By Ed Staskus
There are more than six thousand kilometers of two-lane roads from one end of Prince Edward Island to the other end. There are some fast roads but most of them are step-by-step. Tractors cows dogs slow the going down. About two thousand of the kilometers are unpaved and even slower, even if it was a sports car or a Jap motorcycle trying to get up to speed. The ruts and chuckholes would make short work of them. All the unpaved roads are red clay dirt. Most of the paved roads are reddish to the naked eye, too.
When the roads were built island stone and beach sand was mixed into the concrete. The land is layered over sandstone bedrock. Sandstone is dug up by backhoes simple as ABC. Wet weather transforms unpaved tracks into what some call baby poop. The sandstone is leavened with iron oxide, or rust, giving the landscape its red color beneath blue skies overlooking green fields. The natives who lived on the island before European colonization called their land Epekwitk. They thought Glooscap, who was their god, after he finished making the rest of the world, with a final flourish mixed all his colors and made their island.
“When I was a kid most of the roads around here were dirt,” Conor Murphy told JT Markunas. “Sometimes after a bad winter storm you couldn’t go anywhere for a day-or-two.” He took a bite of his fish sandwich. They had picked them up at Carr’s Shellfish Market and were sitting on the front deck of the Sterling Women’s Institute, what everybody called ‘The Hall.’ The market was down the hill on the Stanley River.
“I see kids jumping off that bridge down there all the time,” JT said.
“That’s been going on for a long time,” Conor said. “Generations, if you want the truth. Parents show their kids how to jump the same way they were shown.”
“Don’t they worry about their kids getting hurt?”
“Those that worry, their kids are never on that bridge. Those that don’t worry don’t have anything to worry about.”
“Maybe they say a prayer and leave it at that,” JT said.
Stanley Bridge was settled in the mid-eighteenth century. It took a hundred years for the first church to be built. It was a Presbyterian congregation. It lasted twenty-five years before a new one needed to be built for the ever-expanding flock. It got back to saving souls in 1895, became the United Church in 1925, burned down four years later, and was replaced by a near likeness the next year.
When the Presbyterians moved out of their building, they kept the deed in their pockets, and rented the upstairs to the local Masonic Lodge, who later bought the land and building in 1920. When they did, they rented the lower part of it to the Sterling Women’s Institute. When the Masons ran out of steam, they sold the building to the Institute in 1978.
“What do the women do?” JT asked.
“I don’t rightly know,” Conor said. “Probably something to do with good works.” He took a pull on his bottle of lukewarm Red Rock Lager. He had brought one for JT and one for himself.
“This isn’t half-bad,” JT said. “I don’t think I’ve seen it around.”
“That’s because it’s not around. I have two or three cases of it, which is probably the last of it. My brother Danny runs a seafood pit stop down on the waterfront and he gave them to me after the brewer went out of business.”
“They brewed it here on the island?”
“Yeah, right in Charlottetown,” Conor said. “The Island Brewing Company got started a few years ago, the first brewery to operate on PEI since around the turn of the century. There used to be dozens way back then. They hired an English brew master who had worked for Bass. Old Abby, his first draft, was a big hit. They couldn’t keep the kegs filled. They invested in a bottling system two years ago and launched Red Rock Lager. It didn’t go too well, don’t know why, and a year later they were out of business They sold all their equipment to an outfit in Ontario and that was that.”
“That’s too bad.”
“You know we had Prohibition here from the turn of the century until 1948.”
“Total ban on alcohol.”
“There must have been some serious bootlegging going on.”
“We had some smuggling, you could say.”
“Heavy drinkers hereabouts?”
“Some, sure, but the other half of it was the money. I remember a guy by the name of Roy Clow from Murry Harbor, my dad knew him, who couldn’t make a living selling his crops and his fish, so he put his mind to running booze. There was real money in that.”
Real money meant enough money to feed clothe house your family.
“We’d sell our turnips in the fall. The Newfoundland schooners would come in and we’d get 15 cents for a two-bushel bag of turnips,” said Roy Clow. “Potatoes was 10 cents a bushel, some years less.” He got two and a half cents a pound for his lobsters.
“There is an older man right here in Stanley Bridge, Tommy Gallant, whose family did more than their fair share of bootlegging,” Conor said.
“My father Henry drank heavy,” Tommy said. “He done all the things and more in them days that he thought was going to make money. He bootlegged some serious.” There were 11 children in the family. Money was tight. Their salt cod sold for one cent a pound. A gallon of rum sold for four dollars.
“As we started to grow up, we thought we should sample it. And we did. We could steal it from our father easy because he had it everywhere. Those were the days when the runners were off Cavendish all the time.”
Henry Gallant hid his 120-pound 10-gallon kegs in nearby woods or in the ocean. His children knew all his hiding spots.
“On his way home with a load of rum, he would run a long line and he’d put all this steel on it and tie the kegs on it. And, of course, it’d all go to the bottom. And then he had a landmark and at night he’d take a dory out and he’d pull up one end and he’d take a keg ashore.”
When the kegs were empty, he used them to salt mackerel.
“Us young fellas were schooled by our father. We had a big tree in the woods, probably 80 feet in height. My father used to tell us kids ‘If the RCMP is here before I get home, one of you boys go up that tree and wave a flag three times, when I’m coming up the bay, so I can see that plain, and I’ll know they’re there and I’ll sink the rum in the bay.’”
“That’s a lot of trouble to go to for a drink,” JR said. “I’ll bet everybody except for the bootleggers were happy when Prohibition was repealed.”
“They were, the way I hear it, but it didn’t get all that easier to have a drink in peace. As soon as the ban was over a Temperance Act was made law. If you were an islander, you had to get a permit to buy liquor. Even then you could buy only so much of it. If you were a tourist, you had to get a special temporary permit. Maybe you didn’t if you were staying at Dalvay-by-the-Sea.”
“Why is that?”
“Back in the 30s and 40s it was owned by Captain Eddie Dicks, the number one rumrunner on the island. They might still have some of his Irish whiskey left over. They might still be serving it.”
The first roads on Prince Edward Island were built in the late 1760s. At the turn of the 20th century cars were banned on most roads most of the time, especially on market days. It didn’t have anything to do with drunk driving. A Red Flag law was passed ordering there be a man at the front of every car with a red flag, ready to wave it just in case a horse or wagon or human was in the way. Everybody who had a car got sick of the flags soon enough. Twenty years later the law was thrown out, the red flags were put away, and cars went anywhere they wanted, so long as there was a byway that they could handle without breaking an axle.
“I grew up on a mixed farm,” Conor said. “It wasn’t anything elaborate, basically turnips, which is a rutabaga, and we grew grain, barley, and wheat. My father was the farmer.”
Conor Murphy’s father Danny farmed 100 acres, although they had 400 acres. “They rented most of their land out, the same as I do now. They had seven fields on our 100 acres, but I’m going to shave it back to three fields. I don’t want potatoes growing on my land.”
“Too many pesticides.”
By the early 1900s most of Prince Edward Island’s wall-to-wall forest had been cleared and ninety percent of the land was being farmed. There were more than 15,000 farms, almost all of them less than one hundred acres. The land was sub-divided by dikes, walls built of rocks dug up from the fields.
“All around those dikes was full of berries,” Conor said. “Our mom used to send us back in the fields with buckets. We’d come back with them full of wild raspberries and blueberries.”
After World War Two technology and machinery led to bigger farms and one-crop planting. On the eve of 1990 there were just 2,500 working farms on PEI and more than half of them were growing potatoes. It had gotten so it was called Spud Island.
“Fields were smaller thirty years ago,” Conor said. “Maybe it should have stayed that way. Now the dikes are being ripped out and sprays kill all the wild berries. It’s a shame to see it.”
Danny Murphy and his wife Dottie were the only Murphy’s who ever farmed.
“My great-great-grandfather was from Ireland,” said Kelly Doyle. “It was on his sailing to the New World that he landed hereabouts and stayed. He did something so that the Queen, or somebody, granted him land, and two shore lots. We’ve still got his British Army handgun from back then.”
“Does it work?”
“I don’t know. I’ve never shot it. My dad kept it cleaned oiled wrapped up and locked up. There are some bullets for it, but God knows if the powder is still any good.”
By 1850 a quarter of the people on Prince Edward Island were Irish. The last wave of immigrants were the Monaghan settlers. They came from County Monaghan. They paid their own way and made their own way once on the island, rather than tenant farming. The freeholders farmed and controlled livestock. By then the island was exporting surplus foodstuff to neighboring provinces and Great Britain. The Murphy’s, however, raised horses and propagated thoroughbreds. Later the family got into the fashion trade and bred black silver foxes for their pelts.
The secret of breeding foxes was solved in the late 19th century on Prince Edward Island. Twenty years later single pelts sold for as much as $2000.00, at a time when farm laborers were lucky to make a dollar a day. In 1913 the provincial government estimated foxes were worth twice as much as “all of the cattle, horses, sheep, swine, and poultry” on the island. But, after the Second World War the business was wiped out. It fell out of fashion. Many farmers lost their shirts. They stayed warm wrapped in fox furs. Fox tails started popping up on car aerials.
“When they went out of style my dad let all our foxes loose and he became a farmer.”
Conor went to the Stella Maris School, across the street from the Church of Stella Maris on Church Hill Rd. The school was built in 1940 and burned to the ground in 1954. “We stood looking utterly helpless in our misery,” a nun at the nearby convent wrote in her diary. The village re-built their school the next year. “It is the most modern fourteen room school in the province,” the island’s Guardian newspaper noted in its feature article.
“I went grades one through nine. Almost everybody my age quit in grade nine. It was the 60s. There was no need of education around here. Fathers would tell their kids, you’re not going to do anything in school, get to work in the boat or the fields. We all said we’ve got better things to do and banged out of there.”
But he wasn’t ready for work, roaming Lower Canada instead, and moving to Montreal. He sowed a bushel full of wild oats, later joining the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. After he left the force, he ran restaurants.
“When I was growing up and even now, she was lean here. There was no money around for years.” All through the 1980s the gross domestic product of Prince Edward Island was still the lowest in Canada, just a nudge more than 50% of the national average. Next to Newfoundland, the province had the lowest per capita income in the country.
“Back then all the fishermen around here had a gasoline engine in an old wooden boat. Everything was done manually, except for hydraulics to haul gear off the bottom. The steering was even done by chains. Now everything is going fiberglass, and everything is going diesel.”
Fish men going door-to-door selling cod was a way of life until the 1980s, when a ban on the taking of ground fish was put in place. Fish stocks had been over-exploited up and down Atlantic Canada for a century and were severely depleted. “Everybody was baiting all the hooks they had and they was trawling for halibut, haddock, and cod. They took all they could get. Then the moratorium came in. After that all they were allowed was lobster.”
“Every harbor I stop at, what I see are lobster traps,” JT said.
“You got lobsters you got traps,” Conor said. “They’re as simple as mousetraps, which this island has plenty of, too, mice, I mean, but you can’t eat them.”
Like mousetraps, they almost always get the job done. Invented just more than one hundred years ago, they had changed little since. Even though entrances to the traps are one-way, any lobster that tries to escape can get away, if it has a mind to. They hardly ever get away, though.
“My thought is there are two ways lobsters get caught,” Conor said. “One way is what I call simple simplemindedness.” Lobster brains are about the size of the tip of a fountain pen. “They won’t usually back out the same way they’ve come in. They crawl up the net, there’s a flap on it, and once they’re in that they can’t go back. The other way they get caught is they just stay in the trap all day eating bait, and when they’re jerked out of the water they get tossed into the back, by the sheer momentum of getting pulled up with the hauler.”
Lobsters spend most of their time racking their brains about where their next meal is coming from, crawling on their walking legs to get to the table, and finally eating all the crabs, mollusks, fish, and even other lobsters they can get.
Conor’s brothers all fished at one time or another. “We weren’t farmers, not exactly, but we weren’t fishermen, either, although I think it was naturally in our blood, since every one of us is at ease on the water.”
Flynn Murphy fished for several years before marrying and moving to Ontario to start a family. After he zipped up, he brought his new family back to Prince Edward Island. He was one of the few men who came back to work and live on PEI. Most men left to work and live somewhere else. He opened Andy’s Eatery across from Lorne’s Snack Shop.
“Danny had rubber boots and oil gear and he went out, too, but then he got into TV’s.” He was one of the first satellite television providers on PEI. When he left the boob tube behind, he transitioned from catching lobsters to serving them at the Blue Mussel, his new seasonal seafood restaurant, at the far end of the North Rustico harbor.
“In the 1960s my parents ran a small restaurant in Cavendish,” Conor said. “It was 7 cents for pop, 30 cents for a hamburger, and 17 cents for fries back then. That was the kind of money you made in 1964. There were five kids in our family. Some of those French Acadian families had a dozen births. It was no different for anyone. Maybe we were all in our separate boats, but we were all in the same pond.”
Hugo Murphy spent some years as a hand on local boats, and after that got to working on his own boat.
“He’s an able man behind the wheel.” Conor said. “He fishes with Paul Doucette, his partner, out of the North Rustico harbor. Their boat is the Flying Wave.” It was a nearly new, high-bowed fiberglass craft built in nearby Kensington.
“Paul, that’s my buddy, that’s my partner in crime,” Hugo said “He’s roundish, built like a buoy, strong as can be, even though he drinks a bit too much beer. He lives right here in the crick.”
North Rustico had long been known as the crick. “There is a creek that runs right through the village,” Conor said. “Some people from Charlottetown didn’t know what a creek was, or misunderstood, being from the city, and ended up calling us the crick, so we ended up being nicknamed that.”
“I’ve heard it can be rough work,” JT said.
“You can get black and bruised on a boat for sure,” Conor said. “When it’s rough, you do everything slower, no matter how strong you are. You need to be more careful with your gear, your traps, and the rope under your feet when the ocean is up. You have got to watch your P’s and Q’s.”
“You’re right in the National Park,” JT said. “How did that happen, that the land stayed in your hands?”
Murphy’s Cove and the family’s land were in the National Park but weren’t part of the National Park. The park was established in 1937 and encompassed more than 5,000 acres of coastal headlands, sand dunes, and beaches. The Murphy’s didn’t sell their land when the park was being formed on the central north shore of Prince Edward Island.
“We didn’t sell an acre,” Conor said. “But they have the patience to wait everybody out. That’s the beauty of the National Park. You don’t want to sell right now? That’s fine. Your son will want to sell, and if he doesn’t want to, his son will. If it takes two hundred years, we will get you out of this park.”
“So, you’re staying?”
“Yeah, I think so, so long as no more bodies get dug up.”
“It’s a hell of a thing,” JT said. “There was a man murdered in Charlottetown last year, but the homicide rate here on Prince Edward Island, next to the Yukon’s, which is zero, is the lowest in Canada.”
The young man who was strangled and stabbed to death in the bedroom of his home on a quiet street in Charlottetown less than a year earlier was Byron Carr. “I will kill again,” was scrawled on the wall. The killer was never found. He hadn’t killed again, not that anyone knew.
“When I got back, I seen there’ve been a lot of changes around the island, but it’s nice to come home and say it hasn’t changed much right here,” Conor said. “That’s another beauty of the National Park. It stays pretty much the same. Only the rabbits and trees get bigger, and the roads get better. When I was kid there wasn’t much of a road. When the National Park got around to it their new road cut our farm in half, but none of us complained. Before that it was a hillside. When it rained in the early spring or late fall, and especially when it rained all day, it turned into a red clay slippery slope. Sometimes no road will get you where you want to go, but a good road under your feet is the way to go in the right direction.”
Conor and JT finished their sandwiches and warm beer.
“Do you think you’ll get whoever done it?” Conor asked about what was on both their minds.
“If he’s still on the island we’ll find him sooner or later,” JT said. “Unless they’re contract killers. Most killers don’t know where they are going, which means every road gets them nowhere.”
Excerpted from “Bloodlines” at http://www.redroadpei.com.
Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Ohio Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”