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Stories about Canada
Then & Now, Inverness County

Then and Now
The Heritage of Inverness County
by Jim St. Clair

Fields are growing up – times change
Webposted September 9, 2003

"When in doubt about what to write, go out, walk around and look at what you see!" So said my grandnephew Peter upon an occasion when "writer's block" was preventing the mind and the words from coming together. Peter, with a first name going back in this family's history to the early 1700s with nearly 300 years of Peters here and there on the family tree, spoke wise words.

And so it is the time to take a walk, take a drive, climb a hill, open your eyes, and clear your mind. For it is that lovely week in September when "down-East" days are frequent – skies of blue with varied clouds, a breeze but not a gale, low humidity – "large days" as we frequently call them in translation from the Gaelic "la mhor." And there is so much to see from the top of Marble Mountain, or the side of Ben Noah, or from Cape Clear with is long, long view down the Margaree Valley – and from the MacKay-MacLellan-MacKenzie road on the side of Dunakyn/Dunakin ridge.

In contrast to earlier "down-East" days of July and August, we see the countryside bleaching out where once green grass and thistles grew. But accents of colour speak to the coming autumn – the purple asters, both low and high; the red choke cherries; and the yellow sow thistles. Blueberry bush leaves are becoming deep red, and ripening wild apples are yellow and crimson on roadways where deer no longer gather the windfalls from overreaching trees.

The deep orange of rose hips are becoming popular with some birds, although the humming birds have taken their colour away from the feeders. And the occasional maple twig predicts the glory of the coming weeks and the next month. So much to see – so much to relish in the mind and the memory's eye.

The clouds and the sun create shadows on the hillsides of Margaree and Belle Cτte and East Lake Ainslie – indeed, the shadows seem to run smoothly across fields still green with the aftergrass that grew following the haymaking and undulate across fields that have been left unshorn. Vergil, the Roman poet, wrote of the same effect in the Italian countryside in the first century of this era when he stated, "dum montibus umbrae lustrabunt."

From along the edge of the Dunakyn ridge, one can watch the sun and the shadow interweave across the home site to which James and William Wright came from County Cavan, Ireland, in 1819. In that time, a blazed trail went across what would eventually come to be a three-hundred-acre farm – a walking and horseback trek from Whycocomagh to Port Hood. From the distant vantage point, the route of that former pathway is still visible.

Coming from a part of Ireland where there were many lakes and rolling hills as well as long-established roads and farms and even small towns, Southeast Mabou (as Mull River was then known) must have seemed very challenging. But trees were cut and a house (and later a store) was built and people going along the old roadway between the lakes and the centre of government at Port Hood often stopped at the Wright house or made purchases at the small general store.

From the early 1820s to 2002, hay was cut on the sloping hillside field. Animals were pastured and winter feed was prepared for storage. Potatoes were planted and dug. Gradually, the farm was extended to include one hundred and twenty or so cleared acres.

By 1870s, the son of James Wright, John, brought by his parents as a baby from Ireland to Cape Breton, was raising 200 bushels of oats, 20 bushels of buckwheat, and 300 bushels of potatoes in a year. With a stock of a dozen milk cows as well as two dozen sheep and a number of pigs reported on the census record, John Wright had a big farm with lots of milk to turn into butter and cheese; and wool to be woven; and beef and mutton and pork to be put away for the winter.

After 1840, the road was no longer in service, as a new system of travel-ways came into existence. The store was closed, but the making of hay and the harvesting of grain continued over the decades as generations came and went. And shadows continued to be created as clouds passed between the sun and the earth.

Today, the hay is unmade for the first time in perhaps one hundred and eighty years. It stands tawny and bleached on the big fields. Here and there late thistles and an occasional daisy bloom. Golden rod and stinking willie can be seen here and there where once cattle and sheep grazed or huge piles of hay waited to be transported to the large barn built in the "English style" with symmetrical openings for cattle and horses and hay wagons and farmers to go in and out.

The look of the countryside reminds us that the season of summer is indeed changing to autumn. And fields, as at the Wright farm, once the source of fodder for animals for the winter and of potatoes and other root crops for human beings for the cold months ahead, are uncultivated and starting to grow up to weeds and bushes.

So much to see, so much to think about, so much to record as we travel on foot or by vehicle around Inverness County. The economy developed by people such as the Wrights of Mull River is changing. People live elsewhere. But, the hard work and the diligence of generations past are important for us to recall as the seasons turn.

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