How Miss Mowat Has Revived Some of the Quaint Old English Folk Plays and Dances, on Her Own Farm at St. Andrews, N. B.
NORMAN S. RANKINOctober151924
BRINGING PLAYTIME TO THE FARM
Women and their Work
How Miss Mowat Has Revived Some of the Quaint Old English Folk Plays and Dances, on Her Own Farm at St. Andrews, N. B.
NORMAN S. RANKIN
“In Summer time when flowers do spring And birds sit on each tree, Let mournful hearts say what they will There’s none so merry as we.”
"SWING your partners! Ladies to the right, gentlemen to the left! Down the centre! Grand chain! Break away!” called the prompter, amidst the singing of the performers, the scraping of the fiddles and the applause of the audience as the second Annual Farmers’ Pageant of St. Andrews, New Brunswick, got into stride. Under the direction of Miss Helen G. Mowat and the auspices of the Charlotte County Cottage Craft, the farmers —boys and girls and grown-ups—from within a radius of thirty miles distance, had come together to render old English farm life, scenes, songs and dances.
Staged on a broad wooden platform at Miss Mowat’s Beech Hill Farm in a most picturesque and artistic setting, beneath tall, spreading elms, feathery tamaracks, cedar hedges and evergreen firs, on a hayfield pasture, sloping gradually down to the waters of beautiful Passamaquoddy Bay, sparkling and simmering in the bright August sunshine, the background was charming in the extreme.
To the right lay the old Mowat homestead—Beech Hill—black with a hundred years of time—housing ancient heirlooms beyond price—old Windsor chairs with scooped seats and carved backs, Chippendale sofas and tables with twisted legs, daguerrotypes, time-worn clocks and pictures and bookstands; to the left, the rolling green of Van Horne Island and the Sound—azure waters stretching to a distant line of fading, grey hills; in front, Navy Island, the fishing fleet and the drifting smoke of busy steamers; and behind, on benches, chairs, piles of freshly mown hay, tossed in abundance on the sloping bank, the audience, two or three hundred men and women, the townfolk, summer visitors and guests from the Algonquin Hotel, in white flannels and summer negliges.
A gentle breeze from the South fanned the gathering and wafted sweet scents of cedar, freshly cut hay and wild flowers. Chickens picked their way unrestricted about the stage; a white calf, tethered to a post, browsed contentedly nearby while a brown mare, attached to a hay wagon, looked with wondering eyes on the unaccustomed scene.
“With joyous sound we gather round,
Our hearts are full of glee,
Oh! how we trip it, caper and trip it
Under the greenwood tree.”
sang the players—girls dressed in white with blue, pink or orange caps and aprons, men in blue overalls, red bandanas and broad-brimmed straw hats.
I had been privileged to attend that morning, the only rehearsal of the program of dances, songs and tableaux which was then being rendered. Strange as it may seem, the rehearsal was really unnecessary, for these people, from the surrounding farms, were only carrying out, for the benefit of the spectators, and the fame of that portion of the old province of New Brunswick, their natural entertainments, those to which they had been accustomed from their infancy, which were, indeed, a part of their every day life. The zest with which they performed indicated, most clearly, that they were enjoying it every bit as much their audience.
“Life of a Farm.” announced the prompter, bowing to the benches and in a twinkling the scene changed to the interior of a farm house, the mother in the centre, busily whirring the spinning wheel:
“Fly, fly, my shuttle, fly, the shades of night are creeping,
And with thy gliding, shifting, thread Our hands must weave the children’s
So low, so high, while they lie sleeping.
fly. fly, fly-”
In the corner, the baby lay sleeping in a low, mahogany cradle—in which babies for a hundred years past had slept and dreamed—the old man, round of shoulder, white of whisker and dull of sight, smoked his clay pipe as he sharpened the wood saw, with a file; the daughter churned, dreaming of the sweetheart who surely would come one day, while the son mended the nets—for they are farmerfishermen, these New Brunswickers, fishermen-farmers all.
Again the scene changed. “Pedlar Jim” in an old blue smock with dusty face and pack on shoulder, shambled his weary feet up on the platform, droning softly:
“A dusty road is mine to tread From grey of dawn to sunset red,
And slow my pace, because, alack,
I’ve all my wealth upon my back.”
And the chorus replied:
“With needles, cottons, silks and laces, All to make the lassies trim,
The folk in all the country places Gladly welcome Pedlar Jim.”
Then onto the stage, becomingly dressed in blue silk with white embroidered lace cap—an heirloom from Miss Mowat’s mother—blushingly appeared the parson’s dainty daughter, Jean. As she stepped to the front, Young Richard, mounted on a sturdy farm horse, rode up and dismounting, shyly approached, singing:
“I fancy you know me, Mistress Jean, I’m honest Dick of Taunton Green; I’m young and strong, though I be poor,
And surely we’re never in love afore; My mother she bid me come to woo, For I can fancy none but you.”
Sang Mistress Jean (looking him over slyly):
“Suppose I were to be your bride,
Pray, how would you ever for me provide, You know I neither sew nor spin;
Pray,what will your day’s work bring in?”
Answered Honest Dick (sucking a straw):
“Why, I can plow and I can sow,
And oftimes I to market go With old Gaffer Johnson’s stray or hay,
And earn my ninepence every day.”
But in spite of ardent wooing and pleading looks, the maid was so shy_ that Richard, in a huff, mounted faithful “Dobbin” and rode away.
The prompter again, with a wide flourish of his hat and courtly bow, announced “step dancing,” and two young farmers, to a lively tune of the fiddlers, merrily stepped a country jig. Then came a children’s dance—a gavotte and a polka—a May Pole dance; a harvest scene, cutting, raking, stacking and threshing grain with the old-time whip flails; the loading of the hay rick and its departure for the farm with a jolly party of haymakers scrambling on top.
“In the old days,” said the prompter, “buckwheat was grown on every farm and there were many old maids; to-day, none is cultivated and there are no old maids. In those days the houses had no chimneys, only a hole in the roof to let the smoke through. In order to get a husband, girls had to know how to toss pancakes and toss them well. The test was to toss them out through the chimney hole and then run around through the door and catch them on the pan before they touched the ground. That was the test of a marriageable girl.
“Then chimneys came into style and the test was only to make good pancakes. Of course every girl could do that. So you see, folks, there’s no necessity for us to grow any more buckwheat in Charlottle County—and there aren’t any more old maids.”
Then followed the dances—“The Tempest,” the “Drunken Sailors,” “Land and Sea,” “Come Lasses and Lads,” etc., after which “Evening Song” was announced.
“It ain’t evening yet,” said the prompter, “but we hev t’git it over; afterwards, there’ll be tea on the lawn for all you folks.”
To Miss Helen Mowat must be given the credit for the “Farmers’ Annual Pageant,” as well as the organization of the Charlotte County Cottage Craft. For ten years she has been preaching and practising the beautification of the farm home, the value and charm of the artistic in every day life. Farmer’s daughter and farmer as she is, having passed all her life in Charlotte County, she naturally possessed a wide acquaintance amongst the inhabitants and came to wield a strong influence amongst them. As a United Empire Loyalist, her great grandfather settled in New Brunswick; in 1810, her father purchased Beech Hill Farm, building a colonial farm-house of simple beauty and comfort—great wide halls and stairways; large rooms with deep chimney-places and cupboards, broad French windows and low-beamed ceilings. As said before, the furniture goes with the setting of the house— particularly a mahogany deep-backed chair which originally belonged to the Governor of Massachusetts; tintypes of her mother and her aunts in dark carven frames; a wooden-rockered baby crib in which her grandmother slept; a grandfather’s clock which did not “stop short never to go again when the old man died.”
In making her rounds, Miss Mowat, in addition to advocating the introduction of the artistic and the beautiful, strongly urged a revival of old English farm craft —the weaving of rugs and carpets; the making of embroidery; crochetting of handbags of odd design and color—and went further, for, having discovered a workable clay deposit, she took up the study of ceramics, bringing an expert from England for the purpose. She insisted that all plate and cup, saucer and rug decoration should be representative of New Brunswick life, and on her rounds of instruction to the farmers’ homes, made this rule the basis of all the output of the Charlotte County Cottage Craft.
At each centre she taught those willing to learn and as she moved on left in charge the one most fitted to guide and advise. Then she opened the store in St. Andrew’s and there all finished work is sent and displayed for sale. To-day most beautiful and artistic cups and saucers, multi-colored vases, quaint bowls, jugs and other dishes are manufactured, baked in the yard of this town store, and sold to visitors. That their fame has already spread through the province and beyond it, is evidenced in her turn-over last year, which exceeded $20,000.
As the work progressed and succeeded and the farm people found returns coming to them, they redoubled their efforts to the extent that now many of them, after close study and practice, work out their own designs both in the coloring of the chinaware and in rug and handbag manufacture. They have developed exceedingly original and attractive models.
A town class of over thirty was inaugurated last winter and the work goes on apace. It has created a new source of income for the farmers during the slack winter months, has improved the comfort and attractiveness of their homes and otherwise lent an impetus to the tillers of the soil who, between the fishing and farming seasons, have leisure to devote to such enterprise. The New Brunswick farmers, as a rule, at least in Charlotte County, are not so ambitious to become rich as they are to create comfortable homelike homes and they have, therefore, warmly welcomed the introduction of the farm crafts from both a material and a mental standpoint.
When I put the question, “Are you happy here in your work and in your' friends?” Miss Mowat replied:
“I would not live anywhere else; this is my home; these are my people—the finest, most honest and kind in the world. I am, first, an enthusiastic New Brunswicker; then, a staunch and loyal Canadian and finally, an ardent imperialist. I do not like to hear St. Andrews called ‘St. Andrews-by-the-Sea’; that wasn’t the name it was given. I want|this part of the world to progress, to advance, to develop, but above all things, I want old traditions, names and customs retained.
“I see a wonderful future for this part of the world. We have fine quality clays —I’d like to see a pottery industry established; we can grow flax—I’d like to see the flax industry developed; the farmers would and can produce it if encouragement is offered. They have so little and so restricted a market. They don’t try to get rich; they put home and family happiness first. I’d like to see a canning factory inaugurated to can fruit and fish and vegetables; we would give great local co-operation and succeed.” “The Pageant, how did it come about?” “Oh! It just happened. I had difficulty at first. The people thought the public would laugh at them and couldn’t understand how it could possibly interest strangers.”
“But the training?”
“Training? They didn’t need any; it’s their everyday life and recreation they portrayed on the platform this afternoon; how they amuse themselves on winter evenings and holidays. Naturally, I picked out the best performers, both men and women of all ages; our youngest is the baby in the cradle; our oldest—well, to tell the truth, nobody knows just how old Grand-dad Davis is—and I wouldn’t like to ask him—but he plays the fiddle, as you saw, and enjoys it.”
Miss Mowat is of the opinion that this work has only made a beginning; she looks for extensive expansion and has a carefully thought-out program of winter work for the farm homes—wood carving, pebble-jewellery, weaving, color study, etc. The farmers will receive further training in the economic utilization of all materials found on the farm and every endeavor will be made to bring closer home to them a deeper appreciation of the beautiful with a satisfaction that should be theirs in farm life.
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