Friday, December 11, 2015

The Lansdowne Letters: The Price of Potatoes

In my last northern post, Freeze-Up Strikes,
a blogging friend Janie asked:
"How did they have enough food to get through the winter?"
This has come up before, so I thought I should address it.

Locally available food was scarce and unreliable  
in the remote community of Lansdowne House 
in the dense coniferous forest of northern Ontario.
What and how much you had to eat
largely depended upon if you were Indian or White.

Lansdowne House
Looking Toward the Mainland and the Hudson's Bay Post
Photo by Donald MacBeath
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved

If you were Ojibwa in 1960, most likely you
subsisted on food obtained by hunting or fishing
and goods bought at the Hudson's Bay Post.

The land and water provided fish, rabbits, beaver, 
geese, ducks, and a rare moose according to the season, 
while the post sold staples like bread, flour, 
sugar, potatoes, lard, bologna, and canned milk.

A Ojibwa favorite was homemade bannock 
made with flour, fried in grease, and served with jam or sugar.

   Canada Goose

If you were White in 1960, most likely you
ate well on food transported in from the Outside.
How your food was delivered depended upon 
when you arrived and how long you stayed in the village.

White people living in Lansdowne House year round 
ordered a year's supply of non-perishable groceries at a time.
Those groceries arrived by tractor train in the winter, 
along with other supplies, heavy machinery, and fuel drums.

Isolated northern communities and mining camps 
depended on the tractor trains that crawled slowly 
across the frozen land, water, and muskeg.

A powerful tractor hauled a number of loaded sleds.
At least two drivers and a cook, men who could withstand 
the rigors of weather, danger, and loneliness,
lived and worked on the tractor train,
sharing cramped, boxlike living quarters on a sled.

An Early Tractor Train
Date and Location Unknown
Nor Can I Determine Copyright
Google   Source???  

If you arrived in Lansdowne House after the tractor train run,
then your food and other supplies had to be flown in.
Anyone craving fresh milk, butter, eggs, or produce
had to fly them in as well. 

As far as I know only Father Ouimet and Brother Bernier
had a garden where they grew potatoes.
The four white women regularly baked bread,
cookies, pies, cakes, and biscuits for their families.

When my mother and we five children arrived 
in Lansdowne House in late February, 1961, 
we quickly tired of powdered milk, powdered potatoes, 
powdered eggs, and canned vegetables,
although Spam was an unexpected treat.

A few years after we left the North, 
my father wrote of an incident that still makes me smile
and reminds me of how much my mother loved her potatoes.

My father recounted:
You soon learned to use the lightest items of food available.
Instant potatoes instead of whole potatoes for instance,
and powdered milk instead of whole milk.


My wife, Sara,
learned about potatoes
the hard way.

She didn't like
instant potatoes and
was always longing
for whole potatoes.

I always said that we couldn't have them 
because they were too expensive,
but I guess I neglected to explain why.

One night, "Chicago Bill" Stranach,
a Superior Airways pilot
out of Nakina, Ontario,
was forced to spend the night at
Lansdowne House.

"Chicago Bill" at Father Ouimet's
Photo by Donald MacBeath
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved

Unknown to me, Sara 
got to talking to him 
about the high cost of potatoes
and how she longed
to have some whole potatoes.

Mom, Lake Attawapiskat
Photo by Donald MacBeath
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved

"Chicago Bill" was real helpful and told Sara 
he could buy a bushel bag of potatoes for her for $1.25.  
Sara was quite elated and told him 
to bring her a bag on his next trip.  
She was going to surprise me though, 
so she didn't tell me.

I do not know who was more surprised,
I, when I saw the potatoes,
or Sara, when she received a bill for $10.25 -
$1.25 for the potatoes and $9.00 air freight charges.

Not that my father didn't learn the hard way himself.
When he first stopped at the Hudson's Bay post
shortly after flying into Lansdowne House for the first time,
he walked in, opened a Coke, and drank it 
just like he would have at Charlie's in Charlottetown.

It was his first and last bottle of Coke at the Bay.
Dad said, "I nearly dropped when the clerk at the Hudson’s Bay 
asked me for 35¢ after I had drunk the Coke."

Poor Dad!
He loved his Coke as much as Mom loved her potatoes.

People in the North quickly learned,
as my father wrote, "that prices were out of this world."
Air freight charges of 10¢ to 15¢ a pound
added to the price of groceries and supplies
made a big dent in family budgets.

We five ate what was served and were grateful for it.
We knew only too well that many 
of our Indian friends were often hungry.

Till next time ~
Fundy Blue

Beautiful Cove on Long island,
in the Bay of Fundy, Nova Scotia
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved

Links to Earlier Posts:

TLL: Luring Teachers into the North

TLL: A Housewarming Northern Style

1.  A Bushel (Potatoes) weighs 60 pounds or 27 kilograms  

2.  Charlie's in Charlottetown:
     Charlie Munroe and his wife Lillian ran a neighborhood grocery store
     at the corner of Edward and Euston streets in Charlottetown, P.E.I.
     When I was a small child, my father would sometimes treat me to a Coke at Charlie's,
     and occasionally Lillian would give me a homemade cookie
     if it were late in the afternoon and all her baked goods hadn't sold.

For Map Lovers Like Me:

Lansdowne House, Ontario, Canada


  1. Fascinating story and photos! Thanks for sharing!

    1. Hi, Ian! Thank you for visiting, especially when I have been so absent! Have a great weekend!

  2. I've never heard of powdered potatoes, sounds depressing

    actually nevermind I have. I did look up that instant mashed potatoes does exist

  3. So appreciate the grocery stores better now lol the shipping sure can be killer, especially the more isolated you are. or if you have to ship across the border and get all those stupid fees lol

    1. I am awestruck every time I walk into my new King Supers and see the array of groceries and goods that are available. The produce section alone is bigger than most grocery stores I went to during the first twenty-two years of my life. Have a good one, Pat!

  4. Hey Fundy, Wow, do I remember the powdered milk and potatoes - YUCK! Hugs Barb

    1. Yuck is right, Barb! And we got the milk at school every day too. Often I had to mix it up for the school, and sometimes I even had to carry the boiled water from home to school for the milk.
      Have a great day! Hugs!

  5. That is a lot of potatoes. Powdered type, yes, I have had them once, floury and tasteless, but they filled in when we were camping. Powdered milk, that is OK, and so good if you live in a remote area and don't have a freezer.

    1. We had potatoes almost every day, Jean. Five children could eat a lot of food in the North, and potatoes were filling. Our "freezer" was a bucket on the roof containing frozen meat. Sometimes Dad had to hack some free with an axe. He kept the bucket on the roof so the Indian dogs couldn't get at it. I hope you are enjoying a great weekend! We may get snow tonight. Take care.

  6. Oh dear, I KNEW there was going to be a huge delivery cost at the end of the potato anecdote!!! We are very lucky in this day and age.x

    1. Yes we are, Kezzie! And I really appreciate how much easier things are today! I hope you are having a great week!

  7. I did have powdered milk for a time during my teen years, it was O.K., but I do prefer its liquid version. Another great post and photos, Louise, and that Canada goose in flight. Wow! :)

    1. I have never recovered from my powdered milk experiences in the North, Linda! Thanks, always for your kind comments!

  8. Food is still extremely expensive in the Far North, something we who live close to major cities in southern Canada often forget. Thanks for the reminder!

    1. The Far North is a challenging, but wonderful place. I'd love to see more of it. Have a good one!

  9. Oh how we take our food for granted here in the 'south', eh Louise? And even more so back in the 60's!
    Nonetheless, your family's experience was invaluable for you all. Instant potatoes! And instant milk. I remember when they were very popular. My family mixed instant milk with whole milk to 'stretch' the costs. Oh those were the days, my friend.

    1. My mother did the same thing sometimes, Jim! Stretching whole milk ~ But never whole potatoes! I often shake my head at the expensive food we use today and all that gets wasted or thrown out. We've had quite a snowstorm here today, and I made my first ever chicken pot pie. Terry is a happy man tonight with a full and contented tummy. LOL! Have great day tomorrow!

  10. Another great post this day I will not drink milk made from powder or instant mash potatoes! I can't even imagine what Mom fed us all...what a challenge. XXOO Dutchess


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