REAPING FROLICS, HOOKING BEES – LIFE IN 1899 (June 6/06)

“Farming was done with comparatively primitive tools,” Nellie McMahon observed about life on the farm some 100 years ago. “There were no mowing machines, reapers (or) horse rakes. Most of the work was very laborious.”

These quotes are taken from an essay, most likely a school project, that Nellie McMahon wrote in a crisp, wonderfully legible hand in 1899. McMahon’s essay – a history of Aylesford and district – was recently donated to the Kings County Museum by her niece. Thanks to the Museum’s curator, Bria Stokesbury, I’ve been given the opportunity to read the essay, a homey, fascinating glimpse of what it was like to live in the Annapolis Valley late in the 19th century.

Look at social activities, for example, in those “before days,” – before radio, before the automobile, before television:

“Although the houses were widely scattered, there was considerable intercourse between the people. They combined work with pleasure and had reaping frolics, chopping frolics, etc., for the men; and hooking bees, sewing bees, etc. for women.”

The writer tells us here is that when there was winter wood to bring in, and crops to harvest, men would move from neighbour to neighbour and collectively cut and harvest; meanwhile, women would meet socially, holding “bees,” or gatherings for communal work such as quilting and sewing.

Husking bees, McMahon tells us, were participated in by “young and old of both sexes. This community gathering, apparently to husk corn for immediate consumption or winter storage, was usually held in a barn, McMahon says, and “the evening ended with a good dance.”

There is a puzzling reference in her description of the frolics and bees. Immediately after mentioning the dance that followed the husking, McMahon writes that “the apple parings were also very enjoyable to all.”

Besides church activities, the frolics and bees may have been the extent of the entertainment in McMahon’s day and for the men perhaps, the only relief from tedious, never ending farm work. Life wasn’t easy for farm women then either, as McMahon reveals. “In those times the housewife’s tasks were far from easy. At night there was all the milk to pour out in the pans, to be skimmed in the morning. Every family made its own cheese and butter. The mothers and daughters, instead of doing fancywork, reading novels or playing the piano, filled in the spare time by working at the heavy loom spinning or knitting. All of the clothing was of home manufacture.”

In her essay McMahon offers glimpses of two Valley personalities, one notorious, the other legendary. The latter is the famed Valley strongman, John Orpin, of whose feats of strength much has been written. Orpin must have been a neighbour of McMahon’s parents since she wrote that “I myself had the pleasure, when a child, of being entertained in this man’s house. McMahon mentions a feat of physical endurance by Orpin that I haven’t read in contemporary accounts of his life.

That notorious character is one Peter Barnes, who along the Bay of Fundy in 1793 lured a ship into treacherous shore rocks during a storm. The crew, five in all, died of exposure when the vessel was wrecked on the shore. Barnes looted the vessel. His murderous act only came to light after his death when his widow revealed what he had done.

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