thru barter. I suspect this complicated my Mum’s hunt for a suitable buckwheat cake recipe. My Dad was sure his mother used only buckwheat. I suspect my Grandmother used what she had available to her, which during the 1930’s might have included some wheat flour. Eventually, Mum gave up trying to satisfy an impossible task and decided this recipe was the one she would serve her family, and yes it includes wheat flour.

One final point before we look at the recipe, despite her early death Florence managed to engender a strong love for food in her boys. Three of her sons would go on to careers as cooks.

Buckwheat Cake:

1 c all purpose flour
1 c Organic buckwheat flour
1/2 c white sugar
3 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
3/4 c whole milk
1 egg
3 Tbsp softened butter or margarine
1) Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. and grease a 9 ” x 9″ square baking pan.
2) Measure and sift the dry ingredients together into a bowl.
3) Cut in butter/margarine, add milk and egg. mix until incorporated. Do not over beat which will cause the cake to have a tough texture. Bake 30-40 minutes or until a tester inserted into the center comes out clean. Serve with butter and Molasses. Enjoy!

  1. T.W. Aceson (1993) “New Brunswick agriculture at the end of the colonial period: A Reassessment” Aadiensis XXII 2, page 11.

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