As local historians recount, in 1801 a ship set sail from Fort William in Scotland carrying 500 migrants bound for Pictou, Nova Scotia. Eight Highlanders, five of them brothers, found what they were looking for in what would later become known as the community of St. Andrews. These new families set about clearing the land and building barns, houses, roads, and bridges. They also built a chapel, and later a large church, and as many as nine schools, one for each district of the community. The largest of these schools, the St. Andrews Grammar School, built in 1838, is considered by many to be the foundation for what is now St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish.
All of these accomplishments were achieved in St. Andrews without any local government support. Municipal government was not established in Nova Scotia until 1879, three-quarters of a century after the first Scots arrived in St. Andrews.
The period between 1801 and Confederation in 1867 was a boom time for the local economy of St. Andrews. The population was steadily increasing due to immigration from Europe, and local demand for agriculture and forest products was high. In St. Andrews, the water of the South River was used to power sawmills (lumber), gristmills (flour), and carding mills (wool). A cheese factory, a tannery, and a shingle mill were established and several shops supplied general merchandise as well as blacksmithing and shoemaking services.
The result in St. Andrews of the “long depression” between 1873 and 1896 was that one son or daughter would stay home to look after the farm and his/her parents, while other grown children left to find work in the Northeastern United States or western Canada.
In the first half of the 20th century those who remained in St. Andrews found innovative ways to continue building their community in spite of a depressed economy. Led by Dr. Hugh MacPherson, who was born in the St. Andrews area, the community established a wool co-operative in 1914, and the first co-operative store in eastern Canada in 1917. The co-op store was a centre of innovation, allowing cash, credit and barter (one of the oldest community members, Mary “Tommy” Chisholm, remembers seeing people trading butter for kerosene there). The store also developed a hospitalization scheme for members. MacPherson, the first recognized soil scientist east of Ontario, helped introduce the use of marl from local deposits to lower the natural acidity in the soil, and he encouraged the use of both organic and chemical fertilizers. Under his leadership, St. Andrews established a creamery and organized a grading and marketing system for lambs.
When the electric power grid reached Antigonish in 1931 the people of St. Andrews provided volunteer labour and local poles to run a 20-mile extension line to their community. Like many other rural communities in Canada, St. Andrews set up a mutual telephone system whereby each household wanting a phone contributed money and volunteered labour to help string wires. A house was built for a switchboard operator in lieu of having to pay for each call. A decade later a mile-long trench was dug by hand and a wooden pipeline was laid to take drinking water from the South River to the heart of the community. In 1933, the people of St. Andrews established their own credit union. The first loans of the St. Andrews Credit Union rarely exceeded $100, but these loans were crucial for the purchase of farm equipment and livestock, and the building of barns and houses. This early experience with cooperative activity in St. Andrews formed a laboratory for a group of professor priests at nearby St. Francis Xavier University who, under the banner of the “Antigonish Movement,” helped spread the development of producer, consumer and savings and credit cooperatives throughout Northeastern Nova Scotia in the 1930s and 40s (Boyd, 19491).
One hundred and fifty years after the arrival of the first Highland Scots, St. Andrews began to attract another group of industrious immigrants. In the aftermath of the Second World War thousands of Dutch farming families were looking for opportunities to farm in other countries and Canada was an attractive destination. Canadian churches were encouraged by the federal government to find sponsors for immigrants and search for suitable properties in their areas. Between 1950 and 1956, 110 Dutch families came to the Antigonish Diocese and 23 of these families settled in St. Andrews.
For these Dutch immigrants, life wasn’t much easier than it was for the early Scots. The Dutch were able to use their intensive farming techniques to make long abandoned land productive again, but it took years and many Dutch families had to rely on money borrowed from the parish priest and a helping hand from their Scottish-Canadian neighbours. It was not uncommon in the 1950s and 60s for long-time residents of St. Andrews to volunteer to help a Dutch family build a barn or replace a roof (MacDonald, 2000). Within a generation the Dutch had contributed to reshaping the dairy industry in the region. Until the 1950s, dairy production in Northeastern Nova Scotia had been very small scale with most households owning their own cow. The Dutch experience in dairy farming helped develop the dairy industry into one of the main engines of the St. Andrews economy.