Historical Geographies of Six Mile Brook

Trudging over broken brush and rotting timber brings the historical rural world to life. I recall Graeme Wynn talking about historical geographers requiring stout boots, and it’s an image that’s stayed with me for a long time.  Indeed, when one studies abandoned agricultural landscapes – think Nova Scotia, eastern Ontario, much of New England – walking these landscapes allows us to much better imagine the world they were shaping – and the ways the landscape was shaping their activities. I don’t think I ever “got” Minudie until I walked its dykes and stood at the head of its human-built promontory holding back the force of massive ocean tides. Nor did I really understand what it meant to farm backland settlements until I walked the roads above Mabou.

Last week, on a hot mid-August afternoon, I walked Six Mile Brook, and did so with a knowledgeable guide. Everett McCulloch, who in 1975 married Bessie Barry’s great-granddaughter, owns most of the land that was once James Barry’s mills and fields. Everett took me over the site of the mill, along the brook, and the freshet floodways; we walked over where the house once stood, avoided falling into the still-open well, and observed the changing forest composition – birch and maple pushing out the spruce that took over when the site was abandoned. All the while, Everett regaled me with stories, family lore, astute observations on the landscape, and a sharp awareness of the Barry’s place in this corner of the world. I take great delight that in working on a project that has spawned two digital projects I found a treasure trove of sources on a walk along a brook.

At the mill site, looking upstream

The most obvious feature is that Six Mile Brook is very much a brook. While this photo is from mid-August after a hot dry summer, it’s a pretty small stream and it’s very easy to see why in summer Barry so often lamented low water. This photo is exactly at the point of the mill pond.  There were two small pools in sight, one visible just up from where I stood, and one out of the picture to the left where Everett still catches trout.  But at no point is the brook deeper than 50-60 cm, and at no point was it more than 2 metres across. The floodway shoulder is much wider, however, and one can see that at some seasons the brook would be about 6 or 7 metres across.

Not so obvious from this photo is that this point on the brook forms a kind of bowl. No doubt this shape was augmented by Barry and his father, but it’s also clear that this was a very good location to form a mill pond. In the following photo, looking directly across the stream, one can see the bank which formed part of the pond wall. It’s a poor photo – the day was very bright and the forest shadows made photography difficult – but that dark stretch through the trees is a bank about 3 metres high. Adding that space to the widest point of the brook, I’d then estimate the mill pond was about 10 metres at its widest point.

At the mill site, looking across to the side of the mill pond.

When Everett bought the land in 1975, the house was abandoned but still standing,  and some of the mill remained. There were parts of machinery, some of the gears for the mill wheel, some grindstones (one of which Everett has in his workshop), and miscellaneous debris. Today, all that remains are the foundation of the mill, and some portions of the foundation of the house.

Mill foundation, north side

The mill foundation offers a kind of mystery. It was built on a forty-five degree angle to the stream. I’m no authority on mill construction, but I’ve never seen a mill which wasn’t built in line with the stream. I’ll need to do some research here.  Only two walls remain, and naturally these are the two away from the stream. Everett knows that people have pillaged a fair bit of stone from the site, but most of this appears to have come from the house.

All the while, Everett told stories. I knew some of it, but much was new.  Most striking was his knowledge of Bessie’s family, and Josephine’s life. Josephine, I had already surmised, died sadly, at the age of 77, alone working as a domestic for a Pictou family. Everett’s understanding, and this is certainly confirmed in the diary, is that after her mother died in 1883 Josephine spent her life caring for her father until he died in 1906. She never married, never left Six Mile Brook. I have nothing on her after 1906, but the family’s sense is of a sad life.  Bessie, on the other hand, led a full life, marrying young (at 17), and bearing seven children. One of whom, Maudie, was Everett’s wife’s grandmother. Everett knew Maudie; she recalled Bessie as a cheerful person, but told him very different stories about James Barry. The details are scant, but the impression was very clearly of an angry, unhappy man.

Everett also had a clear sense of Bell’s unhappiness, including the detail (that James Barry never really acknowledged) that Bell was buried in her parent’s grave at Scotsburn, not the Barry plot in Six Mile Brook. There can be no clearer sense of two lives apart.

Isabella McLennan, aka “Bell” Barry, was buried with her parents in St. John’s Cemetery, Scotsburn, NS (photo from Sept 2018).

Everett also knew that James and his brother Anthony had a poor relationship. But he had little sense that it related to the mill. The diary indicates that James had not inherited the mill when their father died, but had borrowed money to buy it from Anthony. That deal fell apart – the diary is not clear on this – and there was bad blood for the next thirty years. Everett’s understanding though is that somehow another local family, the Sutherlands – George and William both had land adjoining Barry – had either been a partner or an investor (which could include loaning Barry the money) in the early mill. There’s no indication of that in the diary and the only time I’ve seen Sutherlands mentioned is when they’re working for or buying from Barry. I’m not at this point sure how important these details are, but I’m certainly intrigued to hear their continued presence in Six Mile Brook.

Finally, before Everett came by, I wandered for a bit along the stream. I was really struck by the wildflowers and especially the profusion of wild strawberries, raspberries, and blackberries. James Barry showed very few tender moments, but most of them were with Josephine. Many of these occasions were when they went for summer walks, picking berries, and sometimes wildflowers. Once, Barry waxed with a sweet delight about a bouquet of wildflowers Josephine had delivered to him earlier that day. Early in their relationship, Bell and Barry roamed up into the hills too, but as their marriage failed Bell’s walks were only with the girls as they escaped to her family’s house on Roger’s Hill. There was much pain in Six Mile Brook, much unhappiness. But that day as I wandered along the stream, I had a very real sense of the simple pleasures Six Mile Brook sometimes held.