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Report 1901: A Month on the Rock

By Eleanor from UK, Fall 2010

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Page 2 of 31: General Impressions of Newfoundland

photo by Michael

Pitcher plant - the provincial flower of Newfoundland

Nearly all the settlement is around the coast, apart from a few newer industrial centres which are inland. Most of the island is covered with trees (a mixture of coniferous and deciduous) which are thick and impenetrable. There is only one road, the Trans Canada Highway, across the island with 'feeder roads' to the coastal settlements, some of which loop round the coast. Most of the major road junctions have a gas station and small convenience store with cafe/restaurant.

Distances on the Trans Canada Highway are long and can be mind numbingly boring. For long stretches all you see are trees. Moose are a hazard when driving at dawn or dusk and at night. They can cause a serious accident and do a lot of damage to a car if hit.

The roads are fairly recent and most have been built over the last 50 years or so. Before then all transport was by coastal boats. In the 1960s the government decided it could no longer continue to support many of the smaller, more isolated settlements which were thought to be economically nonviable and encouraged these communities to move and resettle in designated ‘growth centres’. There are still a few outports which were not resettled, do not have road access, and are still served by ferry.

Apart from the Vikings who settled for a few years at the tip of the northern peninsula, the first European settlers were Basque fishermen and whalers who arrived in the 1500s for the summer and left before the seas froze over for the winter. At Red Bay in Labrador, there are the excavated remains of one of the whaling settlements, which housed 1000-2000 itinerant fishermen during the summer. Whaling was big business. One whale provided 400 barrels of oil and ships could take 1000 barrels back to Spain worth £1 million plus in modern money.

Later, the French arrived for the summer months and settled all around the coast, fishing for cod which was salted and then dried before being shipped back to Europe in vast quantities. The English arrived later and settled year round. After periodic conflicts, the English were able to restrict the French fishing activities in Newfoundland to a small part of the west coast.

Fishing was the main stay of the Newfoundland economy but stocks have gradually diminished over time and there are now strict quotas on fishing. Individuals are only allowed to fish for a few weeks in the year and are limited to five fish each. There are strict penalties if caught taking more. Most fishing is for crab and lobster. Lobster is on every menu and is a cheap food.

To understand Newfoundland settlement you really need to look at it from the sea as this is where initial settlement began. Settlements are scattered along the coast and have no real service centre. Even small settlements have a convenience store with a good range of food, although fresh vegetables and fruit may be more difficult to find. Gas stations often have a small convenience store attached.

Each fisherman used to have his own wooden wharf with shed on it where the fish was cleaned and salted before being laid out to dry. The Random Passage film set in New Bonaventure gives a good idea of what an early fishing settlement would have been like. Now, fewer people are involved in fishery but use bigger, more highly mechanised boats fishing from larger harbours.

Houses were made of wood, usually boards or wooden shingles, although UPVC coverings are now replacing wood. Traditionally houses were white although working sheds were often painted a rusty red. The houses were (and continue to be) well spread out. Today, they are all surrounded by well-manicured lawns. There are few flower gardens and there are no fences or boundaries between the houses.

Many of the older houses had a root cellar close by which was used to prevent food supplies from freezing during the winter months and to keep food supplies cool during the summer months. The town of Ellison markets itself as the ‘Root Cellar Capital of the World’, although root cellars can be seen in many places across the island.

In the Northern Peninsula, roadside gardens are found scattered along the road verges. The land is crown land and no rent is payable. Originally vegetables were grown around the house but people now prefer lawns. When roads were built the verges were disturbed and locals claimed ‘plots’ to grow vegetables. These could be quite a distance from their houses. Most plots contain potatoes as moose won’t eat them and potatoes need minimum attention. If carrots or cabbages are grown, plots have to be fenced against moose. No-one else can claim that patch of land unless they are given permission from the ‘holder.’

There are a lot of new and large houses beginning to appear in urban areas, a sign of increasing prosperity as there is more employment in local government and public services.

Apart from some fishing, lumbering and tourism, there is little rural employment on the island. Much of the work is seasonal. Many of the younger generation have to leave to find work, although they still retain very close ties to their local area and to Newfoundland, which they regard as home. Many of the older people have lived in the same community all their lives and many in the community are related to each other. When the old folk die, the children keep up their houses and use them as holiday homes for the summer.

In autumn many people go out berry picking for bakeapple, blackberries, blueberries which are used to make pies and jams. Auk Island Winery and Rodrigues Markland Cottage Winery both produce excellent berry wines.

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