ANTIGONISH – Asked to share a little of his life story, Jim Hanifen ponders for a moment about where to start. With 106 years of memories to choose from, that’s understandable.
The long-time Antigonish businessman and Cloverville farmer – a resident at the RK MacDonald Nursing Home – celebrated his 106th birthday at the home of his daughter Colleen Hanifen on Aug. 8 – including a drive-by of well-wishers.
The Journal sat down with Jim, who was born in 1915, in the courtyard of the RK the day before the festivities to talk about his long life.
A life of hard work
Many will know the name from the long-time Antigonish business, Silver and Hanifen Plumbing and Heating. But that was only part of Jim’s busy work life as a younger man. He also ran the family farm in Cloverville and was relied upon for other jobs in the community, some due to the large team of horses he owned and his willingness to take on tough jobs.
One such job, he recalls, was unloading feed that arrived by train at the Antigonish station and hauling it to the local co-op store. It was heavy work, with the unloading and loading taking three days.
So is hard work key to his longevity? Perhaps.
“Hard work never hurt anybody,” said Jim in response to the question.
Jim said his father, Tom, came to Nova Scotia from Ireland with his brother, Ed. The two then went down to the Boston area for work, before returning to the province. For a time, before refrigeration was commonplace, his father sold ice blocks to Bostonians. The ice measured two feet squared, he says, and thick leather straps helped his father hoist them to upstairs apartments. The ice would last a few days and then customers would put “ice wanted” signs in the windows and Tom would be back with another delivery.
Jim’s father was also a boxer. “That’s why I’m such a fighter,” he said with a laugh.
Tom met and married his wife, Laura – originally from Guysborough County – in the Boston area.
Back in Nova Scotia, one branch of the Hanifen family eventually established themselves in Erinville, the other in Cloverville.
Jim spoke with great fondness about his childhood memories, especially his older sister, Jeannette. She was born in Lynn, near Boston, and the family moved back to Nova Scotia, when she was one. Next came Jim, followed by two more girls: Marguerite and Florence.
“I was the only boy,” he says. “That’s why they made such a good job of me.”
Jim still has a full head of hair.
Jim first went to school in Cloverville, to Grade 8, then to Morrison School in town before heading off to StFX. “They were going to make something of me,” he said of his parents’ decision to send him to university.
Jim only did one year at StFX, as his father died of pneumonia and he needed to return home to the farm. The family had very little money, he said, and after a few months back on the farm he started working in the lumber camps with his team of horses.
With a reputation as a good worker, he was invited to join an Antigonish plumbing business. He said there was very little plumbing at the time, but soon they were busy installing bathrooms. Jim learned the trade and built a reputation for excellent work. In later years, he had his plumbing business, before joining forces in Silver and Hanifen.
A long marriage
Jim met a young woman from Erinville, Pat McDonald, when they both worked and boarded in Antigonish. Pat had been working at Bonner’s grocery store in Antigonish.
Jim and Pat planned to be married in September 1945. But when Jim was driving home from a date with Pat, he hit a deer and damaged some teeth. The wedding had to wait until October.
“Pat’s mother and father were wonderful people,” he said of Bill and Minnie McDonald. The wedding was in Erinville, with a big breakfast hosted at the McDonald home. Then the newlyweds travelled to Cloverville, where a large celebration awaited them.
“They were there by the hundreds,” said Jim of the party that night.
The couple raised two children and several foster children during their six decades of marriage. Pat died in 2018 at age 94.
Asked what he would say to a young person seeking life advice, Jim said: “Be honest and be truthful.” He paused for a moment, then added: “Say your prayers.”
Jim seemed to ponder the question a little more. “Fight if you have to,” he said.
And there was one last thing: “If you’re going to be at a meeting and you know it’s going to be a rough one, take a good drink of rum beforehand. You don’t want to take a backseat to anyone.”