Horse on a hill

Late premier's granddaughter dispels myths, shares memories of iconic weathervane on Roaches Line

Terry Roberts editor@cbncompass.ca
Published on July 7, 2008
Dale Russell FitzPatrick stands next to the full-sized replica of a horse that is erected each year on a high point of land on her farm on Roaches Line. Russell FitzPatrick is the granddaughter of Newfoundland's first premier, Joey Smallwood. - Photo by Terry Roberts/The Telegram

Many know it as Joey's Horse. Some have written that the late premier, Joey Smallwood, purposely placed the horse replica with its rear end facing the highway as a crude gesture to the travelling public.

Dale Russell FitzPatrick, Smallwood's granddaughter and caretaker for the iconic weathervane on Roaches Line, has heard it all over the years.

Many know it as Joey's Horse. Some have written that the late premier, Joey Smallwood, purposely placed the horse replica with its rear end facing the highway as a crude gesture to the travelling public.

Dale Russell FitzPatrick, Smallwood's granddaughter and caretaker for the iconic weathervane on Roaches Line, has heard it all over the years.

Now, nearly a half-century after her late father, Edward J. Russell, first placed a replica horse atop a high point of land on his farm, Russell FitzPatrick welcomed an opportunity to dispel some of myths and share some of her fondest memories of this unique landmark.

During an hour-long interview recently at her ranch-style house, Russell FitzPatrick laughed, cried and sighed heavily as she reflected on the spring ritual of securing the weathervane to its concrete perch.

Father would be pleased

"It's been part of my life for all of my memory," she said. "Dad would be very pleased that we still put it up every spring."

The Look-Out, as it's known locally, is located at roughly the mid-way point of Roaches Line (Route 70), which connects the Conception Bay Highway (Route 60) at South River with the Trans-Canada Highway and Veterans' Memorial Highway.

Many years ago, a young Ed Russell and his new bride, Clara (Joey and Clara Smallwood's only daughter), surveyed the surrounding landscape from the Look-Out and decided they would establish a farm.

Russell FitzPatrick said her father was a true romantic and wanted to mark the spot.

He arranged to acquire a full-sized replica of a horse from a saddlery shop on Water Street in St. John's, and had it mounted on the hill.

Russell FitzPatrick was a young girl at the time, but recalls not being too happy about the way her father closed the deal - he bartered away her Shetland pony, Rob Roy.

Several generations have now grown up looking forward each spring to seeing the lone sentinel atop the hill as they drive along. It has become one of the province's most recognizable landmarks.

While traffic along Roaches Line has tailed off since the completion of Veterans' Memorial Highway, it's still common to see vehicles parked on the side of the road and people taking photos.

Sudden death

The original horse, although not intended to be displayed outside, withstood the relentless winds for more than a decade.

Ed Russell ordered a replacement in 1972, but he died before it could be delivered.

Other family members took over and a new fibreglass horse, complete with a special mounting system that allows it to turn in the wind, was erected in 1974.

Russell FitzPatrick remembers shadowing her father as he put the horse in place each year, much like her own children did when they were growing up.

"It's exciting to maybe ride in the back of a trailer or wagon.

"We always looked forward to seeing it go up."

People have offered to buy the horse, but like the MasterCard commercial, Russell FitzPatrick said it's priceless.

She plans to continue the tradition for as long as she can.

"If it's not vandalized or succumb to the weather, that horse will live on for many years and decades," she said.

Dangerous place

Russell FitzPatrick's biggest concern is trespassers.

Two lovebirds recently carved their initials on the horse, and other vandalism has occurred over the years.

And since the horse is located on the edge of a steep cliff, Russell FitzPatrick worries that someone might get injured, or worse.

She acknowledged that most of her encounters with people wanting to get a closer look have been confrontational, and some attitudes have deep-seated roots in the province's colourful political history, and the controversy surrounding her grandfather's acquisition of the land.

"It's got to be gone out of the psyche of Newfoundlanders. 'Oh, that's Joey Smallwood's farm. All that was put there with government money, so I can do what a want with it.' We've lived with that attitude for a long time," said Russell FitzPatrick.

Worked hard to develop land

She replies that her father worked very hard to develop the land with the same government assistance that was available to any farmer.

As for the notion that it's Joey's horse, Russell FitzPatrick said that stems from the fact that her grandfather is the more famous resident of the area.

And if the horse's rear end seems to be facing the highway most of the time, that's because the prevailing winds are usually westerly, and, like a real horse, the weathervane stands with its tail to the wind.

"That's so foolish it almost doesn't deserve any comment," she said.

troberts@thetelegram.com