Bartering was another tool for surviving the lean Depression years

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Bartering was another tool for surviving the lean Depression years

by: Mary Cook
published: March 9, 2017

“I don’t know what I would do without Bertha Thom,” Mother said for the umpteenth time. We would hear her say that at least three times a day.

Aunt Bertha, as we children called her, was no relation; but according to Mother, she had saved her life when she moved from the big city of New York to the backwoods of Renfrew County. It was Aunt Bertha who taught Mother to quilt, make pickles and a host of other trades to make life livable on a farm with no amenities.

And it was Aunt Bertha who came to Mother’s rescue again, and it had to do with bartering, where we could trade things like butter, eggs or chickens for sugar or flour. But, Mother learned the hard way that bartering had its limitations. She tried to make a deal with Mr. Briscoe at Briscoe’s General Store, and she found out he wasn’t interested in eggs, butter or chickens. He told her the people of Northcote were his customers, and they had their own eggs, butter and chickens.

And it was Aunt Bertha who then told Mother the only place to sell — not barter — her wares were to the people of Renfrew. Door-to-door. And so, like just about every other farm wife in Northcote, peddling became a Saturday ritual, and the money raised was called “egg money.” Although it wasn’t only egg money that went into the little blue sugar bowl in the kitchen cupboard. But Mother still felt she could barter if she put her mind to it, and soon she was trading butter and eggs for flour at the grist mill.

She then figured if she could come up with something no one else had to offer, there would be no end to what she could get in a trade. Something homemade. And she decided she would master the fine art of making buns. Not just any buns. Special buns no one else would take the time to make. She got out her Boston Cook Book (one of her precious possessions brought from New York), and night after night, she poured over the pages to see what she could make — and there she found the recipe for Chelsea buns. She wisely thought that was too fancy a name for buns off a farm in Northcote, so she called them sticky buns. It took many batches before the buns were to her liking … in fact, the first few times she made them, they were like bullets. But finally, the sticky buns were ready for Renfrew.

Her first stop was at Ritza’s Rexall drugstore. Of course, fresh out of the oven, who could resist the smell of freshly baked buns? Mr. Ritza was delighted to take as a trade a batch of still-warm sticky buns for cough medicine, a bag of Epsom salts, and our very first can of tooth powder.

It didn’t take long for Mother’s reputation to grow, and the demand for her sticky buns had her trading buns for a trip to the dentist, an eye test for my sister Audrey, and a hair cut for herself at Descharmes Beauty Parlour.

Soon it was my sister Audrey and me who had to get the eggs washed, the chickens trussed up, and the butter wrapped in pounds on a Friday night, while Mother made batch after batch of sticky buns to meet the demand in Renfrew the next day.

The news spread fast, and it came as no surprise that Mr. Briscoe of Briscoe’s General Store told Mother on one of her trips to Northcote that he would be glad to try to sell some of her sticky buns for her. Well, Mother remembered the not-so-long-ago day when he told her he didn’t want her chickens, eggs or butter — and she told him she would be glad to bring in some of her sticky buns, but she would only do so if he traded the buns for a bag of sugar.

Bartering became a way of life. It was just another way to survive those lean Depression years when there was little or no money, and so, there had to be other ways of putting food on the table and clothes on our backs. Bartering was the answer.

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