We had our own ideas on fences and homes

Paul
Paul Sparkes
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Demonstrating ownership and building without the bank … it was the Newfoundlander’s way

There is one fisherman in Brig Cove (but he is an exception) who sailed in a sealing streamer to the icefields on the 10th of March; arrived back in St. John’s in the middle of April, was home in Brig Cove a week later and went salmon fishing the following day. He fished continuously from that date for salmon and then codfish until January 1st., New Year’s Day. And then he commenced to get out his firewood and flake material.

Fences at Holyrood, circa the early 1900s.  — Photograph reproduced from “Through Newfoundland with the Camera,” 1910, Robert E. Holloway (1850-1909)

In a remarkable essay (written, I presume, in 1936) Joseph R. Smallwood describes “Life today in Newfoundland.” In the essay we are (like the rest of the Western World) in a depression; and we are also a couple of years into Commission of Government (suspension of democracy, as some have it).

Smallwood uses Brig Cove as the example for the whole country of Newfoundland and lays out the character of the people there; what they are up against, what motivates them, what they know and do not know. He exposes our shortcomings and our great inborn assets.

Smallwood’s exceptional fisherman shows what a man can/must do and it shows as well that there is every good reason why he cannot stop from one day to the next; one season to the next.

Smallwood also talks about land — how we cleared it, fenced it and valued it; how we subdivided it to leave parcels to our sons. He notes that many of us were land hungry to the point of greed.

Have you ever noticed how Newfoundland is an island of fences?  We have riddle-rod, picket fences, fences of sawn palings and more. They serve not only as simple property definitions, but determined barriers. Some of them leap-frog post-over-post across bog. Others defy geometry as they go up over boulders.

It has been said that this was all about protecting kitchen gardens from marauding sheep and goats, as, for the most part, fencing is practised mostly in the outports. But there would have had to be hordes of goats and sheep ganging up on hapless humankind to excuse some of our fences. I have even seen (as perhaps some readers have) fences built tight upon other fences, following the same delineations — “I don’t need you to define my property for me; I’ll define it!”

Back in my bubble gum days, I remember noticing fences, likely because I sometimes had to paint a fence in St. John’s. And I also recall some sort of parental dictate that fences were for keeping animals out of vegetable gardens or keeping them from wandering off.

My parents almost militantly defended all outport practices from the smart-ass responses of youngsters in the big city (St. John’s). I pointed out one day that the common fence of “postis-and-longers” would not keep out much of anything and I was told to go do my homework.

These parents had sprung from outports where life had values and children knew their place.

We are, of course, less of an island of fences today and this could be credited to an evolving sense of the reliability of law. But I believe there was a great deal of possessiveness behind fences.

Isn’t it logical that a people who grew here like lichen, slowly, determined, never encouraged, in places hardly noticed, would in time have acquired a heightened sense of belonging and ownership? Wouldn’t fences be the tangible evidence of that?

Combine this with thrift and you’ve got the recipe for solvency and permanence.  Some say a lot of our thrift grew with the bank crashes of 1893. But it may have started before that, springing from the bitter experience of not being permitted to build and own.

One early governor went so far as to say if there was a chimney built into that so-called “shed” he had been told about, then the whole thing must come down. To him, a shed with a chimney sounded suspiciously like a house.

The bank crash would have been the insult to add to our earlier injury. Thrift and suspicion are second cousins (but they never talk to each other).

Add to all this a generous measure of self-sufficiency where a man requiring a house goes into the woods, not into the bank, and you surely have thrift.

He felled trees, he hauled them to a mill, he put the sills on huge rocks and he held the uprights, upright. He stuffed in the birch rind and the newspapers for insulation and he tarred the roof shingles with a boiled goo sufficient to keep a pharaoh in place.

And in his psyche, this was never “a lot of work” until it was done.

Taking out the equity in one’s home

Can you imagine how one of today’s television commercials inviting property-owners to raise extra cash by leveraging the equity in their properties would sit with that type of Newfoundlander?

Sure, there are times when senior persons on fixed incomes have no recourse but to use a home which they own as collateral for a loan.  

But there is currently a commercial running on TV where, in my view, the couple comes across as consummately stupid — to the point where a financial institution would be crazy to advance them any amount.

This particular commercial says that “after putting two kids through school and paying down their mortgage … they found they didn’t have enough to make ends meet so they took out ‘some of the equity’ in their home” ($20,000 I think it was). With this they paid some bills and had some left over for monthly income … “and life is good again.”

So, what are we learning here? They paid down their mortgage and then went broke?

Wouldn’t it have been better to keep dribbling money into their mortgage and retain some as monthly cash flow? And then there’s the kids. If you couldn’t afford their tuition, why didn’t they work? You enable them to become educated by putting yourself in the poorhouse? Why didn’t Mr. and Mrs. Brilliant pay only part of their tuition?

So, late in life when their option of getting back out into the employment harness has fizzled, the Brilliants dispense with a share of their property.

When those kids inherit it, they certainly will not inherit 100 per cent of it. But then, they probably haven’t been crippled by student loans.

• • •

Maybe by restricting settlement  here, the authorities of our earliest days actually planted the seeds of our thrift — at least the thrift for which we were known prior to boarding the Canadian gravy train.

Here’s an interesting little portrait from our history:

Newfoundland’s debt at the conclusion of 1881 was $1.35 million. That meant the per-capita debt was a little more than $7. In Canada at the same time, per capita debt was $29. I’m getting this from Hatton and Harvey’s history. They show that at the same time, per capita debt in New Zealand was $279. At The Cape of Good Hope (they’re jumping around the Empire and stopped at what was to become South Africa), it was $48.

I suppose this comparison shows thrift in the Newfoundlander. If nothing else, it shows, as the historians note, that Newfoundland was in a position to raise money “on very favourable terms.”

• • •

I like the following little segment written by one of our noted educators, Leo English, also for Smallwood’s 1937 “The Book of Newfoundland.”

I think it’s safe to say English was wrong. It would have been nice if he had not been:

“The future historian of our country will, among other things, trace the evolution of the home from the rude log hut of the real pioneer to the modern house with conveniences and luxuries that science supplies.

In our older outport towns a few of those fine and comfortable colonial style buildings still stand, grey and weather-beaten, firm and solid as the race that loved their low rooms, great stone chimneys and massive fireplaces. School children of tomorrow will read of sanded floors, dog irons, pot creeks, pot bars garrets and train oil lamps.”

Paul Sparkes is a longtime journalist intrigued by the history of Newfoundland and Labrador. Email: psparkes@thetelegram.com.

Organizations: Commission of Government

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada, New Zealand South Africa

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  • DON II
    December 30, 2013 - 11:14

    A map drawn by Joseph F.W. Des Barres and published by the firm of Bunney & Gold in 1801 shows "Brig Cove" located on the Avalon Peninsula near where the town of "Brigus" is located now.