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38 - The Line Fence



from The Treasury of Newfoundland Stories published, by Maple Leaf Mills Limited, in 1961

About three-quarters of a century ago there lived a very fine old lady who was my great-grandmother. Her name was Patricia, but we know her simply as Grandmother Butler. Although she has long since passed on, people still speak of her with pride and awe - probably awe more than anything else, because I believe she must have set the fear of God into most she came in contact with. Yet for all her dominating spirit, she was as kindly in her ways as she was queenly in her looks.

Grandmother Butler lived her ninety-eight years at Harbour Buffett at the foot of Butler's Mountain, taking equally active parts in the potato garden and in the kitchen. Or it may have been milking the cows, or spreading fish to dry on the flakes, or tending the hay in the meadows. When haying time came she didn't sit around in the kitchen trading gossip with the other women while the men folks mowed the hay - not Grandmother Butler. She mowed the hay herself. She had her own scythe, and God help anyone who touched it.

As with most folks by the the sea, these people took the greater part of their living from it, but the land meant most to them and was thought of always with a capital "L". It was not only a place to grow potatoes and other vegetables for the coming winter. It wasn't just a place to turn the cows and sheep to pasture on the after-grass when the haying was over. It was the place where they lived, the place where they had built their house. It was their Land.

Today Crown Land can be purchased only by getting a grant and having some authorized person measure it. The part or parcel to be bought is then drawn to scale on a piece of official-looking paper and this, with written documents, is properly witnessed and signed and handed over to the person making the purchase.

And so it was with the land that was owned by my great-grandmother. (We still have her official-looking grants, although today they look more like buried treasure maps from Captain Kidd's era.) When the land was bought and the red tape unraveled, it had to be staked and fenced exactly according to the distances measured. This was generally done with great care along the main boundary of the part exposed to the public, but sometimes with lesser care along the sides that adjoined your neighbour.

Now Grandmother Butler, and all the other Butlers at the time, had a neighbour who also wasn't very particular about secondary boundary fences. One day he ran up a brand new fence quite a bit out on Butler's land. And of course, that lit the fuse! Although somme pretty rough talk went on for a while, war was never really declared, and our neighbour stubbornly refused to move back his new fence; so Grandmother Butler decided it was time for her to go into action.

Now in those days, law and order didn't appear in a red coat or a ranger's hat. For that matter, magistrates were a rarity. No, about the nearest law was at the capital city itself, and of course St. John's was a terribly long way away then. I guess the simplest solution to the matter would have bene to send off a letter to the Governor, explaining the situation, and have him send someone to remeasure the land. But this, you see, was impossible, because there wasn't any railway in Newfoundland at the time.

And so Grandmother Butler, with one of her sons and what money they could gather together, set out to walk to St. John's to see a lawyer. And they made it, too! Someone rowed them across the bay to Long Harbour where they began their walk. And even from that point it must have been nearly one hundred miles to the capital. they stopped overnight at several places along the way where they were given food and shelter, and some kind soul at Holyrood bathed my great-grandmother's feet in mustard with water.

Well, they saw a lawyer at St. John's and got the land dispute settled; the boundary fence was moved back where it first should have been, and eventually peace settled again over the people and their land.

This, in a sense, is the end of the story, yet this story has a sadder ending; for you see, down at the foot of Butler's Mountain is this same boundary fence, just as it was seventy-five years ago, but he land is unkept and uncared for. The marks of potato beds are mouldering heaps down the hillside and the grass remains brown and sere all summer long. On the wall hangs Grandmother Butler's picture. She doesn't look happy.



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This page transcribed by James Butler, 2000
REVISED: August 2002 (Terry Piercey)

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