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Romantic Canada
Chapter II Barrels

ONE often wonders what it is in handmade things that warms the heart and enkindles the imagination? It is evident chat the charm is there regardless of the value of the object. Perhaps the attraction lies in the human story, the life, the thought and care, that collected the material, conceived the form and colour of the object to be made, and then put it together. How else could the barrels discovered everywhere at harvest time in Bluenoseland be considered romantic? Yet that romance is on every barrel-head in the Gaspereau Valley, in Paradise, longshore from Lunenburg to Sydney, and on the wharves at Halifax, no one who has seen them, would ever doubt. Trade, itself, here waits on the barrel. How can apples go to market if there be no barrel? Lives there a man who has ever heard of shipping potatoes in a—box? How could mackerel swim in brine, out of Halifax, to the ports of the world, were it not for the barrel? "'Why, business just leans on a barrel-stave down our way," a witty merchant of these parts was once heard to exclaim.

Each trade calls for a different barrel. There is a barrel for apples, another for potatoes, and still a third for the fish. And, behind each barrel stands the—Cooper—a character in the Gespereau Valley. And housing the Cooper and his quaint trade, every so often, voyaging along these sweet country roads, one happens on the "Cooperage", always a landmark of its neighbourhood.

Stepping into the door of a cooperage, one is met by the smell of scorching wood and the smoke thereof. Through the smoke, and bending over the barrel, whence it comes, behold, the cooper! Plenty of finished barrels stand about in the large room. The cooper nods his head toward one of them and we step quietly to the proffered seat. For a moment, one fears that the cooper will stop work to talk, and the spell be broken. But no, he goes on. In the "tub" or "jack", with a groove in the bottom, he places new staves in a large iron ring or hoop the size of the barrel to be made. About the staves, creaking as the tournijuct is twisted tighter and tighter, a stout piece of Manilla rope slowly draws each stave to its fellow and all into a perfect round. Tauter and tauter the rope is wound, long after you think the breaking point has been reached. Then one's eyes are drawn from the barrel to the man.

His eye is like an eagle's for clarity. He has forgotten everything in the world but the barrel. The tension in the room is so great one could hear a pin fall. Then, the hand relaxes, the spell is broken, the barrel is "set up". Afterward, the barrel, having no bottom or head in at as yet, set over the drum-stove in which there is a fire. And while it scorches and dries and toasts a golden brown on the inside, the cooper talks a little, turning the barrel. He cuts the birch boughs that make the hoops, from the woods, in winter, in the slack season when time hangs heavy. No, "he does not work-up the staves." Buys them from a sawmill down the road (the direction of the mill being indicated by a sweep of the arm). Keeps them for a time, to season the wood. So with the bundles of split birches. Then following his eye glancing aloft, one sees the ceiling, hung with the straight, tobacco-brown withes afforded by the Nova Scotia woods, especially provided of Nature it would seem, to gird up the sticks of dumb wood over in the corner into — staves.

The smell of the scorching barrel by this time fills the cooperage with its own peculiar perfume anew, like puffs of incense, from a censor replenished. Now the cooper turns again to his work, visitors out of mind. He hits the barrel over the head of the stove, selects an adze and a split birch-ward. In a twinkling, a curve is swept around the barrel and with the eye alone, expert measurement is taken of the long wood-ribbon. Slish! The adze has cut! Attention is now drawn to a handmade arrangement into which the cooper is slipping the ribbon. His foot comes automatically in contact with a treadle and the withe is turned out, curved permanently. In a twinkling, the adze cuts the little jib- sit two of them, one in each end—into which the hoop, now wound around the barrel has its ends locked forever. Set like a garland about the barrel-head the hoop is driven into plate, tapped round and round and round. The inner edges of the staves are now bevelled off; the groove cut and the head hammered into place. Then on goes the last hoop. And, presto! The barrel is done and thrown over to one side among two or three score of its fellows. The cooper puts some of the shavings into the stove and starts at once, all over again on another barrel. You can see that in his mind's eye he carries a vision of score upon score of waiting orchards, waiting for his barrels, the barrel that he feels it a moral obligation to supply.

How much does he receive in Dayrrent for each barrel? Just five cents. The most expert of these "Old timers" make as many as eighty barrels a day, or enough to keep one skilful apple-picker busy from sunrise to sunset, enough to ensure two full loads to the old cart that looks like some strange tortoise on the highway.

One could sit here forever and watch, fascinated, the cooper at his work. so clean, so redolent of the winter landscape in its hand cut and split birch rods, the air filled with the peculiar, refreshing incense of the toasting staves, the barrel all completed in the mind of the cooper before it materializes in his skilful hand— the barrel, a new barrel, appearing as if by magic every six minutes. What visions one sees through the old door of the men who have come in the carts to its threshold; what tid-bits of news given and received in the half century the old cooper picked up his trade by long association with the cooper ahead of him, and he in his turn from the cooper before him. What tales the old man could tell, and does, while the barrel toasts. One wonders why the story teller has never wandered into this open door and sat him down on one of these barrel heads.

Riding away from this door, in one of the ox-drawn carts, always atmospheric and redolent of a romance denied to speedier transportation, one sets out to follow the barrel into the world, as it were. The ribbon road curves and turns by streams dashing under spreading willows or straight as a line it streches its way between rows of stately Lombardy poplars. We overtake other carts passing Grand Pre Church or standing idly for the moment before a local smithy, one ox looking as if Nirvana had descended upon him, while his fellow steps inside and endures the agony attending the acquisition of a pair of new shoes, the world over. Past creaking carts we go with oxen straining under full loads on their way to the large shipping centres of the railroad. It is a countryside glowing with crimson and yellow, and placid as only autumn that still lingers in the lap of summer, can be. Presently we come to the orchard where we would be. And there the family is gathered, laughing and chatting, waiting for barrels, for orchards and many hands give the cooper and the carter all they can do to supply them with the sweet-smelling barrels.

It is a family party, even the baby is here holding an apple in hand. The family cat rubs its host on every pair of legs before strolling to hunt a field mouse. A mother wagers with her lad, willowy as an apple branch, that she can beat him filling a barrel. Tall ladders, home-made, loll against the topmost branches of Bellefleur and Baldwin. The father of the family cuts out the full barrels for a trip to the Station or Packing house to which he sells. The general conversation may centre around apples or it may wander off, as it is likely to, into an epic of hunting, shooting and bringing home the moose John got yesterday. Or, it may take a turn and become a tale of adventure, telling how Jamie, coming into the orchard this morning, encountered two bears, berry-hunting, directly in the path.

In time we board the cart again and roll around to the Packing House. And one may pick and choose, for the line of the D. A. R. runs through the heart of the fruit region from Dighy to Halifax. And at any of these stations one comes upon the potato barrels, sisters to the apple barrels, and also creations of the skilful old individual, the cooper. We enter, to behold spreading before the eye a sea of apples, with cataracts of them pouring into the sorting troughs. And barrels! Barrels are everywhere. As one goes around these rooms, one witnesses a sort of transfiguration in the old barrel. No longer is it a mere barrel but an argosy, bearing Nova Scotia products—apples and potatoes —on the high tide of Trade into the ports of the world. Here is a group of barrels, tripping it to London. This is by far the largest group, Great Britain being the largest "Foreign" market for the Nova Scotia apple. The barrel must be a strong one that carries the fruit across ocean and through fog, to the markets of England. There is a group marked "inland Canada" and these individual barrels must travel far. And still other groups with the impress of "South Africa" and "South America," where not the barrels alone must suffer hard usage but in the latter case the apples themselves grilled by the change of language, lose their English name and become—Manzana.

It takes some three or four million barrels to supply the demand made on them by the potato and apple crops alone, of Nova Scotia; not to speak of the fish which demands a barrel, and hence a cooper, of its own. What wonder if the barrel be called "a character" in the land, and if business leans upon it, as upon a staff of life?

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