Avon Peninsula 2: Thomas Chandler Haliburton

Thomas Chandler Haliburton is best-known as the author of the Sam Slick books but he was also involved in the early development of Nova Scotia’s gypsum industry.

Haliburton’s satirical writings about Sam Slick, a fictional Yankee clock maker who travelled Nova Scotia peddling his wares, first appeared in 1835 in Joe Howe’s newspaper, the Novascotian. The books that followed were hugely popular and Haliburton became Canada’s first internationally-renowned author.

Through Slick, Haliburton contributed many colourful sayings to the English language, including:

• The early bird gets the worm
• Seeing is believing
• Stick-in-the-mud
• As quick as a wink
• A miss is as good as a mile, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure
• Raining cats and dogs
• Conniption fit
• Six of one and half a dozen of another
• He drank like a fish
• You can't get blood out of a stone
• Upper-crust
• Facts are stranger than fiction
• A place for everything, and everything in its place
• Bark up the wrong tree
• Won’t take no for an answer
• This country is going to the dogs
• Never look a gift horse in the mouth
• Mad as a hatter

Despite their initial popularity, the books are now viewed by many as having imperialistic, misogynistic and racist storylines and the West Hants Regional Council has removed Slick iconography from municipal property.

Haliburton (1796-1865) was born in Windsor, Nova Scotia. Besides being an author, he was also a lawyer, judge, merchant, Member of the Legislative Assembly and quarry owner.

He moved to Newport Landing (now called Avondale, West Hants) in 1818 and lived at Henley Farm, now known as the Old Stone House. (Some believe part of the Old Stone House was built in 1699, making it Nova Scotia’s oldest building.)

Avondale used to be called Newport Landing because it is where immigrants from Rhode Island landed in 1760.

Haliburton acquired mining rights to the property of Archibald Smith in December 1818, about 2.5 miles east of Avondale.

In his 1829 publication, An Historical and Statistical Account of Nova Scotia, Haliburton described how gypsum was extracted in that era: “It is quarried by the aid of gunpowder, and broken into suitable sizes for exportation, by a pickaxe. As it enters so largely into the composition of the soil, its utility as a manure, in Nova-Scotia, has been assumed by practical farmers, although no regular experiments have ever been instituted to ascertain its effects.”
Haliburton was referring to the fact that gypsum was, and still is, used by farmers to treat soil. Gypsum fixes alkaline (high pH) soil. US inventor Ben Franklin learned this from the French and brought the idea to the United States in 1785. Nova Scotia’s original gypsum miners were farmers in Hants County who extracted it on their farms and exported it to the US for use as fertilizer.

In 1830, Haliburton sold the quarry to William Bennet. Bennet had an apple orchard just west of the quarry and he reportedly claimed that the underlying gypsum facilitated the growth and quality of the apples.

Haliburton also had several “back quarries” which he bought from Thomas Smith and mined from 1818-34.

Haliburton may have laid a small rail line to carry gypsum from the back quarries to the St. Croix River. While this has not been confirmed, we know that Haliburton would later build “a crude though labour-saving tramway upon which horse-drawn cars were operated” in Windsor, so he clearly understood the significance of using rail to increase efficiency. (It was reportedly often suggested that this tramway was only the second “rail road” in Nova Scotia.)
Haliburton sold Henley Farm (aka the Old Stone House) and all mining rights to James Sprott in 1834. It is not known whether Sprott mined the quarries but they were definitely mined again after Sprott sold the mineral rights to William Smoot in 1880.

The Avondale Plaster Company (APC) was incorporated that year with Smoot as one of the original shareholders. The APC quarries were in operation by 1883 and they used a horse-drawn tramway to haul gypsum across the Avondale Road to the St. Croix River where it was exported on barges. The Newport Plaster Mining and Manufacturing Company bought the APC in 1908.

Meanwhile, Haliburton had moved back to Windsor and in 1836 took up residence at his newly-built Clifton House (now the excellent Halliburton House Museum: https://haliburtonhouse.novascotia.ca/). While the house was built for Haliburton and his family, he named it Clifton after the family home of his wife, Louisa Neville.

He operated a number of quarries on the estate and exported the gypsum to the US. Evidence of the quarries is still seen in depressions on the grounds. The most easily-recognized former operation is Clifton Quarry, which is now a lake just northeast of the museum, between Lakeview St. and Clifton Avenue. The quarry used to cross over what is now Clifton Avenue but it was filled in on the eastern side of the street and houses were built on it. The lake is on the western side of Clifton Ave.

The pond is the former Clifton Quarry in Windsor.