This letter, written by Donna Langille, appeared in RuralLife.ca on January 29, 2021
Growing (up) on Big Tancook Island
Upon reading the article about Chris Sanford and the Tancook Island cabbage, “Propagating cabbage, preserving heritage,” in the December issue (page 20), I took a journey back in time. After supper on cool, early-spring evenings, Dad – Percy Langille, born and raised on Big Tancook Island – would go behind the house where he selected a couple hundred tiny cabbage transplants. The family followed him down the land to the prepared cabbage bed. Dad went ahead and hand-hoed holes in the still-cold soil, mentally placing each one an equal distance apart, allowing ample room for growth. We youngsters delicately dropped one plant at each hole, while Mom – Evelyn – centred each one in its hole and packed the soil around it. This nightly event continued until thousands of tiny soldiers stood with their leafy arms pointed towards the sky.
Tended to all late spring and summer, fall brought harvest time where beautiful, matured cabbages were cut into highly sought-after Tancook sauerkraut. Of course, some were saved intact for winter use. One particular cabbage, I remember, weighed 22 pounds. Mom and Dad cut in tons of cabbage, packed the kraut in different-sized plastic pails, and sold it to loyal customers on the mainland. To them, it was not only lots of hard work but a sense of accomplishment and a way of sharing their knowledge and heritage of the island.
Before most of the cabbages were harvested, Dad scanned the field and, with the skill passed down from forefathers, selected a few, potentially perfect seed producers. Stored in the cold room all winter, planted in the rich island soil in spring, new life in the form of pods erupted filled with precious, tiny black seeds. Samples of such were highly requested after Mom and Dad were featured on an episode of Land and Sea. Packages of the black jewels were mailed all over the mainland to folks who wanted a part of the best cabbages ever grown.
Even though our land was decorated with huge, leafy green beauties, my parents also planted everything from asparagus to zucchini – savoured during the summer, stored in some manner for winter use, and generously shared with family and friends.
My father is no longer with us, but just the other day, Mom, now 93, and I were talking about all their hard work years ago. She so quietly said, “I wish I was doing it all over again.”
Francine Fortin-Levy has written three books of historical interest that are now available for sale in PDF format. The proceeds from the sale of these books will be donated to the Tancook United Baptist Church on Big Tancook Island.
To send the funds please contact email@example.com and the instructions to make an e-transfer will be provided. When the money is received you will be sent an email with the PDF file.
The books are as follows:
B A C K G R O U N D
About the author: Francine Fortin-Levy
(a. k. a. Fran Levy as I am known in Nova Scotia)
Being a researcher in Montreal, to be whole and contented, I needed to be discovering, learning, and sharing. I faced reality and the conclusion was: you can change your life but you can’t transform the person you are. My aim was always researching authentic accounts.
Stories come in different ways; some are created and told for entertainment, others are memories repeated from one generation to the next, and then, there are these truthful stories that are based on facts, documentations and reliable sources. As a researcher my interest is finding and following the paper trail. Having access to censuses, to deeds, reading the recorded wills and inventories at probate, locating historical maps, checking border-crossing forms, visiting the area where the narrative generated from, and foremost, touching, leafing through the hand written registers, journals, and diaries are important to me. When I have the opportunity of seeing resources of the past, my craving for learning, for understanding are at their peak. The investigating, the hunt for the accurate records gives me an intense satisfaction, mostly when the end results produces a book, describing life of bygone days. I am always extremely grateful to all the people that shared their valued documents and treasures.
T H E B O O K S
The Tancook Baptist Church, 150th Anniversary, 1855 – 2005
In 2005, when the Church history was published, Nova Scotia had been my new home for 10 years. This book was written first and primarily as a celebration for the congregation that served, guided, and helped the population of the Tancooks, Ironbound and Blandford. What a thrill to handle the original deeds of the property passed down throughout the years in the care of the trustees for safekeeping. Turning page after page of the church registers, and reading the clerk’s minutes regarding the resolutions, administration, election of officers, observations concerning the pastors, the construction & renovation; mainly, all the activities of the congregation’s life. The early years of the church’s formation, as per the records, were the most revealing: names were noted, the cost of salaries or expenditures were in evidence, decision were subject to be included in the minute books. The first 100 years gave a clear picture of the functioning of the assembly. Later on, with the involvement of more committees, it became structured and formal, and the officers are more reserve, discrete and private with what is written in the transcripts. The families that started, shaped, contributed and supported the church are in evidence through out the book; it is also a testimony of their faith in the institution. These families are: Baker, Cross, Fleet, Heisler, Hutt, Langille, Levy, Mason, Rodenhiser, Slaunwhite, Stevens, Wilson, Young.
The Tancook Baptist Church book could not have been written without the help of many contributors that shared their family pictures, scrapbooks, pictures, and mementos. Also, the Church officers are to be commended for their vigilance in keeping records, deeds, bills, notes, etc. The proceeds of this book did help to keep our pastor, Miss René Clark, and our church open another year.
Cephas Pearl, my Diary : Assistant Lighthouse Keeper in Nova Scotia Sailing to Europe, the Suez Canal and India 1882-1884
Usually a church keeps company to a cemetery. This is where I came across the tombstone of Cephas Pearl.
CEPHAS son of CAROLINE & ALBERT PEARL died at LONDON, ENG.
SEPT. 5, 1884
AGED 21 YRS
Who was Cephas Pearl? I knew that Albert Pearl was the first light keeper at Pearl Island/Green Island. What brought his son to London, England and how did he die??? Cephas who was born on Tancook, was the oldest of 10 kids. He went to the light with his father in April 1874, stayed for almost 9 years before he decided to leave and see the world.
Researching at the NS Archives can be tedious sometimes, mostly when you’re looking at microfilm. One day, taking a break from such a tiresome endeavour, snooping in the many card indexes, I suddenly stumbled on the name Cephas Pearl. I know that name, who is that man??? I could not remember.
I filled in the request slip, got handed an 1883-1884 original manuscript and a pair of white gloves, silently I read, then my question was answered. The time was too short; I could not examine fast enough. I was exited and pleased. How can I get a copy??? That was a bit of a problem, but it was resolved, and 12 days later, the mail delivered the first 9 pages.
Cephas’ last words were:
“So ends my first trip away from home, when I go off again it shall be called a voyage.” (Page 11) He had me hooked, where was Cephas going? I wanted more.
The following week I went back to the NS Public Archives and spent the day reading Cephas’ early life on Big Tancook, his working time on Green/Pearl Island. He was on board fishing schooners, cattle boats, freight and passenger steamers. During his voyages, the atlas guided me while following him along his travels, the Western Banks, the New England United States, from there to Liverpool, England, then on to Spain, Portugal, the Strait of Gibraltar, Italy, the Mediterranean, the Suez Canal, the coast of Africa. I was amused by his sense of humour, laughed at his trickery and Casanova style. In one word, I was fascinated. What a sad tragic death. I will always cherish my boy Cephas; my only regret is not having seen him. (No picture available).
I am very appreciative to the Provincial Archives of Nova Scotia for granting me the permission of transcribing and editing Cephas Pearl’s story and giving authorization for its publication in 2009.
My Life on Tancook : Bentie Belle Heisler’s Diary
The diary was well received by the islanders; it also went beyond expectations on the mainland. Surprisingly, many sailors contacted me with words of thanks because it reminded them of their early years sailing.
My dear friend, Mrs. Evelyn (Slaunwhite) Hutt (90 years +) shared with me some of her family papers namely one of her aunt Miss Bentie Belle Heisler written during 1914-1915.
Bentie Belle, as others on the island is no spendthrift, so she makes use of the last half of a school scribbler to document her thoughts. Miss Heisler was 18 and 19 years old when she was writing her diary, allowing us an inside look at every day life on the island. The goings on, the travelling to the main land, the men at work with their fishing, everyone’s concerted efforts with chores of the land, and the social activities with family and friends. Her factual notes demonstrate life as it was before, and at the start of the First World War.
Having permission to transcribe the handwritten scribbler, I realized that the majority of the Tancook families were mentioned in it. My husband, Graham’s great grandparents were noted; and many other names I was acquainted with through my research were present. Other Tancookers also wanted a copy, because their own ancestors were part of it. This is how Bentie Belle Heisler’s diary came to be.
My thoughts are that Bentie knew that she had limited time and decided to record the daily happenings so she could look back on them when her deteriorating health would not allow her to be part of them.
Oral history is second hand information recounted by the elders. However, with Bentie’s diary, we have the privilege of reading of an era during the existence of our grandparents, or of some of the people whose residences we now occupy.
During years earlier than 1935 some government subsidized vessels were contracted to make a weekly scheduled stop at Tancook Island as part of specified routes serving areas of Mahone Bay to Halifax. However, prior to 1935 there was no daily public transportation to and from the mainland which was dedicated solely to the needs of the residents of Big Tancook, Little Tancook and Ironbound islands. To meet their daily needs islanders reached the mainland and returned home by way of their privately owned boats. This mode of transportation proved adequate for the months of the year good weather prevailed but once the boats were beached and stored for the long winter months, transportation to and from the islands in private boats all but ceased.
The residents of Tancook Island along with Chester merchants worked together to gain the support of the various branches of government, including municipal, provincial and federal levels to establish a ferry service for the peoples of the islands in the winter months. Big Tancook Island was designated as its home port. The absolute necessity for a ferry was underlined and reinforced when in the early winter months of 1935 two residents f Big Tancook Island lost their lives because there was no vessel to either transport them to the mainland for medical care or to bring a doctor to the island to attend to their needs. The two deaths shocked the community and the politicians of the day.
In 1933 Wesley H. Stevens (1871-1967) of Tancook Island was commissioned by Willis D. Crooks (1900-1985), also of Tancook Island, to build a 48.6 foot Tancook Schooner. Once completed, the vessel was christened the Gerald L. C. in honor of Willis’s son, Gerald LeRoy Crooks. Willis outfitted his boat as a sword fishing vessel. Sword fishing was a seasonal industry so this allowed the vessel to be available for other duties during the winter months of December, January, February and March of each year. These were the months a ferry was sought to serve the people of the islands.
William G. Ernst, Member of Parliament, and for whom the present day Tancook ferry is named, was instrumental in working with Captain Crooks to ensure that the Gerald L. C. was modified to meet regulations necessary to serve as the ferry. Captain Crooks was willing to make the changes to the Gerald L. C. needed to meet the standards required by the government for the vessel to be used to carry passengers to and from the islands and Chester during the winter months. One of the two masts of the Gerald L. C. was removed for the ferry season and replaced for the sword fishing season, a “house” was constructed for the ferry season and removed for the sword fishing season, three dories were on the vessel to serve as “life boats” and an ice shield was adhered to the hull for protection through the waters when ice formed in the bay. A second engine was installed to ensure ample power in all kinds of weather.
When the changes were made to the Gerald L. C. to comply with government regulations, the first contract was signed for the vessel to become the first ferry serving Big Tancook, Little Tancook and Ironbound islands during the months of December, January, February and March for the winters of 1935 through 1939 with a crew of three. The contract spells out the particulars of the agreement. As Captain Crooks did not have his official captain’s papers, he was unable to serve as the ferry’s official captain. He was designated as the Manager of the ferry and served as its Engineer. Ralph Hirtle, also a native of Tancook, was the crew member and an off island person with his official Captain Papers was hired by Willis to serve as the Captain.
It is of interest to note that this ferry service was a privately owned service that was subsidized by the government and operated under contract between Willis Crooks, of Tancook Island, N. S. and “ the Honourable Minister of Trade and Commerce of the Dominion of Canada.”
Always a seaman up to this point in his life, and having served on many vessels in many capacities on many voyages over the Atlantic since his teenage years, Willis kept meticulous records of each ferry crossing, recording weather, number of passengers, freight carried, who paid their fares and who didn’t, costs, repairs, stops at Little Tancook, Ironbound and the wharf at Southeast Cove, arrivals and departure times at the home wharf at Northwest Cove and Chester. Special trips were also recorded as to the reason for the trip, individuals involved, who was brought on or off the islands, and the identity of the Doctor, if one was on board. One of the logs, the first signed contract and the flag from the Gerald L. C. can be viewed at the Wishing Stones Gallery and Museum, if you are interested in viewing a sample.
Ferry records for the month of Jan, 1936 show there were a total of 324 passengers transported between the islands and Chester, 12.3 tons of freight carried to and from and 2 livestock, one in and one out. There was recorded a monthly total of 26 regular round trips and 2 special round trips for medical reasons. Round trips often included trips to the Southeast Cove wharf, Little Tancook and Ironbound.
On December 31, 1935, the end of the first month in operation, the ferry log reads: “Begin with fresh northwest winds. Clear sky. Leaves Northwest Cove 8:00 A.M. Calls Southeast Cove and Little Tancook. 10 return passengers, 3 up, 2 down, 1 Ironbound, 2 Little Tancook return. 1 stove down – 300 pounds. 1 bag feed down. 1 gramophone and records down. Leaves Chester at 2:00 P. M. Calls at Northwest Cove, Little Tancook, Southeast Cove, Ironbound. Arrives back at Northwest Cove at 3:00 P.M. Fresh northwest winds. Clear sky. Cold.”
The log entry for January 14, 1936 is an interesting read. “Begin with strong northwest winds. Light snow. Leaves Northwest Cove at 8:00 A.M. Arrives at Chester via Little Tancook and Southeast Cove at 10:00 A.M. 5 return passengers. 5 up. 2 down. Leaves Chester at 2:00 P.M. Heavy northwest gales. Comes to Quaker and turns back. 4:45 P.M. Leaves Chester and arrives at Northwest Cove 5:20 P.M. 1 bag down, 3 barrels apples, groceries. Day ends with heavy northwest gales.”
An unusual day occurred on February 6, 1936. “Begins with strong southwest winds, clear and cold. 8:30 A.M. leaves Northwest Cove for funeral service at Ironbound. Arrives Ironbound via Blandford. 9:30 A.M. Lands party. And proceeds back of Ironbound. Leaves Ironbound at 12:15 for Southeast Cove with approximately 40 passengers. Heavy northwest winds, clear and cold. Arrives Southeast Cove at 1:30 P.M. with boat in tow carrying casket. Leaves Southeast Cove 5:20 P.M. Arrives Northwest Cove via Blandford 6:50 P.M. Strong northwest winds, clear and cold. Day ends the same.”
The Gerald L. C. served for 6 winters as the ferry of Tancook Island. During the winters of 1935-36, 1936-37, 1937-38, 1938-39, 1939-40 and 1940-41 she served as the ferry for the entire months of December. January, February and March.
The Gerald L. C. ferry records are intact except for the last winter the Gerald L. C. was in service. The contract has survived but the logs and other documents for the 1940-41 ferry season were inadvertently destroyed during a spring housekeeping frenzy at Willis’s Halifax home.
The last of the island sauerkraut has been packed off for this year so it seemed a fitting time to post some photos from the family of one of Tancook’s past kraut makers, Percy Langille. We thank Percy’s grandson, Robyn Langille, for sharing these photos with us.
Construction of a small day use park has begun on the right of way of the former Southeast Cove ferry wharf. The park construction committee is gathering stories, history and photos of the wharf, buildings and roadways. If you have anything in your family archives that would help us tell this story, we’d love to hear from you.
The attached photo was provided by Diane Crooks. “Wharf at Southeast Cove”