Excerpt: Bygone Days – Folklore, Traditions & Fingernails, by Reginald “Dutch” Thompson
Johnny Reid was a PEI legend. At the age of twelve, Johnny bought a deep fryer, 200 pounds of potatoes, and installed a telephone in the shed in his parents’ backyard. His best customers telephoned in their orders for hot French fries from the numerous bootleggers in Charlottetown’s east end. A boy on a bicycle delivered the hot fries. Johnny eventually parlayed that enterprise into Johnny’s Fish and Chips restaurant next to the train station, which morphed into Davy Jones Locker and the Prince Edward Lounge, later renamed JR’s Bar, where he showcased PEI and Canadian talent such as Anne Murray, Gene MacLellan, John Allan Cameron, and his new pal, Stompin’ Tom Connors.
He was one of the best draws I ever had. The place would be packed. They were lined up for a block every night of the week. That was his first show on the Island, and that’s when he met his wife Lena, at my place. She was working for me. He said to me, ”Who’s that girl?” I said, “She works here and her name is Lena, and don’t you try and steal her.” So they became friends and started going out, and on his next trip, she said, “I want to give you my notice. I’m going away.” Tom said, “We’re getting married. I want you to stand for me?” I said, “Jeez, Tom, I can’t stand for you. I’ll be at the wedding, but you can get anybody to stand for you.” I knew it was going to be on TV. Tom said, “If you don’t stand for me, I’ll never set foot inside your place again.” “Well since you put it that way,” I said, “I’ve not got much choice, do I?”
So, I stood for him, and, Pauline, who worked for me, was matron of honour and my wife Judy was bridesmaid at the Four Seasons Hotel up there in Toronto on the TV. So, here it was, Mutt and Jeff, great big tall Stompin’ Tom and short fat Johnny Reid.
Elwood Glover’s Luncheon Date ran on CBC television in the 1960s and ’70s, and, in 1973, hosted Stompin’ Tom and Lena’s memorable wedding, with best man Johnny Reid. Tom’s and Johnny’s friendship began years earlier when they shared a cell in the 1911 Queens County jail, and both immediately recognized a fellow rebel and soulmate.
Ironically years later, Johnny bid and won the contract to feed the jail’s inmates. One of the prisoners wrote a letter to the paper criticizing the menu: he was tired of getting lobster three times a week. When I asked Johnny, he insisted it was steak, but his wife Judy confirmed the prisoner’s story. Either way it was a bizarre protest.
During the Second World War, Johnny worked in an aircraft factory in Amherst, NS. Back on PEI, the Royal Air Force (RAF) landed on PEI in 1940, and set up a training base where the present Charlottetown airport is. Islanders fell in love with these rather exotic airmen with their English and Scottish and Welsh accents.
Helen Cudmore’s family ran a large general store in Oyster Bed Bridge and Helen kept a diary of events both mundane and unusual.
In 1942, my sister Verna had a boyfriend named Ted Farrell from England, and he used to walk from the Charlottetown airport out here to Oyster Bed to visit her [twenty-one kilometres/thirteen miles]. Dad would drive him back as far down as the Milton Road, and he’d walk the rest of the way back to the airbase [thirteen kilometres/eight miles].
Would you see many RAF airmen out this way?
Quite a few, yes.
What brought them out here?
Girls. Nice-looking girls in this area. Here’s another entry: June 21st, 1955. Two neighbours married, Moses and Marjorie. And the groom passed away that same day. Died the same day he was married. They lived just up the hill here. Certainly, was a shock to everyone.
Helen, her mother, and her sisters all kept diaries. Thanks to Helen’s diary, I learned that in 1930 it cost $2 a day to stay in the hospital—the old Infirmary on Kensington Road—$5 for an operation, and a dollar a day for your hospital meals. The first two were deals, but $1 for hospital food? Better food at the 1911 jail.
On 25 July 1958, arguably the most influential American musician ever—not that he’d ever blow his own horn—jazz great Louis Armstrong played a show in Charlottetown. Twenty years earlier, he was paid $5,000 to appear opposite Ronald Regan in the movie Going Places singing the song “Jeepers Creepers” to a race horse with the same name. Even singing to a horse, Satchmo stole the show.
I can’t say for a fact, but I’d bet MacKenzie Dixon played the fiddle to his horses at one time or another. Mac was born in 1926 in South Melville where his family ran a flour and grist mill. Mac loved horses, and raised champion Clydesdales, but he bought an unusual used car to court what turned out to be the number one love in his life: his future wife Erma Ings.
The first car that I bought was a 1937 Terraplane. They were built by the Hudson Motor Company. The day we were married, a neighbour of ours was going to stand for me, my best man, and we were heading for the church in Millview—that’s where Erma came from—and down in Churchill Hollow, the front axle broke. We went right over the bank, and it was steep enough. Of course, we had no seatbelts in those days, and my head went down and I struck my nose and started bleeding all over my white shirt and tie. And believe it or not, the first car that came along was the RCMP, and I got in with them. That was a good start wasn’t it?
What happened to the car?
That was the end of that one. It served its purpose, it got me that far and that was it.
The Churchill and Strathgartney hills have claimed many cars over the decades. Model-Ts often had to back up the hill because of their gravity-fed carburetor. Johnny MacGillivray and his father before him had a blacksmith shop across from the church, and every spring, he and his team of horses would pull countless cars out of the mud. He said there was a bit of irony there.
One day, a car from Ontario coming off the Borden ferry ran into the back of Johnny’s car. The Ontario driver complained to the RCMP that Johnny hadn’t signalled a left turn, and this the Trans Canada Highway. Johnny protested, “Why would I signal? Everyone knows I live here.”
Mac Dixon’s mother was Edna Smith Dixon, one of the multitalented Smith sisters, who grew up playing music and helping her parents run the Pleasant View Hotel in Hampton. The Pleasant View was a rambling, three-storey hotel where Upper Canadians and New Englanders came by rail, steamboat, and finally horse and coach to spend the summer months, basking on the beaches, enjoying the salt air, cool nights, and three meals a day—plus snacks—of the celebrated Smith home cooking.
When Edna was two years old, she fell from a third-storey window and landed on her back in front of the horrified guests. Not a scratch. As well as doing the high-diving act for people who had paid their two bits, Edna was a great cook. After she married Johnny Dixon, who was by that time running the mills, she’d probably fed half the countryside. She sometimes cooked for fourteen different people a day: farmers waiting for Johnny to mill their wheat and oats. As Mac said:
We’d feed their horses, and them, too. That was all free gratis. When my grandfather John Dixon was running the mill, this day, Matthew Smith, who ran the Pleasant View Hotel, [came] with a grist of wheat to get ground. His little daughter was with him, just came for the trip to the mill, you see. And John Dixon’s son Johnny Dixon was there, and he was two or three [years] older than this little girl, Edna Smith, and he came in to the mill and he thought she was going to be bored, sitting there, so he asked if she’d like him to show her around the farm. So, this was great.
And after she went home to the Pleasant View, her mother asked her how was her trip to the mill. “Oh,” she said, “it was a great trip, and this nice little boy Johnny Dixon took me by the hand and showed me all around the farm, the sheep, the lambs, everything.” Fifteen or sixteen years later, they were married. And became my parents. So that’s got to be my favourite story, wouldn’t you think, Dutch?
Edna and Johnny played concerts at the Hampton Hall, piano and violin. Mac was also a fiddle player, and once I managed to get Mac and two other millers together. Turned out, all three were fiddle players, and spent three hours talking about old fiddle tunes instead of grinding wheat. So instead of Red Fife it was “Red Wing.”
From Dixon’s Mills to Saskatchewan, the land of wheat, via Albany, PEI, where Muriel Boulter MacKay was born in 1895. In 1918, after surviving the Halifax Explosion a year earlier, Muriel went west on the harvest excursion train to teach school in Saskatchewan. That’s where she met and married George MacKay, a farmer originally from PEI.
January 1918 in Saskatoon, Knox Presbyterian Church, and the Reverend Wylie Clark. I remember it all quite well. It was thirty below. There was no wind but the air was full of frost. He was from this area, right up opposite the school. I knew him for six years before I married him.
[He courted me with] horse and wagon. He had a lovely horse, a prize horse, it would beat any horse on the road.
Was that one of the reasons you were attracted to him?
Oh, I don’t know. I know my parents weren’t attracted to him because he was a farmer and Mother said, “Don’t marry a farmer. Marry somebody else, don’t marry a farmer. Too much work and too little money.”
It turned out to be a very successful marriage. When George was PEI’s Lieutenant-Governor, they hosted Queen Elizabeth at Fanningbank, and Prince Philip was very curious about Island farming methods and crops. And who better to ask…
I was at my grandmother’s and Heber’s father had bought a house in Alberton, and they were shingling and Heber came up to help his father. I was over looking up at the men shingling the roof someone said, “Which one of those Bryan boys do you like?” “Oh,” I said, “I think I’d like the little one.” So anyway, he must have heard me. He came down the ladder and when he was leaving, he came over to say hello. He said, “Could I come back and take you for a drive tonight?” Sure enough, he showed up. I was only sixteen then.
They courted and sparked for two years, and when Gladys turned eighteen, Heber popped the big question in a typically male roundabout way.
Guess where he proposed to me? Underneath an apple tree. We were visiting friends in Elmsdale, they invited us for supper, and while they were washing the dishes, we went out into the orchard, and were sitting under the apple trees, and Heber said, “Gladys,” he said, “would you like a job for the rest of your life?” I said, “What do you mean?” “Well, we could get married.”
What was your job going to be? Looking after him for the rest of your life?
Yeah. So anyway, I said yes, and so we were married about a month after. My gosh, what a time that was.
This is where Muriel MacKay’s mother’s advice about not marrying a farmer might make sense.
We never got a honeymoon. They were picking potatoes at the Bryan farm when we got married. They had the great big party there that night. Oh, we danced all night. Then in the morning, they had the potato pickers coming. I spent my first married day cooking for potato pickers, at eighteen years old. Now, just imagine, eh?
14 October 1936. And the future didn’t look much brighter for Gladys and Heber when they took possession of their own fifty-acre farm down the road.
Honest to heaven, a grasshopper would starve to death jumping across that farm.
The other side of marrying a farmer is, of course, the farmer’s extraordinary optimism. Every time they plant a seed, a farmer takes a chance, hoping for rain and sun—and very few grasshoppers—to harvest a crop four or five months down the road. Gladys was as optimistic as Heber, a perfect match. For years, to make ends meet, they took turns delivering the mail, first by horse and wagon, then in an old Model-A car Gladys hand-painted. They contributed to the school and their church, and became valued neighbours. Over the years, the Bryans added hundreds of acres to the original fifty and built their farm up into a hugely successful operation. That and their good name is their legacy.
Bygone Days Folklore, Traditions & Fingernails
Reginald “Dutch” Thompson