Booklet hints at Placentia area’s larger story

Published on April 14, 2014
Herring plant at Argentia, shown in 1941. — Submitted photo

“I goes into the woods and comes out with a fishing boat.”

There is not a chance of hearing a line like that anywhere else in the world but Newfoundland. The truth and the humour in it, the brevity — everything about that line demonstrates Newfoundland wit at its best.

I came across those 12 words in an 86-page booklet published nearly 45 years ago in (and I have to be careful here) Dunville, Argentia, Fox Harbour and Placentia. I’m not sure if Jerseyside should be mentioned, but I’ll leave it in just to be safe.

I am referring to “Home of Wooden Boats and Iron Men,” compiled by the women of the re-established Dunville Branch of the Women’s Institutes of Newfoundland and Labrador. They came together in 1969 although, like a good many other places in Newfoundland and Labrador, the region’s first acquaintance with the organization went back to the 1930s.

The women down Dunville way in the late 1960s brought a tiny local history together with input from quite an assortment of contributors. It is that fact that makes it both fascinating and jumbled. Every page offers something you can enjoy or get your mental teeth into.

All told, the booklet is a delightful read, even if there are frequent 360-degree turns in its road. Picking through it, I was reminded of the Newfoundland  soup which in places was called “All-hands-in.” That soup was created (in the days when leftovers had real value) from a bit of everything served up during the week.

It beggared description but the end result was tasty and nutritious.

In one tiny part, the booklet talks about effluent from the ERCO phosphorus plant. And then it turns and talks about the coming of the French, the English, the Irish and the Americans.

It mentions the tri-community being rated by the 1955 Forestry Survey for poor timbers, “thus, lumbering has been mainly small sawmills supplying local needs or ship repairing necessities.”

Coming out of the 86 pages you retain a picture of a cluster of communities that, given the character of the people, the natural forces (especially as they impact their efforts to make a living) and the huge outside forces which played upon it, together hold the makings of a much larger book.


Remarkable endurance

“Home of Wooden Boats and Iron Men” discusses bounty and famine, the mundane, and the challenging, especially of people against the forces of ice, tide and wind. “Endurance” might be a good title for this book. Here, for example, is Endurance with a capital E. This excerpt is verbatim:

“In November of 1915 the schooner Maddona, owned by Richard Tobin, of Dunville, under the command of Capt. Bob Sparrow of Ship Harbour with a crew of two, James Darmody, and his son Michael of Dunville, left St. John’s bound for Placentia loaded with puncheons of molasses, barrels of sugar, tubs of butter, barrels of pork, beef, etc. The boat was rigged for sail, and as it neared Gull Rock it struck Little Gull Rock and was destroyed. The water is very deep and the main boom from the schooner swung across the rock and the three men climbed unto the rock. Those three shipwrecked men clung to the rock from Saturday to Tuesday, without food and the only water they had to drink was rain water they caught in a Lincoln (an oil skin hat). Pat Abbot of Oderin spied a man on the rock and tried to find help.

“Mr. Pomeroy of Merasheen rescued the men and took them to the home of R.J. McGrath, the Magistrate of Oderin. The rescued man was young Michael Darmody — his nails were worn to the quick where he had tried to cling to the rock and had held the body of his drowned father. The body of the drowned father was retrieved and coffined, waked, and the next boat to Placentia carried Michael and his father’s body home. The body was buried on Dixon’s Hill. The body of Bob Sparrow was never retrieved. Michael Dormody survived and lived to 70 years.  He passed away in the U.S.A. in 1968.”


Profile facts, figures

In reference to the port at Argentia and its use by the American base, the booklet notes, “along the wharf the water is 24 feet deep. The tide rises 6.3 feet spring and 4.9 mean. Anchorage is available one mile from the wharf … no bunker coal is available except by rail and there are no dry docks or slips … pilots and tugs are not usually necessary but the Navy has tugs available” …

This part of the book reads rather like a business profile and so it might be — to “sell” the area to business.

“With a bus and taxi service running each day to and from St. John’s connecting Dunville, Fox Harbour and Argentia with all provincial opportunities. Walking, sleds, horses and boats are now replaced with the most modern modes of travel.”

In a chapter titled “Industry,” we have a glimpse of sawmilling, but more than that, once again it is a picture of endurance:

“Seventy years ago in Dunville (making that 1900) Mr. Tom Smith Sr. operated a water mill. He dammed Little Wise’s Pond (where Dunville now gets its water supply). Every morning he would walk the length of the Low Road along North East Arm, about 4.5 miles, to open the dam. Each evening he would return to the dam and close the water supply. Mr. Edward Power Sr. of Dunville and Mr. Jim Davis of Fox Harbour recall the sawmill at Dunville at Jordan’s Cove. Their fathers operated it, cutting wood for Dawe’s lumber. Logs were cut in North East River or on the dam at Fox Harbour, came into Jordan’s Cove where it was cut and loaded on motor boats and scows and taken to Jersey Side where Ben O’Keefe hauled it by horse to the rail head.”


Families removed from Placentia

From a  description of Placentia, penned in 1705, we learn that the settlement was strongly fortified by French soldiers, Canadians and aboriginals. In a sentence that is left hanging, we are informed that in 1709, “Twelve Savages of War came from the River.” And then, that same year, “the Micmac families were removed from Placentia for atrocities.” The book adds that it was reportedly for cutting children’s throats.

A sad little story is to be found in the middle of road and rail anecdotes.

“In 1906 a freight train locomotive number 61 left St. John’s for Placentia with a load of freight for the steamship Leopard. The conductor was Jim Mitchum. Tom Foley was engineer, John Hutchings was brakesman and a very young man named Tom Hennesburg was on board. The train, however, never reached Placentia, as the locomotive was derailed at Curve Pond, a distance of approximately one and a half miles east of the Dunville station. It was provincial (sic) election day and Foley assured his mother he would be home to Whitbourne in time to vote, but he was killed. John Hutchings was also killed. Hennesburg walked to Placentia to break the news. For years after, a pile of coal could be seen beside the track where the locomotive had been derailed.”


Spiced Newfoundland herring, page 26, contains what I supposed might be an Iron Man recipe. It includes salt, vinegar, granulated sugar, pepper and cloves, bread crumbs and water. And, of course, herring.



In last week’s column on Sir Robert Bond, the Grange, its garden and Whitbourne, I noted that the Bonavista branch railroad joined the main line at Whitbourne. Several readers have since pointed out that it joined at Clarenville. One reader even noted that this latter place was once known as “Dark Hole.”