MY HOME TOWN
THOMAS H. RADDALL
OUR town of Liverpool lies beside the largest of Nova Scotia’s rivers, the Mersey River, just where the fresh water mingles with the salt. Our long main street curves about a tidal basin and puts a pair of bridges across the water like arms about a beloved, for the river and the harbor are our town’s pleasure and its life, a marriage of convenience, 185 years old, where love has grown with time.
The town is backed and flanked by forest and fronted by the North Atlantic, and at our doors is the sport of kings. We fish for trout and salmon in the river, for pollack and tuna in the estuary (not long before this war an American visitor took a world’s record tuna here on rod and line, 962 lb. of fighting fish, all in one skin) and in the proper seasons you will find our townsmen heading into the woods with rifles and shotguns in pursuit of deer and bear and hares and partridge, or along the shore for wild duck and geese.
As for work, many of our townsmen and all the people along the coast to the east and west depend on the sea fishery for a livelihood. But in normal times the chief industry is the big newsprint mill of the Mersey Paper Company, which sits across the harbor from the town. One of the phenomena of our town is the procession of cars and bicycles across the bridge at certain hours of the day and night as the shifts change at the paper mill.
There we make newsprint for famous New York papers and for others along the United States seaboard and as far away as Australia, not to mention our Nova Scotia dailies and weeklies. The pulpwood comes from all parts of the province by ship, by rail, by river, by truck. Our river is brown with logs for miles at times, and booms of pulpwood pass under the bridges and go slowly down the harbor past the wharves where sea-stained schooners are discharging codfish from the Banks.
Our town ¡s a mellow town, steeped in history . . . yet we are close to the war and know how to get things done
The mill’s coal supply'comes from the Cape Breton mines, the limestone for its sulphite process from a quarry in nearby Lunenburg County, the sulphur all the way from Texas. Ships of many flags dock at the paper mill wharf. They bring strange visitors at times, and in a quiet hillside pasture outside our town we have seen more than once the serang of a lascar crew bowing his head in prayer to the east, and turning with a long and murderous knife to slit the throats of the sheep he has bought for his Mohammedans.
Power for the paper mill and the smaller local industries, and for the lighting of our town and the operation of our radios and refrigerators, all comes from a number of hydro developments up the river, owned and operated by the Nova Scotia Power Commission. One of them was Liverpool’s own, but 15 years ago the Power Commission expropriated it on terms which still give us the cheapest electricity in the province.
The water in our tap3 and hydrants comes from a natural reservoir in the ridges behind the harbor. Just as you might expect, it is called Town Lake.
Ours is a town of 3,500 people, a Main Street town with a busy present and a historic past, founded in 1760 by settlers chiefly from Plymouth, Mass.-direct descendants of the Pilgrim Fathers. Their leader was Captain Sylvanus Cobb of Gorham’s Rangers, a famous Indian tighter; and his house still stands on the street he named after his old commander, Wolfe.
In the long sea wars from 1775 to 1815 the men of our town fitted and sailed private ships of war against the King’s enemies, chiefly the French and Spanish in the Caribbean, and the foundation of more than one town fortune was laid by a fighting Bluenose privateer along the Spanish Main. In the long peace after that our townsmen lived by the fishery, by the sawing and shipping of lumber, and by the building and sailing of
wooden ships in the fine old hemp-and-eanvas days
whose passing we all regret.
One hundred years ago Haliburton, the wise and witty judge who wrote “Sam Slick,” said of Liverpool that it was the best-built and best-kept town in the province. We like to think it is that still.
In appearance it remains an 18th century town, especially the quarter above the harbor proper, where the streets are shaded by fine old elms, and big white clapboard houses, with dormers and green shutters and central chimneys, stand in lawns aloof from the street. Many of them were built by privateer captains and owners in the brave old days. The more modern homes in our town follow that architectural pattern, with the. result that visitors exclaim, “A colonial town! In Canada!”—as if that were a matter for some surprise.
A Mellow Town
A MELLOW town. There is no rush and scurry, but we get things done. The centre of affairs is Town Hall in Main Street, a well-proportioned white clapboard building of the sort you see in old New England towns. The bronze figure of a soldier stands on a pedestal of native granite before it, commemorating the 1914-18 war, and beneath are engraved the names of 80 boys who died. ( Ineidentally, two of them are the first and last Canadian names on the Menin Gate Memorial at Ypres.)
Within Town Hall, on the lower floor, are the offices of the town clerk, the county clerk, the sheriff, the town engineer and the policeman. Our mayor is Edgar Wright, a capable and cheerful man who is partner in an undertaking business across the river. The sheriff is tall genial Duncan Mulhall, foremost in all charitable works and possessed of a fund of tales about the old days of sail.
The town cop is Bob White, a thickset quiet man with a whispering voice caused by a throat injury in the old war. We don’t have many wrongdoers and they listen when Bob whispers, for he is a bonnie rough-and-tumble fighter when the need arises, and as tough as oak. All in all we have few crimes, and petty ones at that, for our town has a self-respect of the old-fashioned kind. Let Bob McClearn, the town clerk, bear witness. For many years, good and bad, the unpaid taxes have been 4% or less.
The second floor of Town Hall is given over mostly to an assembly room, for in matters of large expenditure we hold town meetings in the old colonial manner. This room is now a recreation centre for servicemen, of which I shall say more.
Finally Town Hall has a long wing containing the community theatre, seating 650 comfortably and equipped with the latest talkie apparatus and full every night in these times. There is no other theatre in town. We control our own entertainment under lease, and make a tidy profit on the rental for our town administration.
Farther along Main Street, opposite the shady knoll where the town’s pioneers sleep under their mossy tombstones, is the fire hall an old-fashioned one painted rod, with a tall watch tower and a large bell which formerly warned the fire volunteers. Nowadays the fire warning comes from a “moaning Minnie’’ on the tower, installed by the ARP, and a motor ladder truck and a La France engine stand ready on the floor. The second floor of the fire hall is a music room where Ned Hunt conducts practices of the town band. On balmy summer evenings in time of peace the band plays in Fort Park, overlooking the harbor, or on a point across the river where the sound carries richly along the water. All the younger bandsmen are gone to war, but Ned carries on with the older ones, and trains a crop of youngsters, and from time to time we have our music in the summer nights.
The business section lies between the fire hall and the post office, which is a neat red brick building covered with Virginia creeper, and with a bright green copper roof which can be seen afar, and, of course, a clock in a tower. We have all the shops you might expectgroceries, drugs, hardware, clothing for ladies and gents, and footwear, jewellery, novelties and so on. And, of course, we have doctors, dentists and public health nurses, and barbers and bowling alleys and those mysterious places where ladies go for beauty by the hour.
Churches, naturally. Methodist and Baptist on Main Street; Anglican and Catholic on the slope above. In old Trinity hang the flags of the 1st Canadian Casualty Clearing Station, a unit particularly associated with our town before and during the 1914-18 war. Then, this unit went to France and passed 80,000 sick and wounded through its canvas wards. St. Gregory’s, the Catholic Church, stands in a grove of tall trees nearby, and you must see it if you want to appreciate all that is simple and beautiful in wooden architecture.
And schools. One uptown, on the ancient parade ground of the 18th century town militia; three others clustered on the crest of the low ridge above the town, one of them a handsome tile high school completed just before the present war.
There is a community gymnasium on the hill, too, formerly a temperance hall. This hall, and an infants’ school still in use, and the block of land in which Town Hall stands, were all gifts of an old privateersman, James Gorham, who died 100 years ago. Ho made a fortune in the merry old sea war along the Spanish Main in the 1790’s, and later in trading Nova Scotia fish and lumber to the West Indies. His bequests included a fund, still in existence, which is administered by a committee of citizens for the upkeep of the gymnasium and the school he built.
FROM Main Street sundry lanes run down to the water front, a busy place at any time, a roaring place in time of war. Here is the big fish plant of the Nickerson brothers, Jerry,
Hubert and Rawson, who are a success story in themselves as good as anything in Alger. They started as fishermen at Seal Island 20 years ago, and
their first shipment to Boston they caught and “made” themselves. Later they moved to Coffin’s Island in the entrance to Liverpool harbor and began to handle everything from herring to halibut. Today they have a plant which is the heart andtsoul of the fishery business out of our town. Their modern cold storage facilities handle 7,000,000 lb. of fish a year; they ship their famous smoked finnan haddie to places as far away as Denver, Salt Lake City and— believe it or not— Seattle. They ship prime herring to Philadelphia, fresh fillets to Montreal, frozen fillets to New York, Bangor, Winnipeg, Calgary and points between; salt fish to Gloucester and so on.
The brothers are now well-to-do but they still oversee everything personally, are not afraid to pitch in to any part of the work irr these days when hands are scarce, and are three of the most popular men on the coast. Two years ago, when a torpedoed crew was reported in open boats off' the coast in bitter winter weather, it was Jerry himself who scratched up a crew, manned an old schooner that hadn’t left the wharf in years, and sailed her out to pick up the survivors.
And there is ther water-front machine shop of Thompson Brothers Ltd., who specialized before this war in the repair and overhaul of paper mill machinery and the installation of Diesel engines in small coasting craft. When the war broke out they had a payroll of 30 men and the manager was Charles Smith, a big crisp Bluenose to whom the word “can’t” is like a red rag to a bull. He offered the services of his plant for the overhaul of small naval craft. The Navy was sceptical —then.
But in the summer of 1940 a fleet of Norwegian whalers arrived in Nova Scotia from the Antarctic. They were fast, manoeuvrable, ideal submarine killers if they could be converted. The Norwegian Navy conferred with authorities at Halifax, and Halifax asked Charlie Smith if he could do it. “Send ’em along!” said Smith.
It was a tough job. The ships were full of machinery designed for the whaling business. It all had to be removed and replaced with quarters for a larger crew. There were guns and other warlike devices to be installed. The decks had to be strengthened with good steel beams and cross braces. There were a hundred and one things to be done.
Smith used his own staff for a nucleus and scoured the coast for mechanics, electricians, welders and ivhat-have-you. The younger whalermen put on the uniform of the Norwegian Navy. The older men Smith gathered into his organization because they knew the ships. For months Liverpool was a Norwegian naval town. And at the end, before the last
of the ships steamed off for England, fully converted and equipped, Prince Olaf and his charming princess came to our town, thanked our people for the hospitality shown their men, and Charlie Smith for a good job well done.
In order to handle other work efficiently the firm had to expand its facilities beyond any pre-war imagination—and this in a time when men were scarce and materials were almost nonexistent. Smith drove himself and his men, and hounded the machinery-supply firms. The Navy took a keen interest in his doings and got him priorities here and there.
Today the machine shop has been vastly enlarged and equipped. In addition there is a new foundry where Thompson Brothers can make their own castings some of them weighing tons. There is a boat shop for building small defense-patrol craft. The wharf at Thompson Brothers’ plant is the busiest place in town, and Smith has 730 men on his payroll. A war baby? Call it that if you like. But Charlie Smith is already making postwar plans, already reaching out for normal business to employ his men and his fine new plant, and our town is confident. We’ve seen what he can do.
There are coal wharves over which our fuel comes to us from Wales and Cape Breton and Pennsylvania. There is a wharf where fishing schooners take on crushed ice from the icehouses up Meadow Brook, and where in peacetime you see schooners loading lumber for the West Indies or Newfoundland.
There is the Yacht Club, whose bright red roof makes a fine contrast against the blue water off Fort Point. We open it for Navy hops sometimes—it’s a fine cool place to dance on summer evenings—but in general the club has been closed, the yachts hauled up for the duration. Most of our yachtsmen are away in the Navy or Air Force. Three of them skippered the first flower-class corvettes built in Canada for the Royal Navy, and performed some notable service in the Western Approaches in the days when the Approaches were very hot stuff. And one of them, a boy named Sid Ford, became leader of the famous Wolf Squadron of the RCAF and did some famous fighting at Dieppe, and died in a raid on German warcraft off the Dutch coast.
At Fort Point, at the east end of Main Street, is our little park—a favorite place to stroll or sit on warm afternoons and evenings. There are benches under the elms from which you can watch the ships, or the bathers in Ballast Cove. A bronze plate reminds you that De Monts and Champlain visited our harbor in 1604, when Quebec was just a name; and a tall cairn of beach stones and a plate bear witness to the deeds of Liverpool privateersmen in the wild sea days of ’75 and ’98 and 1812. A couple of ancient cannon point their muzzles over Ballast Cove, and the squat white harbor lighthouse shines an eye to seaward.
MANY of the old privateersmen died at their deadly game and were buried in shotted hammocks all the way from Cape Cod to Venezuela. But most of them survived and prospered in the fishery and the West Indies trade. One of them, Enos Collins, became the richest man in British North America. The ships are gone, of course, but some of their cannon remain, planted muzzle-down on street corners about the town, and many of their houses stand. The house of one privateer owner, Colonel Simeon Perkins, the Pepys of Nova Scotia, is now the property of the Queens County Historical Society, and there you can see relics and documents of the ancient time, and read in the Colonel’s famous diary of the doings of his ships in war and peace, and trace the life of our town in its first 40 years.
I have mentioned the war as it affected the firm of Thompson Brothers. Much of this applies also to the Mersey Paper Company. At a time when repair facilities on the east coast (especially in winter, with the St. Lawrence frozen) were taxed beyond capacity and the Navy was faced with a serious refitting problem, Colonel C. H. L. Jones of the Mersey Continued on page 36
Continued from page 20
company observed his firm’s fine deepwater piers and the big modern machine shop operated only by day, and he offered his services and facilities. Today the Mersey company employs 500 men in the refitting of naval craft alone— and carries on its newsprint business as well.
So for three years and more we have seen our harbor dotted with corvettes, minesweepers, tugs, crash boats and other craft of our multifarious Navy and Air Force, and our streets have been filled with men in blue getting the feel of Canadian soil after long months in the North Atlantic.
Wives come from every part of Canada to stay with their men in our town during the blessed period of the refit. Sweethearts, too—they keep the wedding bells ringing in our town. And often, as the ship returns in a year or so for another refit, down comes a proud young mother with a stranger in her arms, and the port chaplain is notified, and there’s a baptism in the ship’s bell in the time-honored naval way.
And for nearly four years our ladies of the IODE have conducted a recreation club for servicemen in the town assembly hall. Thousands of men of the Canadian and the Royal Navy have passed through its hospitable doors. Leader in this work is Mrs. Eleanor Millard, mother of two sons overseas, a gracious white-haired lady whose energy and humor and wisdom have earned her the tribute of “Admiral Nell,” by which she is known affectionately to many.
Every naval craft completing a refit in our town makes a point of presenting the IODE clubroom with some souvenir, useful or ornamental, in appreciation. Today that long room is unique, for almost every inch of wall space is occupied by models ofcorvettes, of Fairmile launches, submarines, destroyers, frigates, planes—all made
aboard the ships by handymen. There are also engraved plaques, and group photographs of crews, usually framed in a ship’s lifebelt or something as appropriate; and there are fragments of German bombs and shells received in the way of battle at sea, and bits of wreckage from submarines; a statue of a Highland piper that somebody “scrounged” in a Scottish port; smokestained ensigns that have flown bravely in the Battle of the Atlantic—a regular war museum of Canada’s Navy.
And from old oil paintings on the end wall, James Gorham and his wife look down. You seem to see a grim approval in the old privateersman’s eyes; it was a war of little ships in his day, too.
When the events of 1940 brought the war very close to our town, we drew up a scheme of precautions and created an emergency organization which has functioned efficiently ever since, and has been a model for several other towns in the province.
One part of this was the emergency hospital, which we set up and equipped from our own resources, in the basement of the new high school. It was soon called into use, for ships were torpedoed off the harbor, often in bitter weather, and our men and women more than once have turned out in the middle of a winter night to receive shivering, frostbitten men just as they came from the lifeboats. I have told some of this before (“They Were Prepared,” Maclean’s, April 15, 1942), and there is no room for the full story here. The emergency hospital remains ready to receive casualties at any moment, and once a week we hold a busy clinic there for blood donors, men and women, a long list of them. And it’s a common sight to see 40 or 50 naval men walk in to give their blood with the rest—as if their long hard service in the North Atlantic were not enough.
Few towns in Canada live closer to the war than ours.
There are many other things I’d like Continued on page 38
Continued from page 36 to tell you about . . . our lovely
gardens, some of them blooming in West Indian soil, brought as ballast to our town in the old days of the sailing ships . . . our small community of
negroes, descendants of the slaves brought to Nova Scotia by the Loyalists . . . the Micmac Indian quietly peddling his squaw’s baskets along the street . . . the town cop going down to the fire hall promptly at 10 o’clock each night to sound the slow hell strokes of the curfew . . . how a young printer named Cecil Day came to town 15 years ago, took over an old-fashioned weekly in a tumbledown wooden shack, and built the “Liverpool Advance” into a modern newspaper, now highly rated among Canadian weeklies, and housed in an up-to-date brick plant on Main Street . . . how in the early days of the war, when Halifax wharves were jammed with shipping, we restored one of our old sailing-ship yards to life and
built big wooden lighters by the dozen so that ships could unload in Bedford Basin . . . how our Reserve Army units, infantry and engineers, drill in the old Congregational church and the curling rink, and how in the anxious days of ’42, when the U-boats were harrying our coast and were known to he slipping armed saboteurs ashore on certain parts of the American coast, our youngsters of 17 and businessmen and old war veterans patrolled the lonely headlands and wild deserted bays to east and west, in all sorts of weather, armed with American rifles and tommy guns, ready for anything . . . the ox teams of country farmers, with slow tinkling bells, coming to town on market days . . . our pre-war baseball team, and how it won and held the championship of Nova Scotia for years . . . and how all those young athletes went into the service. . . but I’ve told you enough, I think. That’s our town. That’s Liverpool, Nova Scotia.