Posted by: alexhickey | May 2, 2018

Where Once They Lived ©

 “From the outside looking in, you can never understand it.  From the inside looking out, you can never explain it.”  Author Unknown

Frederick R Page Map NL1859

Centre for Newfoundland Studies. Memorial University of Newfoundland Libraries. Map also issued with: Page, Frederick R. A concise history and description of Newfoundland: being a key to the chart of the island just published. London: R.H. Laurie, 1860.

We Newfoundlanders are frequently confronted with the question, ‘Where are you from?’ The answer is much more complex than simply telling the person where you live. I can choose to live anywhere in the world but I will forever be from that place where I was born and has shaped my life in ways I am still discovering.  For some that sense of belonging transcends birth; children whose parents were born in a particular place vicariously and actually maintain their own sense of attachment.  It is akin to Thomas Hardy’s sense of place where his characters play out their lives and circumstances against the background of Dorset in southwestern England.  The natural world surrounding Wessex is for Hardy a character unto itself; it becomes something with authority where people thrive within it rather than above it. Therein resides the answer to the question.

There is no dispassionate view of those places we carry lovingly, longingly and sometimes bitterly within our being.  They are intrinsic to who we are and even in denial their presence maintains an emotional grip. How we see those places is driven by the paths of our lives lived.  Interwoven with our ‘Wessex’ are the complexities of who we’ve become, who we think we are and whom others believe we are.  There is a difference between the ‘looking out’ and the ‘looking in.’

If we take those two perspectives and apply it to the question of where we are from then we must consider the differences between what one sees from within the place looking out and what one sees from outside the place looking in. If we further restrict the perspective to how we physically differentiate the two positions then we allow ourselves to see, as if on a map, that place we come from. Someone who lives their entire life on the land, seeing their community through the lens of their kitchen window will have an entirely difference concept of what that community looks like physically than someone who has seen it from the sea.

Land-forms viewed from the ocean camouflage warts and shortcomings, presenting to the eye an aesthetic beyond the mundane and grittiness of life in the moment.  It encourages us to reach higher, more globally in our thinking, to a notion of place that is metaphoric, laden with symbols, belief, memory and dreams.  Sit for a minute on the thwart of a buff-coloured wooden dory, trimmed with emerald green gunnels.  Beneath, the swell of the ocean cradles your fragile yet stalwart vessel, seeks to infuse its rhythm to your body.  Resistance results in awkward jerky uncomfortable physical balance and equilibrium responses; however, when you find that rhythm the gentleness brings calm, the awkwardness slips away. You move in unison, no longer conscious of the rise and fall or the lateral swaying.  When you get there it’s like taking a deep breath, holding it momentarily, then exhaling slowly, allowing relaxation to flow unencumbered through your body. Now look back to the land.

The steep spruce cloaked hillsides are rounded; their formidable boulders and ravines diminished to undulating forms.  They’ve been given gentleness, a majesty where the forest has become much more than prickly pin boughs.  Cliffs whose dramatic faces weather winter storms and stand witness to the passage of time serve to accent the transition between ocean and land.  Deep crevices and scree become shadows and shape reducing their foundering layers and eroded base to a beige grey pencil line demarcating the two worlds. Waves washing against the worn and weathered boards of the dories sides pass in succession, moving inexorably with the tide to become mere ripples in the distance.  Above, the blueness of sky bears witness to an occasional seagull gliding, its eyes scanning the ocean’s surface, including you looking back at its effortless flight.

Headlands, coves, harbour entrances punctuate the shoreline, denying individual identity to the settlements of here, now and yesterday.  We can easily see the landforms without our presence on them.  Imagine what it must have felt like to the earliest people who approached our island shores from the sea; how they must have marveled at the looming dark ridge interrupting the far horizon, then the ever intensifying green spruce and fir punctuated sporadically by birch and maple.  As they neared the shoreline they would have been in search of safe places to land, sheltering places to build and comforting places to live. Our indigenous people who travelled over ice and in canoe, our European  settlers who arrived by ship and those who continued to seek this place in recent times all saw the shape and colour of the land before anything else.

When we ‘look in’ from that vantage point we are struck with emotive things such as beauty, reverence, perhaps fear and trepidation of the unknown.  Either way these are big feelings that supersede the everyday mundane moments of living within a community ‘looking out’.  Since its earliest days of settlement the shores of Fortune Bay has been scattered with communities whose size ebbed and flowed with time and the local economy of the fishery.  Over the centuries generations of people experienced the difference, seeing the headlands of their home from both directions.  With the inevitable march of time many of those communities faded and disappeared, the details of their life stories vaporizing as morning fogs lift with the rising sun.  Today we hear them in music and song, poetry and image; we hear them in lamenting voices of resettled peoples and see it in their faces; we see them in photographs packed away on the pages of memory.

Row your dory or transform it into a powerful engine driven craft and journey throughout the Bay; explore every shoreline indentation and ask, did someone live here?  Chances are, if you are motivated to ask there is something suggesting it to you. You are on the outside ‘looking in’, yet somewhere in time there were others in that cove ‘looking out’.   Their view of the same rocks, reefs, sunkers, trickling streams and breaking waves might have been much different for they lived this space; for them it was where they were from.

When I state “I am from St. Jacques” its resonance within me is greater than the physical arms of the harbour which gives it shelter. It also reaches back through time for centuries and through all of the lives come and gone that bring colour, sound and touch to that resonance. Such is the case for nearly every cove and harbour found along the intriguing shoreline.  Someone came from there.  Today, few of us can call these communities by name; fewer still can speak out loud the names of families or the given name of a local midwife, shop keeper, or the fisherman whose elegant stage graced the western side of the harbour.

There are remnants to be found if you dig through layers of dead grass and the burrows of field mice or if you push back the overgrown branches of evergreens in search of still-standing marble monuments.  Along the beach head, or in among the pebbles, broken crockery, glass and stubborn metal spikes might catch your attention if you look closely enough.  Should you find a place to sit and survey your surroundings your eyes will begin to discern patterns in the soil upon which foundations gave rise to homes, or patterns where the meagre soil was tilled to grow root vegetables.  Should you stop by at the right time of year, delicate whiffs of rose petals may drift across your nose or the intense fuchsia of a bleeding heart plant might stand in contrast to the deep grey lichen covered granite boulder behind it.  Listen, the sound of water ebbing and flowing washing the shoreline is the same as it was a hundred years ago when it lulled residents to sleep.  Turn your head in that direction and absorb the same breath of the ocean that entered windows opened along with warmth of morning sunlight. Someone came from here.  Someone ‘looked out’ from here once.

There are documents and maps which tell us the names of these communities.  Many are the communities we know today. Some are familiar, some forgotten, some remembered.   When passing by one of these former communities, it is not unusual to hear someone say, ‘how could people live in such a small and rocky space?’ There lies the question again for those of us on the outside of that community cannot understand what it meant to live there and those that did live there would have found it difficult to explain why. And yet they did, with enormous pride!

The list below is compiled from data found in the 1869 Census of Newfoundland. Over half of these communities are now but memories; however, it is interesting to ‘look in’ on them a hundred and fifty years later.  All names are spelled as they were found in Census documents.  The recorded population for 1869 is given after the name of each community.

  • Fortune – 669
  • Grand Bank – 751
  • Little Barrisway – 7
  • Grand Beach – 24
  • Frenchman’s Cove – 76
  • Brunet Island – 82
  • Sagona – 276
  • Garnish – 209
  • Point Enragee – 70
  • Langue de Cerf – 18
  • Fox Cove – 42
  • Jack Fontaine – 35
  • Bay L’Argent – 70
  • Little Bay East – 38
  • Harbour Mille – 95
  • Head of Fortune Bay – 79
  • English Hr. East – 101
  • New Harbour – 19
  • Femme – 9
  • Conn – 19
  • Long Harbour – 144
  • Rencontre – 107
  • Isle Glue – 10
  • Doctor’s Harbour – 16
  • Lally Cove – 77
  • Bay de East – 12
  • Bay de North – 71
  • Pool’s Cove – 55
  • Turnip Cove – 29
  • Corbin – 44
  • Barrow – 45
  • Belleoram – 309
  • Belleoram Barrisway – 24
  • St. Jacques – 108
  • Blue Pinion – 16
  • English Hr. West – 211
  • Mose Ambrose – 57
  • Boxey – 42
  • Blanchet – 6
  • St. John’s Bay – 22
  • Coomb’s Cove – 89
  • Wreck Cove – 22
  • Red Cove – 42
  • Bay de L’ Eau East – 22
  • Bay de L’ Eau Island – 51
  • Miller’s Passage – 89
  • Little Bay West – 85
  • Jersey Harbour – 155
  • Harbour Breton – 361
  • Connaigre Bay, Great Harbour – 48
  • Connaigre Bay, Dawson’s Cove – 30
  • Connaigre Bay, Seal Cove – 35
  • Pass Island – 161


Posted by: alexhickey | February 26, 2018

©From the Galley to the Kitchen:

Songs of Charlie MacKinnon in the Lives of St. Jacques Fishermen

Newfoundlanders have always gone away to work reaching back to the earliest days of settlement.  When you think about it, many of the British and French fishermen who came here to fish prior to permanent European settlement were also men going away from their homes to work. Little wonder that practice gained a foothold in the population.

Living in St. Jacques meant adjusting to temporary seasonal population shifts because of work patterns.  Almost every man in the community of my father’s generation spent some time on boats in the fishing industry during their work career.  Others who weren’t on fishing vessels were employed in the coastal shipping trades.  It was a minority who didn’t go to sea.

Many of the men found employment in the Nova Scotia fishing industry.  They sailed the schooners of the nineteenth century and transitioned to the trawlers of the twentieth century as crewmen and captains. When spring was approaching the horizon the exodus would start and many would not be seen again until shortly before Christmas when they’d return home for their brief stay during the winter months.

They fished out of such towns as Lockport, Shelburne, Bridgewater, Liverpool and Lunenburg on the southeast shore of the province and in such fishing towns as Port Hawkesbury, Mulgrave, Sydney, and North Sydney on the northeast shore. Though the working conditions were hard and the pay low by today’s standards many of them worked there for years.  There was a common thread which ran among them even though they worked in different towns on quite a variety of vessels and in different fisheries – that was music.

Music became their solace, their buoyancy which lifted them beyond the days’ work, took them home for a few minutes, and placed them in the arms of lovers or in a kitchen with their mothers.  Some of the music and songs they took with them to Nova Scotia, others came from the folk music of that province while more came from the strong influence of American bluegrass and country genres. This was evident in the songs they sang when they came home.

It was through these men I was introduced to the recordings of Lee Moore, Mac Wiseman, Hank Williams and other American recording artists.  It was also from them I heard the early recordings of Hank Snow and Wilf Carter.  In the late fifties and early sixties a Cape Breton recording artist gained prominence in the songs they sang in ships galleys and around kitchen tables, often with a few glasses to wet their whistles. His songs reached St. Jacques before his recordings for the men fishing out of Cape Breton learned them at source.

LP recordings weren’t widespread in the communities between Belleoram and Wreck Cove until the mid-sixties when electricity became available to all residents. There were households operating on their own electrical generators which meant St. Jacques wasn’t devoid of record players.  An occasional house still had the wind-up variety which played 78 rpm recordings.

It was his version of the Wreck of the John Harvey that I first heard even though my grandmother was quick to point out that there were many more verses to the song that weren’t included on that recording.  The fishermen had their favourites which quickly became family and community favourites through repeated exposure. Some of these included Down on the Big Shoal, Black Around Their Eyes, Wreck of the John Harvey, and The Legend of Kelly’s Mountain.  Of course I am referring to the indomitable Charlie MacKinnon!

Charlie MacKinnon from the album cover, My Cape Breton Home, 1961

Charlie MacKinnon became a household name in St. Jacques.  There were very few people in the harbour who didn’t sing along to one of his songs at one time or another.   His album “Songs of My Cape Breton Home”, recorded in 1961, was the source of many of his most popular songs; however, another album recorded in 1967, “Free and Easy While Jogging Along”, proved almost as popular.  The 1961 recording also included The Ballad of a Teenage Tragedy, An Old Haunted Castle in Scotland, Napoleon Bonaparte and the Bonny Bunch of Roses, The Wash Out on the Line, Waters of Iona, Twilight on the Cabot Trail and The Little Irish Maid.

If I close my eyes I can hear men such as Tom Osborne and Jim Hynes singing, Down on the Big Shoal. As often as not, those men who didn’t sing loudly such as Uncle Den McCarthy and Ralph Fiander could be heard singing along as well as the evenings wore on.

The frequency with which one is exposed to specific pieces of music contributes to a feeling of ownership in that the pieces become a part of the fabric of your life.  These songs of Charlie MacKinnon were not incidentally heard and forgotten, they were sung, remembered and incorporated into the work history of the community. The singing of Down on the Big Shoal resonated with the fishermen, their families and friends for they intimately knew the song’s references.  Black Around their Eyes spoke to the earlier generations of Newfoundlanders who worked the coal mines of Cape Breton and their many descendants in and around North Sydney know to the St. Jacques fishermen. Through that exposure we incorporated Charlie MacKinnon’s songs into our collective memory and in some ways appropriated ownership. The Wreck of the John Harvey held particular resonance for it existed in lived memory of many local residents who knew the crewmen and the witnessed the event.

We knew Charlie through his songs and ranked him with the best. Charlie MacKinnon, who died in 1987 at the age of sixty-eight, was born in Little Bras d’Or on Nova Scotia’s Cape Breton Island.  Among his musical influences were traditional Cape Breton musicians, and other performers such as Hank Snow, Wilf Carter and Jimmy Rodgers.  He wrote some of his own songs; however, there was a poet/songwriter who had a profound influence on his repertoire.

That poet was Lillian Crewe-Walsh who was born in Neil’s Harbour on Scaterie Island and grew up in Glace Bay.  When she met Charlie MacKinnon in the late 1950’s, it is told, she suggested he might consider putting some of her poems to music. He did this for six poems and among them were his biggest hits. The first one to gain traction upon its release was The Ghost of Bra’Dor which became a Canadian hit in 1958. The other five are:

Waters of Iona

My Cape Breton Home

Kelly’s Mountain

The Little Irish Maid, and

Wreck of the John Harvey

Charlie MacKinnon gained a reasonable degree of popularity and most likely could have achieved wide success as a performer, however, he chose not to pursue the life of touring and performing year-round.  Instead he continued to work at the Sydney Steel Plant where he spent his career. He did tour the Maritimes and Newfoundland and performed on local radio shows.  His legacy stands strong within his Cape Breton community and throughout Atlantic Canada.  Like Charlie, most of the fishermen who brought his songs to the kitchens and living rooms of St. Jacques have also passed on.  They too are remembered through his lyrics learned in the galley’s of fishing boats and sung around the kitchen tables of home.  Many of them are still fishing down on the big shoal.

Charlie MacKinnon Discography:

MacKinnon, Charlie with the Downeasters – The Wreck of the John Harvey // Aunt Martha’s Washing Tub Format: 78 rpm, Label: Rodeo RO. 203 78, Year: 1958

MacKinnon, Charlie with the Downeasters – The Ghost of Bras d’Or // My Cape Breton Home Format: 78 rpm, Label: Rodeo RO.197, Year: 1959

Songs Of My Cape Breton Home ‎(LP, Mono), Arc Sound Ltd. A547, 1961

The True And Authentic Life Of ‎(LP, Mono) Arc Records CX. 27 1963

Songs Of My Cape Breton Home ‎(LP) Arc Sound Ltd. A547, 1964

More Songs Of My Cape Breton Home ‎(LP) Arc 654 ,1965

Free And Easy While Joggin’ Along ‎(LP, Album, Mono) Arc Records A-731, 1967

Sings Ballads Of The Maritimes ‎(LP, Album) Arc Records ACS 5030, 1969

The Best Of Charlie MacKinnon Songs Of Cape Breton ‎(LP, Album) Arc Records  ACS 5029, 1970

MacKinnon, Charlie – Sings Songs of the Misty Island (LP) Cabot Music Publishing World Record Corp. WRC1-2922, 1985

Compilation – Rodeo Records Salute to Sydney: Cape Breton Island on Its 175th Anniversary Format: 33 1/3 rpm, Charlie MacKinnon – My Cape Breton Home, 2016

Places to Visit

Lillian Crewe Walsh – Cape Breton Magazine

The Wreck of the John Harvey –

Disaster Song Tradition – The John Harvey Story

MacEdward Leach and Songs of Atlantic Canada

Cape Breton’s Lillian Crewe-Walsh: A Treasury of Ballads and Poems: With a Conversation about Lillian Crewe Walsh by Ronald Caplan (ed)

Cape Breton’s Diversity in Unity

Posted by: alexhickey | December 19, 2017

Christmas Scents©

Sacks of Prince Edward Island potatoes, carrots, cabbages, turnips and parsnips don’t seem to be the type of thing to stir excitement among children; however, each fall there was heightened anticipation in my St. Jacques neighbourhood when the vegetable boat arrived at the government wharf.  Helping to load the heavy sacks onto the pickup truck and then off-load and carry them into the dark cellar for winter storage was thrilling.  Climbing in over the stacks to cover them with heavy blankets to give protection from frost added to that feeling of being part of something important.  In later winters vegetables were delivered by truck from J. Petite and Sons or Clifford Shirley’s store in English Harbour West, dropped off beside the gate to be transported by wheel barrow to the cellar. This wasn’t quite as adventurous and felt more like work.

We didn’t grow many root vegetables even though there was no shortage of arable land to do so.  Our family, like most others in the community during the postwar years, depended upon the fall shipments to get us through the winter.

Christmas Apples

The attention of every child in the household was ensured by an additional attraction which arrived in a barrel. Imagine being eight years old again and a barrel of Gravenstein’s are delivered and stored in your cellar. You feel as though you have been catapulted into apple heaven.

Savour for a moment the delicious aroma of red succulent apples drifting across your nose as you slowly open a door.  That exotic, intoxicating aroma fills the room.  Ever so gently you ease the door closed behind you and you pause, standing motionless in that bouquet, absorbing it through the pores of your skin.  Twirl on the balls of your feet and the indulgence twirls with you.  More than the aroma of a single apple in one’s hand, more than a bowl of apples on a kitchen table and more than a single corrugated box of apples in the local store, more, a lot  more!

Combine those evocative whiffs with the redness accentuated by delicate hints of yellow and green, a short woody stalk curving at a slight angle from the top.  Feel the coolness of their waxy surface to your fingertips as you cradle one in the palm of your hand.  You can almost hear the crunch of your teeth biting into its crispness and feel the sweet juice as it sprays against your wrist.

I don’t recall how many years the practice of buying apples by barrel lasted.  What I do recall is the power of one’s nose in fueling an appetite for them.  Just a whiff would set off the urge to make another trip to the barrel, but along with the barrel came dire warnings not to attempt sneaking into the cellar.  That warning was sufficient to keep one out for a while but not forever. The cellar door was airtight and padded against the cold so when it closed the heady aroma of living in an apple orchard dissipated. An added impediment to pilfering apples was the fact that the cellar door was located in the back porch thus any time the door was opened the smell of apples let everyone know. There was no need for alarm bells.

Just as dramatic and equally as exotic was the warm, spicy, rich, mouth-watering aroma of fruitcake escaping from the well-worn oven door of the Enterprise stove.  The transformation of a fruitcake in the oven from a gooey mess to a delectable treat for the human taste buds is nothing short of magical.  As its ingredients of dried and candied fruit, mixed peel, raisins, currants, nuts and spices heat up and release their enticing flavours they combine with the browning effect on its outside, filling the kitchen with anticipation of Christmas.  Cakes were baked well in advance of decorating the house, allowing time to age and develop like good beer and wine, complex characteristics for the palette and nose.  When Christmas cakes went into the oven the year was waning and the days to Christmas dwindling.

While the cakes were being mixed a good heat was established by banking the firebox until the metal of the stove exuded heat from all sides.  Once the oven temperature reached its desired target and was sustained, it was only then the cake was put inside. Accompanying the ritual was another warning to us children to not go ‘jumping about’ or stamping your feet’ for fear of making the cake “sink” in the middle.

Though I’ve never baked a fruitcake I’ve eaten quite a few of them through the years and have a particular liking for the dark variety.  When I say variety I acknowledge that, though they may share many common ingredients, fruitcakes have more than subtle variations from one house to another, in taste, smell, volume, density, appearance and presentation.  Cloves, cinnamon, allspice, mace and nutmeg, brown sugar, molasses, coffee, ginger, butter and occasionally dark rum, all combine to seduce one into a world of decadent dining. From one house to the next, differences could be ascertained based upon the measure of spices used – one Aunt preferred the use of more cloves than another; one neighbour had preference for more allspice than her sister-in-law.  By the time I reached adulthood I could identify the baker of a cake through its ambrosia and distinct flavours.

During the early years of my childhood the tree didn’t arrive inside the house until after all children were securely tucked into bed on Christmas Eve with warning that sleep was a condition to be met for Santa Claus to come.  Trying to force oneself into a state of sleep rarely works as most of us have learned.  Therefore, lying in bed, eyes tightly closed, ears wide open to every sound and a nose monitoring the air for anything out of the ordinary was a common state for most of us on Christmas Eve.  The first hint that changes were happening downstairs was the smell of the tree as it was carried through the house to the living room.  How could one mistake the pungent, near mystical odour of a freshly cut balsam fir when it first encounters the heat from a blistering hot wood stove?

The scent still has a reassuring feeling associated with it for when it wafts across my nose I feel certain that spirit of Christmas has entered the house.  When smelled late into the night on Christmas Eve it’s soothing effect was just the thing to tip one into a state of relaxation sufficient to bring on sleep.  That sleep wasn’t populated with visions of sugar plums or angels; it was tormented most of the time by states of near wakefulness wondering if Santa Claus had arrived yet.  A tentative opening of one eye cast towards the window would reveal the approach of daylight and the time to bound down the stairs to the living room. However, as often as not, I finally feel asleep and had to be awakened when the time came to get up.

Walking down the stairs was like walking into an evergreen forest for the scent of the Christmas tree became stronger with every step.  There is little that compares to the sight of a fir tree seen decorated for the first time on Christmas morning.  Brilliant colours and reflections of light bouncing of delicate glass bulbs and strands of silver tinsel were as alluring as any circus or carnival of lights anywhere in the world.  Seeing the tree in all its decorated splendour and absorbing that intriguing outdoors smell given off by the resin-filled blisters on the bark of the balsam fir, were almost as significant as the wrapped presents sitting beneath it.

Throughout Christmas Day and the days which followed the tree would remind us of its presence by its scent.  You could be sitting in the living room or anywhere in the house and all of a sudden pick up on its release of nature into the air.  Whenever that happened it brought a smile of appreciation to my lips and still does to this day.

A few days ago I was browsing a display of artificial trees which were quite convincing in their emulation of the real thing to the untrained eye of someone who hadn’t grown up in or adjacent to a forest.  Hanging on a stand adjacent to the display was a container of metal tubes labelled spruce, pine, and fir.  My curiosity got the better of me despite having a good sense of what was in each of them.   When I opened the container a strong chemical smell assaulted my nose and made my eyes water.  You would have to close your eyes really tight to imagine it truly smelled like a fir tree.  It left me with a little sadness that somewhere children would wake up Christmas morning to that smell, not knowing the difference between it and the delicate tendrils of the real forest as it softly and gently ebbs and flows throughout a room.

Layer on top of these scents that of freshly made cookies from the oven cooling on the kitchen counter-top and you have one of the most fulfilling experiences the sense of smell can deliver.  Shortbread cookies topped with cuttings of red and green caramelized cherries in their centre compete for attention with textures of melting chocolate and coconut and add to the already luxurious presence of deep dark mysterious date squares whose filling comes from far, far away in the moist sub-tropical countries of North Africa.   Molasses buns were a staple treat several times during the year, however, their presence at Christmas was a comfort, a sense of continuity that this Christmas experience was grounded in other parts and time of our lives. The same can be said for raisin tea buns and loaves of home-made bread eaten while still steaming from the oven. In the case of bread though, it was usually quite a challenge to convince the baker that it must be eaten now while still hot instead of waiting for it to cool down to make it easier to slice!

In as much as these all add to the depth and breadth of an olfactory Christmas, the single-most cookie which evokes soft fuzzy memories, delicate savouring of its nuances on the tongue and lends itself to either breaking between fingers or teeth, is the inimitable gingersnap.  More especially are they Christmas cookies when they are made in shapes of evergreen trees, snowmen and candy canes.  These flat, delectable delights distinguish themselves from ginger cookies in their hardness and the distinct “snap” when broken into pieces.  When these Christmas treats are baking the unmistakable presence of ginger in the air evokes more of Christmases past than any reading of Dickens Christmas Carol.

While we gather as friends, family and kindred spirits this time of year let’s stop and “smell the roses”, as they say, count our blessings and reflect on the small human things which make events like this special in our memories.  The things we smell, the sights we see around us, the taste of favourite foods and the people we reach out and touch create the feelings and memories we carry through our lifetime and pass on to others.  Rarely in our busy lives do we consider taking time to reflect and act on those reflections, however, when the end of the calendar year begins to roll around we are most likely to fall victim to such a human disposition regardless of a faith or belief system.  The universality of reaching out to those things which have brought comfort into our lives and still do, is one measure of our humanity.  This year I remember the scents of the season and the threads they have twisted and woven through the fabric of my life.  Our lives, like the humble but decadent fruit cake are all woven differently, yet running beneath the surface are the nuances which make us unique and at the same time remind us of all we have in common.

For me it’s Merry Christmas! For you, it’s whatever salutation brings you joy!

Posted by: alexhickey | November 5, 2017

Remembering Lance Corporal Edgar G. Skinner 1897-1953 ©

Most of us think of the men and women who served and died in war, when we hear the word Remembrance or the phrase Lest We Forget – and so we should.  There is, however, much greater depth to those words, more inclusivity and broader meaning.  There is an abundance of things to remember about war and the toll it extracts on people, places, institutions, culture, religion, society and governments. Yet, the greatest meaning does lie with the lives of those who volunteer or are conscripted into military service.

WW1 or the Great War as it is often called, ripped the innocence out of Newfoundland and left us with a legacy of loss, the extent of which is still being felt generations later.  Though all of the participants in that conflict are now dead, the cultural and genetic memory persists.  We are left on this centenary to ask questions, marvel and wonder at the decisions made by political and military leaders; admire the fortitude and patriotism which sent young men and women to a foreign soil; and lament the losses which affected nearly every community dotted along the coastlines of Newfoundland and Labrador.

Last year there was much attention given to the Battle of Beaumont Hamel where many young Newfoundland lives were lost. Since then, the one hundredth anniversary of the four year war seems to be over.  There is but sporadic attention to events beyond that unfortunate battle. Very little is heard of the heroics of our Newfoundland soldiers as they carried on fighting until peace was at hand. There were heroics and medals awarded as well as commendations and proud moments for over two years after Beaumont Hamel.

One battle which had profound effect on the Newfoundland Regiment took place as part of the continuing Battle of the Somme in April 1917. Newfoundland soldiers carried the day and delivered results well beyond expectations; however, the toll was enormous.  166 men were killed, 141 were wounded, and 150 were taken prisoner; the single largest capture of Newfoundlanders by the German military during the entire war.

The list of names of those who died has been widely circulated; however the bravery of those men who were injured or taken prisoner is often ignored. Their contribution to battles won and lost as well as to the overall thrust of will and valor which contributed to victory in the end, is less recognized.  Those men who were taken prisoner especially so.  This year I choose to remember the Newfoundlanders taken as Prisoners of War and their contribution to all those things we say, have derived from that war.

In highlighting the POW’s from Newfoundland I single out a young man from my hometown of St. Jacques – Lance Corporal Edgar G. Skinner, regimental number 2929.  Edgar volunteered for service immediately after finishing school at Bishop Field College in St. John’s where he was studying to become a teacher. After school closed for the summer the nineteen year old student spent a few days home in St. Jacques visiting family. He returned to St. John’s in early July and enlisted. By the time he shipped overseas on the S. S. Sicilian on August 28th he was assigned to the First Newfoundland Regiment 3rd Battalion, C Company, Platoon Number 12 – Section 16.  In his platoon with him were G. Moore, J. Tizzard, C. Day, W. Murphy, E. Dunphy, J. Sceviour, J. Lambert and D.E. Phelan of St. John’s as well as F.F. Simms of Burin; J.H. Little of Bonavista; S. Hodder of Horwood, Notre Dame Bay; C. Forsey and J. Harris of Grand Bank; J. Loveless of Seal Cove, Fortune Bay; and F. Morris of Trinity.

In less than a year he would be resident in a German Prisoner of War Camp.  At this point in time I know little of his experiences or of his treatment by German authorities.  I can assume with relative certainty that his time spent there was not pleasant, and that his treatment was not good.  Thousands of stories of life inside those camps have come to life over the century since and we can reason that Edgar Skinner experienced quite a bit of what these other men suffered.

Their suffering wasn’t limited to injuries they may have received in the Battle of Monchy; it also included the self-perceived ignominy of being taken prisoner.   It meant you could no longer fight beside the men you commanded or trained with; nor could you carry out orders to take the enemy.  You were forced to work for the enemy tending fields, building roads, repairing trenches, and burying their dead in the battlefield often while your own side unknowingly showered bullets down upon you.  You suffered there behind enemy lines thinking that there were those on your side who saw the fact that you were captured as cowardly.  You imagined that some thought you had surrendered to the enemy to avoid fighting.  All of these things played on the minds of POW’s causing them extreme mental anguish.  Coupled with the continuous hard labour most were forced into, and the poor nutrition which they endured, it is a wonder that any of them made it through to the end of the war.  Some didn’t.

These men endured war at the hands of their enemy unlike anything human beings had seen before.  Their suffering was daily, nightly, and weekly, seemingly without end as the war dragged on.  They were allowed to write letters home, however, their letters were heavily censored, allowing only the perfunctory salutations and most general comments to get through.  Below is an example of a letter from Edgar Skinner sent to his widowed mother on August 19th1917, which she submitted to the St. John’s Daily Star for publication.

Dear Mother,

Again I have the chance and pleasure of letting you know that I am still well.  My address is on the opposite side (my name, number, and company, and after that the writing which is over your address).

Try and write the Red Cross and tell them to send me some parcels. Do not worry about me.

I hope Lester, Owen, and you are well.

From your loving son.



No. 2929 L.C.E.G. Skinner, B. Co., 1st Nfld. Regiment

Prisoner of War

Kriegsfangenan, Friedrichsfelf, Germany.

This was not Edgar’s first letter home for he says, “I have the chance of letting you know I am still well.”  He makes no mention of the injury to his head he suffered during the Battle of Monchy le Preux, nor does he suggest he is being maltreated.  In fact, at first glance it would seem that all is well.  Twice in the short letter he tries to reassure his mother.  He asks her not to worry about him and goes on to inquire about his brother-in-law and nephew.

He asks little of his mother but to entreat the Red Cross to send parcels which is something the Red Cross had positioned themselves to do by this stage of the war.  His seventy-three words are sparse and devoid of anything related to his status as a POW.  Nor does it contain any comment or question about the war. He provides a mailing address but we do not know where he is being held prisoner. There is no indication of who else may be there with him. In short, the letter is almost devoid of information.

The Daily Star offered the following comment below the letter:

From the above it is evident that prisoners of war are only allowed to write at fixed intervals, dependent probably upon good conduct or upon the pleasure of the Camp Commandant. Lance Corporal Skinner was made prisoner in April when so many of our boys were either killed or captured.

Commander Edgar G. Skinner, WWII – Library of Canada Photo

There were other letters from Edgar during his time as prisoner of war.  All of them held true to the scarcity of information in this letter. Edgar remained a prisoner of war until he was repatriated on December 25, 1918.

The twenty-one months Edgar Skinner spent as POW must have been horrific in many ways. He wasn’t alone in his experience.  Other Newfoundlanders shared the experience though not always in the same prison camp.  What we must never forget about those prisoners of war is that they too were serving their country, giving of their mental and physical strengths to see it through to the end and victory.  What they didn’t know, and must have thought about every day, is what might happen to them if their side lost the war.

Lance Corporal Edgar Skinner returned home to St. Jacques after the war and later moved his mother and nephew to Canada.  There, he rose to the position of Captain on oil tankers shipping between Canada and South America.  He also joined the Navy Reserve and when WWII broke out, volunteered again to serve.  This time he entered the war as a commanding officer and served on a variety of navy ships including the HMCS Arrowhead and HMCS Monnow. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross by Canada and the RCNR Officer’s Decoration (RD) by the United Kingdom. Commander Skinner participated in the Battle of the St. Lawrence and the Battle of the Atlantic while on convoy duty.

Following the war he retired to private business in New Brunswick and died six years later.  Edgar was born August 14th 1897 and died on February 28th, 1953 at the age of fifty-five.

Edgar Skinner was the son of Captain Abram and Catherine (Kate) Skinner.  Their home was located amidst the other Skinner homes in the bottom of St. Jacques harbour, sitting on the lower side of the main road between houses owned by Ralph Skinner and Albert Skinner.  Like most of those homes, that building is long gone.  After the Skinner’s left, it changed ownership several times.  Captain James Dyett lived there for a period of time as did Jacob and Blanche Fiander when they first married. The last owner was Mrs. Agnes McCarthy.

There are no direct descendants of Captain Abe Skinner and his family living in St. Jacques now.  But for a monument in St. Michael and All Angel’s cemetery erected to his father who was lost at sea when Edgar was in Europe and a tombstone to his sister Lizelle in the Roman Catholic cemetery there is little trace of them having been here. There is only one cousin of Edgar’s left in the community who is now in her mid-eighties – his second cousin Burnsie (Skinner) Lawrence

For me, that is even more reason to stand on Remembrance Day and remember the sacrifices of men like Lance Corporal Edgar George Skinner.  Let us not forget the many ways in which our people served in the Great War and all those before and after.  This year when the names of those who died are read, let’s remember as well those brave Newfoundlanders who suffered serious injury and those who were taken prisoner by the enemy like Lance Corporal Edgar G. Skinner.


POW Letter Edgar Skinner 1917-11-13 Daily Star p.8

Further Reading/Viewing

Sons of Terra Nova – The Battle of Monchy

Prisoners of War During World War 1


Macleans – Newly discovered letters show darkness of WWI POW camp Patricia Treble, October 21, 2016

Prisoners Mail

Monchy-le-Preux, April 14th 1917





Posted by: alexhickey | September 22, 2017

St. Jacques Island Lighthouse©

A few years ago the Government of Canada announced that it would divest itself of a number of light houses across the country including the one on St. Jacques Island in Fortune Bay. Provincial governments were given first option to take them over, followed by municipal governments and barring interest from them, a third party could submit a proposal.  If there was no interest the lighthouses would simply be left to deteriorate over time or be dismantled.

I reflected on the possibility that we could see the end of the iconic lighthouse on St. Jacques Island if no one showed interest.  At that point I decided that if the provincial government or the municipality wasn’t interested I would make an effort.  That set in motion a process which led to the establishment of the not-for-profit St. Jacques Island Heritage Corporation with a Board of Directors and the submission of a business plan to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans in 2013.  What followed was three years of meeting, planning, negotiating and eventually signing a Memorandum of Agreement signing over the lighthouse, out buildings, the light keeper’s residence and the island to the St. Jacques Island Heritage Corporation.

The Corporation has as a mandate the preservation of the light tower for future generations and the provision of programming to inform and educate people about the light tower.  It intends to do that by developing the light keeper’s residence as a tourism rental facility and artist retreat which will raise funds for the preservation of the light tower and programming. The planning for this is now underway.

We also sought to have the lighthouse designated as a National Historic Structure by Parks Canada.  This took another level of effort and months of work.  In the end we were successful in achieving our goal.  The St. Jacques Island Lighthouse is now recognized as a National Historic structure in Canada.

What follows is the text of the case Parks Canada accepted for this designation taken from their site which you can view at Parks Canada’s Page on the St. Jacques Island Lighthouse.

Heritage Lighthouse

Description of Historic Place

St. Jacques Island Light Tower

The St. Jacques Island Lighthouse, also known as the Fortune Bay Lighthouse, is a 12 metre (39 foot) white, cylindrical, cast iron tower. Built in 1908, the lighthouse is the first on site. The lighthouse is situated on a 30-metre (100-foot) cliff on St. Jacques Island overlooking Fortune Bay, on the Southern coast of Newfoundland not far from St. Pierre and Miquelon. The island’s high visibility has made it a location marker for mariners for centuries.

Heritage Value

The St. Jacques Island Lighthouse is a heritage lighthouse because of its historical, architectural, and community values.

Historical values
The St. Jacques Island Lighthouse is an excellent example of the system of lighthouses that was initiated in 1811 on the coast of Newfoundland and grew rapidly in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Pre-Confederation lighthouses built in Newfoundland during this period were typically pre-fabricated cast-iron towers. This design was preferred for the climate of the Newfoundland coast because the towers were durable, relatively inexpensive and easy to erect on remote sites. The St. Jacques Island lighthouse illustrates the expansion and development of the lighthouse system during this period, when the British colony was still almost entirely economically-dependent on aquaculture (fishery).

The lighthouse also illustrates Newfoundland’s relationship with industrial England, where the pre-fabricated lighthouse was manufactured by the renowned Chance Brothers and Company. The St. Jacques Island Lighthouse was fundamental to the socio-economic development of the communities in Fortune Bay. The lighthouse aided in providing safer navigation for a local fishing fleet that tripled in size at the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries. It facilitated the use of St. Jacques as a safe harbour for off-shore fishing vessels during stormy weather, a role it had served since the early 17th century, and made local and transitory navigation more secure for small inshore vessels, mail boats, passenger ships and commercial vessels.

Architectural values
The St. Jacques Island Lighthouse demonstrates excellent aesthetic design with its elegantly tapered, cylindrical tower with a well-proportioned and attractive lantern. There are only two openings on the tower: a small window located a third of the way up the shaft and a rounded iron door at ground level. The lantern features a “crow’s nest”inspired gallery reminiscent of the enclosed lookouts found on the mast of ships.

The lighthouse exhibits very good functional design in its pre-fabricated, cast-iron construction technology typical of the Newfoundland coast during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The tower consists of rounded rectangular sections that were pre-fabricated in England, and subsequently assembled on site. Seams were filled with lead and caulking, creating a smooth exterior and eliminating any edges or seams where water from the harsh maritime climate could collect or infiltrate the building and lead to corrosion.

Community values
The lighthouse embodies the coastal maritime character of its setting, and is a local landmark in Fortune Bay, as evidenced by the picturesque qualities of its design and form. Its location on a steep 30-metre cliff and the lack of vegetation surrounding it makes the lighthouse highly visible from all around the Bay.

The town of St. Jacques-Coomb’s Cove is comprised of six communities nestled within various inlets that incorporated in 1972: St. Jacques, English Harbour West, Mose Ambrose, Boxey, Coomb’s Cove and Wreck Cove. When the town incorporated and its boundaries were drawn up, it did not include St. Jacques Island, which was under the jurisdiction of the federal government. The town of St. Jacques-Coomb’s Cove is currently in the process of having its boundaries redrawn to include St. Jacques Island specifically for the purpose of having the lighthouse designated as a municipal heritage site, reinforcing the importance of the lighthouse to the community.

Related buildings
There are four related buildings on the site that contribute to the heritage character of the lighthouse: (1) the 1960 light keeper’s residence; (2) the 1960 Generator Building; (3) the 1960 Equipment Building #1; and (4) the 1999 Equipment Building #2.

Note:  Since this was prepared by Parks Canada, the town of St. Jacques-Coomb’s Cove has been successful in achieving a boundary change which now includes St. Jacques Island. The St. Jacques Island Heritage Corporation anticipates that the designation of the light house as a municipal heritage building will take place in the near future. This will be the first building so designated by the town. 

Posted by: alexhickey | August 15, 2017

Thirty Two Years of Community ©

Jam Session Main Stage 2017-08-13 South Coast Arts Festival, St. Jacques

“It’s been twenty-five years.  The last time I was here the stage was right up there at the end of the field, a flat-bed truck I believe. By Jeez there’s some difference now; yes sir!” Frank Skinner.

And so the conversation went.  We chatted about family, acquaintances, things which happened over the course of that twenty-five years, the music, and the performers, all the while scanning the crowd seeking friendly familiar faces.  They were there everywhere you looked; some from last year, some from five years ago, a few only recognized because of resemblance to their mother or father and an occasional one familiar in the way they walked. Such is the annual experience of visitors to the South Coast Arts Festival in St. Jacques.

From the time the gates opened on Friday evening and closed on Sunday evening local performers, occasionally joined by visitors or guests, providing wall-to-wall music that traverses genre.  Hearts beat a little faster and eyes moistened when on Friday evening, a performer struck up a version of Johnny Drake’s song Headin’ Home, for the majority of Festival patrons know that feeling of turning off the TCH onto the Baie D’Espoir Road heading to the South Coast. The song has become somewhat of an anthem for residents and visitors alike.  Then, on Saturday crowds swelled and gathered about the main stage when Bud Davidge took to the microphone to deliver a selection of his crowd-pleasing songs.  The Loss of the Marian had people swaying and Music and Friends had the audience singing in unison.

On Saturday afternoon pre-school children flocked to the face-painting activities of the Family Resource Centre while parents stood back allowing them to frolic in the sun on a manicured grassy field.  All the while melodic sounds of guitars, accordion, fiddles and drums, shaped and tugged by sound man Rob Rogers, floated across the Festival site, rose and skirted the side of Big Hill then drifted across the harbour and on out into Fortune Bay.

Ask where are you living now, and you’ll hear Pouch Cove, Lark Harbour, North Sydney, St. John’s, Calgary, Spryfield, Fort Mac, Boston, Germany, Australia, Lamaline or Gander. They come back from all over to enjoy the wealth of musical talent the south coast of Newfoundland has to offer.  They come back to visit family, to renew acquaintances, and to meet the children of their childhood friends. They come as individuals, as families and in groups vacationing together. They come out of curiosity having heard of a three-day arts festival all the way down on the South Coast almost at the end of the road. Wherever they came from in August 2017 they came with intent to party, to celebrate and socialize.

One visitor said, while it is good to get together for family reunions it is also really good to get together as a community for a reunion. That describes well what happens during the second weekend of August in St. Jacques.  St. Jacques is one of six communities which comprise the municipality of St. Jacques-Coomb’s Cove.  The South Coast Arts Community embraces the adjacent towns of Belleoram and Pool’s Cove, reaches out to Rencontre East, Harbour Breton, Hermitage, Conne River, Milltown and St. Alban’s.  Performers and visitors from all of these towns can be seen on the Festival Site throughout the weekend.  The community that gets together isn’t St. Jacques, it’s the entire Connaigre Peninsula congregating during the weekend as a single community of music lovers to celebrate culture, heritage, each other and the thread of artistic expression which bind us all together.

Community-based volunteer groups such as the Lion’s Club of English Hr. West and the St. Jacques-Coomb’s Cove Fire Department provided food services and assisted with security. The Community Health Group made their Paramedics and ambulance freely available during the weekend, particularly during the 5K/10K Walk/Run which took place on Saturday morning; a walk organized in partnership with the St. Jacques-Coomb’s Cove Recreation Committee.  A local aquaculture firm, Northern Harvesters, delivered complimentary vats of freshly frozen ice for use at the bar. A small army of volunteers kept the wheels turning and the energy flowing throughout the weekend, checking ID’s, providing backup to other performers, answering questions, and ensuring everyone was safe and able to have a good time.  A short distance beyond the entrance gate returning visitors and new, parked their recreation vehicles and trailers side by side, got to know one another and savoured the musical atmosphere surrounding their weekend home.  One departing visitor was emphatic in saying he’d be back next year and that he’d be bringing friends.

Accenting the music was a showing of films by well-known and award-winning Newfoundland film-makers, many of which had roots on the Connaigre Peninsula. Riverhead, Crocuses and The Tour captivated audiences for two nights at the St. Jacques Community Centre.  The Nickle Roadshow is offered in partnership with the Nickel Independent Film Festival of St. John’s and celebrated its sixth year at the South Coast Arts Festival.

How do you run a four-day arts festival uninterrupted for thirty-two consecutive years? There is no simple answer; however, within it are such descriptors as pride, dedication, belief, giving, selflessness, stuck-to-it-ness, resolve, commitment, love, enjoyment, sharing and sometimes a tiny bit of smugness when you step back and watch hundreds of people enjoying themselves year after year. At its heart is volunteerism; volunteers who plan, organize, publicize, perform, clean, do maintenance, collaborate and respect the contribution each other makes to ensuring a successful event.

Yes, it is quite different from twenty-five years ago, quite different from the first Festival on that site when lawnmowers were used to cut bushes and sawdust used to fill depressions left from removing boulders by hand. What isn’t different is the vision of that handful of founders who imagined what would happen thirty-two years later on 2017. Though some have passed on and others moved away there are still a few of them wandering among the fifteen, twenty and twenty-five year veterans who continue to bring to the field in St. Jacques one of the best festivals in Newfoundland and Labrador.

As the last note escaped, the last glass clinked and the last hug given, plans were already underway for next year at the Festival.  We’ll see you there again next year if all goes as planned.

Links to References in this Post

Posted by: alexhickey | June 5, 2017

Trouting in St. Jacques Pond

Were one able to line up, end-to-end, the thousands of trout caught in St. Jacques Pond throughout the generations of people from St. Jacques and Belleoram it might rival the ‘squids’ in the Ted Russell recitation, The Smoke Room on the Kyle. Many a young boy and girl experienced catching their first fish on the shores of that pond under the tutelage of an older more experienced trouter.  Trouting St. Jacques Pond was a common thread that ran through the surrounding communities and succeeding generations.

Author with George Drake at St. Jacques Pond c. 1958

My early trouting experiences in St. Jacques Pond were with my father and a cousin of his, George Drake, who would lead me by the hand up the hill at a most leisurely pace, for George didn’t move too quickly under any circumstance, beyond the home of Uncle Den and Aunt Hilda McCarthy.  The Tibbo family had a grass meadow adjacent to the southern end of the pond which made for easy access and a comfortable place for trouters to sit and enjoy the ambiance of the valley.  I don’t recall catching many trout on those occasions; however, I do recall being coached to cast my line out into the water.  The length of the bamboo pole seemed at least five times my height, making coordination a bit of a challenge.  It seemed that no matter how hard I swung that pole towards the water I could not get the hang of flicking the line.  Each time it mysteriously fell to the surface just feet from where I stood, yet when George took the fishing pole to demonstrate, the string effortlessly arced through the air and landed well out into the deeper water. Little skills like that seemed magical at the time.

Later, as a pre-teenager I spent endless hours with other kids from the neighbourhood, Carl and Tom , Cliff, Kev and whoever else was inclined to spend an hour or two getting their feet wet clambering around the shoreline.  Everyone had their favourite spot which they fished until the trout stopped biting, then moved on to another.  We could be seen standing at any location where water flowed in or out of the pond, jockeying for the best or most solid rock to balance on; that is until ones feet slipped into the water.  After that, getting wet wasn’t a concern and wading out into the pond to fish farther off shore was routine among us.

Sometimes we would encounter others fishing the pond and give them wide berth for one didn’t want to be accused of interfering with their success by making noises that might frighten the fish away.  Usually these were folks of our own age from Belleoram, many of whom we knew.

Later still, I took my young daughter back to St. Jacques Pond for the experience of trouting. We climbed through fallen trees and over grass covered boulders to reach the mouth of the brook which feeds water from the Barred Pond upstream.  There she learned to cast a line into the little pool and reel in her first brook trout.  The glee in her face translated to an excited dance of stamping her feet, splashing water well above the tops of her ten inch rubber boots.  She was willing to assist with placing worms on hooks but drew the line at removing a wriggling trout from that same hook.

Trouting is a passion for young boys and girls; one that courses through their veins, a passion to get the gear ready the night before and motivation for an early rise the next morning.  Bait, of course, was always a per-requisite to catching trout. After dark on damp foggy nights there was a ritual in our neighbourhood to hunt for night crawlers; larger worms that emerged from underground when the grass was moist with evening dew.  We would walk, bent from the waist along those pathways where we knew they could be found, one hand holding a container and a flashlight, the other hand at ready to grab the crafty worm before it deftly withdrew into the earth.  Like every other sport those that got away were always bigger than the ones we caught.

There was a level playing field amongst most of us.  Our implement was the bamboo pole, rigged with cotton line, a hook at the end weighed down by lead weights.  In the absence of lead weights a small machine nut from the garage of one of our parents sufficed. Depending on the depth of water, the bobber could be moved up or down at will.   There were those among us who preferred not to use a bobber but to troll the hook through the water resulting in much more frequent casting of the line.  It was inevitable during every fishing excursion to the pond that one of us would hook a tree when casting, requiring some effort to disentangle the line; or hook a rocky ledge on the bottom which meant maneuvering to the left or right along the shore to dislodge it or in worse circumstances part the line and add a new hook.  Occasionally one would flick a trout so hard that it came off the hook and land in the woods – the big ones we’d look for with futility, the smaller ones we’d ignore.   Each of those took time away from our primary tasks and were not looked forward to by anyone.

We were among the world’s best trouters.  We prided ourselves in never coming home empty-handed. It’s a wonder the trout population of that pond ever survived, but it did and is still as healthy as it ever was.  A couple of years ago two of my nephews were visiting and wondering where they could go trouting.  I showed them the way to St. Jacques Pond and turned him loose.  Every morning for the next week they were wetting their lines, carrying on a timeless ritual and bringing home just enough trout to fill a small frying pan!

A recently deceased friend of mine, George Pauls, once described to me in a letter his experience of catching trout in St. Jacques Pond around 1930. Below is his description of standing entranced to see Teacher Fanny Cluett of Belleoram fishing the pond in her hip waders.

“She was an ardent fisherperson (trouter), and in summertime, after those overnight light rains, we would be sure to bump into her the next morning somewhere in the brook or along the eastern side of St. Jacques Pond where she, fishing with a split-cane rod equipped with a fly-fishing reel, landed some of our best be-speckled beauties to frequent the area.

Her equipment sparkled like gold to our eyes – us with our roughly ‘chopped in the woods’ trout poles, fitted out with coarse line and hooks baited with worms; the excess line wound around the butts of the poles, making it a nightmare when traipsing through the densely growing brushwood. Ms. Cluett wore hip-high waders well strapped to her belted breeches which was something of a novel arrangement at the time, especially with regard to the female standards that existed.

Seeing her wade ashore with a couple flicking on the skiver to be wrapped in moist moss and placed in the wicker basket that she wore slung from her shoulders, was just as exciting as watching her cast and reel with such precision.

She would take the brook somewhere in back of where the Allans lived (about mid-way between St. Jacques and Belleoram) and follow it southward to the lower or northern end of the pond where she did some clever casting and collecting of a few of the larger of the species, possibly of the sea-run trout that entered the water system from the Doctor’s Brook, as it was called till the water went over the falls which were partially dammed, then it was known as Pittman’s Brook.

From that end of the pond she would proceed along the eastern side and fish in a few favourite spots, whipping the waters out and beyond the reach of our tackle.  We did alright too, of course, but in her basket were the prize ones.”

What George described was the dedication of a committed trouter willing to go the distance to get the “prize ones.”  We, on the other hand, were joyous when we hooked one over five inches, whether we caught it or not!  But for a few of us we were quite content to walk home with a half dozen threaded by the gills on an alder branch, our rubber boots squelching with every step, dried fly bites behind our ears and a victorious grin upon our faces.

St. Jacques Pond

A few other things for you to investigate …

Smoke room on the Kyle – Bay Roberts Cultural Foundation

Newfoundland and Labrador Angler’s Guide 2017-2018

Newfoundland Brook Trout


Posted by: alexhickey | March 3, 2017

Jean ‘Fitzpatrick’ Drake Merritt ©

We’d reached the end of the road. I pulled over to the side so we could gaze out across the harbour for a few minutes. “Now this is where … who was it whose house was about here? Tony Burkes?  Yes, and down below there was your father’s house, well, your grandfather’s place.  And of course your great-grandfather’s house as well.  That’s where we are related. My grandmother and your great-grandfather were brother and sister.”

Jeannie Drake, 2017

Jean Drake, 2017

I struggled to see through time to witness with her that visual memory; to share a moment before my birth; to acknowledge a shared knowing, if nothing else.  Age brings incredibly beautiful textures to the human face, softened wrinkles that move with each smile and echo inheritance from parents and grandparents.  They embody personality and character and tell the richness of experience that eyes and lips sometimes fail to speak.  As “Jeanie” surveyed the calm blue reflective waters of St. Jacques harbour her expression was of satisfaction and delight; of memories flooding to fill spaces she hadn’t seen in years. In the quietness of unspoken thoughts her face betrayed them, sharing with me both tension and ease, the distance between her yesterday and the fleeting moments we shared that day.

It was a privilege and a joy to accompany this woman around the harbour and reminisce about people, houses and events that shaped both of our lives in ways neither of us could have ever known about the other; an experience where the verisimilitude of her past contributed to the  plenitude  of my feelings for our shared sense of home.  It all began a couple of hours earlier in an encounter with a group of people standing on the roadway near our house.  A conversation soon ensued which determined the group to be Jean Fitzpatrick Drake and some of her family visiting from Cape Breton.

I grew up hearing her name as “Janie” Drake thus that pronunciation is ingrained in my lexicon regardless of how I spell it. During her adult years in Nova Scotia Janie became known as Jean. Seeing her that afternoon brought forth feelings of family, of connectedness and rediscovery.  Excitement was electric as we coaxed them to come into our house.  It became a turning point of knowing for me, a juncture beyond which there would no longer be mystery or wondering about who and where ‘Janie” Drake was and is. My father was a close friend of George Drake all through my years of growing up.  The three of us spent many hours together as did some of my siblings.  Somehow I knew there was a family connection; not close enough to be firsthand knowledge for me but close enough for my father to value the relationship; hence the regular visits and socializing and exchange of family photographs.

Standing in my living room that afternoon was my cousin, a cousin I’d heard of but had never met; one who had presence in my life, but no physical substance for she had left home before I came into the world of St. Jacques.  Her return visits over the years must have gone unnoticed by a child for I had no recollection of seeing or wrapping my arms around her or she, me, prior to that day.  There are simple joys in life that sometimes go beyond measure, beyond words and beyond expectations.  A fortuitous meeting which might have never happened had we been ten minutes earlier or later led to making a connection between two cousins separated by time and distance.

Jeanie’s story starts long before this visit to St. Jacques in a time when the community was still prospering from the lucrative cod fishing industry.  There were a constant parade of schooners from other south coast ports calling at local wharves and along with them came their crews.  New faces, young men who sought out the local girls to take to a dance at the Parish Hall or simply to flirt with during the few days they were in port, exuded optimism for their chosen occupations and offered new opportunities for those girls seeking a life partner.

Jeanie’s mother, Frances Drake, was one of those young women.  Captivated by Richard Fitzpatrick of Marystown, visiting St. Jacques on a schooner taking on water for the trip to the Banks a dashing robust young man hardened by the rigorous work of a schoonerman, she fell head over heels in love, married and moved to his hometown.  Bill and Maryann didn’t stand in her way despite their trepidation of having their daughter move away from home.  In the end they gave their blessing and resigned themselves to the fact that any visiting to the new couple and any children they might have would take days of travel.

That difficulty grew when the first child of Frances and Richard, christened George, died shortly after his birth.  Undeterred and determined, not long afterwards Frances was once again able to tell her parents that she and Richard were expecting.  This time the baby boy was baptized William. It was 1922 and things were beginning to look up for the newly married couple.  Maryann began looking forward to the next child, hoping this time it would be a girl.

During the next year every time the boat arrived delivering mail, Maryann made an expectant trip around the harbour to the post office where Paddy McEvoy would either nod affirmation there was a letter or slowly shake his head as he made eye contact with her.  Letters were few and far between leaving her uneasy. One afternoon with a smile and nod Mr. McEvoy handed her a letter.  She dropped to a chair in the outer office beside the wicket, ripped the envelope with her finger and hungrily read the words of her daughter, starting with ‘Dearest Mother, Once again I am with child.’

The joy of having a granddaughter brought both delight and concern with the spectre of the firstborns death still fresh in the air even though William was healthy and walking by then.  Soon after the baby’s birth Frances began experiencing difficulty breathing, accompanied by bouts of coughing which was attributed to being Pertussis (Whooping Cough), a particularly contagious respiratory tract infection.  This was prior to the development of a vaccination and was often fatal to infants who contracted it.  Fortunately the baby didn’t have any of those symptoms.  In a letter home to her mother Frances told of how she had developed pneumonia and was experiencing a sore side, however, she asked her mother not to worry, she wouldn’t die from it. Fourteen months after Jane’s birth, Frances at age twenty-nine on January 25th 1925, succumbed to a disease which claimed the lives of many young people in rural parts of Newfoundland – tuberculosis.

Back in St. Jacques the news was devastating. How would Patrick manage with two small children? Work was critical to survival thus the question of what would become of William and Jane was an immediate concern.  A decision was made. Maryann booked passage on the coastal boat for Marystown.  Jane was brought back to St. Jacques to be raised by her grandparents along with their youngest son George. This is where she gained the name Janie Drake.  William remained in Marystown to be raised by his paternal grandmother.

The two children saw nothing of each other for fifteen years; not until Janie was on her way to St. John’s to take a job.  She left the coastal boat which had taken her to Argentia and boarded a train where Bill, knowing she would be there, came on board to meet her.  The power of sibling relationship had not dissipated in the intervening years and grew stronger with time.  They remained close until Bill’s death in 1980. In the meantime Jane’s father remarried and had five more children whom Janie has had contact with over the years.

The Drake house in St. Jacques sits abandoned now, its windows empty of the warmth of home.  One doesn’t have to work hard to imagine a young girl kneeling on the daybed fitted against the kitchen wall under a harbour side window, staring out into Fortune Bay, watching the coming and going of vessels, waving to passers-by and day-dreaming of what Marystown meant.

Childhood had its hurts as well as its joys.   One morning Janie awoke with a sore throat, a rising temperature which soon grew into a fever, a headache and aches throughout her body.  The dreaded Scarlet Fever had arrived.  Other children in the community had already suffered through the week-long experience.  Doctor Conrad Fitz-Gerald, who lived nearby on the other side of Pittman’s Brook, was summoned. This was just one more hurdle for Janie to get beyond, and get beyond it she did.

The 1930’s were challenging time for families in small communities like St. Jacques, nearby Belleoram and English Harbour West.  The Great Depression was felt by every family and Janie’s was no exception.  Work was scarce thus many young people moved away from their homes in pursuit of employment.  Some of her immediate family and cousins found work on coastal boats at a young age including her brother Bill; others moved to places in Canada to stay with relatives while they looked for jobs.  That expectation became the norm and at the end of the decade at the youthful age of sixteen Janie walked up the gangway to the S. S. Burgeo and booked passage to a job waiting for her at the Woodstock Colonial Inn on the outskirts of St. John’s.

World War II spread a cloud across the south coast of Newfoundland and elsewhere with reports of submarines sightings, the threat of ships being torpedoed and a growing list of young people leaving home, volunteering for service in the Canadian military.   There was evidence of the war effort everywhere with much talk of joining up. Janie decided she too could contribute to the war effort on behalf of Newfoundland and Canada.

In 1942 this determined young woman from St. Jacques travelled to North Sydney in Nova Scotia with the intent of moving to Halifax where she would be joining the military. Arrival in North Sydney meant standing in line in a cordoned off area while immigration officials processed the papers permitting entry into the country.

North Sydney was a special place for Jane whose name took on a new pronunciation of Jean.  There were many relatives living in the town and surrounding area; people who had moved there during and prior to her lifetime.  She was met at the Terminal by her grandmother’s sister Sarah Penney (nee Hickey) who along with her husband Ambrose had immigrated to Canada in 1906. Sadly Ambrose died in 1912 leaving Sarah to raise their children.  It was into the midst of this family that Jean settled after her arrival. In addition to her aunts and uncles Jean had cousins to connect with; the children of her mother’s brother Tom Drake who had left St. Jacques some years earlier.

Jeannie Drake

Jean Drake

Life in North Sydney held a certain appeal to the young woman and brought enough influence to entice her to stay and seek employment.  She found that at the Hamilton Memorial Hospital located on Groat Hill at the top of Convent Street.   It was here she was working when she met and fell madly in love with Donald Ephrem Merritt, known to his friends as Ephrem.  Their union produced six children whom Jean raised as a stay-at-home mom.  Jean’s children were born into a growing community of Newfoundland expatriates which over time included her cousins Bill, Pat, Con and Betty Drake.

Trips home became a regular part of the Merritt family vacation schedule with visits in both summer and winter.  A passage booked to cross the Gulf invariably left Jean with tingles of excitement in anticipation of the journey along the south coast of Newfoundland on one of the stately coastal boats calling into many small coves and inlets along the route.  By the time her children were born, ‘home’ in St. Jacques meant her uncle George whom she grew up with as a sibling and his wife Anna who now were the sole occupants of the family homestead.

Jean’s visit which began this article coincided with a 2012 Come Home Year in St. Jacques.  Some of her children and grandchildren were able to share in the experience of looking back, looking around and feeling what it means to be in her ‘home’. With six children, eight grandchildren and three great grandchildren Jean can reflect back on her years in St. Jacques, her years in North Sydney, her fifty years of marriage to Ephrem and feel accomplished.  She does this from time-to-time with clarity and confidence.  That shouldn’t suggest she sits around reminiscing all of the time. That would be a major mistake for Jean maintains a vigorous social calendar and loves to travel.  Each year she makes a trip to Halifax for the Royal Tattoo, has visited many Canadian and American cities with particular fondness for Ste.  Anne de Beaupre in Quebec.  At eighty-nine Jean fulfilled a long standing desire to visit Cuba.

Who knows where the resilient spirit of Jean (Janie) Drake will take her as she approaches her ninety-fourth birthday. Wherever she goes, whomever she encounters she leaves in her wake a respect and admiration for her incredible strength, patience, empathy and determination.  Her presence isn’t based upon her size or the boldness of her voice, it emanates from her calm exterior, her knowing smile and the sparks of electricity in her eyes.  You know she enjoys life, people, a good chuckle and that place which shaped the values and beliefs of a young girl ‘who grew up’ in a house on the side of the road overlooking St. Jacques harbour.

Posted by: alexhickey | December 23, 2016

Christmas Time Travel©

Time travel is a wonderful gift to human kind. I don’t mean the type of time travel found in science fiction films where you haul on your boots and walk out the door into a world twenty years into the future.  I’m thinking of that which we unwittingly engage ourselves in at some point in the month of December each year.  It isn’t consciously acted upon or purchased at a kiosk in the shopping mall.  It creeps into your consciousness when you are sitting at the kitchen table and snowflakes drift lazily by the window; when amidst the incessant commercial noise of the radio you hear a familiar comforting chord or melody; when you encounter the smell of freshly baked cookies or the instant you pick up a tree ornament which so ordinary looking to another, brings on a rush of emotion and memories.  That’s the time travel on my mind.

Sometimes it lasts but an instant.  Then there are those occasions when you are carried along on a roller coaster through time tumbling and twirling through the years to a particular Christmas morning, a treasured long lost toy, a warm hug from someone whose name is rarely mentioned anymore, a friend with whom you felt you could share anything, to a place your feet haven’t trodden for years.  Memories flood into consciousness and suddenly the world around you disappears and you are there in that moment savouring the smell of a freshly cut fir tree, tangy citrus, cinnamon and cloves.  Torn multi-coloured paper festooned with little toy drums, decorated trees and Santa Claus heads leave a crisp sound in the air unheard on any other day.  The air of a normally cold room aglow with excitement, anticipation and sheer joy is transformed into a bubble of warmth.

Gone are the feelings of trepidation around whether the gift under the tree is what you really wanted Santa Claus to deliver.  Gone too are the minor conflicts with siblings or parents, the tiredness of being awake for most of the night listening to every aberrant sound and awareness of the cold floor beneath your feet.  No longer is naughty or nice relevant.  At this moment the world has moved on and the sins of all days past are forgiven and forgotten, replaced by something more intangible and amorphous than anything else in our daily lives.

Off to Cut a Christmas Tree [click image to enlarge]

The seven wonders of the world do not include human memories among them yet of all the capacities we share, memory is the one thing which emphatically connects us with our past, with all those whose lives we’ve encountered, with all the places our hearts have travelled and the mosaic of experiences which sit behind the name our families and friends call us.  Though it resides within and is accessible around the clock, the effect of little things which trigger memories at Christmas time seem to be more vivid, more pronounced and more deeply laden with positive emotions for most of us.  Through them we travel across years and generations uncovering long-stored recollections of people, events and places we’ve shared with others in our lifetime.

It is said we carry within us three and sometimes four generations of memories; those engendered by our own lived experiences, those shared with and from our parents lives, and those passed on to us through our grandparents were we fortunate enough to know them.  A fourth comes from storytelling which can reach back centuries in oral cultures.  Through this complex collection we find the key to time travel and even for the briefest, most fleeting passage of a moment we are taken back somewhere familiar and unexpected; somewhere which now can be worn as a warm scarf about one’s neck, a touch through time more special than words can express.

It does tempt me to wonder why this is prevalent as we lead up to Christmas.  Is this what folks mean by the Christmas Spirit?  Is it a thread of consciousness brought on by melancholy or a genuine human capacity to step backward into our own life lived, to indeed travel through time?  For each of us this begs the question of what triggers this and where does such travel take us.  For me it’s back to St. Jacques, the little town which witnessed my birth and which has nurtured growth throughout my life.  Oftentimes the trigger is music.  Hearing Jim Reeves sing a song written by Vaughn Horton back in 1949 evokes rich memories, not of Christmas Cards but of the emotional dimensions of the season, particularly the line “ Yes, I’m always sentimental ’round this time.”.

Then there are the singers and songwriters of our own homeland who have captured the essence of many aspects of what Christmas means to Newfoundlanders wherever they reside in time or place. Songs like Christmas in the Harbour by the Punters, The Mummer’s Song by Simani,  Hello Mom and Dad by A. Frank Willis, A Children’s Winter by Ryan’s Fancy, Christmas Eve in St. John’s by Darcy Broderick, Heading Home for Christmas by The Irish Descendants, and of course I’ll Be Home Christmas Eve written by Ron Hynes and sung here by The Ennis Sisters.

A Children’s Winter by Ryan’s Fancy

I’ll Be Home Christmas Eve

The Mummers Song (Excerpted from CBC’s A Fortune Bay Christmas)


Posted by: alexhickey | November 11, 2016

What is it to Remember? ©

What is it to remember?

What is it we remember on Remembrance Day?

These two questions have dogged me all my life.  As a child in elementary school we drew and coloured brilliant red poppies, taped them to classroom walls, read John McCrae’s, “In Flanders’s Fields” and looked forward to a holiday, even if it did come in the middle of the week!  That was it! Older kids may have drawn tombstones and wooden crosses for I recall seeing them on the walls as well. Beyond that there is little to remember about school experiences associated with Remembrance Day. If we make paper poppies and stick them on walls is that remembering? If it is then what are we remembering beyond how to make paper poppies?

It wasn’t until early adulthood that the kind of remembering I do now began to emerge; after I’d attained a level of knowledge of war and empathy for those people who willingly or unwillingly engaged in such conflict.  That awareness of consciously remembering, deliberately forcing myself to pause and think, to reflect and appreciate took some time to emerge.  My awakening wasn’t triggered by war or conflict but by seeing people wearing blue blazers emblazoned with an embroidered crest of the Royal Canadian Legion.  As I look back now I can see Joe and Romaine Drake coming out of their house on their way to a Legion meeting in Belleoram wearing their impeccable blazers.  I can see my mother positioning a beret on her head as she prepared for a Ladies Auxiliary meeting.  I recall wondering why they were members of the Legion. They hadn’t been to the battlefield.  As far as I knew then there were no war veterans in my community. And therein lay the problem.  The generation that still remembered forgot to share with the next generation how to remember and why it is significant to remember.   I don’t blame them.  They lived in a time when memories of war were beginning to fade, where survivors were few and those who didn’t come back were mere names mentioned when someone ‘s memory was triggered.

Lieutenant Francis Burke 1888-1918

Lieutenant Francis Burke 1888-1918

Remembering became passive, it became more about the symbols and less about the events and people in them.   In the back of the Roman Catholic Church there was a plaque honouring Francis M. Burke who died in World War 1. In the Anglican Church there was a Baptismal Font dedicated to the memory of John Evans, who was also lost during World War One.  No one drew attention to their names or told their stories.  Perhaps it was less about forgetting and more about the passage of time.  I grew to know Jacob (Jip) Fiander and Eric Skinner who had survived WWII.  Jip had served with the Canadian Infantry and Eric with the British Merchant Navy.  Over time I learned the names of men from St. Jacques who sailed dangerous waters around Newfoundland and throughout the Atlantic and how they struggled for recognition.  I also heard derisive comments because someone received a Department of Veteran’s Affairs (DVA) pension and hadn’t served in the war; supported by the shallow argument that all they did was sail between Newfoundland and Nova Scotia and what was the danger in that? Never mind the sinking of the S. S. Caribou in 1942, the HMCS Shawinigan and the HMCS Valleyfield in 1944; all of them off the South Coast.

I drifted into passivity as well, paying little attention, thinking less and less of soldiers, war and service as fewer and fewer people in the community remembered until one year I decided, as a photographer, to document the Legion Parade on Remembrance Day in Belleoram.  On that occasion I kept pace with Alan Jensen and Leo May as they proudly carried their flags.  I climbed on the bridges of houses to get elevated shots and rushed before the marchers to get them as they approached.   Through those images I began to understand why they marched, why they remembered and why I too should remember.  I realized it wasn’t about the event it was about the stories embedded in the faces of those who marched; the stories that still at eighty years of age they couldn’t bring themselves to share; the stories of families at home imagining the worst outcome every day and night; the stories of children who grew up without a mother or father who didn’t return, and those families where the returning soldier shouted and cried in his sleep every night until he died of old age.  I realized it was about the pride in the hearts of those who marched that day; the pride they felt for having done their part; the pride in their fellow comrades who still remembered and who marched alongside them ignoring the rheumatism in their aging joints.  It was about the pride their children and grandchildren felt because they viewed them as heroes despite the reluctance these veterans felt to be ascribed that status.

There were more people marching than watching, a sign of things to come for soon the marchers dwindled, the marches ended, the Legion struggled to survive, eventually folded and is now remembered mostly for having occupied a particular building. Remembrance Ceremonies still occur with local towns assuming a role.  Attempts have been made to re-discover who they were who went off to war during the last century and to keep their names in the lived memories of local residents.

My remembering on this day is for the faces of those who put their lives at risk to fight, to those who supported the men and women who did, to those who assumed greater responsibilities in order to enable others to serve and those who wanted to serve but were unable to do so.   Those of us who haven’t lived through the immediacy of war are challenged to know the urgency, the fear and trepidation, the not knowing.  The best we can do is remember those who did live through such horrific experiences and to ensure others know their stories.

Today I remember the members of my own family whose lives have been touched by war.  My paternal grandfather James Corcoran served with the Royal Newfoundland Regiment and saw action in Europe.  His son Jim served in the Canadian Army as a young man.  My Uncle Fred Hickey and my father Alex Hickey worked with the Americans to build  the  Fort McAndrew Base and the Naval Station in Argentia. My grandfather George Hickey served as light keeper on St. Jacques Island during WWII where he maintained vigils watching for enemy vessels, particularly the submarines they listened to late at night when they surfaced to charge their batteries.  My cousin John Hickey served in the Canadian Navy. Another cousin Jason McCarthy is still serving with the Navy.  My brother Paul recently retired from a career in the Canadian Navy after having seen action several times.  And I remember, my nephew Tony Hickey who is currently on a NATO tour in Europe and the Middle East.

Today’s remembrance is of the crews of Canada’s naval ships, the families waiting at home, my family members alive and deceased whose days were touched by what it means to be in conflict and at war. I remember the faces of those people whose lives touched mine in the years I grew up in St. Jacques who carried memories and experiences I now wish I had known. I remember the stories I have been fortunate enough to inherit and those of the descendants of those who served.  I remember how fortunate I’ve been over the years to get to know such men as James Johnson, George Paul, Eric Skinner, Joe Drake, Tim McCarthy and so many others who served in diverse capacities.  I remember the many from my family who made valiant decisions to serve.  I remember the fallen on both sides of conflicts, the anonymous faces in old war photographs, the children whose lives are cut short through atrocities, the victims of opportunists in war zones and I remember the misguided actions of leaders who fail to realize the power of their words and actions and the devastating impact they have outside their limited field of vision.

I remember by never letting myself forget.

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