Great Tancook Island is the largest of over three hundred in Mahone Bay on the Nova Scotia south shore. The name Tancook is derived from a native expression meaning "facing the open sea". Most of the early settlers were part of the Protestant immigration recruited primarily in Germany and brought from Europe by the British.
Johann Henrick Becker's bones lay buried under the little Dutch Church on Brunswick Street in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Born 1710 in Schweinsburg, Germany he married Anna Dorothea Henerick. They had one son Johannes Jean Becker. The family sailed from Europe in the British ship Sally landing in Halifax, part of the recruited settlers for the new colony at Lunenburg, NS. Thirty nine of the two hundred and fifty eight passengers perished including the captain. The survivors were kept in Halifax over the winter. Before the year was out the father died (age 42) and the son married Catherine Loy. The following summer (1753) they were taken by ship to Lunenburg. Each immigrant was entitled to a town lot, a nearby garden lot, a 30 acre farm lot and 300 acres of woodland. Johannes and Catherine eventually had six sons four daughters. He and another settler named Grass purchased Great Tancook Island (1800) and in turn sold it to his sons, Jacob, Henry, Frederick, Christian, Andreas and to a brother-in-law John Grass in 1810. At age 83 Johannes expired (1812). His remains are in Bayview Cemetery in town of Mahone Bay in an unmarked grave. Three of the Beckers (Baker) brothers and John Grass (Cross) became Tancook's first permanent residents. They spent the next hundred years working the land the sea and selling off strips of their property.
When I contemplate that my family once owned Tancook and I am reduced to three plots in the cemetery, I feel very much I suspect, like my lifelong friend Hardee Stuart Boutlier Lawrence Jr. His great great grandfather built and sailed the largest wooden vessel ever in Canada, the W.D. Lawrence…. a square rigged ship of over 3400 gross tons, over 12 times the size of the schooner Bluenose. There is a museum at Maitland NS to honour his achievements. One day Hardee and I were lobstering in an 18 foot boat in Bedford Basin…Hardee looked down at our little boat, looked at me and then in a moment of illumination said, "my family's come down a long way".........that's how I have come to feel about my situation and Tancook.
During the 1800's most families were large. Jacob Baker had 10 children, the last being Frederick who in turn had 15 including my great grandfather Stephen. Frederick and a few other families made a stand on Flat Island just off Tancook. Eventually he moved to Jeddore, up the eastern shore from Halifax. Stephen drowned there while fishing age 45. His son, my grandfather Melvin, made his way to Halifax where he worked the rest of his life as a cooper and carpenter. He built a number of houses including his own home on Seaforth St. The highlight of his year was a PEI vacation to visit bother Ernest. Another brother Foster and sister-in-law Edith were killed in the Halifax explosion. Melvin's marriage to Lilis Dicks of Flat Island Placentia Bay, Newfoundland produced seven children including four sons. My father Douglas Vincent was the only son to survive childhood. Aunt Pearl recently died, Aunt Winnie a few years ago in BC and Aunt Rita lives in Halifax where my three children Vaughan, Charlane and Douglas were born.
My mother Carrie Mae Cross was a descendant of the other original settlers of Tancook "The Grass Family". Born in 1906 she sailed on a coastal schooner to Halifax around 1923. Under good conditions this trip could be made in 5 or 6 hours. She took a job at the famous Green Lantern restaurant on Barrington Street where she met my father. Together they had six children. The first, Yvonne died an enfant. I was born at 3 Black Street at a time when birth at home was the common practise. My four sisters, three older , Joan, Von, Veronica(Tink) and Deanna all eventually moved to Connecticut and by 1957 my mother followed. My father died in Miami Florida in 1962, mom in Connecticut in 1993. I brought her ashes back to Tancook and placed them near those of her father William "Ole Billy"Cross and grandfather Charles Cross*. The stone I placed reads "Loved and Was Loved". We held an outdoor committal service on a beautiful October day. A friend from Florida, Bob Paulin (he once toured with Hank Snow and played with me at Oak Island one summer) conducted the service. Mary Baker and sister Dora from the Tancook Choir sang accompanied by Joey Carver on guitar. It was like a scene out-of-a-movie.........a most memorable day attended by a number of Tancookers some who still remembered mom as a girl.
About the time my mother left Tancook the social life of the Island slipped into a state of decline in both industry and population. Today fewer than 150 people live on the island from a once robust community of 750. A few boats still fish but it is a pale reflection of the industry of bygone days so vividly outlined in Wayne M O'Leary's book "Tancook Schooners". Last year even the general store closed. Many of the great characters have died but it is still a worthwhile trip. I can honestly say I always have a good time on Tancook.
In July of 1963 I was in the drywall business in Halifax and received a call from Elmer Cross, asking me to come to Tancook to work on his new house at South East Cove. Elmer operated the general store. I was excited to go, drove to Chester, where I picked up the ferry. Elmer met me when we came alongside at Tancook. His wife Geraldine provided room and board. I worked on the house by day and each evening roamed the Island meeting relatives making new friends and looking the place over. One night there was a dance at the little Orange Hall. I asked Heather Young if I could walk her home but an inebriated Carl Baker insisted on driving us - that is until he hit the ditch and whacked a fence post. He turned to the back seat and said in a matter-of-fact way "....well, that as far as I can take you tonight". I also met young Reid Wilneff, a distant relative who drowned a few years later when the Cape Bonnie ran aground near Halifax. Tancook at that time still had lots of boats rigged for sword fishing and the Mason boatyard buildings were still standing. There were many fields of cabbage and a few animals in the pastures.. All this has pretty much passed away.
Aside from the natural beauty I always was amused by the social setup. With no police presence the cars had no plates, insurance, mufflers. You could see wood cabs on vehicles that had rusted apart and twelve year old kids driving around smoking cigars ......... there was a sort of "kingdom unto itself"attitude. This outlaw flavour led to many comical events. One day Harley Wilson came running out of his house and insisted I accept two bottles of his latest batch of "berry"wine. Rather than carry two bottles I stuck one on the seat of Doug Stevens pickup. The other I shared as I made my stops. Later that day as Doug and I approached his truck I spied a leak and suggested he had a brake line problem..........it looked like rose coloured hydraulic fluid.......but when he opened the door on this warm summer day it was clear what had happened.........the heat in the enclosed cab worked the wine and the bottled exploded, the juice flooded the seat and drip, drip, drip, made it's way to the ground. Now there was some sputterin' from Doug let me tell you............and I still nudge him now and again about his hydraulic leak. Another time following a performance we were waiting on the dock for the ferry. A well lubricated cousin Neil Cross stuck his head out of his wheelhouse and offered to run us into Chester. With guitars and amps we all piled aboard. Billy McCulloch from Noel was playing lead for us that day and his wife Rada hade never been on the water in her life. Off we went for Chester with Neil and a friend operating and the rest of the gang spread out on deck. Bye and bye I noticed we were drifting off course......this was strange for the water was surprisingly calm. I went forward and there on the floor in the wheelhouse were both men passed out. We took the boat into Chester and revived Neil and his pal. When Rada disembarked she was one shaken woman. To this day Neil has no memory of the trip. Later that night back on Tancook he ditched his truck.......the next day he took the pledge.
When I moved to Mahone Bay in 1978 I met the country singer "Little Buddy" Hirtle, Tancook Island's favourite son. We became such good friends I had him as best man at my second wedding. One day I was having a party at my house on Main Street with the dory-rowing champion Sonny Heisler and few others. Buddy and I went outside to sit on the steps when this woman in a scarlet ankle length skirt came down the street and stopped to ask for directions. I looked into her eyes, trying to remember where I'd met her .......... did she buy a painting from me............... was she a former student? Buddy whispered in my ear.......... "that's Carol Baker". My name was on a sign by the door. I jokingly told Carol I was her "kissing cousin". Later I wrote a song about this meeting. Linda Mason, a reporter for the Halifax Herald had been at the party and told Carol about the song. Carol was about to play the Bridgewater Exhibition. She invited us to come over and sing the song before her performance. Buddy had just recorded his famous hit "My Cabbage Pickin' Home". To get some promotion we decided to show up and do both songs.
On the night of the show I was nervous as a leaf in the breeze. I had never performed on stage, never sang through a mike, and to make matters worse, the guitar I borrowed from Buddy had a poor strap and it let go halfway through the number.......but we got through somehow. From then on Buddy would get me on stage to do a song or two whenever he could. He had a band called Sarsaparillas featuring Fiddlin' Jim Hamm with Lorne Baker on bass. Every year they were booked for the annual Herring Choker's Picnic on Tancook and I had a few chances to perform with them on Tancook. Eventually I had my own group and one of the highlights of my musical activities was to get booked to do the picnic....along with my wife Linda who sings and plays bass and my son Doug a singer and guitar player. When he was a boy he lived a Tom Sawyer life on the island staying with Warren and Olive Pearl. They treated him like a son. Pearly and Sarah Cross nicknamed Doug "The Devil of the Rising Sun"because he would show up at their door so early in the morning. Doug is now with the RCMP at Montague PEI.
Eventually I wrote another song about Tancook and had the opportunity to perform it at a number of Tancook events. At the Lunenburg Fisheries Museum in 2005 they held a special Tancook Day and launched a Tancook Whaler replica. I produced two paintings of the whaler and donated one to the Fisheries Museum's permanent collection. Earlier I had given an oil featuring the Tancook "root cellars"to Farr‘s Museum at S.E. Cove. Linda and I also delivered a musical program that day which included my Tancook song.
I have spent a lot of time photographing and sketching the island. For a number of years I took my paint-on-location summer class there. In 1985 I painted a show featuring East Ironbound Island. In many respects it was the most satisfying of my 25 shows. By 1999 I decided to present Tancook. To become more familiar with the island, along with my 78 year old guide Doug Stevens, we walked the entire shore as I had on East Ironbound. Doug Stevens also posed for one of the large paintings standing before a cabbage field, hoe in hand with his dog Blackie. The painting was purchased by a summer resident and is now in Tennessee. The show was held at the famous Oak Island Inn and Marina at Western Shore. Captain Warren and Olive Pearl attended as guests of honour. As well as my painting we had on display Olive's apple dolls, her mother Stella's rag mats and other island products. Quite a few islanders attended. We capped it off with a musical performance.
During the last few years my daughter Charlane made a study on the Baker(Becker) and Cross (Grass) families. Her information tied up a lot of loose ends and gave me satisfaction understanding my roots. The Tancook experience has enriched my life and I have tried in my own feeble way to celebrated the island and lifestyle of her people. Great Tancook Island will remain a special place in my heart and eventually the repository of my bones there in that sheltered field with my friends and family, the Grass and Beckers of Great Tancook Island.
*Charles Cross: A news clipping courtesy Ralph Getson Fisheries Museum of the Atlantic gives a vivid insight into the challenges faced by the Tancookers . Dateline April 15 1880 Lunenburg: Yesterday six men belonging to Tancook Island capsized a fifteen foot centerboard boat when they attempted to jibe the sail at Long Reef....William Young saw the men clinging to the boat, put out in a skiff and rescued three but the others, benumbed by cold, released their hold and perished. Drowned were: George Mason, leaving a widow and six children; David Langille, leaving a widow and five children; John Wilson , leaving a widow and six children. Those saved were Isaac Mason, brother of George, William Thomas and Charles Cross. All are married . No bodies have been recovered
Without my daughter Charlane's research and the loving relationship I developed over the years with Aunt Hosea, the Pearl's, Violet Crooks(Cross), "Nick"Cross's family and a number of others it would not have been possible to write this review.
By Graham Baker
I've roamed around from town to town and all I found was misery
But on Tancook Island the grass is green and a salty breeze comes from the sea
There's lots of smiles posted all around, I get a hug and a kiss if Mary Baker's in town
Goin' up to Olive's to have a mug of tea, and listen to Warren again tell me
I'm going back the road to Sou'east Cove, past the church where the dark trees grow
Douglas Young says use my car, the old Pontiac will take you that far
Then I come to a split in the road and find to my pleasure Captain Lee's at home
Then I'll stop at the store for a spell and listen to the jokes Dave will tell
There's one more stop along the way, back where Ironbound is on display
Warren: "…. Here's to success and suck sorrow
This song can be played in the key of G,A,D, or E…. possible C. Because of noise pollution it should not be attempted in F. It can be sung to the melody of any of three long lost Tancook songs "Grandma got Papa's Gun Off." "Pickle" (first line goes….she lost her will on a puncheon of kraut so we called the baby Pickle). "Nightmare" (first line goes……if Dora rides the old-grey mare, who rides the nightmare?)
Should be sung brightly.
To make copies of this song or any part thereof without consent of author is definitely illegal. Anyone caught attempting to sing this song will be haunted. Warren's Toast is the sole property of Captain Warren Pearl, Great Tancook Island. However a copy of this toast and song can be obtained by leaving a bottle of Jim Beam corn liquor at the following outlets: wheelhouse Liza Marie; back seat of Warren's Omni; or at Nick's office. Please leave address and stamp……
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