Like many elements in Prince Edward Island’s history, the birth of the mussel mud harvest arose out of need. Early pioneers found they needed a reliable fertilizer that could breathe new life back into their fields which were so quickly depleted of their scarce nutrients. It was quickly discovered that the lime-rich mud from riverbeds and bays, which had deposits of oyster shells was a great addition to the fields, returning the fertility to the land. Island farmers and entrepreneurs quickly developed ways of extracting the mud and spreading it on the nutrient starved fields.

Initially, mussel mud was harvested in the summer months which made it hot, grueling work. Harvesters would set out in a canoe during high tide to a place that was known to have shell deposits. A small area that was usually about 10 feet square was dammed off to allow the mud to be dug from the bottom without the water rushing in. The mud was shovelled directly from the bottom into a canoe and transported to shore. Each small area was dug to a depth that was between five and 10 feet below the water surface. When the canoe was filled, it was brought to shore and unloaded when the tide was low Read More
Like many elements in Prince Edward Island’s history, the birth of the mussel mud harvest arose out of need. Early pioneers found they needed a reliable fertilizer that could breathe new life back into their fields which were so quickly depleted of their scarce nutrients. It was quickly discovered that the lime-rich mud from riverbeds and bays, which had deposits of oyster shells was a great addition to the fields, returning the fertility to the land. Island farmers and entrepreneurs quickly developed ways of extracting the mud and spreading it on the nutrient starved fields.

Initially, mussel mud was harvested in the summer months which made it hot, grueling work. Harvesters would set out in a canoe during high tide to a place that was known to have shell deposits. A small area that was usually about 10 feet square was dammed off to allow the mud to be dug from the bottom without the water rushing in. The mud was shovelled directly from the bottom into a canoe and transported to shore. Each small area was dug to a depth that was between five and 10 feet below the water surface. When the canoe was filled, it was brought to shore and unloaded when the tide was low enough for a wagon to be brought to the boat. When the dammed area was dug to a great enough depth, harvesters would relocate and the process would start again in a fresh location.

The work was extremely difficult; the weather was hot, the flies were unbearable and the wet mud was extremely heavy to shovel. For this reason there was not a great deal of mud harvested until new methods of mussel mud digging were developed in mid-1800s

© Community Museum Association of Prince Edward Island, 2005. All rights reserved.

Fields need to have their nutrients replenished or little will grow.

PEI Department of Agriculture

© PEI Department of Agriculture.


By the early 1860s, Islanders began the shift from digging mud in the summer to harvesting it from the surface of the ice. Although nobody is certain who came up with this revolutionary idea, it spread quickly across the Island and soon diggers of various shapes and sizes dotted the frozen bays and rivers each winter. In 1868, Charles Maxfield from Freetown, PEI applied to patent his idea for a horse-powered mud digger and from that time on most diggers on the Island appeared very similar and operated in much the same fashion.

The first step in the digging of mussel mud was the laborious task of cutting the large hole in the ice. Many of the holes were 10-feet by 10-feet which made for a great deal of cutting. The ice that was brought up was also used by the farmers. It was covered in sawdust and put into a small ice house to prevent it from melting in the summer and was used to preserve foods that would go bad in the summer’s heat.
By the early 1860s, Islanders began the shift from digging mud in the summer to harvesting it from the surface of the ice. Although nobody is certain who came up with this revolutionary idea, it spread quickly across the Island and soon diggers of various shapes and sizes dotted the frozen bays and rivers each winter. In 1868, Charles Maxfield from Freetown, PEI applied to patent his idea for a horse-powered mud digger and from that time on most diggers on the Island appeared very similar and operated in much the same fashion.

The first step in the digging of mussel mud was the laborious task of cutting the large hole in the ice. Many of the holes were 10-feet by 10-feet which made for a great deal of cutting. The ice that was brought up was also used by the farmers. It was covered in sawdust and put into a small ice house to prevent it from melting in the summer and was used to preserve foods that would go bad in the summer’s heat.

© Community Museum Association of Prince Edward Island, 2005. All rights reserved.

A community joined around a mud digger.

Keir Memorial Museum

© Keir Memorial Museum


Individual diggers were different but consisted of basically the same parts. The power behind the mud diggers came from the front part that was called the “capstan” a large solid cylinder that was usually cut from a single tree. There was an arm that reached out horizontally from about mid height on the capstan. This is where the horse was harnessed to provide the power. As the horse was guided in circles around the capstan, a large chain would be wrapped around the top of the pole.

The chain went through a pulley on the frame of the digger and was attached to what was known as the fork or scoop. As the capstan turned, the chain tightened, lifting the fork and the hundreds of pounds of mussel mud from the riverbed. On the other end of the scoop was a long handle, which had a series of thick pins that were often referred to as dogs. These long handles went to the platform on the back of the digger where they were guided by a man or group of men. At the front of this platform was what was called, " the dogsill", which was used a point of leverage to help the platform crew guide the dog.

To dig mussel mud, harvesters would drop the fork to Read More
Individual diggers were different but consisted of basically the same parts. The power behind the mud diggers came from the front part that was called the “capstan” a large solid cylinder that was usually cut from a single tree. There was an arm that reached out horizontally from about mid height on the capstan. This is where the horse was harnessed to provide the power. As the horse was guided in circles around the capstan, a large chain would be wrapped around the top of the pole.

The chain went through a pulley on the frame of the digger and was attached to what was known as the fork or scoop. As the capstan turned, the chain tightened, lifting the fork and the hundreds of pounds of mussel mud from the riverbed. On the other end of the scoop was a long handle, which had a series of thick pins that were often referred to as dogs. These long handles went to the platform on the back of the digger where they were guided by a man or group of men. At the front of this platform was what was called, " the dogsill", which was used a point of leverage to help the platform crew guide the dog.

To dig mussel mud, harvesters would drop the fork to the bottom of the water and use its weight and leverage from the dogs on the handle being braced against the dogsill on the front of the platform to scoop mud from the bottom. When the fork was full, the horse was guided around the capstan, which wrapped the chain around the capstan and raised the fork full of mud. When the fork reached the surface and was brought out of the water it was guided by the men on the platform out over the awaiting sleigh that was usually parked between the capstan and the frame of the digger.

There was a lever known as "the fork trip" that allowed the men at the handle to dump the fork of mussel mud into the sleigh. When the fork was released, the men on the platform guided the fork back over the water. The man guiding the horse would release the capstan trip, which was located right above the arm that was attached to the horse. This released the chain and the fork would fall back to the bottom of the water for another load.

© Community Museum Association of Prince Edward Island, 2005. All rights reserved.

The pulley system of a Mussel Mud digger.

Keir Memorial Museum

© Keir Memorial Museum


The fork trip lever of a Mussel Mud digger.

Keir Memorial Museum

© Keir Memorial Museum


Each sleigh took about five or six fork-fulls in order to be filled. A skilled operator could load upwards of fifty sleighs on a good day. As the sleighs were filled, the small area that was being dug would be depleted of mud on the bottom and a new hole would be cut and the entire structure moved so the process could begin again. The number of loads from a single hole depended on the depth of the mud deposits and the skill of the operator. It was possible for an operator to dig several feet past the sides of the hole making for a more productive day.

Farmers would begin loading at first light so they could get as many loads as possible. Those who had farms close to the digger would simply return to their fields and shovel the load off and return for another, getting several loads in a day. Those farmers who had to travel any distance would often dump their loads on the bank and return for it in the summer. This meant that they would be able to get more than a single load.

There were two kinds of mussel mud digger operators. They were either a group of farmers that banded together to dig mud for their own farms or they were more entrepreneurial, digging and s Read More
Each sleigh took about five or six fork-fulls in order to be filled. A skilled operator could load upwards of fifty sleighs on a good day. As the sleighs were filled, the small area that was being dug would be depleted of mud on the bottom and a new hole would be cut and the entire structure moved so the process could begin again. The number of loads from a single hole depended on the depth of the mud deposits and the skill of the operator. It was possible for an operator to dig several feet past the sides of the hole making for a more productive day.

Farmers would begin loading at first light so they could get as many loads as possible. Those who had farms close to the digger would simply return to their fields and shovel the load off and return for another, getting several loads in a day. Those farmers who had to travel any distance would often dump their loads on the bank and return for it in the summer. This meant that they would be able to get more than a single load.

There were two kinds of mussel mud digger operators. They were either a group of farmers that banded together to dig mud for their own farms or they were more entrepreneurial, digging and selling mud to other farmers. Some farmers were able to make a fair amount of money in a season by selling loads from 10 cents in the mid-1800s to 60 cents in the mid-1900s.

© Community Museum Association of Prince Edward Island, 2005. All rights reserved.

Loading sleighs with Mussel Mud.

David Weale

© David Weale


The harvesting of mussel mud on Prince Edward Island was unique. The mud digger, the methods and the determination were all born of Island innovation and perseverance. Nothing like it was done before or since the days that so many of our bodies of water were dotted with mud diggers each winter.

The most recent attempt at harvesting mussel mud looked very different then the early digging days. In 1989, there was a project headed by Island businessman Ron Sampson that saw the rich mud being dredged from the bottom and turned into fertilizer. He used modern machines and huge pipes to pump thousands of gallons of the mud, which was then mixed with other chemicals and sold as fertilizer. Although it looked very different than the pioneers of the industry it was done for exactly the same reason as those who spent winters on the ice selling the mud by the sleigh load. Like those before them, Sampson and his colleagues knew the great value and potential that lay at the bottom of Island bays and estuaries. The rich mud, if properly managed could fuel the fields of PEI well into the next millennium.

There is currently no harvesting of mussel mud on Prince Edward Island Read More
The harvesting of mussel mud on Prince Edward Island was unique. The mud digger, the methods and the determination were all born of Island innovation and perseverance. Nothing like it was done before or since the days that so many of our bodies of water were dotted with mud diggers each winter.

The most recent attempt at harvesting mussel mud looked very different then the early digging days. In 1989, there was a project headed by Island businessman Ron Sampson that saw the rich mud being dredged from the bottom and turned into fertilizer. He used modern machines and huge pipes to pump thousands of gallons of the mud, which was then mixed with other chemicals and sold as fertilizer. Although it looked very different than the pioneers of the industry it was done for exactly the same reason as those who spent winters on the ice selling the mud by the sleigh load. Like those before them, Sampson and his colleagues knew the great value and potential that lay at the bottom of Island bays and estuaries. The rich mud, if properly managed could fuel the fields of PEI well into the next millennium.

There is currently no harvesting of mussel mud on Prince Edward Island. Due largely to the fear of scabbed potatoes and the cost, the diggers and dredges have stopped and a product that was once so important to the Island is largely forgotten.

© Community Museum Association of Prince Edward Island, 2005. All rights reserved.

The dredge pipe from the 1989 Mussel mud operation.

Ron Sampson

© Ron Sampson


Learning Objectives

The learner will:
  • outline the way Mussel mud was collected originally;
  • describe how Mussel Mud diggers tried to improve the quality of their work.

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