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Layman's Cooper Shop


Last week I wrote on Lem Anthony's forge here in Fogo and how it was a landmark in Fogo for many, many years, and how, after it services were no longer required, it disappeared. In this column I would like to write about another landmark that too has disappeared, that of Layman's Cooper shop. Like most everyone else around here now, I know very little about coopering, but from what I have been able to find out, the cooper shop did not seem to have the cozy characteristics of the forge. Coopering was the process for making curved surfaces using wood without bending the wood around the curve. The craft of coopering, like that of the blacksmith goes back to ancient times, dating back to the first barrels or casks made to hold water or wine, as well as buckets for all purposes. Remember the draw-bucket? Barrels were made with staves that were tapered from the centre toward both ends and were bent using bands such, that the resulting barrel was fatter at the center than it was at the ends, but this would achieve a liquid tight seal. That was indeed a skill. Does anyone remember the word, 'plimmed'?

The view from Fogo Island - Last week I wrote on Lem Anthony's forge here in Fogo and how it was a landmark in Fogo for many, many years, and how, after it services were no longer required, it disappeared.

In this column I would like to write about another landmark that too has disappeared, that of Layman's Cooper shop. Like most everyone else around here now, I know very little about coopering, but from what I have been able to find out, the cooper shop did not seem to have the cozy characteristics of the forge. Coopering was the process for making curved surfaces using wood without bending the wood around the curve. The craft of coopering, like that of the blacksmith goes back to ancient times, dating back to the first barrels or casks made to hold water or wine, as well as buckets for all purposes. Remember the draw-bucket? Barrels were made with staves that were tapered from the centre toward both ends and were bent using bands such, that the resulting barrel was fatter at the center than it was at the ends, but this would achieve a liquid tight seal. That was indeed a skill. Does anyone remember the word, 'plimmed'?

Layman's Cooper shop was a landmark in the town of Fogo for more than a hundred years. It measured 20 X 30 feet. There may be a few around that can still remember it, and its exterior, because it was painted with yellow ochre. There weren't too many other buildings around with that colour, I allow. The roof of this building was high-pitched and enclosed a loft used for the storage of coopering materials and wood chips used in firing casks. The shop was in the vicinity of what is called Little Harbour.

Three generations of the Layman family carried on the art of coopering in it three branches, namely wet, dry, and white, as the demand for these skills arose. The first of the Layman family to ply the coopering trade in Fogo was a Thomas William Layman, and records seem to indicate that he was born in England around 1830, and that he died in Fogo in 1912. He was a qualified cooper prior to his leaving the English West country. The actual time of his arrival here in Fogo is not known, but church records indicate that he married a second time in 1861. Two of his sons from this marriage, Hamilton and Henry, were destined to learn the coopering trade from their father. The third and last generation of the Layman family to take up coopering in the old shop was Thomas, who died in 1978. His wife Carrie is presently a resident of Harbourview Apartments, and is the last of the Layman family here in Fogo.

Some of you in Fogo can well remember Harry Layman. He was the second son of Henry mentioned above. Although he didn't himself become a cooper, he says that he spent considerable time in his father's cooper shop during his early years both as an observer and a worker. It did not appeal to him in the least, and claimed that he set off for greener pastures as soon as education and opportunity provided. He described the environment as anything but conducive. According to him, it was back-breaking labour with the shop either filled with choking smoke or that it was bitterly cold depending upon the weather. How different that environment seems to differ from that of Lem's forge? He remembered that the stock was brought into the shop in winter and was soaking wet or covered with ice. He allowed that it was always full of splinters. The cooper's income from this work would be in the vicinity of $250.00 a year and he may have worked from six in the morning until six in the evening and then for six days. That was, indeed, low pay, but I am not able to estimate what that might be today.

It is very unlikely that there is anything left around that might have been made in that cooper shop. Is there an old wooden washing tub in somebody's store that might have been made there? Perhaps we'll have to wait for an archaeologist's dig! Once when Harry was visiting Fogo many years after he had left, he was shown a wooden washing tub which his father had given as a wedding present to the woman in whose house he was visiting, and that it was still being used. It must have been well made.

There is not a trace of Layman's Cooper shop left in Fogo. Very few now remember where it stood. As I said last week with regards to the forge, it behooves us as citizens of this historic town to be aware of what was once here, and how vibrant this community was.

Much of the material in this piece was gleaned from an article written by the late Walter Gard, of Fogo and was contained in The Pilot, February 14, 1990. blh

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