The book Acadian Lives consists of interviews with Cape Breton Acadians and was collected and edited by Ronald Kaplan, with Rosie Aucoin Grace. The book was published in 2004 and at the time of the interview, Joseph D. Samson of Petit de Grat was 78 years old.
Mr. Samson was a man of many talents: built boats and houses, repaired engines and farmed. But his life’s work was fishing, and it began at the age of 12. While the men fished the trap, young Joseph and his older brother, using hook and line, in a small boat and worked outside the trap. Within a few years, Joseph had to take his father’s place on the trap along with seven other men.
Fish was plentiful though and it was common to bring in 400, 600, up to 1,200 pounds twice a day. Work began at 6 a.m., first pursing the catch, followed by forking it onto the wharf and weighing it. Then the fish was cleaned and dressed and made ready for shipping. In the afternoon, this labour-intensive work was repeated so that it was unusual to get home before 11 or 12 o’clock.
Long hours, small pay: when Joseph began, fishermen were receiving $1.50 per hundredweight or 1 cent and-a-half per pound. In time, it rose to 2 cents per pound, but at one point it dropped to half a cent a pound leaving the fishermen to wonder if it was worth it. As Joseph said: “Came pretty near when people had to stop fishing altogether.”
In winter, families bought everything on credit. The following summer’s earnings went to pay for the previous winter’s purchases. Eventually situations improved as fish prices rose to three and four cents a pound.
When Joseph D. was 18 he took over the trap, and it became his responsibility to record the catches, what was taken in, the prices and the profits. With the help of his mother, Joseph learned to keep his books and as he said: “So I got along Number One on that. I never made a mistake…They [the men] trusted me. I never tried to cheat anybody.”
Joseph and his crew bought their own trap at a cost of $12,000. The fish were abundant and some seasons they earned enough to put $3,000 or $4,000 towards the financing of the trap.
One particularly bad year the price of fish fell so low, fluctuating from 1 to 2 cents per pound, that the men decided to salt their haddock catches and hold onto them in hopes of a better price. This, however, was grueling work, pursing in the morning and salting at night, often toiling from 5 or 6 o’clock in the morning to 2 or 3 o’clock the next day. They put up over 200 puncheons of haddock, sold it at 4 cents a pound and after two-and-a-half months of 18 to 20 hour days, each man walked away with $18. “That was some cheque!”