In 1760, Chester Basin, in what is now Lunenburg County, Nova Scotia, began as a settlement with the arrival of New Englanders (1760-1783), and grew with the arrival of disbanded British soldiers (1804-1816), and later (1820s-1860s), families from the Foreign Protestants group who initially came to Lunenburg in 1753. Prior to its settlement, groups of Mi’kmaw, a tribe of the Wabenaki Confederacy living mainly along the mid-eastern coast of the Atlantic Ocean, used the area as a summer fishing location.
The basin, like a tongue of water extending inward from what is currently known as Mahone Bay, became an important center for ship building and transporting of goods, and as a fishing port. Later, gold mining, barrel making, and the growing and exporting of Christmas trees joined the important industries within Chester Basin. It is said that in the late 1910s the first Christmas trees were exported by sea from the Basin to the United States.
Chester Basin served as a connecting point to places along the coast — southwest to Mahone Bay, Lunenburg, Bridgewater and beyond; northeast to Halifax, Guysborough, and Canso; and to the hinterland of the province, especially the settlements of New Ross (initially Sherbrooke), Dalhousie and Wellington. Later, the connecting road to New Ross was extended to Kentville and the Bay of Fundy area.
As the community continued to grow, services of all kinds were needed: stores, barns (for horses and wagons), wharfs and warehouses, hotels, boarding houses, blacksmith shops, and even an ice cream parlor.
Working oxen were first brought to Nova Scotia by Sieur de Poutrincourt in 1610, and they were commonly used throughout most of the province until the 1850s, and much later in the southwestern part of the province. Oxen were a main source of power for ploughing and hauling, and for transportation to and from Chester Basin (a part of the body of water known as Mahone Bay,) and inland to the hinterland, more specifically to the community of New Ross, or Sherbrooke as it was originally called. Oxen were still being used on a regular basis onto the 1960s in parts of Lunenburg County. Even today (2010) oxen are used at Ross Farm (a provincial farm museum representing the traditional life of the 1830s), and occasionally on some of the local farms.
Oxen are also the main attraction at the annual Bridgewater Exhibition, both as an exhibit and also for ox pulls. A favorite activity has been the International Ox Pulls between teams from Lunenburg County and teams from the state of Maine. [Current American border crossing security has seriously curtailed this cross border activity.]
Barrels, both the water tight (used for transporting fish and various liquid contents) and apple barrels (a looser structure) were main “packaging” and “shipping” containers from the beginning of settlements in Lunenburg County. They were an integral part of daily life and many families initially produced their own barrels. Gradually, the barrel making business became more consolidated, especially when wooden ship building declined due to the invention and use of steel ships. One company in Chester Basin converted its ship building industry to barrel making and a second barrel plant was set up. The latter, the Moyle I. Oxner Barrel Manufacturers, still has its original barrel making equipment and can and does produce barrels today. In the five years between 1974 and 1978, almost 87,000 full-size barrels were produced at this “factory”, as well as 1000 half barrels, 1065 clam barrels, and 33 ornamental barrels. The growing popularity and production of plastic barrels in the later1970s brought an end to the major production of water-tight wooden barrels.
In 2001, the Ross Farm needed to move the coopers’ shop from its location at the top of a hill to a new location beyond the bottom of the hill and decided to use the old method on moving. Using 10 teams of oxen, each with their drivers, and logs placed under the building pulled the shop along the dirt road and down the hill. It took many hours but the job was successfully accomplished.
Today, there is a new and growing market for wooden barrels, especially for the storage of and transporting of products such as wine, rum, and coffee. There is also a growing market for decorative and utilitarian barrels for garden purposes, display use, furniture, and the like. Both types of barrels, i.e., decorative and utilitarian, are produced in Chester Basin: decorative are found at Corkum’s Ornamental Buckets on Highway #3, and the more utilitarian barrels are available on occasion at the old site of the barrel factory on the New Ross Road (Route #12).
Barrels are also produced at Ross Farm in New Ross and can be purchased at the Peddlers Shop.
Chester Basin uses the barrel image as part of its trade mark: iron barrel shapes are found on the lamp posts and are used for hanging flowers (in summer) and wreaths (in winter); the Basin Gardeners have incorporated the barrel in their logo; a special song has been written about the barrel factory and the making of barrels. A wagon load of barrels with ox team and teamster from Chester Basin’s postal cancel stamp to help celebrate Chester Basin’s 250th anniversary.