The White Fence, issue #8

March, 1999


Dear friends,

Since the last time we communicated, the prospecting in Tantramar’s deep mine shaft of history has continued unabaited. I must report to you that my main finding this winter has not been any new discovery of a major historic mineral “vein” but most interesting meetings with other miners, some of whom I had never met before! For example, along one narrow and dark corridor of the mine, I came across miner Margaret Henderson who, with with pick-ax in hand and a bright light on her miner’s hat, has been busy exploring the commercial history of Sackville. The evidence she has already gathered suggests that she’s coming up with (for lack of a better expression) “pay dirt”! And as I turned into another corridor of the mine shaft, I bumped into Lloyd “Bud” White, his skin blackened from hours of digging, with a bagfull of gems he was bringing up to the light of day. But I must tell you about our senior miner, Donna Beal, who is working deep in the old “Ford Hotel” shaft. She tells me that she has yet to strike gold but informs me that, by the next time we meet along the White Fence, she expects to have many riches to unload and for me to report on.

…But on a sad note…

I have to end my editorial to you with a very sad note this time. The day before yesterday was Mr. Herbert C. Read’s funeral. I was not informed of Mr. Read’s passing until after I began writing this editorial.

portrait of Herbert C. Read

Herbert C. Read

The last time I spoke to Mr. Read, soon after the last newsletter arrived to everyone’s door, he presented me with the history of the Read family’s grindstone business as dictated by his father, Herbert W. Read, to Dr. George Stanley at Mount Allison University in 1971. Mr. Read had summarized the interview and wished to see it published by the Tantramar Heritage Trust for its members who, like himself, were interested in the history of the Tantramar region. It meant much to Mr. Read to speak at The White Fence, a spot he knew well, about an industry he was so proud of and which played such a prominent role in his family’s history and, consequently, the history of this region. Under these circumstances and for this issue only, our miners stand, with heads bowed and caps in hand, in honor of Mr. Read. Their gems will be presented to you in the spring write-up of our meetings at the White Fence.

And so, in honor of Mr. Read and his family, I present you with “Grindstone History” by the late Mr. Herbert C. Read (1916–1999). Except for spelling and minor formatting, it is presented to you, largely unedited, much as I received it from the hands of Mr. Read last November.

—Peter Hicklin

Grindstone History

compiled and edited by Herbert C. Read (1990, 1991 and revised in 1995)

(The following is the history of the Read Grindstone dynasty as dictated to Dr. George Stanley by my father, Herbert William Read, at Mount Allison University, Tuesday, 20 July, 1971 with other information gleaned from notes of R.C. Read, younger brother of Herbert W. Read).

My name is Herbert William Read. I was born in Frederick, Kansas, because my mother’s people were living there at that time. I am a Canadian. My father was Henry C. Read. He married Maud Olive Skiles in Pittsburgh. My grandfather was Joseph Read of Minudie, Nova Scotia, and my great-grandfather, who started the Read Grindstone business, also lived in Minudie. My father was born in Minudie just before grandfather moved some two miles to Barronsfield where he had built a large house, “Glenburn”, which is now (1971) vacant and going to ruin.

My family has had a long association with the grindstone business. It was not a large business in Canada. I suppose one could say that the Canadian grindstone industry was of negligible importance from a national point of view. Probably it was negligible from a provincial point of view also. I do not think the annual output ever exceeded $100,000 about the same as the silver market. But it was very very important in the early days to the people at the head of the Bay of Fundy and, later on, to communities such as Stonehaven in Gloucester County, Woodburn and Pictou Island in Pictou County and Quarryville in the Miramichi area. The Reads came into the picture about 1810 when my great grandfather leased a shore property at Lower Cove, near Joggins Mines, from Amos Seaman, more popularly known as “King” Seaman.

To go back to the beginning, perhaps I should define what a grindstone is, because a lot of people these days just do not know – some folks remember one of their grandfather’s farm where they were sometimes asked to turn the Grindstone while Grandpa sharpened an axe or a mower cutter or a scythe. Actually, grindstones were a scarce article, although they never commanded the price of a rare commodity. For example, in Canada the only grindstones came from the Maritime Provinces and only a very few places in the Maritime Provinces. A grindstone is simply a sandstone, usually turned round on a lathe, in which the particles are sharp, and the sharp particles are bonded in nature so that the bond will break down under pressure and sharpen whatever is pressed against it as it is turned or moved. A sandstone with round particles would not make a grindstone!

In Canada, the grindstone business probably started in a local way in the 1600s by the Acadian French whose only concentration of any size in the Maritimes was based in the huge areas of marshland they had dyked at the head of the Bay of Fundy. With the twice daily ebb of the famous 30′ – 60′ tides of the bay, the countless sandstone ledges were laid bare for four hours or more. Thus it was possible to go out on the rocks, knock off a piece of stone and shape it with hand tools into a rough grindstone. Most people, when they think of grindstones, see the small ones still to be found on the occasional farm, or they remember people saying they should put their nose to one! However, the stones that produced the high and profitable tonnage were from four to seven feet in diameter and anywhere from three to fifteen inches in thickness – the largest of these weighing 4 tons. So the small grindstones that the commercial quarries made were, in effect, a by-product of the production of the larger stones which were used extensively for industrial production purposes. Historically, grindstones must go back pretty well into the year one. After all, when you rub two hard substances together, you get abrasion. When pre-historic men sharpened their first bronze and iron tools, they probably did it on a flat stone. But the wheel goes back a long way too, and it is reasonable to think that the grindstone goes back almost as far as the wheel – about 5000 years!

From a world point of view, the first and most important place for making grindstones was, I believe, England, although grindstones were also produced in France and Germany around the same period. In the United States, most grindstones were produced in Ohio, although some stones were produced in Michigan and West Virginia. So the grindstone was really a scarce article but was not really a big business. It was important to the people I mentioned and to the industries that developed in New England during the eighteenth century.

There was no stone in New England suitable for making grindstones so, for a century or more, the grindstones needed for industrial production had to come either from the Maritimes or from England.

The grindstone business in Canada probably began around the head of the Bay of Fundy, on a local farm-use basis, during the “Ancien Regime”. The stone there had the necessary abrasive quality. When the New Englanders moved in after 1755, they too began to quarry grindstones for their own use. My great-grandfather founded the Read Stone Company in Minudie, Nova Scotia, about 1809, but the grindstone business had been well established in the export trade before then.

Grindstone makers

Grindstone makers on the shore of Baie des Chaleurs (c. 1890). Local residents and merchants made and sold grindstones along the shores of Baie des Chaleurs from the late 1700s until the 1930s (PANB photograph P93/G32)

The legendary Amos “King” Seaman was the big man in the grindstone business in those first days. His main quarry was at Lower Cove, three miles north of Joggins. My grandfather, Joseph Read, joined his father in the early years of the 19th Century, and by 1824 they had a “stoneyard” and sales office in Boston. In 1829, grandfather married King Seaman’s sister Abigail which brought the two grindstone families together and they operated under the name of “Read and Seaman” for some time. Grandfather also bought a home in Boston so that each of his fourteen children could be educated in that city’s schools and colleges.

Grandfather also bought a home in New York. Earlier, these children received their schooling from a teacher employed by the Reads to live with them to teach the children how to “read and write and figure”. Stones were picked up by schooner along the shores of the Bay of Fundy from the local people who made them and were taken to Boston for distribution.

This trade soon became world wide because the Clipper ships went everywhere. During the first quarter of the 19th century, there were two big names in the grindstone business in Canada — King Seaman was the first and my grandfather Read became the second. For the next one hundred years, the Reads were the dominant people in this small industry. In 1860, my grandfather bought the grindstone property at Stonehaven, New Brunswick, which was opened in 1830 and sold by the founders, who were Boston people, Sprague, Soule and Company. This operation, located on the Baie de Chaleur, was the most important quarry in the Industry’s final one hundred years. It was closed in 1930. The basic reason for closing was the fact that the quarry was worked out, although a secondary reason was the decline in the demand for natural grindstones by industry.

Stonehaven was not the only Read quarry. The Reads dug holes all over the Maritime Provinces and at one time operated more than 40 quarries with varying degrees of success. In the earlier years, the Reads were both producers and dealers in grindstones. They bought from farmers and others who made good grindstones as a sideline and from operators of small quarries and shipped the stones along with their own. These stones, you must remember, were all made by hand, using picks and hand drills and mauls and stone chisels, all hand-forged, tempered and sharpened by the blacksmiths in the quarry. There was no machinery other than the block-and-tackle and perhaps a winch and a few horses for horsepower. The Bay of Fundy stones were quarried at low tide. If the blocks were large they were chained under a boat and were pulled to shore with the tide and were reduced in size and shaped at low tide, and kept re-floating ashore until finally the finished big grindstones could be brought ashore on rollers, one by one. From there they were loaded onto scows and from there onto off-shore schooners and taken to Boston.

The first on-shore quarry that could be worked all day regardless of the tide, was opened at Slack’s cove in Rockport, below Sackville, in 1827. This was accomplished by constructing coffer dams of timber and clay to enclose the areas to be quarried. The sea water was then pumped out of the dam and left the stone bare. From that day onward, quarries quickly supplanted the under water reefs that got the grindstone business in Nova Scotia off to a start. Stones were made at Lower Cove, Downey’s Cove, Ragged Reef, Sand River, Apple River. I think a few were made on the Windsor shore. Sites on the New Brunswick side of the Bay of Fundy included Wood Point, Rockport, Grindstone Island, Mary’s Point, Beaumont and Fox Creek.

Mrs. Esther Clark Wright, in her history of the Steeves family, says that making grindstones was their cash crop. That was in the 18th century. Around 1804, there was a storekeeper in Moncton by the name of Harper. I think it was his grand-daughter who wrote a book “Moncton’s First Storekeeper”. In that book she tells how, when her grandfather paid his bills to the whole-salers, he paid them three quarters in grindstones and one quarter in cash.

This was before the lumber trade got going. Thus the grindstones at the head of the Bay of Fundy were the butter-and-egg business of the early settlers. Later on, power came to the grindstone industry – sometime in the seventies and eighties. By that time, there were Read Grindstone Mills at Stonehaven, N. B., Quarryville on the Miramichi, Wood Point near Sackville, N.B., and Lower Cove, near Joggins, Nova Scotia.

As I mentioned earlier, a grindstone is a piece of quarried sandstone, and you have to take it as you find it. Therefore, the grindstones that come from different locations have different qualities. One will do a certain kind of job while another will not, but will handle other jobs. You cannot change the rock in a quarry. For example, the stones that came from Wood Point were very coarse and could only be used for industrial purposes. They were not suitable for farmer’s use, but were excellent for hogging off metal, such as grinding plows and rough grinding of axes. But the stones from Stonehaven, I can say without bragging, were probably the best grade in the world for grinding a tempered-edge tool. That is why the Stonehaven quarry was able to survive longer than any of the others.

Then the railroads got going into the state of Ohio, where are located what are probably the world’s largest sandstone quarries for building stone. These quarries gradually got into the grind stone business and the Maritimes began to feel the competition. This would have been towards the end of the 19th century. By 1900, the only grindstone people operating in the Maritimes were the Reads at Stonehaven and on the Miramichi in New Brunswick and at Lower Cove, and Woodburn, near New Glasgow, in Nova Scotia. The Pictou County stone deserves some mention. It was a soft stone used (for example) for grinding spatulas, palette knives and stemware like the cutting side of a chisel where there were two kinds of steel welded together, and for pocket knives.

The Stonehaven stone was particularly valuable for grinding a tempered edge of steel. For example, we used to ship stones as far as west as Chicago for grinding machine knives and Indianapolis for thinning handsaws. As you know, a handsaw tapers. Oddly enough, we could sell stones to the Simonds Saw Company in Chicago and Pittsburgh, but not in Montreal. The Montreal factory was small and they had to use a softer stone that was more versatile. We had a very select list of customers for Stonehaven stone, which had a high silica content and was excellent for grinding edged tools.

The Collins Company took all of the production from Wood Point. They were the largest edged-tool manufacturers in the world I believe. They were noted particularly for their machetes, which had the name COLLINS stamped on the blade just below the ferrule and there was a saying in South America: “They stuck it into him to the COLLINS”. They established in the 1770s in Collinsville, near Hartford, Connecticut, and the plant closed in 1972 after 200 years of excellence. They shipped axes and machetes all over the world.

We shipped Stonehaven stone to people like Brown and Sharpe who made fine measuring tools. They claimed they could grind that flat steel to one hundred thousandth part of an inch on a Stonehaven grindstone! They had wonderful machines, beautifully made, for this purpose. All the scythe and axe manufacturers used our stone for abrasive purposes. Nicholson File and Stanley Rule and Level Co. (Stanley Tools) were excellent customers. You see, all of our markets were in the United States. We sold to all of the arms manufacturers – Winchester, Remington, Savage, Colt, Marlin, Smith & Wesson. Canadian manufacturers got their grindstones from Ohio which was nearer, or they weren’t large enough to take carload lots from us.

In the early days, all shipment was by water – it had to be. My grandfather, at one time, owned 51 schooners which took Read stones mainly to ports in the northeastern U.S. but also made many trips to South America and the Caribbean, then to England carrying rum, there being no return cargo to Canada. They would pick up return cargo of British woolens and such, for the last leg of the journey back to Nova Scotia.

When 19 years of age, my father was assigned by his eldest brother Bedford (who had become head of the firm on my grandfather’s death in 1866) to sail with one of the three-masted schooners as “Supercargo” – business agent and trader. This voyage took him to New England, Philadelphia, the Caribbean, Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires, Bristol and Liverpool, Queenstown (now Cobb) in Ireland, Halifax and home to Minudie.

After the railroad was built, more and more stones went by rail. We shipped small “RED CENTRE” grindstones right across Canada as far as Vancouver, throughout the prairies, into northern Ontario and Quebec, everywhere in the Maritimes.

However, the small grindstone, like the even smaller scythe stone, both for use on farms and in lumber camps, was merely a by-product of the manufacture of large grindstones. Most were made up to salvage a block that had faults that ruled it out for making one of the large stones.

There is no longer any market for natural grindstones. This has been supplanted by the bonded abrasive wheels made by Carborundum, Norton and others, which could make up any desired grit from a razor hone to a coarse stone for grinding wood pulp out of logs.

My son, Herbert C. Read, ran the business through the last war when there was still considerable market. There was a RED SADDLE (T.M. Reg.) mounted grindstone on every Corvette that came out of the shipyards of Vancouver and Victoria. There was also a good market for the regular grindstone and scythe stone because of the wartime demand for farm and forest products. While the Reads had gone out of production, the Read Stone Company Ltd. continued by contracting with Frank Hornybrook, a Stonehaven quarryman, for small grindstones and scythe stones. This continued, with a declining market, for several years. We still shipped one pool car a year to Vancouver and Winnipeg for customers like Marshall Wells, McLenan, McFeely & Prior, Fairbanks Morse, J.H. Ashdown Hardware Co. and Aukland’s Ltd. Bissett and Webb, Manufacturers Agents of Winnipeg, were our agents for the western half of Canada. We handled the eastern half of Canada from Sackville. In Ontario, we shipped to Cochrane Dunlop all over the province, Wood, Alexander & James in Hamilton, other wholesalers in Kingston, Ottawa, North Bay and Sudbury – all from the mining and lumbering areas. In the province of Quebec the big names in Montreal were Lewis Bros. (latterly F. Wragge) Caverhill Learmont, Pascal, A. Prud’homme, Frothingham Starke Seybold. In Sherbrooke, Mitchell, Codere; in Quebec/Levis: J.L. Demers, Chinic, L.H. Hebert, Terreau & Racine, Young, Wm. Doyle, Samson & Fillion, Jos. E. Lemieux and others in smaller centres throughout the province.

In the Maritimes: In Nova Scotia: Douglas Hardware and Dunlop Bros. in Amherst; A.M. Bell, Crowell Bros., Wm. Stairs, Son & Morrow in Halifax; T.P. Calkin in Kentville; Spinney in Yarmouth; Thompson and Sutherland in New Glasgow and others. Prince Edward Island had R.T. Holman, Brace McKay, Rogers Hardware and C.P. Moore. In New Brunswick: James S. Neill and E.M. Young in Fredericton, W.H. Thorne and Emmerson & Fisher in Saint John, Sumners in Moncton. Some of these names are no longer around.

Scythe stones were made thus: Slabs were sawn ¾″ thick by 10″ wide, approximately, by whatever length could be utilized from the materials available – some slabs or pieces came from the scrap pile when sawing ¾″ grindstone slabs. These went to the Scythe Stone Shed. They were split into 1-¼ × 10″ (approx.) pieces with what might be called an upside down froe that is still used in BC to split shingles from a bolt of cedar with one blow of a wood mallet. A sort of guillotine was devised that worked reasonably well but the froe and mallet were preferred by most workmen. Since the men worked on a piecework basis, they used the method that produced the most money for them. They were then ground on a six-foot convex turntable made of vertical timbers with Gang Saw blade ends driven into the timbers (saw blades were 4″ × 12′ × ⅛″ low-carbon soft steel). With running water and local sand, instead of steel shot for marble cutting, sandstone could be sawn at 1′/hr. Blades would last 45–50 hours. As with sawing grindstone slabs with the Gang Saw, water ran over the operation continually with the high silica, local sand being the abrasive. All of the scythe stone production was done in Stonehaven with stone from that quarry. There were many T.M. Reg. names: “Canada Red End”, the ones I have left (but since sold to Lee Valley Tools of Ottawa) and “Bay Chaleur”, “Eclipse”, “Blue Grit”, “Challenge”, “Bluenose”, “Acadian Whet Stone”, “Acadian Ragg” and “King of the Harvest”. In my time, the only scythe stones sold were the “Bay Chaleur” and the “Red End” and these were sold by the thousands all over Canada until the synthetically-bonded abrasives took over the market.

The last of the “Canada Red End” scythe stones were sold to Leonard Lee of Lee Valley Tools, Ottawa, in 1993 and 1994. I have about two dozen left!

Grindstone workers

Workers at the Read grindstone quarry in Stovehaven, Baie des Chaleurs (c. 1890s)

Editor’s note

In the mid-1980’s, Mr. Read dismantled the Grindstone Museum which he had put together in the “Carriage House” of the Marshlands Inn (the old family home — a Heritage Property) and donated all its contents to the town of Sackville. In January, 1999, these articles were passed on to the Tantramar Heritage Trust, including about 200 beautiful grindstones which likely originated from the Stonehaven quarry. I write this to assure our readers and the members the Read family that these articles will be well looked after and will be used to educate the public in Tantramar (especially if, or when, Tantramar can get its own museum) about the important role the grindstone industry has played in the history of this region.

Contributions solicited

Just like Mr. Read’s contribution in this issue, your newsletter can only succeed with your help. I will need your assistance for information, stories, interesting “did you knows” (to return in the next issue) and historical events that you may wish to present and/or debate. So please call me during the day at 506-364-5042 or at home at 506-536-0703 or write to me (or visit) at the following address:

—Peter Hicklin, c/o Canadian Wildlife Service, P.O. Box 6227, Sackville, N.B. E4L 1G6

ATTENTION: SOME DUES STILL DUE. For some of you (with your address label in italics on the envelope that this newsletter came in), membership dues for 1999 have not yet been received. So please send $10.00 to the Tantramar Heritage Trust, P.O. Box 6301, Sackville, N.B. E4L 1G6 or this will unfortunately be your last newsletter!