...and Build Homes
Place: Reserve Mines, Cape Breton. Cast: Eleven miners, Father Jimmy and Mary Arnold. Sequel: First co-operative village of its kind in North America
LILLIAN VON QUALEN
ON THE island of Cape Breton, northernmost portion of Nova Scotia, on a sunny slope a half mile from the smoke-shrouded ugliness of Reserve Mines, lies Tompkinsville, the first co-operative housing project of its kind on the North American continent; a small group of one-family houses planned on a community basis, in which not only the plan but the actual building has been done by the men themselves.
Here, in Canada’s newest village, eleven coal miners have demonstrated that men earning less than $20 a week, if willing to work and study together under responsible and intelligent leadership, can, through their own efforts, provide decent, attractive homes for themselves.
Although economic conditions in the mining areas of Nova Scotia are difficult, the men of Tompkinsville are not bitter about their circumstances. They don’t denounce the coal company, or the economic system that keeps them where they are. They don’t think of themselves as being exploited by their bosses, or as victims of an oppressive system. Instead of sitting back and waiting for the Government or any other group to take care of them, they think it is their own responsibility to take care of themselves.
These men, none of whom has had more than a grammar-school education, discuss theories of economics and government in their own language intelligently and understanding^, and a constantly growing sense of power radiates into all phases of their living. Asked if he didn't mind being a miner, one of their number, Angus Curry, replied: “Not at all. Of course I'd like to have a job that was easier and brought in more money, but in the meantime mining is my livelihood and is giving me the means to go ahead on projects such as this housing job of ours.” And Allie McMullen added: “When we were down in the pit, we thought about whether we should put in larger windows by the stairs or which walls to paint. When we came up after our eight-hour shift, we didn't stand on street corners and talk. We built houses.” This apparent miracle has not been accomplished overnight. For many years the common people of Eastern Canada suffered from a poverty so desperate that life had become a nightmare of interminable toil, hunger and mounting debts. Their gradual deliverance from destitution and suffering, and their eventual awakening and triumphs in the struggle for a better world, are due in large measure to the inspiration, dauntless spirit and arduous labors of a beloved Catholic priest, Dr. J. J. Tompkins.
Father Jimmy’s Crusade
ALMOST singlehanded, Father Tompkins, affectionately known as Father Jimmy, has carried on for years a crusade for social and economic reform. An intellectual with a boundless faith in the common man and a steadfast belief that the only basis of true democracy is a spiritual one, this slight, keen-eyed little man of remarkable spiritual power and personal drive has the burning zeal of a prophet and the humility of the truly great. “No one who talks with him comes away quite the same,” a friend once commented. The co-operative movement which has swept through eastern Nova Scotia since St. Francis Xavier University established its Extension Department in 1930, probably owes more to Father Jimmy than to any other single individual.
The island of Cape Breton is remarkably beautiful in many sections, but Reserve Mines, where Father Tompkins’ present parish is located, is a dreary, straggling settlement with few trees and no flowers. Flanking its narrow, rutty main street are monotonous rows of "company” houses painted a hideous brown or green, in which sanitation and privacy are unknown.
About 8(X) men who work in the No. 10 colliery of the Dominion Coal Company, and their families, exist in these habitations that are identical in layout a kitchen, living room and tiny bedrœm on the first floor, and two bedrooms on the second ; cold and damp because they rest on the ground and wind and rain find their way in through the crevices.
Life was different many years ago when the ancestors of these miners, hardy, freedom-loving pioneers from the Scottish Highlands for the most part, came to Cap: Breton. They grew to love its rugged mountains, wild glens and tarns, reminiscent of the land they had left behind. Being a mountain people, they built their homes upon the hillsides, and their lives were blessed with peace and beauty.
But all this was changed when coal was discovered on the island and the mines were ojxmed. Many left their homes in the country, pairing into industrial districts that were ugly, desolate wastes, and went to live in the so-called “company” houses. In those early days the coal companies were able to build these houses for their employees, inadequate though they were; but in recent years, due to the uncertainty of the future of the industry, building in the colliery districts on Cape Breton has ceased, and the mining population, this people of splendid heritage and character, has been forced into the acceptance of living conditions that have caused even the most courageous to despair. In Reserve many have had difficulty in finding any place to live, and numerous families are tucked away in two up stairs rooms.
In the midst of their wretchedness a message of hope reached the people of Reserve. At a small university in the little town of Antigonish, it was said, were men who were anxious to help them; men who could tell them how to improve their condition through a process called cooperation.
A group of miners, who were .then working one and a half days a week for a dollar and a half and were utterly discouraged. decided to arrange a meeting to hear for themselves how such changes could be brought about. It was Dr. H. M. Coady, director of St. Francis Xavier Extension Department, who came to address their meeting. “Before you can improve your economic condition,” he told them, “you must learn how, through the study-club movement. The university is behind you.” As a result of this meeting, ten study groups were organized, and in a short time many others had been formed.
Father Tompkins’ counsel and help were invaluable. “Ideas have hands and feet and will work for you,” he impressed upon the miners of Reserve, “but you must choose your ideas.” In 1933, with his guidance and aid, a credit union was organized, and after two years of study a co-operative store was opened. A People’s Library was founded, and is one of the most potent influences in Reserve today. “If you want to change things,” Father Tompkins has explained, “you have to use your minds. You must have books, for they are the universities of the common people.”
“We Need Houses”
/^\NE NIGHT about two years ago, ten miners who had been organizers of the first credit union and co-operative store in Reserve met in Joe Laben’s kitchen. They were discussing what their next step should be, and one said, “Well, we need houses more than anything else.” Thus began the experiment which has been termed "the most significant movement under development today on the North American continent.”
They studied the Dominion Housing Act, but found that men earning sometimes less than twenty dollars a week could not take advantage of it. Under the leadership of Father Tompkins, they held numerous meetings to investigate the various housing acts in force in Canada. To their joy, a careful examination of the Nova Scotia Housing Commission Act with an interpretation written in 1936, revealed definite provisions under which they could build homes for themselves.
But just when it seemed that their dream would turn into a mirage, for they were unable to find anyone who was technically qualified to handle such a project for them, Mary Ellicott Arnold, the treasurer of the Co-operative League of the U.S.A., and
for eighteen years the general manager of the Consumer’s Co-operative Services of New York City, came to Cape Breton on a visit to see what was being done in the movement there. Miss Arnold has had wide experience in various co-operative enterprises in New York and is particularly interested in housing, having been associated with the building of a successful cooperative apartment building.
In June of 1937, with Miss Mabel Reed, a life-long associate, she joined a tour of the co-operatives of Eastern Nova Scotia and Cape Breton, and was much impressed with what she saw and heard. One day Father Tompkins said: “We
ought to have co-operative housing here in Reserve, but nobody knows anything about it. Why don’t you stay and help us?” Finally yielding to his persuasion, Miss Arnold accepted the invitation and was appointed to the St. Francis Xavier Extension Department. To test out needs and construction, she and Miss Reed moved into Dan McNeil’s house, an ordinary type of miner’s home.
The study club of which these miners are members meets every Sunday, the only day when the men are not on different shifts, usually from six a.m. until almost midnight. Joe Laben presides, and the meeting is carried on according to the best parliamentary procedure. The regular business meeting is followed by study, and the women, sitting around on the edges, show as much interest as the men.
With hope renewed by Miss Arnold’s decision to assist them, the group continued to work with increased vigor. An eleventh member joined the club when it was decided to build a “test” house as a leader to determine budget costs, etc., in which Miss Arnold and Miss Reed would live during the winter of 1938-39 and which, after alterations, would be turned over to this miner.
The cost of each house, with land, was assumed to be $2,000. By the Housing Act interpretation, the men could borrow $1,500 and would have to provide the balance of $500. However, since they were to do all the work themselves, the Government granted them a work allowance of $400. Thus each man could own a house for $100 cash and $9.65 a month (including interest, amortization, taxes and insurance) over a twenty-five-year period. Since a reserve fund for repairs, upkeep and protection in case of illness was believed essential, an additional payment of $2.50, making the total monthly payment of $12.15, was decided upon. The average monthly rental of the “company” houses is $10.
At first the group studied ownership, co-operative philosophy and public speaking. Then they tackled house planning. During the planning period, which lasted three months, another study night was added each week, so that the men, four and five at a time, could come to Miss Arnold for individual help. She acted merely as an adviser. “This is a pure democracy.” she explained. “I’m not bossing the job. I’m here only to give some advice.”
Existing plans were studied, but it was soon evident that if these men were to have the kind of houses they needed, they would have to plan them themselves. In a mining community, where different members of the family are usually on different shifts and children are off to school,
sometimes as many as eight meals have to be prepared each day. So they decided, warmly supported by their wives, that the kitchen should be given primary consideration and the dining and living rooms should be of secondary importance.
A basic plan was worked out, and then each man modified it to suit himself. At every point cost was the determining factor, and every nonessential was firmly eliminated. The men worked on their plans at home with their wives, and brought them to the study club for discussion and suggestions for improvements. When these sketch plans were completed they were sent to the Housing Commission in Halifax for approval, and in order that their architect might add where joists were to lie, trim to run, etc. Very few changes were made.
Final details were worked out in cardboard models that Miss Arnold showed the men how to make from their sketched plans. Many nights they bent over this interesting task, and when they had finished they were always careful to place their models high on the kitchen dressers to protect them from the active curiosity of the smaller children in the family.
A study of construction came next, and after three lessons Miss Arnold declared: “Well, boys, you know more about construction than I'll ever know to the end of my days, so I guess we’ll call this course off.” She had given them the most technical books in the field, asking each man to summarize certain chapters, and at the next meeting the summaries and the technical discussion which followed would have done credit to a gathering of college professors. One explanation of this unusual grasp of such a difficult subject is that the very lives of these men depend upon a sound knowledge of construction.
Due to a lack of business experience, the group needed a great deal of help with budgeting and the analysis and comparison of estimates. On the basis of their plans, they worked out costs to the last penny. It was vital to get the soundest construction possible for a minimum expenditure.
The entire winter was spent with dealers, studying costs and discussing the relative value of materials. In the spring, after sealed bids had been presented, the orders were given to the dealer whose price was lowest. Each house was divided into twenty-three categories, such as foundations, framing, side shingles, etc., and the cost of each worked over with infinite care. A “breakdown” was made of every stud, every sill, every rafter. “We’d spend a week,” said Ray McNab, “figuring out how we could save fifty cents.”
In January the Arnold Co-operative Housing Association. Limited, was formed, with Joe Laben as president, Allie McMullen, vice-president, Duncan Curry, secretary, Ray McNab treasurer, and Miss Arnold, general manager. Its regulations for management provide that each member has only one vote regardless of the amount of stock held in the corporation; that title to land and buildings is held by the group—a member has shares in the co-operative and a lease for his holding; and that all decisions shall be arrived at by joint agreement. A charter was applied for and granted by the Housing Commission in Halifax, and the next step was to Select and purchase the necessary’ land.
Space and Sunlight
V\ TELL outside Reserve, where there is ** space and sunlight, there was a tract of land belonging to Father Tompkins’ parish. “We had thought of using this property for a cemetery,” Father Jimmy said, “but it seemed better to give it to the living.” And so the Housing Club purchased eleven acres from St. Joseph’s Parish for the reasonable price of $50 an acre, which gave each man a one-acre plot. Because their land was outside the town, the miners would be able to have a co-operative garden where vegetables could be raised for the use of their families, the surplus sold, and the proceeds divided equally. They planned, too, to plant trees and flowers, to construct parks, playgrounds and a skating rink.
The day after the momentous meeting at which the men took title to their land, they shouldered picks and shovels and went out to dig their cellars. “If this project is a success,” said John Allen Smith, as the dirt flew, “there is no reason why every miner shouldn’t do just what we are doing. Maybe we’ve found a way out for all of us.”
The men elected one of their group as foreman, and as each house was completed to a certain stage they went on to the next one. Their work was well done. ‘Tve never seen better concrete,’’ said a member of the Housing Commission who came to inspect the construction, and a professional carpenter hired to oversee the job found it only necessary to check up from time to time.
The wives came to the site every day with hot picnic lunches, and the children helped too; Angus and his twelve-year-old son worked side by side. One morning one of the men said to his small boy, “You check up on the lumber. This is going to be your house, too.” The next day the child was putting on the rough boarding and superintending his assistant, a younger child of ten.
Complete and careful records were kept —each miner had his own “scribbler” for this purpose and when actual building started, a record of every order was kept and signed by each man. Before any material was accepted it was examined for proper quality, and the amount checked with the delivery slip. If it was okayed, the concern that furnished the material sent an invoice, which the miner checked against the delivery slip and entered in his scribbler opposite his budget page. All this gave the men complete and constant control and responsibility.
The miners were warned never to borrow or lend except upon a written statement signed by both parties, and one slip-up in this respect made a deep impression. One day some joists were delivered to Allie McMullen, and, finding the order and delivery slip correct, he okayed them. About two weeks later some invoices arrived, and one of the men said, ‘‘My invoices are wrong. I haven’t this number of joists.” ‘‘Mine aren’t right either,” another spoke up. Then it came out that there had been two or three borrowings that had not been properly recorded. This was serious, for the scribblers couldn’t be made up with this part of the record missing. On two successive Sundays there were stormy three-hour sessions to determine what was to be done. Finally all the men went out with their foot rules, and each man measured every joist in every house until the six temporarily lost ones had all been located. There was no further trouble with the proper recording of borrowings.
On the memorable opening day. the Premier of Nova Scotia and a distinguished member of the Housing Commission paid tribute to Father Tompkins, in whose honor the new community was named, to Dr. Coady and Miss Arnold. It wasjpointed out that it was especially fitting that this project, the first of its kind, should have taken place in Nova Scotia, where in 1861 the first co-operative movement on this continent began. The Premier expressed the opinion that the material results, fine as they were, did not measure the true value of the achievement. Of much greater significance, he believed, was the fact that these men had gained a new sense of control that comes with study and the knowledge of how things are done, and had learned to work as a group and now understood the strength that lies in group action.
The entire mining community was intensely interested. All day long a steady stream of miners and their wives went through the houses. They began to grasp the vision, and realize that such things are really possible. Now they, too, are eager to study and work hard to accomplish the same thing for themselves.
The work continued through the fall, and the men scurried to finish shingling their side walls in a race to get everything tight before freezing weather struck. They were so proud of their new homes. They aren’t just workingmen’s houses, but houses anyone might care to live in. Averaging six rooms and bath, they have extra large windows and boast such features as copper plumbing and fireproof roofing. The outer walls are of wooden shingles, the inner ones of wallboard. There are hardwood floors downstairs. The living and dining rooms open into each other, giving the effect of one spacious room twenty-two feet long by twelve feet wide. The kitchens, planned so carefully for the greatest possible efficiency, are charming and gay places in which to work.
In the basement, shelves have been built for the storage of food. When these are well stocked with produce raised in their own garden, the miners will no longer dread the long winter months when work is scarce and debts mount. Each man hopes to have a little den in his cellar, with a couch, a desk and a light, where he can enjoy a privacy he has never known. Basement workshops are being planned where the men can make their own furni‘ture, and have a place to leave tools and materials. Miss Arnold has arranged with the Provincial evening school to include*a course in furniture making, and has brought samples of simple maple furniture from the United States for the Tompkinsville cabinetmakers to go by.
A Dream Come True
V\ 7111 LE the men keep busy learning * * the intricacies of turning table legs and fashioning chair seats, their wives I will concentrate on the decoration of i their new homes. They will study and select color schemes, dye and sew curtains, and learn to hook rugs, an art widely practiced on Cape Breton.
For over two years these men and women of Tompkinsville have been working to make this dream come true, a dream, which men have always had. of better homes of their own. They have learned that there is no royal road to such attainment. but by the slow process of studying and laboring together there are no limits to what they can do.
Miss Arnold believes that Nova Scotia has the best housing law anywhere on this continent, and would like to see a similar one in force elsewhere. “My hope is to show that this movement is applicable to any industrial town,” she explains, “but I don’t believe it possible to start in a new
community without a period of study-club work such as the men have had through the St. Francis Xavier Extension Department.”
Perhaps the Tompkinsville way will be adopted by other groups, and the men who follow in the footsteps óf these eleven pioneering miners may say with Alec Mclsaac: “We have a long way to go yet. But we know what we have to do. We know where we are going.”