ItemA good picture of the operations of the Minister's Island estate in the 1920s and 1930s can be pieced together from the recollections of the surviving members of the Clarke family. Harry Clarke, an Irishman by birth who came to Minister's Island via England and Montreal in 1896, was head gardener for decades, as was his son William (Bill) Clarke after him, and gardeners or general purpose workers in their turn, in some capacity, were his sons Jim, Henry and Bud. In 1993 oral historian Janet Toole conducted interviews with Henry, Jim and also with former head gardener Sandy Miller, whose father Clarence was herdsman on the Island in the twenties and thirties. These recollections come from them, and to them have been added the memories of local stonemason John Gibson, the second of two generations of Minister's Island stonemasons.
In its heyday under Addie, house staff was 7, garden staff was 6, stable staff was 2, and farm staff was 8, for a total staff of about 23. The butler and female house staff were brought over from England; they wore uniforms and were paid about 10 dollars a month and "found." "Found" meant that in addition to regular pay there were fringe benefits such as farm eggs, milk and ham. The cook ruled her kitchen like a dictator. Even the gardener was not allowed in, but had to leave his produce outside the door. According to John Gibson, in a story that must have been passed down three generations, she once chased Sir William himself out of there with a cleaver. Thompson (Tom) Greenlaw was Farm Manager from the twenties to early forties. He and his family of five children lived in the "Stone House," the Minister's old house near the entrance to the Island. One of Sir William's first masons, Charles Horsnell, and his son-in-law Joseph Gibson, were paid 100 dollars a month and "found." In Depression times, that was good money. When the Island was at its peak, Horsnell and Gibson had a standing order to give the Island buildings a close inspection each spring and fall, and, sight unseen, replace and repoint any stonework that needed maintenance.
The Van Hornes were good people to work for, "the very best," remembered John Gibson, but they maintained a professional distance between themselves and the staff. Farm staff did not use the regular road, but went up over the fields. There was more familiarity between the garden staff, which worked closely around Covenhoven, but even here things were kept fairly formal. There was some consideration for the hard-working house staff, on the other hand. Occasionally, Lady Van Horne and Addie would help with the chores so that they could have time off. There was always a dance in town on Saturday night. If the house staff got everything done in time to catch the last dance, that was a great thing. More were hired for the busier times in spring and fall. In the winter, staff that had been laid off found extra work. For Art Knijff, from Holland, it was butchering pigs. In exchange for his expertise he took the feet, ears, tail, kidneys and heart, and he'd often say: "In my country, we eat everything but the squeal."
Groundskeeping was labour intensive. Miles of woodland paths had to be mown along their borders, and what are now fields were once lawns. A four-foot horse drawn mower, operated for years by Jim Clarke, was kept in constant operation, for the lawns had to be mown twice a week. A pedometer Clarke once attached to his belt calculated that on average about 30 miles of walking was required for one complete cut. The gardening operations were huge. In the spring there would be a big rush to get the seed order out. Locally, there were no nurseries, so many depended on the Van Horne greenhouses for seedlings. Bill Clarke supplied all of St. Andrews and half of St. Stephen, his son recalled. He also supplied the locals with a large amount of cut flowers. Whatever was left over after the Van Hornes were taken care of, went to the town. On Sundays the yard would be full of visitors, mostly from St. Stephen and Calais. The gardener's children made a few nickels running tours through the greenhouses.
The vinery operations were quite elaborate, Jim Clarke recalled: The greenhouses grew grapes, peaches, pears, plums, cherries, nectarines, all under glass. The first two houses, when you walked in, were Belgian grapes, the Foster seedlings. They were a yellow grape, and then there was a real deep, deep black, I guess, or dark blue grape. Those were the two main types of grapes, and they grew with vines trained up the glass. They'd start at the bottom, then train them up the glass and then tie them, and of course all the bunches hung down from the vines. Some were early grapes and some were late, with a section or house in the vinery for each. So, when the Van Hornes came at the end of June the early grapes were just about ready. They would use that house, and the second after the first was finished. The next section was the peach house. Again, the vines were trained up the glass like a big fan, and it was all tree-ripened fruit. For the peaches there was a net, almost like a seine. The netting was placketed under all these peaches. The pollination was done by brush in a lot of cases. There were no bees that could get in and pollinate these blossoms, so they were done by brush. And the peaches would ripen, and drop into the net, and they would only drop a matter of two or three inches, and they would roll down into these pockets. That's when the fruit was ripe, and that's the only time. It would roll down in there and it would be picked out very gingerly. The pears were Bartlett pears, and the cherries were Byng cherries, and they had the Niagara grapes. And these were in what we called the big greenhouses. They were in a greenhouse that ran up into the field in between the other greenhouse. There was no heat in that one at all.
The pears, the canning variety, I've known to be a pound and a half for one pear. There were poles underneath the branches to hold the branches up to keep them from breaking down. The vines had to be tended or they would go haywire. They had to be cut back in the fall by about 75 percent and cleaned up in the spring. To bug proof them the Clarkes used a mixture of Blackleaf 40, which contained DDT, mixed with soap and nicotine to make it stick. The grapes were so delicate that even brushing them with one's hair could damage them. The peaches needed a net because they were so soft that if they hit the floor, Henry Clarke recalled, they would just explode. They were shipped to Montreal along with other fruit, but Clarke wondered what sort of condition they must have been in when they arrived. The staff were not allowed to eat this fruit; you might have a strawberry. In later years after Adaline's death things were a bit less strict; the gardener's children would go to school with nectarines and bunches of grapes, neither of which were available locally.
Outside were Japanese lilacs around the veranda of the house, and some down by the tower. There were three apple orchards—one by the gardener's cottage, one huge one up the avenue as you came up from the barn, and one by the old Andrews house, on top of the hill. There were also a lot of red beeches, an unusual tree for the area. Umbrella trees, beechnut, hazel nut, an old maple nut tree half way down to the tower. A lot of birch trees. Cherry trees in front of Covenhoven itself. A flower garden at the boating green 100 feet long and 6 feet wide, full of alyssum, geraniums, lobelia, purple lobelia for the border, delphiniums, phlox, larkspur, asters, snapdragons, peonies, sweet pleas, gladiolas, and orange dahlias—anything that could be used for cut flowers in the house. Pansies but no roses, just some wild ones down by the tower. Farming operations were also large-scale.
Clarence Miller was a herdsman in those days, and his son Sandy became gardener on the Island in later years. Sandy remembered that stacking the barn with 20 feet of loose hay was one of the hottest, dirtiest and dustiest jobs on the face of the earth. There was no combine on the Island; one would be borrowed from the Shaughnessy farm at Bantry Bay. The Island was a beehive of activity, with twelve to fifteen men on the farm operations. Remembered Miller, They had about four bays of hens and ducks, and they had a fellow to look after them. And they had a piggery. Twelve to fifteen. They had a lot of these china pigs. They were like a belted one, black and red or something, different from your ordinary white pig. They had treacherous tusked boars. Four kinds of cows—Ayrshires and Dutch Belted, French Canadians. French Canadians all black, dual purpose, meat and milk. And Holsteins. Two barns, about 20 in each barn. Hanson may have planted apple orchards. They had so many barrels, and they were all down in the cellar of the barn. I can picture it now, barrel after barrel. They'd have to go all through them and sort them out. Grade them. They'd go to Montreal. Same with the milk and butter. Whole milk, cream and milk separated, not pasteurized. The butter room was downstairs in the barn.
There is story that Minister's Island was entirely self-sufficient, but that is a bit of an exaggeration. True, the Island sold a lot of milk and hay. Tons of hay were put up every year, more than could be used, and the local dairies picked up raw milk on the Island every week. True too, that in some ways the tide made it imperative to keep operations as self-contained as possible. The house had a second-floor storeroom, John Gibson recalled, in which many hardware-type sundries could be found, such as oilcloth, tiles, and the like. There was a well-equipped mason's shop and plumbing shop. If you used a bag of cement, you put one back, so the Island always had a full supply of basics on hand. There was portable staging for roof work. On the other hand, John O'Neill remembered that a lot of feed such as oats was sent from O'Neill's farm to Minister's Island, and the O'Neill's town market also made daily grocery deliveries to the Island and slaughtered pigs. Sometimes local blacksmiths were called upon to shoe horses. The Island also had a couple of weirs. Henry McCurdy and Gordon Cline worked them. Frank O'Halloran was captain of one of Sir William's boats, but also fished the weirs. They lived in camps along the shore of the Island. Work on the Island was not easy, even under Addie's fairly beneficent watch. Jim Clarke remembers his father Bill "working constantly, constantly." He doesn't remember him ever having a holiday. The job was 365 days a year. The ventilation of the greenhouses, for example, required constant supervision, the fruit being so delicate that it would spoil easily. And besides Bill Clarke there was only one other person tending these buildings. Workers who arrived five minutes after seven in the morning, didn't work that morning. "You came back at one o'clock, and you got paid for the afternoon." Sandy Miller recalled that his father Clarence, who worked on the farm from 1924 to 1941, "never had a day off in that whole time." Later, when he moved off the Island, he would get up at 3 in the morning to beat the tide and still somehow make it home every night.