The Picnic at Groshaut is now an almost forgotten part of our Island heritage, but its story still manages to live on in the memory of those locals who pass the tale down from one generation to the next.
It was an event that, despite its genteel name, brought a mark of notoriety to an otherwise quiet area, for the Picnic at Groshaut marked one of the most raucous and uproarious days that the Eastern end of Prince Edward Island had ever witnessed. In fact, such a spectacle has never been since.
Picnics and Places
There are many who would observe that little has changed on Prince Edward Island over the past hundred or so odd years.
One can still find their way down a winding country road, and revel in the unspoiled scenery which seems to expel a certain sense of nostalgia, creating a warm and vibrant image in one’s mind of days gone by.
It was a simpler time in many regards, punctuated by a strong connection to community and culture, a connection without which most would not have survived.
And while many things on Prince Edward Island remain the same, some traditions do change. Nowadays, in our all too busy and often hectic life, we find entertainment behind our screens and devices.
But, at the close of the nineteenth century, entertainment was an altogether different matter. It was a time when people sought, and found, entertainment and pastime in the company of others, and one of the most popular pastime’s in Island life back in those days were church picnics.
As Rossiter explains, “it was customary at that time to have a picnic or tea parties” (3).
Reminiscent of Anne Shirley’s visions of an ice-cream social, these church picnics were just as you would imagine: they offered games and activities for the children, food and drink for the adults, with song and dance for the entertainment of all (1).
They were much heralded events, and those church picnics which had garnered a reputation for splendor were widely attended. Such was the case of the Picnic at Groshaut, which drew in crowds from as far away as Charlottetown.
This alone is an impressive feat, given the miniscule nature of Groshaut itself. In fact, Groshaut (which, in Meacham’s 1880 atlas was spelled Grosheaut), is so small that in modern times has, quite literally, fallen off of the map.
Small, yet undaunted, the people of Groshaut worked hard to construct a church of their own, and when it was built it was named St. Charles Catholic Church, and in 1925 the area was incorporated under the name St. Charles. While some farmers still use the name Groshaut as a reference point for their fields, it is a rare case to hear mention of the term Groshaut nowadays.
Located on the present day Selkirk Road (Route 309), north of the Island Waste Management facility, the area is broadly referred to as Selkirk or St. Charles, depending upon who you ask, and there is no indication that Groshaut, as it were, ever existed.
Early records indicate that the people of Groshaut and the surrounding areas built their present day church in 1896.
Although it is only a modest wooden structure, its outward appearance belies its inner intricacy.
No expense was spared in the creation of the hardwood interior, something that still delights the eye to this day. Ornate carvings and wordwork decorate the entire space, all the way up to the very rafters, and it is noted that "a wood-worker from Charlottetown was hired to do the decorative carving on the pillars and the vaulted ceiling."
These beautiful works of art were not cheap though, and so it was determined that a church picnic would be held, in order to raise money to assist in paying for the costs associated with the new church.
Planning commenced in earnest, and attendance was expected to be large. The Groshaut area was already well known for their picnics, and their practice of placing advertisements in The Guardian, the Island’s provincial paper, served to draw in more picnickers.
Furthermore, the St. Charles train station (which at this time was known as Rollo Bay station), was very close to Groshaut, and as a result it permitted people to arrive by train, a method which was both cost-effective and timely.
More Than Cider Inside Her
The stage was set for a grand old fundraiser. Most notably, Father Walker, the new parish priest, had procured an order for several casks of sweet apple cider, a much loved local drink, and he had done so at a bargain rate (1).
However, as it would soon prove to be the case, a mix up had taken place with the order and Father Walker had received, unwittingly, an entire shipment of alcoholic cider.
And while even today we can imagine what havoc this could cause, it is imperative to point out how problematic this would have been in 1897 (1).
As Ives notes, “strong drink was ritually forbidden” (1), and it would only be two years before Prince Edward Island began to move towards total prohibition.
However, this didn’t mean that alcohol was an entirely foreign thing to those planning a picnic at Groshaut, for Ives also notes that alcohol “could usually be found, if not on the grounds at least conveniently close by off them” (1)
The Picnic at Groshaut
The morning of the picnic dawned, and many men arrived to help with the set up and operations. It had rained the day before, and people were eager to get outside and enjoy themselves (3).
However, the weather did not appear to be co-operating and it soon looked to be the case that the picnic would have to be called off.
This news was disappointing, and so the men, before heading home for the day, decided to try a drink of the cider to cheer themselves up. Well, they certainly found it cheerful!
No one is really sure about the details surrounding this pivotal point: did the men know what they were doing? It was entirely against decorum to be drunk in public, let alone at a church picnic, under the scrutinizing eyes of Father Walker.
However, this cider would have offered a perfect excuse to do so. Whether the men knew or not, that fact is lost to time. The results of the actions, though, are not.
As Rossiter writes, “when it was discovered that there had been a mistake in the order, and most people had been drinking hard cider… the picnic that summer day in 1897 took a turn for the worse” (3)
One drink soon led to another, and it wasn’t long before that rainy field was filled with tipsy men who were looking for a good time. Words turned to boasts, boasts turned to shoves, and before too long the entire picnic was alight with curses, bravado, and blows.
As Rossiter recalls, “there was a lot of scrapping, and it was a noisy, rough time… there had been a lot of strong drink going and mostly everybody was half full” (3).
Things were certainly beyond Father Walker’s control at this point, and to make it worse, the rain had subsided and the sun had come out in full force.
Word of the cancellation didn’t get very far, and the warmth of that sunny afternoon was too alluring to be missed.
Despite Father Walker’s wishes, a crowd was descending upon the picnic grounds, with more expected on the afternoon train.
‘Twas a Frolic None The Less
What this crowd saw when they arrived on the grounds was the stuff of legend.
Instead of the pastoral scene of picnickers and pleasantry, attendees were stunned to witness the muddy mess of the drunken men.
It was a spectacle never before seen in Groshaut, but somehow, the crowd was undaunted and took to the celebration like none other.
The picnic continued against all rules of decorum (2), and was such that never again was rivalled.
Doyle writes that “there was scuffles through the crowd and the noise was rather loud” as people continued to arrive, and explains that even the “old men with foreheads bare threw their dusters in the air/ Wanting someone for to fight them at Groshaut” (1).
The dancing was frenzied, the drink continued to flow, and there appeared to be nothing that Father Walker could do about it. On the contrary, it proved to be one of the most successful picnics that the church ever held.
By the end of the day Father Walker was mortified, not only at the behavior of his parishioners, but at the fact that this was to be a two day event.
There was no way he could permit such debauchery for a second day, and so “after it was all over and everyone had been sent home, he carefully and heavily watered what remained in the kegs, and the next day everything was sober and uneventful.”(1)
A Musical Legend
The story of the Picnic at Groshaut was one retold time and time again, and it must be remembered that St. Charles church stands in such prominence as a result of the funds raised from this memorable day.
However, like many events of the past, what really cemented the Picnic at Groshaut into the folk memory of the Island was its musical retelling by Lawrence Doyle, the “Farmer Poet of PEI” (3).
Doyle was a man of many trades, and he lived his entire life in an old homestead on the Fortune Road (which is now known as the Main Road, Route 2), near Farmington.
In the Meacham 1880 atlas he is listed as the postmaster for Farmington, and also worked variably as a sort of vet, a carpenter, and as an impromptu lawyer who prepared wills and deeds (3). Rossiter recounts that he even prepared bodies for funerals (3).
He was a colorful man, but he is best remembered for his musical ability. He wrote countless famous folk songs and his song “The Picnic at Groshaut” is no exception.
The lyrics detail the events described above using his usual wit and satirical view, but they serve also to give us a first-hand account of the event (albeit perhaps with some embellishment).
The song remains popular to this day, and can be still heard in the kitchens of the Kings County from time to time. To listen to the song, or to view the lyrics, click here.
All's Well That Ends Well
Despite Father Walker’s disapproval, the Picnic at Groshaut proved to be memorable in
more ways than one, and it must be noted that even Father Walker must have had some ability to laugh over it all, for church picnics were held subsequently for the next few years, well into the new century.
And while there was no doubt a great crowd at the Picnic of Groshaut of 1898, there was no way that it could have lived up to its predecessor. As Rossiter concludes, “there were picnics held in Groshaut after 1897… but they weren’t always rowdy like this one” (3).
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1. Ives, Edward D. Drive Dull Care Away: Folksongs From Prince Edward Island.Charlottetown, PEI: Institute of Island Studies, 1999, 177-180. Print.
2. Perlman, Ken. Couldn’t Have a Wedding Without the Fiddler: The Story of Traditional Fiddling on Prince Edward Island. University of Tennessee Press. 2015. Print.
3. Rossiter, Juanita. Gone to the Bay: A History of the St. Peter’s Fire District Area. 2000. Print.