The White Fence, issue #73

MAY 2016


Dear friends,

The Tantramar Marshes: the namesake of a vast wetland first transformed centuries ago by the hand of man into arable agricultural land. I first visited the “high marsh” of Sackville back in 1972 on a field trip with Dr. Hinrich Harries of the Biology Department, Mount Allison University, as part of a course on Land-Use Ecology. I was astounded to learn that this great hayfield was once a broad marshland flooded daily by Fundy’s tidal rivers, such as the Tantramar and the Missaguash.

A very specialized tool was used by those early dyke-builders who originated from the Poitou region and the great seaport of LaRochelle, France, where such agricultural lands were prominently developed; that knowledge was then brought to our own lands, flooded by the great Fundy tides, and applied with remarkable success.

Join Colin MacKinnon and me to visit with three generations of modern-day blacksmiths/dyke-builders and learn about the tool they specially created to make that great endeavor possible: the dyke spade. Meet Joseph Saulnier (the original spelling), Bliss and Arthur Sonier and other family members from Memramcook who toiled at making those dykes that protected the landscape on the border of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia from the ocean tides. This summer, take a drive through the High Marsh Road and look for low, winding ridges in the fields, along the river edges, and see some of those original early dykes.

Dr. Harries always told a captivating story about those early days and their social, economic (especially for Sackville) and ecological significance. Colin met with some of the descendants of Joseph Saulnier who made and used these special spades. As the spring sun shines on those broad dyked fields along the Tantramar River, find a comfortable spot and read their story… and make some new friends, who helped shape this land.

Peter Hicklin

Remnants of an old hand-built dyke bordering the New Brunswick side of the Missaguash River. Colin MacKinnon photo

Joseph Saulnier, Bliss Sonier and Arthur Sonier* – Three generations of Dyking Spade makers from Memramcook

by Colin M. MacKinnon

*Please note that I have used the spelling of names as presented in the census and provincial vital statistics and, as expected, there are some inconsistencies. Although the surname originated as Saulnier, the alternate spelling of Sonier appears to have been used by later generations of this family.

Dyking spade made by Arthur Sonier (1916-1988) of Memramcook (overall length 38 1/8″). Author’s collection

Dyking spades were very specialized tools used to ditch and drain the marshes as well as in the construction of dykes and aboiteaus to keep out the tides. The fine silt deposits that comprise the Tantramar marshes, over ten meters deep in places, come from suspended sediments eroded from the sandstone bedrock that dominates the Upper Bay of Fundy. Thus, the resulting “marsh mud” is remarkably free of stones. Because of this uniform clay-like substrate, dyking spades with their thin blades are actually very specialized longhandled knives designed to cut both sod and mud into movable-sized chunks. The bricks of sod were often described locally as “permangs” (English slang for the original French word permangues) while blocks of clay, cut in squares, were called a “spit” of mud, blocks approximately the size of a “butter pat” or a square of butter. A spade was not loaded full of soil as when using a shovel but it carried a smaller amount of marsh mud on the blade such that it could easily be manipulated.

During a visit with Reg Acton a number of years ago, he demonstrated the use of his C.A.D.S. spade (described below) and could consistently flip a square of mud to the same spot maybe 20 or 30 feet away. He said that when moving mud, it helped to have just a little water as it allowed the “butter pat” to slip off of the blade. As he repeated the process, I noted that the final thrust of the spade was followed by a sudden twist, or snap, of the wrist that released the grip of the mud and sent it on its way. He emphasized the importance of having a light spade with a sharp blade made out of good steel.

In support of Reg’s advice, I was told a story of an older gentleman from Memramcook who was a member of a dyke-building crew. He treated his personal spade with great respect and each working day carried in his pocket a bottle of “three-and-one” oil, a piece of cloth and a small file. On every tea break, he would clean the dirt from the blade, re-sharpen the edge and then re-oil the metal. He obviously learned from many years of experience that such a tool, well maintained, reduced the fatigue of a long day bent over a spade.

In earlier newsletters of the Tantramar Heritage Trust, I reported on two blacksmithing families from Sackville who made dyking spades. The earliest was Charles Albert Desbrisay Siddall (1848-1921) and his son Thompson Avard Siddall (1883-1961) (White Fence no. 23). These men were followed by Leonard Estabrooks (1884-1968) and his son Lionel Estabrooks (1906-1989) (White Fence no. 32) whose shop still stands, overlooking Silver Lake, in Middle Sackville. But there was a third family that eluded me for some time as their wares were not marked with initials as the others but instead with a stamp of the ampersand symbol (&) placed into the top corner of the blade (Figure 1).

Figure 1. The ampersand mark (&), only 7/16″ high, was used by dyking spade makers Bliss and Arthur Sonier to identify their work. Author’s collection.

Any good blacksmith could make a dyking spade and many did. However, only those who specialized in the construction of these tools went to the effort of identifying their wares. Of the many dyking spades I have examined, only about half carry an identifying mark that can be traced to a maker. Frequently encountered initials stamped into the back of the metal blade of spades found in the New Brunswick-Nova Scotia border region and who they represent are as follows: C.A.D.S. (Charles A. D. Siddall), T.A.S. (Thompson A. Siddall), LE (Leonard Estabrooks) and LE [stamped upside down] (Lionel Estabrooks).

To complete this trilogy of spademaking families, one must mention the three generations of Saulnier/Sonier blacksmiths from Memramcook; it was this family that used the ampersand mark. The story starts with Joseph P. Saulnier, the son of Placide Saulnier who was born in June, 1852. In the 1891 New Brunswick census, Joseph is identified as a farmer, age 40, with his wife Obeline LeBlanc (37) and children Lillie (8), Placide (7), Bliss (6), Zellie (4), Christom (2) and baby Dorothy, all living at College Bridge in the Memramcook Valley. By 1901 and now at the age of 49, he no longer lists farming as his primary occupation but is employed as a blacksmith earning $313/year. In the household are Obeline (now 46) and children Placide (17), Blys (Bliss?) (15) Zelica (Zellie?) (14), Dorthey (Dorothy?) (10), Mada (8), and Edward (5) (they may have lost two children, Lillie and Christom, in the preceding decade). Also new to the household is Joseph’s mother-in-law Damtel LeBlanc (age 71) and a domestic, Mr. Amand LeBlanc (39) whose annual wage was $125. Was Armand assisting in the blacksmith shop or with the farm (or both)? It is noteworthy that Blys (Bliss) Sonier, at the age of 15, is already working as a blacksmith and had earned $112 in the previous year. I do not know if the father  and son team were making dyking spades at this time but it would be highly likely that they did.

Bliss Saulnier [Sonier] (1885-1945), the second generation blacksmith and now twenty six years old was married on the 20th February, 1911, to thirty two-year old Euphemie Richard (7 November 1875 – 29 April 1943) in the presence of witnesses Antony Belliveau and Cleophas LeBlanc. She was the daughter of Thomas Richard and Emelie LeBlanc of Memramcook. When Bliss married, he had been a blacksmith for ten years and it seems that he continued in this trade for the remainder of his life. According to his family, he made a number of dyking spades and was thought to be the first to use the ampersand mark to identify his work. At 11:00 pm on 16 July, 1928, blacksmith Joseph Saulnier the elder died due to complications following an appendectomy three weeks previously. His wife on the death certificate is Mary (Melanson) Sonier so he must have re-married after the passing of his first wife. In his will, Joseph left his homestead and land to his son Bliss.

The last will and testament of Joseph Saulnier reads as follows:

“This is the last will and testament of me Joseph Saulnier of College Bridge in the Parish of Dorchester in the County of Westmorland and Province of New Brunswick. I hereby revoking all former wills at any time heretofore made. I direct all my just debts funeral and testamentary expences to be paid and satisfied by exedutor, hereinafter named as soon as conveniently may be after my decease. I give and bequeath unto my son Bliss Saulnier of College Bridge aforesaid all my real and personal property, consisting of upland being my homestead and also two pieces of marsh land. The Upland contains about sixty acres more or less and it being the same that I now reside bounded on the south by Alfred LeBlanc and others, north by Dominique Landry, easterly by the back Settlement road, The marsh land is situate in the Old Marsh so called and estimated to contain five acres more or less, and in two dales, one of two acres and the other estimated at three acres being all my real estate wheresoever situate and howsoever bounded of which I shall be possessed or over which I shall have any power of appointment or disposition at the time of my decease for his own and absolute use and benefit forever” (Will #129593, prepared on 8 June, 1924, Province of New Brunswick).

It is interesting that in the 1911 census, Placide Saulnier, Bliss’s older brother, was also working as a blacksmith with their father Joseph. Also residing in the same house was Bliss and his new wife Euphémie who was employed as a teacher. In the previous year, Bliss Sonier worked full time as a blacksmith, averaging 60 hours per week, with an annual income of $700. On the 4th February, 1918, Placide Saulnier married Philomene Belliveau, age 36, of Memramcook. She was the daughter of Edouard Belliveau and Flanie Boudreau. On the wedding license, Placide’s occupation is “Engine Driver”; so it appears that blacksmithing was maybe not for him and he pursued another career.

Figure 2. Photograph of dyking spade maker Arthur Sonier (1916-1988) on display in the foyer of the Memramcook Institute. Attribution details: National Archives of Canada, Memramcook Institute Collection and Marc Bosse Collection 1982. Courtesy Claude Sonier, son of Arthur Sonier.

The story continues with Bliss’s son and third generation blacksmith, Arthur Sonier (1916-1988) (Figure 2). Arthur was married on 30 November, 1940, to Eveline Landry (1908-2001). He was a well-known and well respected blacksmith situated not far from College Bridge, just across the Memramcook River from the village of St. Joseph. His blacksmith shop still stands and the building has been nicely maintained as a private garage (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Arthur Sonier’s blacksmith shop at College Bridge in Memramcook.

Arthur’s son Claude Sonier (1943- 2015), a retired teacher and school principal, told me how, as a young boy in the mid-1950s, he helped his father in the shop. Claude operated the bellows that forced air into the forge to increase the temperature of the fire. He said, “It was very hard work” and while reflecting on the experience, added, “I did not become a blacksmith”. Claude described how his father would heat a flat sheet of steel that had been cut according to a spade template (often unique to the maker). Then, by way of a custom made press, he would insert the hot steel into the machine and, by pulling a lever, would shape the blade and, likewise, with a separate smaller piece of metal, shape the face plate (sometimes referred to as the “shield” or “shoe”). When these two pieces of metal were joined together to form the completed blade, held by the usual seven metal rivets, the resulting eye and socket were ready to accept the handle. The press, Claude described to me, sounded very similar to the type used by Sackville’s Charles Siddall and Leonard Estabrooks (Figure 4). Claude went on to tell me that his father ordered the rectangular sheets of steel (about 1/16″ thick) pre-cut to dyking spade length (from 10″ to 11″ for Sonier blades), directly from Chicago and that the heavy packages came by regular post.

Figure 4. Dyking spade press designed around 1904 by Charles A.D. Siddall (1848-1921) of Sackville and donated to Fort Beausejour/For Cumberland by his granddaughters Margaret and Helen Siddall. Thompson A. Siddall was an iron moulder (possibly at the Enterprise Foundry) when he was married in 1907 and may have formed the mould and poured the molten metal to make this device for his father.

Arthur Sonier was a keen follower of horse-racing and he was even more famous for his horse shoes. Horse owners, from as far afield as Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia, often frequented Arthur’s blacksmith shop to seek his advice, have their horses shod and purchase spare shoes. With this other work to keep him busy, an activity he clearly enjoyed, his spade production was probably limited. His son told me that his father would fill an annual order of 20 spades from Dunlap’s Hardware in Amherst while others were sold through the Sackville Harness Shop. As Claude recalled, in the late 1950s, Dunlap’s paid his father around $5.00 per spade. Allowing for a 100% mark up on Sonier spades by Dunlap’s Hardware, this corresponds with Ernie Partridge’s recollections that he purchased twelve spades directly from Leonard Estabrooks for $11.00 each in 1953. Ernie worked for the Maritime Marshland Rehabilitation Administration (MMRA, established in 1948) and supervised a dykebuilding crew. As a comparison, I have an interesting and rare receipt for a “Dyke Spade” purchased from Dunlap Brothers & Co. in Amherst by Capt. J. B. Downey of Minudie in 1904 for the sum of $1.50 (Figure 5).

Figure 5. Rare receipt for a “Dyke Spade” purchased from Dunlap Brother & Co. in Amherst by Capt. J.B. Downey of Minudie in 1904 for the sum of $1.50. Author’s collection

It is also worth noting that Arthur did not make the wooden handles; this job was sub-contracted to an older gentleman, a Mr. Melanson who lived on the Old Shediac Road. Mr. Melanson made the spade from a wood he called “uphra” (spelling based on pronunciation). Claude did not know what this was and I have not been able to find a translation. We assumed it referred to a colloquial name for White Ash, Yellow Birch or Sugar Maple. The “T” handles on Sonier spades have a close resemblance to the style used by the Siddall blacksmiths but are different from those made by Leonard and Lionel Estabrooks. An exception (unique to Sonier) is that the wooden pin that retains the T handle is quite small, only 1/8″ in diameter. It does not appear particularly robust as compared to the 5/16″ thick plug found on an Estabrooks spade. The typical dimensions of a Sonier hand grip is 4½” long, 1″ wide and 1¼” high at the centre, dropping to 1″ high at each end (Figure 6).

Figure 6. Note the similarity of style, as well as the small size of the retaining pin, in “T” handles from two Sonier spades. The painted example (inset) is stamped with the number 58 suggesting it may have been at one time on the inventory of the Marshland Rehabilitation Administration. Author’s collection and inset, James West collection

It is interesting to note that there was a detached handle that had been stored in Claude Sonier’s garage for 35 years and came from his father’s shop. It strongly resembled the type used by Leonard Estabrooks and could have possibly been salvaged from a damaged blade that had been brought into the shop (Figure 7).

Figure 7. Claude Sonier (1943-2015), son of dyking spade maker Arthur Sonier (1916-1988), holding an “Estabrooks”-style spade handle that came out of his father’s blacksmith shop (2011 photo).

As a representative example, the complete Sonier specimen featured here has the following dimensions: overall length 381/8″, blade length 10″ long (other examples have 10½” and 10¾” blades), width at bottom 4½”, curved blade width at top 4½” (shortest distance, ear to ear), curved width of steel at top 5″, eye socket width ~1¾”, eye depth 1½”, spade shaft with an oval cross-section 1″ x 1¼”. It is hard to draw many conclusions from a small sample size but of the three Sonier spades in my collection, there are noted similarities and differences. All three are stamped with the ampersand mark but two have the stamp on the top right ear of the blade and the other on the top left (Figure 8). The overall shape of this later example is also different than the other two although the so called “shield” or “shoe”, which is held on by rivets, is essentially the same in all three. It is plausible that the location of the maker’s mark might differentiate father and son. After closely examining nearly one hundred spades, only about 6% carried the ampersand stamp.

Figure 8. Examples of three spades made by Bliss and Arthur Sonier. Note that the sides of blade B are not symmetrical and there are differences in the overall lengths of the three blades, likely due to extensive re-sharpening and wear. Spade A has the ampersand mark on the left “ear” while spades B and C show it on the right. Author’s collection

Hopefully, with the dissemination of this information and the recognition that spades marked with the ampersand mark are the work of the Saulnier/Sonier blacksmiths, more examples will come to light or at least be saved from destruction as being deemed worn out and useless. I can think of few other examples of material culture that better represents the history of the Tantramar region (and the centuries of human toil expended to tame the marshes) save the lowly dyking spade. Every piece, regardless of how rusty with age or seemingly damaged beyond repair, tells a story and should be preserved.

To my knowledge, the business ledgers for the Siddall, Estabrooks or Sonier operations have not survived. If any readers have knowledge of these records, items of marsh history, written material or even old and broken spades, I would be interested in seeing them.

Acknowledgements: I would like to thank Claude Sonier for talking to me in 2011 about his family. It is only recently, while working on this file, that I found out that Claude passed away in 2015. I must also acknowledge the late Laurie Leblanc (1944-2013), a good friend and fellow antique collector, who provided me with the link needed to connect the “&” mark with the Sonier family. I also very much appreciate the numerous discussions on dyking spades and marsh history with Ken Campbell of Westcock, Ernie Partridge of Dorchester, and the late Reginald “Reg” Acton (1916-2008) of Midgic.

MacKinnon, C. M. 2004. Charles A. D. Siddall (“C.A.D.S.”) – Dyking Spade Maker. The White Fence no. 24, Newsletter of the Tantramar Heritage Trust, Sackville, NB, January 2004.

MacKinnon, C. M. 2006. Leonard and Lionel Estabrooks; Sackville’s Dyking Spade Makers. The White Fence no. 32, Newsletter of the Tantramar Heritage Trust, Sackville, NB, May, 2006.

Building an aboiteau on Good Creek, upper Tantramar, circa 1920.


Wednesday, May 25, 2016, 7 pm

All are welcome to attend the Trust’s Annual General Meeting in the Great Room of the Anderson Octagonal House, 29 Queens Rd., Sackville, NB. There will be a short business meeting, the presentation of our sixth annual Volunteer of the Year Awards, and a talk by Brenda Orr, Director of Resurgo Place, who will be describing the transformation and rebranding process undertaken by the Moncton Museum in the last few years. All are welcome. Light refreshments will be served.

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Atlas of Acadian Settlement in the NB-NS Border Area: Tantramar HeritageTrust Launches 30th Publication

The Tantramar Heritage Trust launched a new publication: Atlas of Acadian Settlement of the Beaubassin 1660-1755, Mesagoueche and LaButte on Saturday April 30, 2 pm at the Nova Scotia Visitor Information Centre at Fort Lawrence, NS.

The 403-page book by Moncton researcher and author Paul Surette is well illustrated with full colour maps and photos, and chronicles the establishment of early Acadian settlements at the Head of the Bay of Fundy. This is the third in a series of Acadian settlement atlases researched and written by Paul Surette. The book covers the area between the ridges of Aulac and Amherst along the Missaguash (Mesagoueche) and La Planche Rivers. Surette was able to map out where families settled in specific areas by combining detailed genealogical data along with extensive census information. The author also describes how this local settlement story fits in to broader historical events of the 17th and 18th centuries. The book launch was well attended by 35 people and author Paul Surette gave a presentation on the book and was available to answer specific questions. This atlas will be of great interest to folks interested in Acadian history and especially to Acadian families with the surnames: Bourgeois, Cyr, Gaudet, Caissie/Cassie, Arsenot/Arsenault, Poirier, Chiasson/Chaisson, Richard, LaPierre, Mouton, Buhot and others.

In 2005 the Tantramar Heritage Trust published Paul Surette’s Atlas of Acadian Settlement Tintamarre (Sackville) to Le Lac (Aulac). The Trust is again pleased to be associated with this work which greatly enhances our knowledge of Acadian settlement history in the NS-NB Border area. The book is currently available at the Boultenhouse Heritge Centre, 29B Queens Rd., Sackville as well as at Tidewater Books in Sackville and Cover to Cover Books in Riverview. By early June, 2016 it will also be available at the Campbell Carriage Factory Museum, Sackville Craft Gallery, and the Cape Jourimain Nature Centre.

Lower Tantramar River and old RCI site. Colin MacKinnon photo