The White Fence, issue #43

November 2009


Dear friends,

Sackville has long used the image of a duck as an icon for the township. Remember the Atlantic Waterfowl Celebration held in Sackville in the 1980s? Or why Sackville developed a Waterfowl Park as a tourist attraction? In part, this issue of The White Fence will help you to understand and appreciate why this is so.

When I was an undergraduate (biology minor) student at Mount Allison in the early 1970s (class of ‘73), field trips to the High Marsh Road with Dr. Harries invariably touched on the history of shipbuilding and waterfowl hunting in that very special place. As we learned of the tidal history of the Tantramar River and watched ducks and geese flying overhead, we heard of the ecology and human history which shaped this area, along with explanations of why we had to conduct this field trip in September before the duck-hunting season started in October!

Duck-hunting has a long history in the Tantramar area. Historically, it was not just a noble sport but a way to get fresh meat on the table. But no one ever thinks of the ingenuity required to travel shallow tidal marshes in order for the hunter to get at his quarry. But Colin MacKinnon and Don Colpitts are two people who did and who, with their experience and interest in waterfowl, salt marshes and local history, pieced together the fascinating story associated with the local craft which made it possible for early settlers to get at their quarry each fall. Not only will you learn about this tract of history, but Colin and Don also provide us with the “recipe” to making our own small craft. Could we ask for more to fully appreciate this story? I think not.

Whether you are interested in this topic or not, matters little. I assume that you read this newsletter because of an innate interest in history. I hope that you appreciate the details in this story because you won’t find them anywhere else! You don’t need to be a hunter to appreciate this piece; it is a fragment of local history which will help you appreciate this unique Tantramar landscape and better understand another of the many aspects of its history. And then Colin brings us to another part of our history: shipbuilding. History lies all around us! We just have to look…

In White Fence No. 22 (many years ago!), we discussed the travels of Capt. William Pringle of Sackville. But recently, Colin looked closely…very closely… and found some interesting history. See what Colin’s “browsing” lead to and read of that section of The Sackville Tribune, August, 1915, on Captain Pringle’s last voyage. There’s so much for us to learn, right there in front of us. Like Colin and Don, we just have to look… closely!

Soak it up, and, as always… enjoy!

—Peter Hicklin

Traditional Boats of the Tantramar and Missaguash Marshes

by Colin M. MacKinnon and Donald W. Colpitts

John “Johnny” Robinson’s boat of 1922. C. MacKinnon photo

John “Johnny” Robinson’s boat of 1922. C. MacKinnon photo

When looking across the broad fields of the lush green hay-lands of the Tantramar and Missaguash marshes, it is easily forgotten that these were once flooded wetlands. Not just salt marshes which existed in abundance before the advent of dyking; the landscape consisted of a diverse matrix of freshwater bogs, fens, lakes and interconnecting streams: the haunt of waterfowl and muskrat alike. These interior wetlands and backwaters are less-travelled today but remembered, sometimes in great detail, by only few people.

John “Johnny” Robinson’s boat of 1922. C. MacKinnon photo

John “Johnny” Robinson’s boat of 1922. C. MacKinnon photo

For generations, it has been the resort of sportsmen, hunters and trappers, who spent countless hours “poling” the shallow marshes in search for their quarry.

These men were not boat-builders by trade; their homemade craft often lacked the finesse of the trained professional. These vessels were created by local artisans with whatever materials were at hand.

Form followed function as these marsh boats needed to be durable, light (when a “haul” across a bog was required) and able to operate in shallow waters. Since the Chignecto marshes have small watersheds, their streams follow a short course to the sea such that there is no need to be concerned of running rapids, or having a craft designed for such conditions. But what the marshes present to the user is an abundant dense vegetation and strong winds sweeping across the wide open areas. The skilled boatman here often prefers to “pole” his craft rather than paddle. In this way, it can be readily navigated into a headwind, with the added advantage that the standing pilot can better see the path ahead. On a brisk morning, many years ago, while the authors were travelling the Missaguash (DWC controlling the push-pole) we met Albert Jones heading down the big canal. Albert was then over eighty years old and still “working” the marshes. On passing, there was a polite and gentlemanly, “good morning Don”, followed by a “good morning Albert” from the pilots of each boat.

Marsh boats: Example on left built in 1922 for John Robinson and, on right, boat built (c.1950) by Edgar Jones. C. MacKinnon photo

Marsh boats: Example on left built in 1922 for John Robinson and, on right, boat built (c.1950) by Edgar Jones. C. MacKinnon photo

These marsh boats were as simple as they were ingenious: four wide boards formed the shell of the boat. With support from stout posts at the bow and stern, as well as “knee braces” spaced strategically along the sides (full ribs being more or less absent), little else was required. These boats could be built with a modicum of skills and assembled with tools readily available on the family farm. Although they must once have been quite common in the Tantramar region at an earlier time, the availability of production canoes, at a modest cost, probably accelerated the demise of these locally-built craft.

The Point de Bute ridge straddles the Tantramar and Missaguash marshes and it is here that a few of these old boats have survived. Most of the older men that once relied on these for their livelihood are now gone. John Tingley (1882–1982) was Head Warden for many years and knew every inch of the Missaguash. Frank Dixon (1890–1959) was an avid trapper, and in the early 20th century was probably the closest thing this area had as a “professional trapper.” He owned a boat of the type described here. So too did John Dixon (1903–1987) who also hunted and trapped this area. Graham Cole (1909–1975) worked for some time for the Missaguash Fur Company and he also had two or more of these boats. Cole used to store his boats for quick access to the water and often had one at Large Lake and others at Front Lake (Jolicure) and at Goose Lake on the Missaguash. Edgar Jones (1909–1986), also a local trapper, was at one time (c.1965–1971) the only paid staff by Ducks Unlimited in the border region. One of Edgar’s boats has survived and is presently in the possession of DWC. The late Albert Jones (1911–2008), Edgar’s brother, who was “Mr. Missaguash” (if anyone deserved the title he was it!), had at least three similar boats as well as two that were wider, with a square stern, for use with a motor. Many years ago, one of the three boats noted above, had been stored for use on the Trueman Mill Pond on the Etter Ridge and its remains are still to be seen there today.

Some of the sketches made while examining Johnny Robinson's boat

Some of the sketches made
while examining Johnny Robinson’s boat

The “Johnny Robinson” boat featured here is as simple as it is complicated. Although built of only four large boards, the art is in the details. The more one investigates this old vessel the more one is impressed with the skill of the original artisan and the thought and planning that went into its construction. The boat has an overall length of 12′–6″. The bow and stern are essentially symmetrical. The flat bottom of the boat flares to 24″ across at its widest point while the sides of the boat angle outwards such that the widest point between the gunwales is 30″ (see chart). Each side of the boat consists of a single plank 154 ½″ long and ⅜″ wide, that widens from 10″ wide at the bow and stern to 11″ wide along the middle half of the boat. The floor is supported by, and connected to, the sides by three sets of parallel, partial ribs. The ribs are actually much like the “knees” found on old sailing ships and were made from the natural right angle growth found where the roots or limbs of a tree meet the trunk; this provides the strongest joint where the grain of the wood is maximized. These partial ribs only extend part way across the bottom of the boat but run the full length up the sides. Adjacent to each set of ribs is a 2 ½ × æ″ board, about two feet long, that lies across the two floor boards, perpendicular to the axis of the boat, “tying” everything together. The first of these boards is set immediately behind the aft set of ribs while the other two boards are situated just forward of the other two sets. The top of each rib is notched, where required, to accept a 1 ½ × ½″ interior strip of wood that runs parallel with the sides of the boat. This interior strip is referred to as the “inwale” (the innermost gunwale). This wooden strip is affixed tight against the sides, near the bow and stern, but held slightly away from the sides along the middle where the tops of the ribs act as a spacer. At each of these junctions between rib and inwale, a 3/16″ diameter round-faced bolt runs through the hull from the outside and is held in place with a square nut against a ⅝″ diameter washer. The rear-most of the ribs is actually a single solid board with a crescent shaped area, 5″ deep, cut away from across the top. Of interest, the right-hand side of the boat has a 59 × 4 × ⅜″ board affixed along the outside of the gunwale. At first, we thought this had been an old patch (one of many!) however on closer inspection the original bolts carried through this piece as well. Our best guess is that this piece provided added protection from abrasion along the gunwale from a right-handed operator poling or paddling on that side.

Close-up of the stern. Note the enclosed area just ahead of the stern post. C. MacKinnon photo

Close-up of the stern. Note the enclosed area just ahead of the stern post. C. MacKinnon photo

Top view of bow section

Top view of bow section

Partial rib

Partial rib

Stern post

Stern post

The bottom of the boat is not perfectly flat but slightly upturned (about 3″) at bow and stern respectively. As the width of the sides vary (wider in the middle) and the outline of the boat along the gunwales flares out, our guess is that any surplus wood would have been planed away after the sides were bent to fit the contour of the bottom. This would be easier than trying to pre-cut the sides of the boat in advance.

Dimensions of John Robinson’s boat of 1922
Distance as taken from the stern post Width across gunwale Width across bottom of hull
0″ 0″ 0″
12″ 11″ 9″
24″ 19 ½″ 15 ¾″
36″ 25 ¾″ 20 ½″
48″ 28 ¾″ 23″
60″ 30″ 23 ¾″
72″ 30″ 23 ½″
84″ 29 ½″ 24″
96″ 28″ 23 ½″
108″ 25 ½″ 21 ¾″
120″ 20″ 18″
132″ 13″ 12″
144″ 5″ 4″
149 ½″ 0″ 0″
Floor and gunwale outline of John Robinson's boat (stern at top)

Floor and gunwale outline of John Robinson’s boat (stern at top)

The bow and stern posts are each made from a single piece of wood; the stern post has an oval-shaped knob carved at the top and the sides of the boat are attached to a 3″ wide face on the post. The interior facing portion of the posts are rounded and, at least for the sample with the knob, follows the natural shape and growth rings of the tree from which it came. A wide flat keel (2 ½ × ¼″) covers the junction between the two boards that comprise the floor and runs the entire length of the boat.

This boat belonged to Albert Jones (1911–2008) and was used for many years on the Missaguash Marsh (Dimensions: 12′9″ × 31 × 11 ½″). C. MacKinnon photo.

This boat belonged to Albert Jones (1911–2008) and was used for many years on the Missaguash Marsh (Dimensions: 12′9″ × 31 × 11 ½″). C. MacKinnon photo.

The boat has no place for a seat as the operator would traditionally have had a bag filled with straw, or grass, to sit on. The “Robinson” boat has seen a lot of hard use. To keep it serviceable, a number of ribs have been replaced, there is a patch in the floor, and the exterior has had liberal applications of paint and tar over the years. We can say with some certainty that this example was finished in mid-September, 1922. John Robinson was born in 1908 and, at 14 years of age, took this boat duck-hunting on opening day at Front Lake in Jolicure.

Many years ago, Mr. Robinson told DWC that the paint was still tacky on his new boat and that the feathers from the waterfowl he had shot got stuck in the new paint. In 1956, DWC acquired this boat from Johnny Robinson for ten dollars. The boat was then used on a continuing basis until being retired around 2000. How many more of these home-made canoes which once travelled the local waters are still extant, is impossible to say. They must have been common but, like so many utilitarian wares, were disposed of when they had outlived their usefulness. Once, there were a number of duck-hunting clubs associated with these marshes. For example, descriptions of boats used by the Goose Lake Club in Midgic appear similar to those we describe here. A perusal of old hunting books and examples of craft used on the low-lying marshes of England and France have more than a passing similarity to the boats described here. It is not impossible that, at some point, an enterprising individual adapted a design that he had seen elsewhere. The interesting question for us now is to find out when the basic dimensions we see in the four surviving examples was originally decided upon. Albeit a small sample size, the surviving Tantramar and Missaquash “marsh boats” averaged 12Ω feet long by 30″ wide and 11″ deep. When these specific measures were decided upon (and by whom?) is a question we continue to explore.


Dimensions from surviving marsh boats from the Tantramar and Missaguash
Past owner (year built) Total length Width Height
John Robinson (1922) 12′6″ 30″ 11″
Edgar Jones (c. 1950) 12′0″ 29 ½″ 11″
Albert Jones #1 12′9″ 31″ 11 ½″
Albert Jones #2 12′6″ 30″ 11″
Graham Cole (1909–1975) worked for the Missaguash Marsh Fur Company and used this boat on the local marshes (Dimensions: 12′ 1 ½ × 31 ¾ × 10″). C. MacKinnon photo

Graham Cole (1909–1975) worked for the Missaguash Marsh Fur Company and used this boat on the local marshes (Dimensions: 12′ 1 ½ × 31 ¾ × 10″). C. MacKinnon photo

It is noteworthy that the remains of the only surviving boat from the hunting club on Jolicure Large Lake was a larger, more traditional, row boat. It was likely chosen to withstand the heavier waves that one frequently encounters on this larger body of water. This is not to say that the smaller craft were not used there as well.

Remains of the fine old rowboat that once belonged to the Jolicure Lake Hunting Club. C. MacKinnon photo

Remains of the fine old rowboat that once belonged to the Jolicure Lake Hunting Club. C. MacKinnon photo

One of us (CMM) found an interesting painting of a local scene depicting two people constructing a duck-hunting blind, likely on the marshes bordering the Jolicure Lakes, with a small boat just in view to the right of the hunters (see below). The craft depicted in this watercolour looks remarkably similar to the traditional boats of the Tantramar and Missaquash marshes and which we describe here.

Building a duck blind on the Jolicure Lakes (c.1950). Note the boat to right of painting. Artist unknown

Building a duck blind on the Jolicure Lakes (c.1950). Note the boat to right of painting. Artist unknown

Should any readers of this issue of The White Fence know of any other examples of these boats, the authors would be interested to hear about surviving examples, the stories associated with them or see any old photographs. We can be reached through the Tantramar Heritage Trust or call the senior author at 506-536-4283.

A Rare Find — The Ship Masters Certificate for Capt. William Pringle of Sackville

by Colin M. MacKinnon

This past summer, I happened to stop at an antique store in Moncton, browsing mostly, and not really looking for anything in particular. I did not have much time but a water-damaged parchment, in a glass frame on the wall, caught my attention. There, in faded letters, was the inscription “American Ship Masters Association, New York, January 16, 1872, William Pringle.” The price was not insignificant but I thought that this document should be returned to Sackville. I told the proprietor of the local connection and he said that the piece had surfaced in Woodpoint. I departed the store without the certificate and in quick time posted a couple of emails to Peter Hicklin, Paul Bogaard and Al Smith about the significance of the find and the need to secure the document for the Tantramar Heritage Trust.

Shipmasters certificate No. 6170 granted to Captain William Pringle 16 January 1872. THT Accession Number - 2009.19.1

Shipmasters certificate No. 6170 granted to Captain William Pringle 16 January 1872. THT Accession Number — 2009.19.1

Signature: "Captain William Pringle, Sackville, NB" (signature enhanced)

Signature: “Captain William Pringle, Sackville, NB” (signature enhanced)

I needed little coaching and, in short time, Captain Pringle’s certificate found a new home at the Boultenhouse Heritage Centre.The document requires some professional restoration but survives as a testament to Sackville’s marine heritage.

Close-up of the wonderful detail on the "Pringle" certificate

Close-up of the wonderful detail on the “Pringle” certificate

Official stamp of the "American Shipmasters' Association"

Official stamp of the “American Shipmasters’ Association”

The American Ship Masters Association certificate was granted to ships’ captains who passed a rigorous test on nautical science and seamanship. The certificate was not a “Master Mariner” license but a supporting document of competency. Those who held the American Ship Masters Association certificate were supposedly able to get better terms on insurance, thus reflecting on the financial significance of qualifying for this certificate.

Some readers may recall a short note on Captain Pringle in the March, 2003, issue of The White Fence (no. 22). His obituary, as printed in that article, reads as follows:

Captain William Pringle gone to his reward

Died Friday night as he was about to retire — A Highly Respected Citizen — Funeral at 2 O’clock Today.

The town mourns the loss of a most highly respected and widely known citizen, Capt. W. Pringle, who has been a well known resident for some time and died Friday night while on his way to bed. He had been in failing health for about three years, but his death was not looked for at such a time. He, as usual, ate his supper and had been around the house until his usual bed time and was being assisted to his room by his sister, Mrs. William Fillmore, with whom he resided when he was seized with a fainting spell and died without saying a word. He was 74 years of age.

The deceased had sailed the seas for about 20 years and during that time had entered many ports throughout the world. After the death of his wife, Sarah J. Cole, sister of Mr. Charles Cole, he gave up his seafaring life and retired, taking up his residence in Sackville, where he has resided ever since. About ten years ago, he was engaged by the town of Sackville as commissioner of Water and Sewerage, a position he held until about three years ago when failing health compelled him to give up the position. His thorough knowledge of the workings of the water and sewage system often brought him into service afterwards, as those who succeeded him were not able to execute work as it was required. Capt. Pringle has been one who has made perhaps the best of life and during his many years has accumulated considerable wealth, being one of the largest property owners in the town of Sackville. Two children, a boy and a girl, blessed his marriage, but both died young. He is survived by three sisters and two brothers. The sisters are Mrs. Louis Tingley, New Hampshire, Mrs. William Hicks, California, who is here to attend the funeral of her brother, and Mrs. William Fillmore of this town. The brothers are George of Boston and Mathew of this town.

Among his vast acquaintances there was not one who could say that the late Capt. Pringle was not a man of sterling qualities. He has gone from our midst and while we shall miss him, we are glad to know he is finished his work and has been called to his reward.

The funeral will be held from the residence of Mr. William Fillmore this afternoon at 2 O’clock. Rev. Dr. Bond will officiate.

Capt. William Pringle (born ca.1841 — died 20 August, 1915), Master Mariner Certificate No. 1247.

(Sackville Tribune, 23 August 1915)


Book launch November 25

Head of the Bay [cover]

The Trust is pleased to announce the launch of its 19th publication Head of the Bay a comprehensive history of the Maringouin Peninsula. Author Jeff Ward has been studying the history of the Rockport region for about ten years, ever since his old friend Rupert Delesdernier told him his great-grandfather was a stone cutter. Jeff had no inkling about this aspect of his family history so he set out to learn more. Since then he has devoted much time ferreting out details on the peninsula’s natural and social history.

That has resulted in a wonderfully written history of the region, well illustrated with photos and maps. Plan to attend the book launch at 8 PM, November 25, 2009 at Live Bait Theatre and learn more of this fascinating peninsula just south-west of Sackville.