My father told me about the one-room variety school he and my uncles attended in Little Bay East, Newfoundland. The community didn’t have an adequate number of students to accommodate separate classes. So, the school children up to grade five shared their own classroom, while the preteens and teens from grade six onwards shared their own. There was a teacher for each class and they assigned curriculum according to each student’s level of education. The highest grade of schooling one could acquire in Little Bay East was grade eleven – the highest standard anywhere in the province at the time – but the grades each year depended on whether there were students to fill them.
As it turns out, Dad was the only student to pass the grade nine exams one year. In grade ten, there were only two students – him and Eric Green. When spring broke, Eric left for lobster fishing with his father, leaving Dad as the only candidate for grade eleven:
“Myself, I went to Bay L’Argent in a dory, to stay there for a week doing my grade ten public exams” recalls Dad. “Knowing better now, I could have walked each day the 2.5 miles by road. The fresh air could have done my brain thinking much better. Instead it was a thing to do to cram as much as you could before writing [the exams]. I could guess within a few marks what my results would be!”
As Dad would have guessed, he passed that year too. Not liking the prospects of being the lone grade eleven student, he moved to Grand Bank with his Uncle Ches and Aunt Beat for his final year of high school. By that time, Ches had long retired from the Banks fishery, and was now working at a local fish plant. The school in Grand Bank was the John Burke Regional High School, which is still in operation today. That year, 1964-65, Dad was one of about fifty students in grade eleven and there were close to two hundred in the school overall, affording him a far richer learning experience than Little Bay East ever could.
There were other opportunities too. Dad was into making model wooden dories as a pastime and made a beautiful one he planned to sell in Grand Bank.
Before we sell it, let’s put it in the fair, said Uncle Ches, encouraging Dad to showcase his craftsmanship at a local exhibition. Sure enough, Dad won a $25 prize for his handiwork and went on to sell the dory too. It was good pocket money for my father, who by now was realizing his family might be considered poor as he compared his life to those of his classmates in Grand Bank. Dad’s folks were already paying his room and board to Ches, so if Dad didn’t make his own cash, he would almost certainly go without.
Even as my father was positioning himself to forego a career in the fishery, it would be a dory that helped him to earn that extra money.
Dad’s father, my grandfather, had earned his living fishing and his career was bookended by his time spent aboard a dory. Pop, as we called him, started as a dory fisherman in the offshore fishery on the Grand Banks. When the draggers came in and the dory fishermen could no longer keep up with the factory trawlers, Pop moved on to the inshore fishery aboard the schooner he owned with his brothers. He also took up coasting on a shipping vessel for a number of years. When his health became an issue and he was no longer cleared for coasting, he returned to dory fishing close to home, continuing on well into his mid-sixties.
Pop had a lobster license with about thirty-five lobster pots that he would set around Little Bay East, catching about five lobsters a day in season. His lobster license – a small piece of tin that fishers would attach to their dories – is still in the Thornhill shed dated 1974. He had a license for salmon fishing and carried on catching herring at that time too.
Naturally, fishing aboard a dory was second nature for my Dad, but when he took a dory out, he always did so with the utmost respect for Mother Nature. His maternal grandfather and uncle had died aboard a dory five years before he was born.
It was December 23rd, 1943 when my Great Grandfather John Clark and Great Uncle Elias took their dory a short distance south, around Little Bay East and across the bay to Bay L’Argent, also on the western side of the Burin Peninsula. Their intention was to transport a wood stove, I understand. My father and uncles remember hearing about a conversation that took place that day – between one of my great uncles and a local skipper whose schooner was anchored in Little Bay East that same day. The conversation supposedly went something like this:
You’re not going out today? asked great uncle.
No, not today,” the skipper replied. “The weather is not fit. Too stormy.
Sure John and Elias Clark are gone up to Bay L’Argent in the dory.
Ah, but did they make it? asked the skipper.
Turns out they did not. Given it was the dead of winter, the possibility of a storm was high. Maybe their engine gave out or maybe the dory was swamped in the rough water or both. In any case, Great Grandfather John drowned, his body later washing up on shore. Great Uncle Elias was the first found on shore, out around the other side of Little Bay East on what people call Ragged Point. Supposedly, Elias wasn’t wearing a stitch of clothing and his body was found in an upright seated position at the high-water mark. He had made it to shore but had frozen to death in the process. When Great Grandmother Emily was given their clothing, she noticed their wallets were missing. It was not until she asked about the wallets did anyone bother to hand them over.
Dad remembers hearing about Great Grandmother Emily’s words: They’d take the coppers off a dead man’s eyes if you’d let ‘em.
Great Grandfather John and Great Uncle Elias would get a proper burial. In those days, caskets were built from the same long boards people used to craft their dories. If you died dory fishing or died on dry land, it was the same lumber you would go down in.
I didn’t know about this and other chance encounters aboard a dory until I spoke at length with my father and uncles. Dories simply felt like home to me, though I didn’t quite appreciate the significance they held in my family.
To remind me of one Pop used to have, Dad built me a model. Recently, I asked him about how he constructed it.
“Well, I was actually building a cardboard dory, and I had built quite a few before, but the stern used to take on a shape that I didn’t quite like,” Dad begins. “First, I had used timbers and then the individual side pieces. Then later on I did two bigger side-pieces and a bottom and stern (so three pieces total). Then I would lattice the inside and follow by the same method on the outside. When finished (before the timbers), it was three-layers thick and yet the sides looked like individual boards!”
Rather than finish what he had started, Dad tells me he poured his cardboard dory full of concrete to make a mold. It’s from that mold that he then constructed the one for me, made from wood on the outside and cardboard on the inside. It’s painted green and yellow just like Pop’s dory.
I look at it now and it reminds me of all the things I wish I knew about our ancestry. It’s a thing of beauty, but more than that, it’s a call to my family’s past. This summer, I’m going back to Little Bay East. I’ll walk out to Ragged Point and I’ll walk along that beach, overlooking Bay L’Argent. I’ll venture out to Grand Bank and around the Burin Peninsula. And, hopefully, I’ll take a dory out on these waters to honour a time and people that was and once were.