Memory Cabin

A visit to an abandoned community in Newfoundland finds that perhaps you can go home again

Cape Island, Newfoundland floating house

On the move in Cape Island. Photograph: Maritime History Archive

The town of Centreville sits on the northeast arm of Newfoundland, and is not near the centre of anywhere at all. To get there, I exited the Trans-Canada Highway and headed ninety minutes northeast on a two-lane road studded with small towns. The speed limit most of the way was 25 miles an hour, which Newfoundlanders appeared to almost universally obey. Eventually, the driver in the car ahead pulled over to let me pass.

At a gas station, I saw a poster advertising an annual Coming Home Days celebration. Inside, a clerk was checked out an order.

“Is Wallace home?” the customer asked.
“He just got home,” said the clerk.
“For his seven days?”
“Six. He worked another day out there.” Out there – Fort McMurray, Alberta, home to a significant population of Newfoundlanders.
“I wonder why he bothers coming home anymore,” she sighed. The man shrugged and headed out to this truck.

Eighteen Bridges Winter 2013 coverI arrived in Centreville by late morning, but the town was so inconspicuous that I was in the neighbouring village before I realized I’d missed it. I did a U-turn in my rental car, headed past the town hall and the blueberry factory, and a few moments later arrived at the home of Esther and Stu Rogers.

Esther greeted me at the back door, clasping my hand and pulling me up freshly built back stairs past the spot where a handrail should have been. The front entrance of house was boarded up with plywood; the previous night, Stu had removed the old door before realizing the new one didn’t fit. Now they would have to wait two months for a replacement. Esther was not pleased.

Two coolers sat by the back door, packed with a picnic lunch. Stu was out buying fuel for the boat. They kept a cabin in Round Harbour, a twenty-minute boat ride away, and were taking me over for a visit.

Esther and Stu are both in their late seventies. They have lived in Centreville since 1961, when everyone from their outport communities—she is from Fair Island, he is from Round Harbour, just across the way—packed up and sailed all their worldly goods to the mainland, encouraged by Premier Joey Smallwood’s resettlement programmes. Smallwood believed that fishermen were living an impoverished, third-world life. Modernisation through new fish processing factories to feed the burgeoning frozen fish market, hydroelectric plants, and paper mills would bring prosperity and secure their future. “This shining shovel, a symbol of new life and economic development for the province,” the premier said, posing at a construction site in an archival film, “is ready to turn sod anew in another step in the growth of Newfoundland.”

When Smallwood became premier, around 300,000 people lived in a province that was one-third the size of England. “For some years past, there has been a lot of talk about the way the population of Newfoundland are scattered into so many hundreds of settlements along so many thousands of miles of coastline,” he wrote in 1957. “It has long been felt by thoughtful people that the terribly scattered nature of our population has made it very expensive for the government to provide public services to all the people.”

It was time for Newfoundlanders to stop hanging on to the “old traditional ways,” a brochure from the early 1960s reported. Relocation was the only way to prepare “the next generation” for life in a modern, urban society. The propaganda of the time cast an eye toward a gleaming new future: “Yes, today and tomorrow Newfoundland is truly on the march,” proclaimed a black-and-white promotional film.

“One thing we will not do is force anyone to move. That would be dictatorship,” Joey Smallwood said. He told fishermen to burn their boats, and he promised new jobs. He spoke of “reception centres” and “growth areas.”

Centreville was one such growth area, a manufactured town risen from the autocratic ambitions of a man who had called himself “the latest father of Confederation” and the adrenaline of a collective desperation.

At the harbour, Stu steadied their small three-person skiff, and Esther and I handed down the coolers and jugs of water. “This was nothing, just an open space,” he said, as we made our way to the wharf. It was cloudy and the air smelled of woodsmoke as we passed hills covered with the green tips of young spruce and fir trees. When the people of Fair Island, Round Harbour and the other tiny islands decided to hang up their fishing nets, they ran their schooners aground and moved to Centreville to work in the forestry. Families towed their homes by boat or loaded them on a government “resettlement barge” because they couldn’t afford to leave them behind.

The year following the move a fire destroyed everything. (Rumours were that it started at a lobster cookout all the way in Gambo.)

“The last two houses were hardly in the water when the fire came through,” said Esther.

“See that opening?” she said, looking toward the near distance between two islands. “If you went there you could go all the way across the Atlantic.

Stu pointed the skiff toward the open water. “There was a time when you saw more boats on the water than cars on the road.”

We passed Yellow Fox Island and Silver Fox Island, Partridgeberry Island and Sydney Cove. A smooth granite rock that arched into the air was known as Whale’s Back. After ten minutes, we reached the dock at Fair Island, a place that was settled in 1780 and had a population of 750 when it was abandoned close to 200 years later. Despite the government’s directive never to return, many people came back after resettlement and built cabins on the plots where their families once lived.

Esther and I climbed ashore and Stu hung back in the boat. We headed toward a short rocky hill covered with crackerberries. “I’m only going that far and then I’ll stop,” Esther announced, as much to herself as to me. She has arthritis in her hips, but was compelled to keep walking. “I used to run up this hill,” she said. She knew what was on the other side, but wanted to have a look anyway. To our right was an old cemetery with white stone markers; to the left, a slope of rocks she and her friends played on. This was how they spent their evenings on Fair Island as children, walking and running over the rocks, ice skating in winter on a frozen bog.

Down among the cabins were white signs where the town store and a church and stores had been. In 1946 there were three churches on Fair Island. People from Pork Island, Sydney Cove, Round Harbour and the other smaller islands—the “people across the tickle”—came to Fair Island to shop. The island had a government wharf and a one-legged postmaster who would walk to the point and raise a flag to tell someone on the next island over that they had a telegram waiting for them. (At the Resettlers Museum, across from the Rogers’s house, I saw the postmaster’s wooden leg. It was a kind of puppet, with ropes to manipulate the limb and a socket for the knee.)

The people of Fair Island and Round Harbour were isolated—it took hours just to get to Gambo to catch a train to the city—but there wasn’t time to be bored. Women woke at four am to make breakfast for the men, and then their day was filled with preparing the fish, doing laundry, tending the garden and children. Close to midnight, they kneaded dough for the next day’s bread. They kept vinegar plants to treat fevers and headaches, and drained myrrh bladders from fir trees to tend wounds. They picked wild blueberries to sell. Food and supplies were delivered twice a year, which meant that March was a grim month, as winter stores dwindled. Here, as in other parts of Newfoundland, the men were often away, sometimes cutting trees near Indian Bay in winter and travelling on schooners to Labrador to fish in late spring. They were “floaters”; for a month they would be “in collar,” working with the skipper to prepare the schooner for the journey. When they returned, the entire family was busy curing the catch.

Stu followed us in the boat as we walked along Fair Island. We passed a small green cabin that belonged to Esther’s family. It hadn’t been kept up and looked as hospitable as a garden shed. A hundred metres or so down the shoreline, we climbed aboard the boat and steamed over to Round Harbour. We hauled the coolers and water to the cabin, and Stu made a fire in a small stove in the corner of the living room. They came here often in summer, though this was the first trip of the year.

“I don’t think you put enough wood in the stove. I’m cold,” Esther said to Stu as she set out a lunch of cold roast chicken, macaroni, slabs of sourdough bread and a spinach salad. Esther apologized for not making the food herself. She was too busy; the previous day she’d had to drive a few hours to Gander for a doctor’s appointment.

Stu pointed out the spot at the end of Round Harbour where fishermen ran three schooners ashore when the fishery collapsed. It was a small beach, buffered by shrubs and trees. Logs lay across the sand. There was no trace of those schooners. He glanced around the perimeter of Round Harbour, his eyes following the route he used to take from his house on the other side, through the trees to the school. He ran this four times a day, coming home for a hot lunch. The trees were thick and green, and there hardly looked like space for a trail let alone houses.

Little more than fifty years earlier, people would have sat around the kitchen tables of their tiny cabins eating chicken they’d raised themselves, or fish they’d caught. When they moved to the mainland and started working for a large logging company it was not merely their trade that would have changed. They lost their gardens and boats. They lost access to the water, so they had to buy more food; they had to buy land and perhaps take out a mortgage to build a house. “Moving,” Esther said, “probably tore the soul right out of you.” It was hardest for the older people, like her parents.

After lunch, I asked her if people are nostalgic about the place and forget how hard it was to live on Fair Island. She stopped loading the cooler, looked over and said, “Yes.” Then she turned back to her packing.

We closed up the cabin, loaded up the skiff and unfastened it from the wharf. As we rounded the corner and Round Harbour passed out of view, Esther said, “Yeah, that’s our cabin. I call it our memory cabin.”

The rain pelted our faces as we made our way back to Centreville. With no cover, Stu squinted his eyes and steeled himself against the weather. He liked to slow the boat and point out various sights—there’s Little Sugar Loaf, he said of a nubby rock poking out of the water—but Esther was getting cold.

“It’s beginning to rain harder, dear. Bring us home.”

Read more

Read more
Listen to Fair Island people recalling life on the island for CBC’s Land and Sea
Read more about resettlement in Newfoundland on my blog, The Modern Nomad
+ Buy the digital edition of Eighteen Bridges, the Canadian magazine for narrative non-fiction and essays

This story was supported by an Access Copyright research grant and is part of a non-fiction book about modern nomads and the meaning of home. Many thanks to Access Copyright and the Saskatchewan Arts Board. It won best feature at the 2014 Alberta Magazine Publishers Association Awards and was published in Eighteen Bridges.