OLD GRIST MILL, OLD LEDGERS (September 24/99)

Built by lumbering king S. P. Benjamin prior to 1887, the grist mill served the people of the Gaspereau Valley for well over half a century. In 1887 the George Hunter family purchased the mill from Benjamin (or perhaps from the firm of Benjamin-Lockhart) operating it until 1933 when it was shut down. The mill still stands near the Gaspereau River on property owned by George McBay, a nephew of George Hunter.

While the original millstones have been removed, the mill itself is in excellent condition despite its age. Maintained by the McBay family over the years, the building is now used for storage and is weathertight. There has been some talk of converting the mill into a museum, a possibility George McBay looked into a few years ago.

Mr. McBay tells me that a history of the old grist mill exists in the family records. I hope to have a look at this history in the near future and with the permission of Mr. McBay, possibly devote a column to it.

In the meanwhile, thanks to Roscoe Potter of Wolfville, I recently had the pleasure of looking through several old ledgers connected with the Gaspereau Valley. The ledgers came from a general store in Gaspereau that opened for business under Edward Davidson at least 100 years ago. During its lifetime the store changed hands several times and burned down and was rebuilt at least twice. No longer standing, the store was located in the village near the Gaspereau River bridge.

The old ledgers from the store are dry and straightforward, but there are tales to be gleaned from the hand-written pages. In those simple business entries we catch glimpses of life in the Gaspereau Valley from roughly 100 years ago up to the period between the first and second world wars. We see at a glance that early on a barter system existed, that exchanges of goods for services was common and on occasion little money changed hands.

In 1895, for example, we find an entry concerning George Miner (a well-known Gaspereau-White Rock area surname). Miner purchased 250 pounds of hay and made a partial payment with services valued at $2.00, paying the balance of the account in cash. Similar entries are found throughout the ledgers and it appears that often the goods supplied by the general store were paid for by manual labour – wood cutting, haying, thrashing and so on.

Two recurring entries I found interesting were references to apples and the cost of manual labour. For a day’s work in 1896, for example, Robert Martin was paid one dollar. Was this a generous wage for the times? I suppose it would depend on how many hours were in a work day in 1896. We can speculate that the dollar went a lot farther in 1896, buying five bushels of potatoes, for example. On the other hand, the ledger indicates that the cost of flour was $5.50 a barrel, so Robert Martin had to work more than five days to purchase one.

Now to the apple varieties.

The old ledgers mention apples long gone or rare, and apple varieties that can still be found in Annapolis Valley orchards. There is the Nonpareil, said to have been started by one of the first Planters, Col. John Burbidge and the Golden Russet, also introduced by Burbidge. Mentioned are Spys, Baldwins, Kings, Spitz, Ben Davis, Gravensteins and Bishop Pippins, which appeared to be the most common varieties grown a century ago. There are apple varieties I never heard of before – Newton Pippins, Fallawaters and the Loyalist. Oddly, the price of apples varied; some varieties such as Gravensteins fetched higher prices per barrel than coarser apples such as the Bishop Pippin.

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