River John reinventing itself while holding fast to the past

John Brannen
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RIVER JOHN – Mary Beth Sutherland got involved in preserving the history of the River John community because her ancestors have called the place home.

Mary Tothill, left, and Mary Beth Sutherland stand in St. John the Baptist Anglican Church in River John. The pair note the church, like many historical buildings in the area, was built by ship builders and point to the ceiling as evidence. JOHN BRANNEN – THE NEWS

“My family has been here since the 1850s,” she said. “I was brought up with history and I believe you have to know the past to move forward into the future.”

While River John’s past was that of a thriving regional shipbuilding and commercial hub, the present and future of the village look promising as it adjusts to the 21st century.

The Mi’Kmaq First Nations people were the earliest inhabitants of the River John area. The aboriginal name for River John is Cajje-Boogwek which means ‘flowing through the wilderness.’

River John, once known as Deception River, and the Cape John area were home to French Acadians before the Expulsion in 1755.

The first permanent settlers in River John were Swiss/French Huguenots from the border town of Montbeliard via Portsmouth, England, Lunenburg and Tatamagouche. 

The Langilles, Grattos, Patriquins and Tattries, surnames that survive today, arrived in the year 1785. Soon after the Joudries, Perrins, Mattatalls and Gammons arrived. For the next 40 years many immigrants arrived from Scotland, Ireland and England.

River John became a major shipbuilding producer and constructed over 170 vessels from the years 1835 to 1918. It even had its own Stage Coach Company, the Gammon Brothers Stage Line, which operated between Pictou and River John.

The bustling community supported two newspapers operating and a YMCA in the late 1800s. In the 1920s Cape John was home to a horseracing track called Seaview Trotting Park 

As the age of sail came to a close and people began moving away for work in urban centres, River John saw a population decrease of 73 per cent from 1881 to 1956.

Still, Sutherland notes that knowing the past is an important part of being a community member.

“A person needs to have a pride in their past to have a sense of belonging,” she said.

The community realized this in 1985, when the village of River John celebrated its bicentennial. Sutherland said it was so successful that the area was energized. 

“The initial success meant that the celebration would be an annual event,” said Sutherland. “We have people who moved away plan their vacations so they can return to the area during the festival.”

While the festival days is a large event, the village also hosts a New Years levee, occasionally a winter carnival, Read by the Sea in July and a smelt fry in February. Sunrise Realty, now a common sight on for sale signs in Pictou County, was founded in River John.

The church remains an important aspect to community life, with a Wednesday morning tea and coffee social time at St. George Presbyterian Church, for example.

Sutherland also noted that the village’s position between Pictou and Truro has allowed it to retain a drug store, post office and liquor store. The village is particularly proud of its library, built by the village and leased to PARL.

Several well known and famous people had connections to the River John area, including Anna (Sutherland) Bissell of the Bissell Carpet Sweeping Company, John Stromberg, the famous New York composer, pianist, and conductor, Dr. William Roy MacKenzie, literary scholar, folklorist and author, Chalmers and Nathan Bigney, strength and endurance showmen, and William A. Fraser, author and columnist.  

Special thanks to John Ashton for his historical research into River John.

 

john.brannen@ngnews.ca

On Twitter: @NGNewsJohn 

 

The population of River John in 1871 - 1,720; 1881 - 1,942; 1891 - 1,275; 1901 - 1,068; 1911 – 883; 1956 -  526.

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