In the book Sods, Soil, and Spades, marine biologist J. Sherman Bleakney writes that it is doubtful few if any of the dyking tools the Acadians used in the 18th century can be found intact today. Bleakney had in mind the spade the Acadians used to build dykes, a tool with a centuries-old history.
However, given its long history, Bleakney said he could easily imagine dyking spades becoming worthy of study. He referred to the spade as “a collectible item of historical significance.”
Bleakney offers just enough history on the Acadian spade to intrigue potential researchers. Take the spade’s origin, for example: While perfected as a dyke building tool by the Acadians, its forerunner was found in the coastal areas of France long before French settlers brought it here in the 1600s. In the book A Great and Noble Scheme, John Mack Faragher notes that “the Acadian spade… bears a strong resemblance to the French saltmakers’ fraye, used for maintaining the earthen wall surrounding salt pans.”
The traditional dyking spade was a cutting tool and is used quite differently than our everyday gardening tool of the same name. The spade was the main dyking tool used by the Acadians and herein lies its mystique. Picture a hoe-like tool with a sharp metal cutting blade that for centuries was used along our shoreline to wrest thousands of acres of land from the sea. This what the Acadians accomplished in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick with dyking spades and this is what makes the tool of great interest to historians and to collectors.
I may be misinterpreting the doubt Bleakney and other authors express about 18th century dyking spades not surviving until today. Bleakney writes that given the abrasive marsh soil where dykes were built, it is “highly unlikely that any original 18th century Acadian or Planter spades have survived.” In the same vein, in A History of Nova Scotia in 50 Objects, Joan Dawson writes that “the original Acadian dyking spades have mostly been broken or have long since rotted away.”
This may be true. However, I was recently shown a dyking spade that possibly was used by the Acadians in the 18th century. This spade is one of hundreds of antique tools collected by Kevin Wood of Port Williams. Wood has been collecting tools and other artefacts for nearly 50 years and among them are a variety of old dyking spades.
The spade Wood let me examine is one of 12 he has in his collection. “This is the only dyking spade of the 12 that is most likely 18th century,” Wood says. “It was found in the Tantramar marsh and is blacksmith made out of heavier gauge metal that the other 11 I collected.” Wood added that the early spades were very similar to those used in France. “The spade was perfect for cutting sodbricks (and) it stayed relatively the same for hundreds of years.”
Wood has remnants of other dyking spades (Acadian and Planter) that as Dawson says, mostly have been broken or rotted away; but of the 12 mentioned, all are intact and despite their age are in good condition and could be used today.
Besides the spades, Wood has other Acadian as well as Mi’kmaq and Planter artefacts in his collection. Much of Wood’s collection, which numbers in thousands of items, consists of tools used in various trades and crafts that were common in past centuries. However, the dyking spades are his most treasured collectibles.