A Glimpse into the History of Tatamagouche
Tatamagouche is one of the most historic places on the North Shore of Nova Scotia. One of the principal routes used by the Mi’kmaq, when travelling from Prince Edward Island to the southern parts of Nova Scotia, was by way of Tatamagouche. The most obvious indication of Mi’kmaq occupation is the name “Tatamagouche” itself. It is thought to refer to the meeting or crossing of the French and Waugh River at the right angles. Another theory is that the name comes from a Mi’kmaq word meaning “dam” or “sea wall”. This could refer to the sand bar at the mouth of the two rivers.
The first permanent settlers here were the French Acadians, arriving by 1710. The Acadians were marshland farmers, and their first settlements were along the rivers and marshes, where dykes could be erected, and farms established. Tatamagouche became the principal Acadian settlement on the North Shore of, what is today, Nova Scotia. At its zenith, the village consisted of twelve buildings, including two warehouses and a wharf to facilitate the considerable trade that was carried on through the port. In addition, a Roman Catholic chapel was built in Tatamagouche c.1738, making the village the first place of Christian worship and burial on the North Shore of Nova Scotia.
A road or trail led from Cobequid to Tatamagouche, and over this trail came the supplies needed to feed the French garrison at Fortress Louisbourg. Exports consisted of farm produce, cattle, sheep, hogs, lumber, masts, spars, fish and fur. This trade with Louisburg was considered illegal by the British. On June 15th, 1745, three New England sloops intercepted a combined force of French, Huron and Mi’kmaq, who were attempting to leave Tatamagouche with supplies for Fortress Louisbourg. The ensuing British victory in what has become known as “The Battle of Tatamagouche” was yet another example of British naval supremacy in North America. This event demonstrated the inability of the French ships to supply their own forts in New France. In the end, for the French, this failure directly contributed to the fall of Louisbourg and the eventual defeat of their colonies in Quebec and Acadia.
Partly because of the strategic importance of the Tatamagouche area as an Acadian centre, the British decided to begin the Expulsion of the Acadians here. The officer chosen for this task, Abijah Willard, arrived in Tatamagouche with 100 soldiers, on August 14th, 1755. Willard issued orders to the Acadians that all male inhabitants were to assemble at 9:00 a.m. the following day. When they had gathered at Willard’s Headquarters on August 15th, he immediately imprisoned them. The British then burned the village, including the chapel. By the following morning, the village was left in ruins, and the men had been marched away, leaving the women and children behind. For the next sixteen years, the area remained unoccupied and the forests quickly began to encroach on the cultivated lands of the Acadians. The only activity during that time was the construction of Fort Francklin at Bayhead in 1768. The Fort however, was soon abandoned, as the British troops were needed elsewhere.
Frederick DesBarres and the Protestants from Montbeliard
In 1765, Col. Joseph Frederick Wallet DesBarres received a grant of 20,000 acres of land in the Tatamagouche area, in return for his services to the Government. He had this land surveyed and divided up into lots of about 60 to 100 acres. These he would rent, but would not sell. In 1771, he brought a number of Protestant families from Lunenburg to be settlers on his estate. The original homeland of these settlers was a small principality tucked between France Germany and Switzerland, known as Montbeliard. Some of their names were Bigney, Gratto, Jolliemore, Joudrey, Langille, Mattatall, Millard, Mingo, Patriquin and Tattrie. Their descendants still form a large segment of the population of present day Tatamagouche. There is, in fact, an old Montbeliard cemetery, on the outskirts of Tatamagouche. It is near Nelson Park along the Trans Canada Trail.
The first Scottish settler to come to the Tatamagouche area was Wellwood Waugh, who arrived about 1780. He was able to lease about 1600 acres of the best land from DesBarres. By 1785 he had become the local land-agent for DesBarres. Waugh encouraged the immigration of sturdy Scots who were well suited to endure the hardships of pioneer life. William Hayman and Robert Chambers were the next Scottish settlers to arrive. John Bell followed in1806, but soon moved a few miles away to New Annan, where he didn’t have to lease land. Gradually more and more Scots came and settled in our area. One of the last families who had travelled directly from Scotland was a Clark family. They settled here in 1842 or 1843. Another early settler was William Lombard, a native of Northern Ireland. Around the same time, c.1800, several English families, including John Richard and William Cole, arrived in the area. Many of these early settlers were buried in the Tatamagouche Village Cemetery on Church Street. When DesBarres died in 1824, much of his land went up for sale, thus opening up the area for further development.
Ships have been built in the Tatamagouche area since the early 1820s. Most of these were built for personal use, by individuals engaged in a little coastal trade, up and down the shore. The real founder of the commercial shipbuilding industry in this area however, was Alexander Campbell. He had originally been working in Pictou for the firm Mortimer and Smith. He came to Tatamagouche around 1823 to manage Mortimer’s timber and shipbuilding efforts in the area. It wasn’t long before Alexander purchased land on the west shore of the French River and began his own shipbuilding efforts. It was there in 1824, that he built his first vessel, “The Elizabeth”, a schooner of 91 tons. It is recorded that a total of approximately 90 ships were built in his yards during his career, and that he himself attained a position of great wealth and influence in the community. At one time, he owned 8,694 acres of the best timber land in North Colchester. Timber, cut from these forests and sawed into lumber in his mills, was then shipped overseas. The years between 1825 and 1847 were prosperous ones. Alexander’s brother, William, built a shipyard on the opposite bank of the French River. Between 1833 and 1842, he built at least 11 vessels. Unfortunately, William’s shipbuilding career ended in 1842, with the launch of the “Trident,” a barge of 354 tons. The vessel sank on its maiden voyage, and the loss ruined William financially. His yard was taken over by Alexander who continued to build ships there. During these years there was an influx of immigrants, as well as people from other parts of Nova Scotia, who moved to the area because of the shipbuilding industry.
After Alexander’s death, his ship building business was taken over by his sons David and Archibald, who continued to build ships until 1883. Altogether, the Campbells (Alexander, his sons, David and Archibald, and his brothers William and James) built a known total of 146 vessels.
The present site of what is today Tatamagouche was not built around Campbell’s ship yards at the mouth of the French River, as one might expect. Since Alexander Campbell would not sell his land to settlers, there was no place here for the village to expand. His brother, James, on the other hand, sold many lots of land further east, along the Waugh River. The 1874 Church map shows that Patterson wharf was built by this time, and would probably have been used for fishing, as well as for shipping fish and lumber to market. The map also shows that there were two other shipyards built further east along the Waugh River. As additional lots sold, and more people arrived, the village started to take form. Soon there was a church, a school built near McCully’s hill, dozens of merchants, several blacksmiths, a tannery, a tin smith, a hotel (the Stirling Hotel built in 1832), and even a tailor. The stores were full of goods so the village was becoming more self sufficient. The roads were beginning to improve. The French River Bridge (Campbell’s Bridge) was built in 1839 and Lockerby’s Bridge in 1840. Shipbuilding, lumbering and mining (especially copper and silica) were new industries which brought more people into the area. However, by 1870, the onset of the Age of Steam effectively ended the local ship building industry. The importance of the area ship yards quickly declined. Some of the former shipyard workers returned to farming, and many others went to the United States to work. Fishing and forestry remained important industries in the area, but times were difficult for the village until the building of the railway in 1887. This new means of transportation created an economic boom for the region, which lasted many years, as trains carried lumber and other produce to market, and brought in supplies for the growing population. The railway also benefitted the dairy industry, providing the means for local producers to ship their cattle, milk, and cream to markets. Tatamagouche also offered a passenger service until the 1960s. CN discontinued freight service on the line in 1986, and the rails were removed in 1989. Today, the original train station is a bed and breakfast, with restored historic rail cars. The rail line through the village is now a recreational multi-use pathway, designated as part of the Trans Canada Trail. This makes Tatamagouche a good starting point for either a short walk, or a longer bike ride along the waterfront.
The Tatamagouche area, of course, is well known for being the birthplace of the Nova Scotia giantess, Anna Swan. She was born in 1846 in Millbrook, and spent her early years in New Annan. Her immense stature (7 ft.11 inches) made her a popular celebrity, and she toured for many years with the famous American promoter, P.T. Barnum. Anna Swan never forgot her childhood home even though she eventually retired in Seville, Ohio. The local Creamery Square Heritage Centre has an Anna Swan Museum dedicated to her life. There are still many Swans living in the New Annan and Tatamagouche area who can claim a family connection to Anna Swan!
One cannot write about the village’s history without including a reference to the Stirling Rifles. Although there were local militias around Tatamagouche as early as 1825, the Stirling Rifles were the last and best known militia group here. They were organized in 1864, in direct response to the Fenian threat, and their duty was to protect the area from outside danger. For several days each year, the militiamen would use the Town Hall to march, shoot, and hone their other military skills. Once the Fenian threat disappeared by 1870, so did the need for the Stirling Rifles.
Late 1800s to the Present
Over the years, the village of Tatamagouche has witnessed many changes. Technological advancements led to improvements in people’s standards of living, and life expectancies. Back in the early days, communities considered themselves lucky if they had a family doctor. These early physicians travelled all over the area in all sorts of weather conditions to treat the sick, deliver babies and basically care for the health of the people in their communities. Tatamagouche has had many dedicated doctors. The first physician in the village was Dr. E.D. Roach who arrived in 1860. He practiced for over forty years, and when he retired, he was succeeded by other fine doctors such as Dr. Dan Murray, Dr. Charles Gass and Dr. Austin Creighton.
The first hospital was actually the summer home of Lillian Fraser, located on Main Street. When she died in 1942, she left her house to the village of Tatamagouche. After W.W. II, it was converted into a Red Cross Outpost Hospital (1947); one of the first of its kind in Canada to serve a rural area. Margaret Colburn, who passed away in 2012, was the last “matron” [superintendant] at this hospital. When the new hospital opened on Blair Avenue in 1968, she became the first administrator of the new facility.
Religion has always played an important role in the everyday life of Tatamagouche. Although there is evidence that the Acadians had a Chapel in the area, the first Protestant church in the community was Willow Church, in 1820. It was built by Wellwood Waugh and his sons. However, a growing Tatamagouche soon needed a minister of its own. In 1826, Rev. Hugh Ross, the first Presbyterian minister educated in Canada, answered the call, and made it his mission to have a church built in Tatamagouche. Around 1833, a Presbyterian church was built on the north east corner of the lot now used as the village cemetery. A few years later, in 1854, a more substantial building was built across the road, on what is now Church Street. This church, still stands today, although, of course, it is now Sharon United Church.
In 1925 the Presbyterians, the Methodists, and the Congregational Churches agreed to join together and form the United Church of Canada. About 30% of the Presbyterians separated from the others and in 1926 Sedgwick Memorial Presbyterian Church was built. It was named after Thomas Sedgwick, who had ministered to the spiritual needs of the community from 1860 until 1909. This church was built in its present location; on Main Street, near Creamery Hill.
Although there were telegraph connections available in Tatamagouche in the 1860’s, it was the early 1900s, before the village acquired its own locally owned and operated telephone service. These were the days of the old crank operated telephones and party lines. In Tatamagouche, the “agency” as it was known back then was run by a Mrs. MacIvor, out of her house on Main Street. In 1948 Maritime Tel & Tel came into being and took over many of the small companies. The Tatamagouche phone office was set up in a room at the back of the building presently owned by the local Odd Fellows Chapter.
Electrification is another important 20th century development. It certainly made daily life a lot easier. By the early 1900s most parts of Canada were beginning to generate electricity, using the many swift flowing rivers. In Canada, Ontario led the way as private companies harnessed the vast potential of Niagara Falls. Using that example as a yardstick, Nova Scotia was somewhat slower to electrify, and Tatamagouche even a little slower still. By the early years of the 1920s, Walter Snook, an engineer from Truro, had realized the hydroelectric potential of the Waughs River. As it descended from Earltown to Tatamagouche Bay, the river cut deep gorges at The Falls. Snook formed The Northumberland Light and Power Company, bought five acres of land on the river and installed a wooden flume and a water turbine. Power was “turned on” on July 1st, 1928 and the company began to provide electricity to Tatamagouche, Pugwash, Wallace, River John and surrounding areas. The “PowerHouse” as it was known operated between 1928 and 1952. It was located at The Falls corner, along the Waughs River just a little bit north of the present day salmon ladder, where Route 256 crosses the Waughs River. The deep gorge is still present and one can easily imagine how the rapid water flow could have been used for power generation.
With an increase in dairy farming, Tatamagouche opened its own creamery in 1925. Over 1,000 dairy farmers along the North Shore brought their milk to Tatamagouche. This Creamery was of great importance to the community, as it brought their milk to Tatamagouche. This Creamery was of great importance to the community, as it brought more jobs and also reduced the farmers’ transportation costs. The Tatamagouche Creamery was sold to J.J. Creighton in 1930 and then in 1968 to Scotsburn Dairy Cooperative, who operated it until 1992. Scotsburn still produces and markets Tatamagouche Butter today. As for the old Creamery building itself, after closing in 1992, it remained vacant for a short time, then was used for the Saturday Farmers’ Market. The Creamery was eventually designated a heritage site and was restored. Today, it houses the Creamery Square Heritage Centre and the North Shore Archives.
Although the main means of transportation in the early 1900s was still horse and buggy, automobiles were starting to appear. The first person in Tatamagouche to own one, a 1909 McLaughlin-Buick, was Robert H. Byers. At that time, Tatamagouche and area had strict rules about which days of the week you could drive an automobile. In addition, up until 1923, because of the British influence, these early automobiles were driven on the left hand side of the road.
One of the big attractions in this area during the 1920s and 30s was horse racing. Tucker Mattatall had a racetrack (Central Park Raceway) on his property in Barrachois, and horses were brought in from all over the province to compete. Cars would be lined on both sides of the road, and they had a grandstand that would hold 300 people.
During the 1940s and 50s, there was a lot of new building going on in the area. All over Canada, the pessimism and stagnation of the Depression years of the 1930s and the austerity necessitated by the Second World War had given way to an era of increased production, confidence and progressiveness. When Rocky Hazel returned from W.W. II, he had a theatre built (where Needs Store is today) called the Rialto. However, it wasn’t long after this, by the mid-1950s that television came to the area. The theatre soon closed its doors, reopening later as a grocery store!
This period also saw a lot of government money put into rural communities in order to modernize various institutions. In 1949/1950, Tatamagouche Rural High School (renamed North Colchester High School) was built on Blair Avenue. A few years later, in 1957, a new Tatamagouche Elementary School was built on Church Street. The old two-story school that was constructed in 1908, was eventually torn down.
The modernization process continued. The Tatamagouche Volunteer Fire Department was created in 1947, with Roy Kennedy as the fire chief. A new fire station was completed in 1955. The old Royal Canadian Mounted Police Station, which had been located at the corner of Main Street and Creamery Road (see picture at left), was closed in 1959. A piece of land was bought on the western end of Main Street, and construction began on a new detachment, completed in 1960. [ Major renovations have just been completed at the R.C.M.P. office, in 2014. As furniture was being moved around during the work, it was noted that a small bookcase had a Government of Canada stamp on it, dated 1960. It had obviously been placed in the new detachment back in 1960, and was still in use 54 years later!!]
By 1968 the village had a brand new hospital, Lillian Fraser Memorial, built on Blair Ave. The original hospital on Main Street was turned into a residential boarding home for several years. When a brand new facility, Willow Lodge (Home for Special Care) opened in 1980, the old hospital building became the Fraser Cultural Centre.
Tatamagouche has always provided for the needs of senior citizens as well as those of younger people. During the early years, area hockey players and skaters had to make do with whatever Mother Nature provided. In 1970, plans were underway to build a new arena. First of all, a large two story structure was erected. For the first couple of years, the rink was just natural ice, covered by a roof, but still quite susceptible to the vagaries of temperature. By 1975 the present building, complete with an ice plant, was officially opened. This arena has not only produced some great hockey players, and figure skaters, but has been an oft used venue for many major events over the years. The annual Oktoberfest, organized by the local Bavarian Society, is the second largest of its kind in Canada, and 2014 will be the 35th consecutive year for the event.
Like many communities however, Tatamagouche has had its share of bad times. There were four major fires over the years: in 1883, 1905, 1950 and 1953. In each instance, significant sections of the village were destroyed. The people persevered, however, always rebuilding, or moving their businesses to other locations in the village. The descendents of many of these early merchants and citizens are still living in the local area, and could no doubt tell many stories about the ups and downs of early Tatamagouche life.
A history of Tatamagouche would not be complete without remembering the prominent citizens who laid the foundations of our present day village. People like Frank Patterson, William Nelson, Betty Murray, Dr. Charles Gass, Roy Kennedy and Ray Carruthers, just to name a few, were tireless volunteers and community leaders. They all worked diligently to promote the area, and turn it into a modern, progressive community. The Festival of the Arts (1956-1965) has to be considered a major event when looking back on Tatamagouche’s history, because it left a huge impact on the people of our village and surrounding area. Each summer the festival took place for a whole week, and drew upwards of twenty thousand people into the village! The Festival would certainly not have been as successful, without the efforts of many tireless volunteers.
Now in the 21st century, Tatamagouche is bucking the trend of rural decline, and has actually experienced a significant population increase over the past few years. Ground has been broken on a brand new Primary to Grade 12 school. To be known as the Tatamagouche Regional Academy, it is slated to open its doors in September of 2017. The old Tatamagouche Creamery has been restored (2010) into a heritage centre (Margaret Fawcett Norrie Heritage Centre), inviting tourists to explore the area’s history. Tatamagouche has much to offer: the Trans-Canada Trail, running along the Waugh River, directly behind the town, links up various picnic sites and scenic views along the way such as Patterson’s Wharf and Nelson’s Park. There is also a thriving Farmer’s Market, adjacent to a restored grain elevator with quaint shops. The recently completed Grace Jollymore Joyce Performing Arts Centre hosts many musical, artistic, and cultural events, while the Fraser Cultural Centre showcases the art works of local, regional, and nationally acclaimed artists.
A number of new businesses, including Tatamagouche Brewery, The Tipperary Cafe, Jack and Ella’s Gift Shop, From Away Jewellery, Meeting Waters Coffee, and Appleton Chocolates, have revitalized Main Street and bode well for the town’s economic future. A new Subway Store is being constructed at the other end of town, yet another example of entrepreneurial confidence in the area. We are very proud of our village’s vibrant and fascinating history, and very confident in our bright future.
North Shore Archives (compiled from Roy Kennedy’s collection)
North Shore Archives (excerpts from Frank H. Patterson’s book,. The History of Tatamagouche)
Gucciardo, Dorotea “The Powered Generation: Canadians, Electricity and Everyday Life “ (2011)
Ellen Giles Millard “Back When”