“I was one of the very few girls down in the stage…” said Rhoda, sitting at the table in her home on Pinhorn’s Beach. It overlooks the landwash where her family operated their fishing premises for decades. “I used to love to get the prong to help with the fish. I pronged hundreds of fish from this point [the stage head] to the barrel, to feed the fish to them… But the prong wouldn’t be in my hand very long if one of the boys saw it.”
“When I started fishing first, there was one fish in the water. That was cod,” said Vernon Petten, fisherman and boat builder from Port de Grave, Conception Bay.
“We’ve been at this through thick and thin. My father, my grandfather, great-grandfather down.”
Vern started fishing when he was old enough to get aboard the boat. He was only five years old when he accompanied his grandfather, John William Petten, on his last trip out.
“We were fairly well isolated in Herring Neck. We thought this was the world here when we were growing up. Twillingate was big- you know, to make a trip to Twillingate would take a day almost to get there,” Max Hussey recalled.
Located on the northeastern side of New World Island in Notre Dame Bay, Herring Neck is composed of a number of communities including Ship Island, where Max was raised in the 1950s.
“You see, to we, a boat is only a boat. That’s all. It’s just nuttin’” Lance Short told us over tea and desserts served by his wife Pat. It was a chilly, damp October day and the crackle of the fire in the kitchen stove can be heard on the interview recording.
I first met Lance during boat documentation research in Trinity Bight in summer of 2014. We arrived at his home in New Bonaventure and explained our interest in speaking to him about boat building. Though he denied being a boat builder, he eventually admitted to building about twenty boats.
Henry Vokey was born with boat building in his blood; His uncles and grandfather before him were boat builders. Henry Was born in 1929 to parents Joseph William and Mary Vokey and grew up in Little Harbour, located in Trinity Bay, Newfoundland. As a boy, he took an interest in boat building and at age 12 Henry built his first model boat, which measured six feet long. In the 1950s, at age twenty-five Henry built his first boat. In 1964, Henry and his family resettled to the town of Trinity and that’s when he took up boat building professionally.
Ernest Hodder was born to Archibald and Clara in Davidsville, Gander Bay in 1933. The oldest of seven children, Ern followed in his father’s path working as a guide on the Gander River in the summer and spending the winters working in lumber camps. “I enjoy it out on the river. If you’re getting paid for something you love that’s the way to go.”
“In my father’s early day, there was no outboard motor. They had canoes that were the same on both ends.” Born in 1905, Ern’s father Arch was almost forty-years-old when he got his first 3 horsepower outboard motor.
Eugene was born in 1944 on Indian Islands, Notre Dame Bay to Frank and Netta Saunders. When he was three years old, his family moved to Glenwood where Frank, a blacksmith, worked with Anglo-Newfoundland Development (AND) Company.
Eugene grew up in Glenwood alongside the Gander River and learned how to build boats at a young age. “It always enthused me building boats. I used to go out to my uncle Nat Gillingham’s when I was growing up. They were boat builders,” Eugene says.
Basil Gillingham was born in 1940 in George’s Point, Gander Bay and spent fifty years guiding on the Gander River. He learned how build boats at a young age by watching his father Leslie Gilllingham.
In Leslie’s earlier days, these boats were double-ended and propelled primarily by a black spruce pole. “To get Gander you’d have to pole up the river and then get the train from Glenwood,” says Basil, “and it would take you three days.” Today, the trip from Gander Bay to the town of Gander can be done in less an hour by car.
Basil built his first Gander Bay Boat when he was 16-years-old and has built over 100 of them since. “There were a lot of boats built here in Gander Bay, and a lot of people built them. Older people now, a lot of them are gone, and there don’t be many built anymore.”
Lester Vivian was born in 1932 in Gander Bay, Newfoundland. By the age of sixteen, he had learned how to build Gander Bay boats and began to work on the Gander River. “The river was our highway,” Lester says, and served as the primary route between Gander Bay and Glenwood until the Trans-Canada Highway was completed in 1962.
“It would take two days to get to Glenwood before motors,” says Lester about his father’s generation. Without a motor, rivermen used paddles, a pole, and a sail on the centre beam, “if the wind was right.” Lester’s father got his first motor in the 1940s – a 3.3 horsepower Evinrude.
Originally written by Gordon Slade for The Globe and Mail: Lives Lived published Monday, Feb. 18 2013
Boat builder, fisherman, husband, great-grandfather. Born March 26, 1936, in Wild Cove on Fogo Island, Nfld., died Dec. 25, 2012, on Fogo Island, aged 76.
Calvert Meadus was born in Loreburn, Trinity Bay on December 23, 1927. As a boy Calvie recalls watching his father Keid, Uncle Lige [Elijah] Price, and others as they built boats, using a three piece mould to shape every frame before assembling onto the keel.
Learning the Craft
“There was an old fella down there, Uncle Lige Price, he used to be in always building boats. That’s all he done, most all his lifetime. I used to watch him, and then I thought I’d build a boat too. When I started I was fifteen, I wasn’t yet sixteen. I was sixteen before I got her finished.”
Born in Summerville in 1928, Tom built his first boat at the age of 12. “It was what we called a rodney – a small boat about 12 feet long. We used to tow her behind the trap boats.”
Tom spent 15 years fishing with his father for cod, mackerel, herring, squid, salmon and whatever else was in season. He learned how to build boats watching his neighbour Abe Fry as he worked in his shed, “I would spend hours. I helped him to plank a boat. I’d go in there in the nighttime and help him – he lived alongside us. I’d hold onto a plank for him, and he’d show me that, then show me something else…it was right fun for me.”
Earl Feltham was born on Deer Island in 1937. His father Ephraim, was a fisherman and a carpenter. In 1953, when Earl was 16 years old, Ephraim and his wife Suzy moved their family to Glovertown.
Earl went on to St. John’s where he attended the College of Fisheries (now the Marine Institute) and spent six seasons working on vessels along the Labrador coast.
William James Feltham, better known as Bill, was born on Deer Island in 1938 to Noah and Daisy Feltham. His paternal grandfather, Caleb Feltham, was one of thirteen men tragically lost on the schooner Little Jap in 1909, shortly after the birth of Bill’s father Noah. Bill’s grandmother remarried to Avlin Feltham, the man that Bill would know as his grandfather.
Bill fished on Deer Island with his father Noah, his grandfather Av, and his Uncle Ralph from eleven to eighteen years old.
Edgar Butt was born in Glovertown in 1926. Son of Joseph and Patience (nee Greening), Edgar was the last of their children and the only to be born in Glovertown. His parents moved their family from Flat Island to Glovertown in 1921, with the promise of work with the pulp and paper mill that was scheduled to open the following year.
At the age of fourteen, Edgar began working at a wood working factory owned by Arthur J. House. He worked with House for number of years in Glovertown, St. John’s, and briefly in Corner Brook, before returning to Glovertown with his wife Patricia to raise their family.
Stewart’s grandfather Peter Sturge was born in 1888 on Flowers Island in Northern Bonavista Bay. His great-grandfather participated in the inshore cod fishery and land-based seal hunt, an economy that was in decline by the time of Peter’s birth.
In 1890, the family relocated to Salvage where Peter eventually married and raised his own family. Salvage would be where the next four generations of Sturges would call home.
In a small fishing community where everyone built their own boats, learning how to build was part of growing up for a young boy. “You’d go from one stage to the other,” says Sam, “listen to what they were telling you and watching them work. That’s the way I got my training.”
Sam Feltham was born on Deer Island in Bonavista Bay on March 3, 1928. He built his first boat on his mother’s kitchen table at fourteen years old.
John (Jack) Thomas Casey was born on July 2, 1922 in Conche, a small fishing community on Newfoundland’s Northern Peninsula. One of eight children born to Michael and Nora Casey, Jack started working in the lumber woods at only seven years old and was fishing with his father by the age of thirteen.
The Casey family, including Jack’s grandfather Michael Casey, moved up the coast from St. John’s to Conche in 1850 to be closer to the Labrador fishing grounds. Jack spent all his life in Conche, earning his living as a fisherman in the summer and working in the woods in the winter.
Max Pollard was born in 1930 in Harbour Deep, a fishing and logging community on Newfoundland’s northern peninsula. One of eight children, Max began fishing with his father when he was 10 years old.
“My father had a motor boat that we’d use for fishing, about 23′ long,” says Max. “We were using hand and line then – baited hooks,” he adds. Max left school at the age of 12 to work with his father, fishing in the summer and logging in the winter. “It was year-round,” he says, “I didn’t stop.”
Boats were built in the spring of the year in Harbour Deep, “every fisherman would build their own” – sometimes with a helping hand – “because no one could afford to buy one anyway.”