The author, Lisa Courtenay, is the granddaughter of John Leo Surette
John Leo Surette was born October 10, 1895 in Lower West Pubnico, Nova Scotia, Canada. He was the youngest of five children born to Nicolas Surette and Francoise Bourque. His early life must have been difficult for a lot of reasons. He was forced to grow up at an early age after losing his father when he was eight years old. He also probably did not remember too much about his brother Siffroi who accidentally drowned when he was ten and John Leo was three.
When he was a teenager, he, his mother, and three sisters lived with his brother Henri Eloi and his growing family. After learning the fishing trade from his brother, he left to help support the family and became a Naval Deckhand with the Naval Patrol Service.
In 1917 he was drafted into the Canadian Expeditionary Force and soon found himself stationed in Siberia. After the conclusion of the Great War, he returned home and began fishing again, but soon he obtained a job as the assistant lighthouse keeper on Fish Island, with a dream of running his own light.
By the time the next opening for a lighthouse keeper was available, the government had decided to give preferential treatment to veterans for their service. After completing the necessary application, on April 22, 1922 John Leo Surette secured a job as the principle keeper of the Peases Island Lighthouse, Nova Scotia, Canada, which is also known as Pease Island.
John Leo Surette stood five feet, four-and-a-half inches tall, had a dark complexion, and grey eyes. He was a handsome, strong, and gentle man. On October 16, 1923 he married Mary Francoise “Fannie” Fitzgerald. They must have met on one of his trips to the mainland for supplies. Before long, Fannie, as well as being a wife and an assistant lighthouse keeper, soon also became a mother.
The winter months were especially brutal on the desolate island. They could not get off the island because the water would freeze and boats could not get through. All supplies and the house needed to be ready to sustain them for those months.
The government sent supplies twice a year, delivered by the Canadian lighthouse tender Dollard, which included ten to fifteen tons of coal, which were in 50 to 40 pound bags Keeper Surette and his wife had to row out in his dory to meet the boat, and whatever would not float to the island was placed into the dory. Sometimes this required numerous trips back and forth. They had to use a wheelbarrow to get all of the supplies back to the main house and the shed for storage, a process that often took a month to complete. This was back-breaking work, because everything had to go up a rocky hill and across the island.
John Leo’s 18-foot dory was also used to go back and forth to the mainland for personal supplies such clothing, twenty 100 lb. bags of flour, 2 to 3 bushels of apples, barrels of molasses, vegetables, lard/shortening, spices, potatoes and things of this nature. They would also need to be rolled, lifted, carried, or carted back to the house upon his return. All this had to be done before the winter months set in.
Communication was by way of 2-way short wave radio. It was turned on during the morning and then again at night to check in with the government seven days a week. They could also talk with nearby Islands such as Candlebox and Cape Negro Island. The large four-foot high radio was located downstairs in the tower portion of the house. There was no electricity at this time so the radio ran on dry-cell batteries delivered by the government on the supply ships. The light tower structure also had a living room and two bedrooms.
On the south side of the island was the lighthouse, which was attached to the main house and porch. The porch contained a counter for the milk/cream separator. There was a door at each end to enter. The first floor of the house contained the kitchen, living room, two bedrooms, and a pantry. Upstairs were three larger bedrooms and a smaller bedroom.
A barn located where the government built a two-story house after John Leo left the island in the mid-1950s. This house was beautiful and so much nicer than what the Surettes lived in for 30 years. Today, unfortunately, the house is in shambles and recently was inhabited by some sheep.
On the north end of the island were two sheds: one used for bait and one was a work shed. The family had a fenced-in garden, a chicken coop, and a number of animals. The family generally kept about 100 chickens which were raised for food; two pigs were also raised for food. They had 13 sheep of their own, but ended up with 25-30 sheep on the island because people would drop them off to feed on their land. They were used for wool to make clothes in the winter. There were two oxen which were brought over in the summer on a boat. The oxen weighed around 1000 pounds each, so they would have to be dropped overboard and they swam to shore.
The island is fairly large and has three small ponds, all surrounded by more land. Duck hunting was enjoyed by the sons of keeper Surette, which supplied the family with additional food on the table.
My father told some memorable stories about the animals; he participated in these shenanigans at the age of 7-8 together with his older brother Herbie. The boys found themselves keeping busy while their father was on the mainland getting supplies, which usually took all day. One story was about the pigs that they chased, and ended up in one of the ponds. The pigs were stuck in the mud and were 400 pounds each and the boys didn’t think that they were going to get them out. They were scared and knew trouble was coming. They eventually did get them out of the mud and, and yes, they got in a lot of trouble. This, of course, did not stop the “boys will be boys attitude,” because on another occasion they were upset that the cows were eating their fishing bait out of a barrel, so Herbie decided to tie their tails together using a square knot. Not knowing they would go in different directions and that the knot was so well tied, the tails needed to be cut to separate the cows. I guess this was one way to pass the time as a growing boy! But they did not pull that stunt again.
When the boys were not getting into mischief, they also earn money by Irish Mossing. This was the harvesting of seaweed/kelp. It was be used for shampoos, soap, body gel, and bath salts to name a few. They could go island hopping and, if there were two tides that day, they could earn up to $100 per day which, back then, was big money - they got 7-8 cents per pound. The younger girls made money mossing also. They did this by hand, standing up to their waist in the Atlantic. Determined to catch up with their brothers, they saved enough money to buy themselves rubber hip boots so they could continue in some sort of comfort. They had the willpower to keep on going. Because there was no place on the island to spend the money, it was saved.
Over the years the family grew to nine children: Charles Bernard “Damien,” John “Donald,” Marie Alvina “Vina,” Henri Bertell (infant who died shortly after birth), Henri Bertell “Bert,” Francois Herbert “Herbie,” Joseph “Clinton,” Marie “Regina,” and Francoise “Loretta.”
After Mary Francoise “Fannie” Surette became pregnant with the couple’s last child, she and the baby both died during childbirth on September 20, 1936. This left John Leo to raise the children alone, and keep the light. Fannie’s sister, Etta, who was separating from her husband, moved to Peases Island with her two children: Gerald and Esther.
The island now had 12 residents, all the responsibility of John Leo. Other than to go to the mainland for a minimal schooling, the children always were his main lifeline. The youngest, being 14 months old when her mother died, almost constantly cried. They had to tie a string to her cradle so that they could rock it back and forth to try and stop her from crying. John Donald, the oldest, never had any formal schooling until he was in his 40s when he decided to learn on his own. He did very well, and he eventually owned his own business and raised a large family. The remaining children were schooled for a few months on the mainland at Comeau’s Hill, basically just to make sure that they could read and write. Sometimes the wife of a neighboring lighthouse keeper, Clara Cottreau, came to Peases Island for a month-long stay and home schooled the children as much as possible.
The color scheme of the house was green and pink. The beds were made of hay and straw. The outhouse was a rare two-seater back then, and magazines and catalogs were used in the outhouse. Meat was hung and salted to dry in the cellar, which was always cold.
The island was terribly windy, which made it difficult to heat the house. No matter what they tried for heat, nothing seemed to work. They had to heat bricks in the stove and wrap them in their beds at night to keep their feet warm. In the winter, the house could be 30 degrees and was always cold and damp. Getting out of the warm bed with the bricks and plenty of quilts, and then having to walk on the freezing steel steps, was brutal. My dad says he can still feel the bone-chilling cold. The children often got colds, sore throats, and ear aches, and they had to use their own treatments as Dr. O’Brien could not get to the island and they could not get off.
The family boiled six to seven huge pots of water to pour into the big washtub to take baths with Lux soap. This could take a while with 12 people living in the home. Washing clothes was done in big tub with a washboard using Oxidol and sunlight. The washboard peeled their knuckles after so much scrubbing. There was a clothesline used to dry the clothes, and with the amount of wind they had, it was a challenge to keep the clothes on the line, but they dried faster. The family would use baking soda on their toothbrushes to brush their teeth. When it was time to wash dishes, those not tall enough would have a basin on the table and could stand on the chair to do the dishes. Everyone pitched in to help.
The girls played dress up with old curtains and high-heels, and pretended they were getting married. If all else failed, they chased sheep around the island, or made mud-pies. Some of their fondest memories were of placing letters to Santa in the damper of the stove, thinking they would be sucked out and get to him. Holidays were always a fun time. The girls followed the moon, as it was something fun to do.
The entire family enjoyed their music and played many instruments. Music was a staple in the family’s life. They knew how to play guitar, banjo, harmonica, fiddle, accordion, and concertina to name a few.
A special memory for John Leo was a visit he received on the Island from Rester Alphie d’Entremont (John Leo’s brother Henri Elois’ daughter Angelina’s husband) and Allan Surette (Henri Eloi’s son). They came one year on January 10th, a Friday, and planned on staying a few days. They ended up getting stuck on Peases Island due to the bad weather. When they finally got home, Alphie recounted to his wife, Angelina, about the trip, and she wrote a song entitled, “Pease Island Shore.” This song became a sing-a-long for years to follow. They played the accordion to the music of Johnny Cash’s song “Wabash Cannonball.” I have the words to the song and cherish it to this day. I can almost hear their music and their singing. I guess you could say that this is a tradition started back then. I remember throughout my childhood that I would sit and listen to my uncles and aunts play and sing. I grew up on country music.
Some of their food was put in galvanized buckets constructed especially for the well, to be dropped down to be kept cold, like in a refrigerator. They enjoyed making chocolate pie, apple pie, custard pie, rappie pie (a staple in Nova Scotia and one of my favorites), and Jell-O.
Keeping the light going constantly was a challenge, but the boys and John Leo could handle the twice-a-night winding of the gear box. It was done once before bed and once in the middle of the night. This entailed climbing up to the top and cranking the weights so they would drop down to the cellar. It ran off a governor and was very slow. The fall and winter months made this difficult, as the stairs were made of steel. It was not uncommon to find that the mantle wick blew out, and this turned the glass black from all the smoke. Then the lantern glass had to be cleaned immediately.
Dad also remembers when there was a period of fog which lasted for 31 days. He specifically remembers the length of days because they had to make sure the fog horn sounded at specific intervals day and night for those 31 days; he remembers it being 3 times a minute every 15 minutes. This was a hand-operated bellows fog horn. This process was tedious, and making sure that someone sat outside to sound the horn must have been what we would think of as torture. But being a lighthouse keeper meant that he had to keep long hours and, although dangerous, he had to it to keep the ships safe by making sure it was sounding that the horn was sounding as it should. Everyone would have to take turns during this time.
John Leo became ill, so he went to the doctor, which was never heard of back then. Occasionally Dr. O’Brien had been visited by one of the children for a tooth pull or something, but for John Leo to go to the hospital when he was ill was unheard of. He was diagnosed with stomach cancer and it was getting worse. In the following year, he had surgery and needed to stay on the mainland with his son, John Donald, for quite a while. He eventually went back to Peases Island, which my father and brothers were taking care of while their father was recovering. But it did not last for long.
John Leo Surette got increasingly worse and ended up at his daughter Vina’s house until his death in 1952. He had been a lighthouse keeper for a little more than 30 years. At this time, my father and Bert stayed behind to tend the light until a new keeper could be appointed. They then stayed for almost another year to help teach and help the new keeper with all the various duties. My father, Joseph Clinton, then moved to Comeau’s Hill for a period of time before permanently moving to the United States.
I would like to quote my cousin, Daniel Jacquard, from his article published in the Argus, Spring of 2011; “Here was a man, who with simple beginnings in Pubnico, would travel half way across the world and back, in a remoteness few had heard of and fewer still understood the reason why and would eventually live the remainder of his natural life on a remote little Island raising his family in isolation. For 31 years he would be recognized as the lighthouse keeper of Peases Island. To say that he was devoted to his duties would probably not do him justice. To assume that his life and those of his family was an easy one would certainly be mistaken. My wish is that those of us who read about their trials and tribulations will gather a new appreciation for those people before us who endured what we today would find intolerable and if asked, he himself would probably say that it was just my job.”
This story appeared in the
Jan/Feb 2016 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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