Lower Cove Grindstones

In the 1800s, Nova Scotia sold the best grindstones in North America, and Amos Seaman was the king of the industry – to the point that he changed his middle name to King!

Quarrying sandstone to make grindstones, which are used to sharpen tools, began in the Chignecto Bay area around the early 1700s, mostly on Grindstone Island (formerly known as Mill Island), near New Brunswick’s shore.

Production continued on a small scale for many years, with Acadians producing grindstones at various sites around Chignecto Bay for their own use and for some exports. In fact, the British army used grindstones from Lower Cove, Cumberland County, to sharpen their weapons in the War of 1812.

However, it was not until Amos Peck Seaman came along that grindstone manufacturing truly flourished.

Seaman was born in Sackville, New Brunswick, on January 14, 1788. At the age of only eight, he ran away from home. More accurately, he rowed away from home, barefoot in an old, leaky birch bark canoe, and somehow managed to cross the Cumberland Basin to Minudie, Cumberland County. He was taken in and raised by the local ferryman and his wife. As a teenager, he lived in Boston with his maternal grandparents.

During his years in Minudie, he became aware of the grindstones made by Acadians and by 1810, he started selling Nova Scotian grindstones in Boston in partnership with his brother, Job.

This started Seaman’s extraordinary business career. Ships carrying grindstones to Boston allowed him to ship other goods to Nova Scotia on the return trip. The money he made allowed him to diversify into other businesses, eventually including coal mining, trade with multiple countries, shipbuilding, fishing, lumber, farming and mills, including Nova Scotia’s first steam-powered mill.

However, his main focus would always be grindstones.

After the death of British surveyor and administrator Joseph Frederic Wallet DesBarres, who owned thousands of acres of land in Minudie and various parts of Nova Scotia, Seaman became an agent for his estate and Seaman leased the estate’s sandstone quarries. With a new partner, William Fowler, he built a major grindstone business, the Atlantic Grindstone Company, in Lower Cove, which had excellent quality sandstone and access to tidewater for exporting.

Within a few years the company employed more than 100 men and had four quarries on land. According to a 1927 report by the federal Department of Mines, the quarries started at the water's edge and extended inland until they reached about a quarter of a mile from the shore and a pit depth of about 60 feet. Tunnelling was also done.

Atlantic Grindstone also extracted from the intertidal zone (between the low and high tide marks) when the tide was low enough to allow access to sandstone reefs along the beach. Slabs of rock were loosened with gunpowder, tied to rafts and floated ashore at high tide to be cut into grindstones.

Grindstones of all sizes were produced, from 5 inches to 7 feet in diameter, and varying in width from three-quarters of an inch to 15 inches. A skilled worker could cut 15-20 stones a day, up to 2.5 metres in diameter.

The average price of grindstones between 1800 and 1830 was about five to six shillings per "stone,” which was not a well-defined term given the grindstones’ various sizes, or between 70 and 80 shillings per ton. There were, however, many instances of poor-quality stones selling for just nine shillings per ton and one case saw 60 tons sold at a mere seven shillings per ton – likely a case of “you get what you pay for.”

In 1830, freight rates on grindstones shipped to Boston by schooner were about $3.50 per ton.

Atlantic Grindstones’ stones were considered the best in North America and production tripled from 10,300 stones in 1831 to 30,671 in 1834.

A grindstone is a round stone used for sharpening tools, including knives, axes, saws, scythes, files, hammers and chisels. While grindstones are usually made of sandstone, not just any sandstone will do. A sandstone must have grains of the right size and angularity to properly grind tough steel and be neither too hard nor too soft. If too hard, the stone will simply polish itself and not grind properly. If too soft, the sand grains will pluck out too easily, causing the stone to wear rapidly.

Atlantic Grindstone produced grindstones from five different qualities of sandstone, based on the coarseness or fineness of its grit. The coarsest was used for grinding axes, medium for grinding scythes and hay knives, and the finest for sharpening cutlery.

Seaman’s success eventually allowed him to purchase the DesBarres’ estate. When combined with other land that he purchased, Seaman’s land holdings were likely the largest in Nova Scotia.

He built a grand home in 1837, called Grindstone Castle, from which he oversaw his empire. According to the Tantramar Heritage Trust, the opulent mansion contained eight fireplaces, marble floors, a winding mahogany staircase, a wine cellar and a kitchen fit for royalty.

He also did a lot of good for the community. He built a school, which is now the King Seaman Museum, and two churches, one Protestant and one Catholic. He established the first freemason’s lodge in Cumberland County and involved himself in civic affairs. The success of his businesses attracted many people to Minudie and he had a reputation as a good employer.

Seaman decided his middle name, Peck, was too small for such a successful man, and he changed it to King. He became widely known as King Seaman.

Seaman died in 1864. He intended for his children to receive a fair and equitable division of his property, but his will, described as “fiendishly complicated,” caused conflict in the family and a series of lawsuits. This, and the lack of a clear heir, contributed to the decline of his business empire.

Business challenges also played a role. As sandstone near surface was quarried, extracting the remaining, deeper stone became more expensive. "Bulls" or hard nodules in the stone often made it necessary to discard otherwise good quality stone. The scrapping of the Reciprocity Act with the United States, a trade agreement, led to the imposition of high duties on Nova Scotian grindstones by the US government. Large grindstone quarries were opened in Ohio that competed with Nova Scotian stones.

Atlantic Grindstone was eventually sold to an American company in 1904 and little now remains of Seaman’s empire. The foundation of Atlantic Grindstone’s plant and a few original buildings that are now homes can still be found. Footings for the wharf and unfinished grindstones are still visible on the beach in Lower Cove. Grindstone Castle fell intro disrepair and was torn down.

It's not hard to guess how Quarry Island got its name! It was one of a number of sites in Pictou County that were quarried for grindstones in the 1800s and 1900s. See the story at https://notyourgrandfathersmining.ca/quarry-island