Mud Isle: Mussel Mud Digging on PEI

This morning I wrote an article for NiCHE Canada’s blog on the use of mussel mud fertilizer. The extraction and spreading of mussel mud on Prince Edward Island’s frozen fields was a winter activity recorded by all of the 19th century contributors to Real Time Farming. I argued that PEI farmers improved food security and the productivity of mixed farming through the innovative use of mussel mud, a local, organic fertilizer extracted from estuaries. However, mud digging quickly became unsustainable as commercial and Provincial outfits exhausted the mud in several rivers and destroyed some of the world’s best oyster habitats. Farmers clashed with fishermen over rights to shell beds, and Federal officials ultimately encouraged farmers to adopt chemical fertilizers.

In this Real Time Farming post I have collected the mud-digging updates of the farmers, mapped some of their journeys from estuaries to upland fields, and shown how farmers adapted to new work patterns and a new resource. Farmers like the Andersons and the MacEacherns began to rely more heavily on nearby sea manure in this period, whereas farmers like Roderick Munn bought completely new farms in part, it seems, for their access to mussel mud.

York Point

Robert Harris Mussel Mud Digging, Undated, Source: Confederation Centre Art Gallery

In the winter of 1866, Francis Bain mentioned only that he was “at work on the ice,” but he did not explain exactly what he was doing. It is quite possible that he was digging some sort of sea manure for fertilizing his farmland in spring. The West (Eliot) River and North River were the most important mud digging locations in Prince Edward Island, and Bain would have been very familiar with the sight of dozens of sleighs crossing the ice to haul the rich fertilizer to their fields. Bain’s prolific journals rarely indicated who he was with or what they were doing; his focus was on wildlife. But by 1886, we know that Bain brought samples of mussel mud to a farm exhibit, and he described the natural history of mussel mud for readers of the Prince Edward Island Agriculturalist (March 11, 1886):

Every lowly tribe of the deep has brought its tribute of the store-house of manurial wealth. Oysters, mussels, quahogs, clams, the showy valved petracola and the ebony littorina, the delicate cuminia and the great rugged spired urosalpinx, corraline and starfish, sponge and protozoa lived on and were entombed in its mass, while a thousand harvests of algae added their varied foliage to swell its riches.

Rice Point

The journals of John MacEachern are a useful indicator of the shift in PEI agricultural history in the 1860s and 1870s, a shift that occurred as farmers realized the benefit of applying mussel mud to hay fields. High acidity in the soil caused a shortage in food and fodder, and Island farmers began to spread calcareous mussel mud in the period as a solution. In 1866, the winter months were quiet in Rice Point, and the MacEachern family hauled firewood across the ice for consumers in Charlottetown. By 1879, a new activity had made the winter months busier than ever. MacEachern was near the end of his life at this point, and it appears that he did not go with his sons to the mud diggers.

John MacEachern, 1879

Mar 3, Neil & Ln began mud digging

Mar 13, Sunny, D. N. & Ln at the Mdg [mud digging?]

Mar 24, Snow on fields for hauling

Mar 31, Still soft, no heavy rain, brought M. Digger ashore

Most of the diaries revealed the importance of understanding ice thickness and weather conditions in a dangerous industry like mud digging. John MacEachern’s and Annie Anderson’s regular notes about temperature (thawing, freezing, mild), wind (drifting, direction, or simply “fine”), and the condition of the ice were about more than small talk and pedantic jottings. This was critical information if these people expected to find their way to the ice, sometimes hours before daylight, and navigate horses and machinery around open holes, soft spots, and freshets. A knowledge of place was critical both for finding mud and for returning safely to the shore without losing the fertilizer, the horse, or their lives.

Fernwood

Anderson sisters, 1879

Mussel mud diggers on Bedeque Bay, PEI, Undated, Minnie Anderson Album,
Courtesy of Winifred Wake

In the mid-nineteenth century, livestock owners looked for ways to supplement the increasingly inadequate salt marsh hay. Farms like the Anderson’s in Seacow Head had excellent access to salt marshes along the shores of Salutation Cove, but they still extracted large amounts of sea manure from multiple locations every year. The Anderson diary shows the many spinoff jobs that mud digging created: hired labour was required in the busiest periods, paths from the estuaries to the fields required snow clearing, and the mud digger required maintenance. Often repairs were done in the off season but other times in the thick of the mud season. For example, in March, 1879, when the men “broke the shovel tonight,” and had to haul it to Summerside the next day for repair. The shovel broke again the following day, and had to be hauled home.

February, Tues 18th, Breaking mud-road

Mon 24th, Breaking roads. Fine

Thurs 27th, Thawing fast. Mary sick at McF’s with measles at L–

March, Sat 1st, Fine. Repairing mud-digger.

Mon 3rd, Fine. Men putting out mud digger

Tues 4th, Commenced to haul mud

Sat 8th, Fine all this week. Men got 50 loads of mussel mud home.

Tues 11th, Fine. Yesterday & today men hauling mud, broke the shovel tonight

Wed 12th, Fine. Men went to Summerside with the shovel. Brought Mary home

Thurs 13th Fine, Broke the steeple of the mud shovel this morning had to come home and took all the forenoon to mend it

Fri 14th – Fine, Men working at the mud

Sat 15th Rained hard last night. Men got 93 loads of mud home altogether

Mon 17th – Stormy but hauling mud. Miss M. McFarlane here to tea

Tues 18th – Hauling mud. Fine

Sat 22nd – Finished hauling mud dug 140 loads. Father & Mary went to Summerside in the afternoon

Wed 26th – Hauling marsh-hay Father. Mother and Mary went to Archie McC’s to see Jane

Sat 29th – Hauled mud-digger ashore. Went to Mr M. McFarlane’es’ Jeff in the jaunting McCallum married to John Donalds 

Marshfield

The account books of Roderick Munn of Marshfield, Prince Edward Island reveal a little about his soil treatment strategy and how it may have affected yields. The account book spans the years 1876-1912, including resettlement from Wood Islands to Marshfield in 1880, and a steady period of mud hauling, 1881-1888. His mud hauling days produced almost 1,400 loads of mud for his land; and based on the timing behind his move to Marshfield, the rich shell beds in close proximity to his home were a major incentive to buy there. The accounts also record at least one of Munn’s digging sites, and so we are able to trace a probable route from the site on the water to Munn’s property in the map below. Sites were recorded by lines of sight, and by marking the ice with bushes. Munn’s “Land mark for our digger site in 1888,” was as follows: “McEachern’s Chimney in a line with bush at McLeod’s shore and bush in P Robertson’s field in a line with East end of Sheep House.”

Map of Roderick Munn property and mud hauling path. Sources: Public Archives and Records Office, Munn Account Books; Map overlay is from National Topographic Series map for Rustico, Department of National Defense, 1944.

Elmsdale

Basil McNeill bought mud by the load from various outfits in the Alberton area, and he referred to his suppliers simply by their first names: Warren and Jess. When he wasn’t socializing with friends, or “drunk and scrapping” at local parties, McNeill was hauling mud for the better part of two months. This year (1912) was unusually cold. On March 18 he got stuck on soft roads and figured “the hauling is over for this year.” The mild spell and freshets wreaked havoc on the roads and ice, but it was only temporary and a cold “Nor West Wind” mobilized the diggers for another two weeks. In the first week of April, McNeill recorded a massive snow storm, and thanks to weather that was “cold for the time of year” one of his neighbours continued “hauling mud yet.”

Basil McNeill, 1912

Feb. 6, Weather very mild. Daddy and I sawed wood most all day. Trigged up a sleigh box for to go at the mud. Frank Yeo was over. I was down to Eby’s in the evening for medicine. Am sick today.

Feb. 7, Weather very mild. Spent a bitch of a night was fevered and raving all night but was a lot better in the morning. … The mud road was broke today…

Feb. 8, Weather mild with snow flurries.… Finished rigging up my sleigh and started hauling mud in the afternoon.…

Feb. 9, Weather very blustery but not storming. Too rough to haul mud.…

Feb. 13, Weather clear and cold. … went for a load of mud after dinner bad road.

Feb. 14, Weather fine and frosty. Hauled mud two trips and drove out to Alberton in the evening. Got a hair cut…. Got my mud from Warren ?

Feb. 15, Weather frosty. Went for one load of mud….

Feb. 16, Weather cold with raw wind. Hauled 2 loads of mud…It looks very much like a storm tonight.…

Feb. 19, Weather fine. Went for mud in the afternoon….Got my mud from Jess.

Feb. 20, Weather fine. Hauled mud 2 trips.

Feb. 21, Weather fine. Hauled mud 2 trips and went to Elmsdale in the evening. Frank came with me.

Feb. 22, Raining in the morning. Hauled mud after dinner.…

Feb. 24, Weather still very cold. Came home from Sandies [Forsyth’s]. Will came with me. Hauled mud in the afternoon and drove Will home.…

Feb. 26, Weather nice and fine. Hauled mud two trips.

Feb. 27, Weather chilly with heavy raw east wind. Hauled mud but got caught in a storm on my last trip.…

Mar. 5, Weather very cold in the morning. Went for mud 2 trips. Went down to Sandie Forsyth’s for mother in the evening and met Charlie taking her home. We met in deep snow and got into a bad mix up. Upset both horses and sleighs and broke both sleigh. Mother walked home. Ha ha ha.

March 6, Weather still cold. Went for mud in the afternoon. Roads were very heavy.

Mar. 7, Weather mild with snow fall in the evening. Went for mud in the afternoon….

Mar. 8, Weather fine. Hauled mud one trip and went to Sandies….

Mar. 9, Weather cloudy with raw east wind. Went for mud 2 trips…. Ambrose Coleman got his horse in the ice today. Big dance at Andrew Arthur’s last night. Everyone was drunk and some scrapping.…

Mar. 14, Clear and fine with high winds but not cold. Hauled mud in the afternoon. Good roads.

Mar. 15, Weather mild and cloudy. Hauled mud all day.…

Mar. 18, Weather fine…. Hauled mud in the morning. Got stuck. Guess the hauling is over for this year….

Mar. 19, Weather clear and mild… Roads very bad. Big freshet on….

Mar. 21, Weather cold with Nor West Wind. Hauled one load of mud…. Roads were good.

Mar. 22, Weather cold. Hauled mud all day.

Mar. 23, Weather fine. Hauled mud 2 trips. Went for a skate in the evening and drove to Elmsdale afterwards.…

Mar. 25, Weather fine but drifting. Hauled mud 2 trips. Cold in the evening and blowing hard.

Mar. 26, Weather milder. Hauled mud all day.

May. 27, Weather fine. Hauled mud all day and went to Elmsdale….

Mar. 28, Weather fine. Hauled mud all day and Frank Yeo hauled a load for me….

Mar. 29, Weather fine in the morning. Raining later…. Hauled one load of mud. Went to Eby’s afterward.…

Apr. 4, Weather fine but cold for the time of year. Charlie Dunn is hauling mud yet. Sawed wood with Frank Yeo and went to Elmsdale in the evening.

Map of Basil McNeill property and mud hauling path. Sources: Diary of Basil McNeill

For more information on mussel mud on Prince Edward Island see “The Harvests of Prince Edward Island”.

10 thoughts on “Mud Isle: Mussel Mud Digging on PEI

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  3. Fascinating article. I’m researching freight traffic patterns and operations on the Prince Edward Island Railway at the turn of the 20th century. I’ve seen references to mussel mud carried on the railway in several income statements and I’d really like to learn more about this industry. I have seen a photograph of the wharf the Provincial government actually built at Midgell to extract the mud from St. Peter’s Bay and would like to know more about how far mud from the Bay was shipped, etc.

    Thanks for posting this article.

    • Glad you liked the article. I’d love to hear more about the references to mussel mud on PEIR. I know William Lyon Mackenzie King took up issues including lower freight-rates on mussel mud when he was an MP for PEI. I’ve done some mapping of the St. Peter’s Bay mussel mud beds, spur, and government scow, which might be of interest if you ever go to model this area. Send me a note if you have more information or questions (jmacfad@uwo.ca) Cheers, Josh.

      • Good morning.

        I’m curious. When I first started to learn about this industry I assumed that farmers who used mussel mud as fertilizer dug it themselves. As I started to see it appear in the Railway’s own income statements I started to get fairly excited about learning more about it as a traffic source to be researched.

        How did a farmer purchase the mud for his farm? Who was the agent for this transaction? In the case of the provincial operation at Midgell would the Railway itself have acted as agent for this transaction? Not sure how the mud was sold. Perhaps by weight? e.g. would you order “by the ton”? This reminds me I’ll need to dig up my notes on how the mud was recorded and I think it was by the number of carloads the railway handled.

        I’d really like to see any mapping you’ve done of the Midgell area. I’m working on maps of the railway through Morrell to compliment my work on the St. Peter’s Bay area. The 1935 aerial photographs available on the PEI Provincial Government’s website seem to vaguely indicate where the railway spur to access the scow was located but I’m always excited to learn more.

        Cheers
        /chris

  4. Reblogged this on Prince Street Terminal and commented:
    I was searching through the internet and came across this blog post discussing mussel mud harvesting and use on PEI in the late nineteenth century. It’s a subject I’m fascinated by and something that I think would be interesting to include on any model railway based on the PEIR during this period. Even if this never makes it onto a model this commodity is one that really features highly in any research I persue documenting freight traffic patterns on the PEIR.

  5. Good evening. I was searching around in the archive.org website and found a neat book published in 1872 discussing fertilizer options including discussion on guano and mussel mud. At around two dozen pages it’s a quick read and I found it interesting (but, then again, maybe just me). The link to the book itself is kind of akward so I posted it on my own blog:

    The book is:
    “An inquiry into the nature and value of the various shell muds used in Prince Edward Island as manures and improvers of the soil”

    I thought maybe it would be something you might find interesting too.

  6. Josh, Just wondering if you have seen the info about mussel mud digging in Clint Morrison’s Book “Along the North Shore- A Social History of Township 11, PEI, 1765-1982” see pages 127-129.

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