Welcome to Little Bay East: A Newfoundland Outport that Offers a View into the Past

Little Bay East, where the Thornhill family has lived for more than one and a half centuries, is situated on the southeastern shores of Newfoundland. It’s an outport fishing community surrounded by other outport fishing communities along the Burin Peninsula on Fortune Bay. When the Thornhills arrived in Newfoundland from northcentral England (Dorsetshire or Dorset as it’s called now, Wiltshire and Somerset), they took up residence in this region. Most summered on Brunette Island in the mouth of Fortune Bay to fish, returning to winter in various communities. Communities like Little Bay East, Bay L’Argent and Grand Bank on the Burin Peninsula and Harbour Breton and Stone’s Cove on the western shores of Fortune Bay. There are a number of Thornhill families in the area, surely all related in some way, but my immediate family took up residence in Little Bay East (featured here in a photo taken by Clayton Burton in June 2017), a peninsula where they came to know as home year-round.

The home where my grandfather and grandmother raised their four boys is as solid today as the day it was built, sometime in the early part of the twentieth century. Heritage aficionados might consider the house a third-generation settlers’ house or a modified saltbox house. It was built more durably than a first-generation house and is larger than a second-generation saltbox house with its two-storeys. Like its predecessor models, it’s mainly constructed of wood – a sensible choice given how affordable and plentiful lumber was for building. Due to renovations over the years, some of its original features no longer exist. It used to have six windows on the front of the house, wood siding and a small picket fence. The Thornhill home is featured in these photos. It’s the first home in the bottom left corner (black and white photos are circa 1965; the faded colour photo is likely also from the period – 1960s-70s). The dory was my grandfather’s (Reginald Thornhill, 1913-1987) and the nearby shed was my great Uncle Frank’s. At that time, people called the shed a store given it was used for storage.

Many settler homes were situated precariously on hillsides and cliffs by the sea, affording easy access to fishing, but making for treacherous living conditions. While the Thornhill house is on level ground, it sits on a floodplain (as far as I know) facing northeast. A paved road and short beach run along Fortune Bay to the northeast of the house, a dirt road and beach pass in front of the barachois (a coastal lagoon or what Newfoundlanders call a barasway) to the southwest, then rolling hillsides (where these photos were taken) and the main entry point to the community to the southeast (where the house’s side porch faces) and finally the rest of Little Bay East to the northwest.

Nowadays, Little Bay East has a population of 127 based on the last (2016) Census. That’s roughly the same as it was in 2011 (population 130), but down since 2006 (population 140). I’m currently looking through the census information from 1921, 1935 and 1945 from Newfoundland to draw a comparison. I believe Little Bay East was missed in the 1921 census, but it is available in the later years 1935 and 1945. This information is also available transcribed (albeit abbreviated from the original records) on the Newfoundland’s Grand Banks Genealogical and Historical Data for the Province of Newfoundland and Labrador website.

According to the 1945 census, the Thornhill house was valued at $1000.00 NF (the Dominion of Newfoundland had its own currency between 1865 until 1949, at which point Newfoundland became a province of Canada). Today, the house is on the market (private sale) for $25,000 CAD. Until last year, my Uncle John (father’s older brother) lived in that house, but he died in the summer of 2016. My father and his oldest brother, Clyde, cleaned out the house and put it on the market earlier this year.

Today, Newfoundland and Labrador is frequented by tourists (more to come on this in a future post). For now, I’ll just say that while Newfoundland is 30 minutes ahead of the next standard time zone, rural places like this don’t particularly feel ahead. They feel like walking back in time, which is part of the appeal and beauty of outport Newfoundland. Next summer I’m heading back here and will write about the place I knew then versus the place Little Bay East is now.

 

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