Memories and More: An Interview with Helen Field Walton

Today we begin a special series of Tantramar Flashbacks. From time to time, I plan to feature the Memories And More of some of the interesting people I meet in writing this column. In this first profile, let me introduce Helen Field Walton.

Before our interview Helen sent me an essay in which she explored the history of Port Elgin. At the time, I was researching and writing a column on the industrial background of the village; consequently, her comments were both helpful and timely. However, one question remained. What made everyday life in Port Elgin special during the early twentieth century?

A native of Port Elgin, Helen Field was born March 11, 1911, the daughter of Harry Field and Leona Allen Field. She graduated from the Port Elgin Superior School. Then in 1927–28 it was on to Provincial Normal School in Fredericton, and a career in teaching. Her marriage in 1930 to Floyd Walton and the raising of their four children, Norma, Joyce, Owen and Thane, temporarily interrupted this career path.

In 1954, while living in Baie Verte, Helen returned to teaching. First she slipped across the provincial border to Tidnish Bridge; later accepting a position at the Baie Verte school. In 1963 on the invitation of Hayden Leaman, Principal of the Port Elgin Regional Memorial School, she joined the staff as a Mathematics teacher. Five years later, she returned to the elementary level, retiring in 1971.

When I enquired further about her teaching experience it was the first year, 1928–29 at Murray Corner that stood out. I had quite a struggle, it almost turned me off teaching. There were 43 pupils from grades 1 to 8. Also, a new curriculum had just been adopted. To add to my problems, all of the required textbooks were in short supply.

There was then no such thing as a regular pay cheque. When I needed money, I trekked up to the Secretary of School Trustees, who usually was able to scrounge about $20 at a time. My total salary for the year was $550 plus a $150 government grant. Fortunately, this experience did not turn her off. A second teaching career in the 1950s and 60s was to be both happy and satisfying.

In order to obtain a picture of growing up in Port Elgin in the teens and twenties of the last century, we began with the winter season. A community highlight in early January was the Christmas tree bonfire on the frozen river. Both skating and skiing were popular winter activities and Helen learned to skate at an early age. Especially exciting was the opportunity to skate in the open on the Gaspereau River. As she put it: Exhilarating! If you’ve never enjoyed outdoor skating, you don’t know what you’ve missed.

The village also boasted an indoor rink, permitting all weather skating.

It was a beehive of activity whenever the weather was cold enough to make ice. We would be dismissed from school one half hour early on Fridays if the rink was in operation… It was sheer bliss for me, when I could go to the rink for an evening of skating to the music of the local band.

Of particular interest were Port Elgin’s teams in both men’s and women’s hockey. Today, the latter are sometimes portrayed as being very new, a legacy of the enlightened 1990’s. Not so. Helen assured me that the Port Elgin Ladies’ Hockey team was very active, even playing visiting teams from PEI. More information on Port Elgin’s hockey heritage may be found in an article by Joan LeBlanc in the Mar. 8, 2000 issue of the ’Trib.

In the days before paved roads, spring meant MUD! A childhood incident was recalled concerning a new pair of shiny black rubber boots. Once she was forced to leave these behind, stuck in the mud. On the otherhand, Helen quickly pointed out that Port Elgin had cement side walks, many years before the highways were paved. For her, spring really arrived when the time came to go out the Shemogue road and pick mayflowers.

In the spring a favorite pastime was standing on the Iron Bridge (now a cement one) when the Gaspereau River, as far as one could see, was full of logs. These were being floated downstream to the sawmills of J. & C. Hickman and Silas Hayward and Sons. On the lower side of the bridge there was a wooden platform which spanned the width of the river.

Beyond the platform was a log boom which ran down the centre of the river. Here the logs were tallied, while men with pike poles and peavies guided the logs to either side of the boom. Those on the right for Hickman’s; on the left for Hayward’s. Some of the more daring boys would attempt to run over the logs from one side to the other — a few of the more agile could accomplish this feat — a very dangerous practise.

During the summer months attention turned to swimming, beach activities, tennis matches, and regular outdoor concerts at the bandstand. Whatever the season, the arrival of the daily train was an important event. In the summer there were two trains, with one a day for the rest of the year. To accommodate arrivals, Albert Copp met each train with his carriage; while Joe Harper delivered express and freight. Often commeRCIal travellers or ’drummers,’ would arrive by train and display their wares to prospective customers at the Strathcona Hotel. Helen also remembered that about 1923 a little seaplane came in and landed on the Gaspereau River; a sure attention getter!

One highlight of the summer season was the arrival of the Chautauqua Show at Hickman’s hall. It was part of an adult education movement, based at Lake Chautauqua in northern New York State. Each summer, groups of lecturers, entertainers, musicians and a magician, travelled to small communities, providing a sample of the programs offered at Chautauqua. These travelling shows died out in the late 1920’s; but not before bringing quality entertainment to many places such as Port Elgin.

The annual lobster season ran each year from early August to early October. Not only were the fishermen busy hauling traps the various enterprises of Fred Magee Limited were in full swing. Helen recalled: In 1930, the fishermen received five cents per pound for canners and eight cents a pound for market lobsters. When my mother was young, lobsters were so plentiful in the Cape Spear area, they could go to the shore, at low tide, and pick up all they wanted around the rocks… Lobster was then regarded as the poor man’s food!

A further change in the seasons was heralded by the Botsford and Westmorland Agricultural Society’s annual exhibition. People came from far and near; some to see the exhibits and others for the horse races at the raceway. Exhibition Day was a real highlight; we were given a half holiday from school… For the exhibitors, it was a real effort, when you recall that many of the items were brought in by horse and buggy from outlying districts.

Autumn witnessed not only the beginning of the school term, but also another year of regular activities at each of the village’s three churches: St. Clement’s Roman Catholic and the Methodist Church (now replaced by Trinity United) were located on Church Street, while St. James Presbyterian Church was on Main Street. Each year Halloween came and went without too much fanfare. Helen remembered that her father used to put the front gate away for safekeeping; and one year a group of the boys pushed a wagon into the river.

The Christmas season was a special time. Particularly memorable were Christmas concerts at the various one-room schools. It was such fun for the gang to travel in a horse drawn pung-sled, with straw in the bottom and buffalo robes for insulation from the cold.

Santa Claus always made his visit and Helen mentioned that the Christmas tree was decorated on Christmas eve. Among the decorations were metal holders with real candles… these would be lighted, just once, on Christmas night. What a wonderful sight it was!

All too soon, the cycle of the seasons was complete, and the interview was over. But not quite. Helen Field Walton wrote Memories of My Life as a Christmas present for her grandchildren. What a unique gift! Equally thoughtful was her willingness to share her recollections with me, and through the medium of Tantramar Flashback, with you, the readers. I hope that this first column of Memories And More will inspire others to take up pen and paper and follow her lead. There could be no more meaningful gift for the next generation and generations yet to come.