St. Lewis, formerly known as Fox Harbour, was one of the earliest locations recorded by Europeans on maps of the New World. Depicted as Ilha de Frey Luis by Portuguese explorers on 1502 charts of Labrador’s coastline, the area’s sheltered harbour with access to fishing grounds and migrating seals made it an ideal location for both migratory European fishers and native Inuit inhabitants. In the eighteenth century, Europeans began to settle permanently and the community became a vibrant fishing centre on the southwest coast of Labrador.
Joe Brown was born in St. Lewis in 1945. The community, then known as Fox Harbour, was a hub for boat building in Southern Labrador. “Just about everybody built boats there,” Joe said, “they built their own boats and some people built boats to sell to other communities.”
The Poole, Curl and Chubb families were particularly reputable boat builders in the community. Clarence Curl guided Joe through his first boat. “I built six, I believe it was, all together. That’s nothing compared to some fellers out there. More than thirty boats, some of them.”
“We used to get the timber in the fall of the year. You’d go up Saint Lewis’ Bay and cut the most of your timber in the fall of the year before the snow came and bring it out in boat… get it sawed in the fall. Then some people used to start their boats in the fall of the year, some more wouldn’t start before probably March when the weather started to get warmer.”
When Joe was a boy, motor boats and punts filled the harbours. “They used to tow their punts behind the motor boat,” Joe explained, “put it out on the headline to haul the trap.” Punts were also used for setting and hauling salmon nets. “Motor boats were too big for salmon nets. It would hold too much wind. You couldn’t haul salmon nets in the motor boat when it was windy,” Joe said. “But the cod trap, you’d haul the cod trap in your motor boat. When they get the trap almost hauled and see if there’s any fish into it, one feller would take the punt and go out on the head, see? So they could draw the fish up and dip it aboard.”
“If there was a lot of fish around, usually there would be two or three other boats goes to haul the one cod trap. The ones who had the cod trap would give the fish to ones who never had no cod traps. You used to get lots for everybody then in them days.” Joe described the communal sharing of work and reward, “the fellers that never had no cod traps used to help the people with the cod traps to put away their fish, to split their fish and salt it… Then in the evening, if they get more than they could handle, they’d give it to the people that helped them first.”
Working in the Stage
When Joe started fishing, the catch would have to be split and salted before it was sold to the local merchants.“I was eleven years old when I started fishing… working in the stage cutting throats,” Joe remembered. He had to stand up on an old salmon box to reach the splitting table. “There would usually be a big crowd in the stage,” described Joe. The women, alongside those too old or too young to go aboard the boat, would process the landed fish while more was being hauled. “Everybody had a job.”
The fish was sold to local merchants. “They used to come collect it in schooners,” Joe said, “they would come in the fall and you’d have your fish ready… I use to go over and load the fish aboard when I was a young feller. I’d get ten cents an hour,” Joe laughed. “The last few years we were fishing, before the Moratorium came on, we used to ship it fresh. They had a fish plant there in St. Lewis.”
St. Lewis, like many fishing communities in the province, has seen a number of changes since the Moratorium on North Atlantic Cod was imposed in 1992. Some continued to fish for crab, while many others moved away in search of work elsewhere. In more recent years, the fish plant has closed forcing many more out of work. “All the young people are gone, eh? They grow up, finish school and their gone… looking for work.”
Joe gave up fishing before the Moratorium, moving with his wife to North West River in 1994 to be closer to their first born grandchild. “There’s hardly anybody there now, sure,” said Joe. “Less and less every year,” added Becky. Joe and Becky still return to St. Lewis where they keep a cabin, “We go back in the summertime… catch salmon and codfish, get our bakeapples and that.”
WBMNL Documentation Team will be travelling to Labrador in 2018 to collect oral histories from communities along the southwest coast. If you have a story to share, or know someone who does, we’d love to hear from you. Contact Crystal at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a message at 709-583-2044.