Gordon Wheeler

Gordon Wheeler – October 2016

“I was born and raised in York Harbour,” said Gordon Wheeler, “Right across the road,” he added, pointing towards the window at Austin (Aus) Childs’ house where our interview took place. Gordon was born in 1960 to Chester and Stella Wheeler. His father was a fisherman and carpenter, and also fought in the Korean War. His mother was the first postmistress in York Harbour, “she worked at that for a number of years. Then she worked for awhile in the fish plant,” Gordon said.

“It was great growing up here, in this area,” he remembered and described how his family was close to the Kendells, who owned the adjacent land. “There was a lot of us so we could play tiddly, baseball, cowboys and indians an awful lot, never forget that one… Jumping ice pans, jumping trees…We broke all the tops off all the trees between here and the bay,” Gordon laughed. “And you had chores to do… Planting vegetables in the springtime, weeding, carrying water, getting firewood…” added Lew Kendell who grew up with Gordon. “It was all work, but it was fun work ‘cause it was a group thing, a family thing- or families I should say because everyone helped one another,” Gordon remembered.

Outboard Engines

Outboard Engines

“When we was young, there was no outboard motors. everywhere you went, you rowed. I think the first outboard motor… Uncle Ben had one there, a five [horsepower]. And he used to tell ya to slow down, you’re going too fast.”

Gordon’s father, like many fishermen, built boats and Gordon learned from watching and helping him. He built his first boat in the early 1970s, when he was a teenager, “we built her down in dad’s woodshed,” he remembered. Gordon continued to build dories with Aus Childs, “Aus had a little shed here, and we used to build them in that. And it was only 16″ x 22″, something like that? by the time you got your boat built that’s all the room you had,” he remembered.

At one time, all dory builders in the Bay of Islands would have shaped their timbers from natural curved pieces of wood harvested from the roots of trees. In York Harbour, Austin Childs and Gordon Wheeler continue to use this method in their dories. “All we ever used is the tree root,” said Gordon, “The part that’s in the ground, that’d be your side. And your bottom- four feet up the tree, that’d go across your bottom.”

Gordon started fishing at the age of fifteen and continues to use his dory to fish for lobster, alongside Aus. “We haul up on the Wild Shore, so dories are the best.” Unlike keeled boats, the flat bottom dories are designed to be beached in the sandy coves found on the west coast. In addition to lobster, they’ve also fish crab and other groundfish. “I got forty years gone now,” Gordon said about fishing.

“You don’t see that shape dory nowhere else. You can go around the Island and you’ll see dories, but you’ll never see none like the Lark Harbour”

Sam Sheppard’s Lark Harbour Dory

Little Port, NL
Little Port, NL

Earlier this year, WBMNL Folklorists Crystal Braye and I travelled to the West Coast in search of the Bay of Islands dory and her builders. As we turned off the Trans-Canada Highway and drove along Route 450, the unique orange and green dories could be seen scattered along the coastline. We continued to the end of the road and found ourselves at a wharf in Little Port in the midst of lobster season. After explaining the purpose of our visit to the nearby locals, there was one name that came up repeatedly: Sam Sheppard.

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