I’ve mentioned local historian Ernest Eaton on numerous occasions, most recently in a February column on a 900-year-old pine log found on the Canard dykes. Mr. Eaton was involved in research on the pine and the result was a plaque at the Old Kings Courthouse Museum.
After that column appeared, and perhaps spurred by it, a telephone call came from Veronica Connelly, Windsor. Ms. Connelly told me about a talk Eaton gave in 1984 on the Acadians and their dykes at the West Hants Historical Society. The talk had been taped Ms. Connelly said, offering to forward a copy.
Hearing Mr. Eaton’s gravely voice on that tape brought back memories of times I visited his home and listened to stories about his favorite topic, the Canard dykes. “One of these times I’ll put together a book based on my research” Eaton used to say when we talked about the dykes. As far as I know he never did. His work lies in scattered papers and on recordings such as the tape I received from Veronica Connelly.
“The older I get, the more I appreciate the diligence, the energy and the high degree of esoteric skill that the (Acadians) exercised in building these dykes.” Eaton began his talk with this observation, noting that around the headwaters of the Bay of Fundy the Acadians had reclaimed approximately 100,000 acres of land from the sea, in the process creating hundreds of miles of running dyke. “It was a very great achievement,” he said.
Most of the dykework of the Acadians in this area was completed in a relatively short period of 90 years, Eaton noted. He described the dyke building expertise of the Acadians, an accomplishment he called amazing given the lack of machinery and modern materials, contrasting this with the feeble attempts at dyke building by English settlers in the 19th century. Then there were the engineers sent here by Ottawa when the government first got involved with dyke repairs some years ago. Eaton said they looked at the remains of the old dykes that were still in use and exclaimed, “You can’t build dykes like that; it can’t be done.”
The accomplishments of the Acadians were put in perspective when Eaton dwelt on the land they reclaimed: “It’s the only (area of) fertile soil in Nova Scotia of any size,” Eaton said. “I think there’s no place on the North American continent where such a poor piece of natural soil has been so productive as the Annapolis Valley. People talk about the fertile Valley but they don’t look at the soil as it was in its original state (before they Acadians began to dyke it).” Eaton added that as far as he was aware, “there are only two large marsh bodies in use that were not built by the Acadians.”
The Acadians began their dyke work in this area in 1673, Eaton said. “In other words, 35 to 40 years after the first settlers (arrived) at Annapolis, three families moved up the Minas Basin, families by the name of Landry, Theriault and LeBlanc. From that date on to the expulsion practically all the dykeland we see around here was reclaimed.”
That the Acadians could transform so much of the seabed into productive land in so short a time was a miracle, Eaton said. “Try to imagine what an accomplishment it was, what the Acadians did in approximately 90 years, in bringing many thousands of acres of dykeland into use.”
It’s an accomplishment we tend to take for granted today.