A WORK WAGON OF YESTERDAY (January 13/09)

“Crushed by a sloven,” read an October 29, 1930, report in The Advertiser on the death of a Kings County farmer while he was working in his fields.

I found the brief report on the farmer’s accidental demise in a scrapbook at the Kings County Museum, and I must admit mention of a “sloven” puzzled me. What is, or what was a sloven? I vaguely recalled that it was a farm vehicle, perhaps a wagon of some kind, but I wasn’t sure. The reference to the sloven intrigued me, and I decided track it down. In doing so, I discovered an arcane wagon, now long gone, that in name at least was not only unique to Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, but could have been perfected here as well.

First of all, the sloven is a peculiar type of wagon with a peculiar name. That much I was able to find out easily. Besides noting that a sloven is a habitually untidy person, the Canadian edition of the Oxford Dictionary says that in the Maritimes and Newfoundland, it is a “long low wagon especially drawn by horses.” The distinguishing feature of the sloven was the low slung loading platform, dropped well below the center of the four wheels, making it possible for one man to load or unload heavy barrels, casks and trunks with ease.

At one time, at least about 100 years ago, the sloven was the work wagon of farmyards and industry. I found old time photographs of the wagon in several community histories – one in the Kingsport history and several in the Port Williams history, for example. There’s an excellent photograph of the sloven on the cover of Nimbus Publishing’s book, Historic Annapolis Valley. Historical articles on early Halifax and other Maritime seaports tell us the sloven was the wagon used to transport goods of all kinds, and was widely used in rural areas as well.

Through an internet search I discovered that in 1975, the New Brunswick Museum published a booklet of some 35 pages, Over the Cobblestones (Notes on the History of the Sloven) by L. K. Ingersoll. Reading the booklet, which I obtained from a book dealer, I found that while Ingersoll ran into a lot of dead ends researching, he (or she) concluded that the sloven most likely was named in Saint John, New Brunswick. Ingersoll also found oral traditions suggesting the sloven originated in Saint John, and was in common use there and in Nova Scotia, but notes that the design of the wagon likely evolved over a long period of time.

Ingersoll also concludes that the sloven appeared in eastern Canada in the middle of the 19th century, was in use for over 100 years before disappearing, and played a major role in transportation and trucking on the farm and in the city. The reference to a sloven in The Advertiser’s 1930 accident report tells us it was a familiar vehicle on farms here in Kings County.

Ingersoll was unable to determine why the wagon was called a sloven, but suggests that it may have been named after Saint John celebrity, one Thomas Sloven, 1835-1900.

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