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26 - Newfies in the States

 

 

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

The only bit of education I ever received about Newfoundland while attending grade school was that it was an island, a British possession and that its waters contained an awful lot of fish. Further schooling taught me little more, except that it is England's oldest colony and a principal port for trans-Atlantic air travel.

I was surprised to learn, when I began courting my wife, that Newfoundland's inhabitants were not all Eskimos. I had actually been under the impression that this land of the squid-pigging (sic) ground was a backward wilderness unsettled by white man. In Betty, however, I had ample proof that this idea was pure ignorance on my part. She proudly explained that she was one of the McGraths from Colliers near St. John's and she assured me in no uncertain terms that Newfoundland was very much a civilized land with a proud history and background.

The interesting conversations I had with Betty about the place of her birth aroused my curiosity. A land so enriched with beauty and maritime enchantment, I thought, should certainly be better known. Through a limited number of books about Newfoundland found in Philadelphia's public libraries, I soon acquired a clearer picture of the land of beautiful waters. I found myself becoming fascinated by its many achievements and adventurous sea background.

After my marriage to Betty I had much opportunity to receive first-hand information about Newfoundland from my many new relatives, and believe me I never imagined that so many people could be so closely related.

Many have been the enjoyable hours spent listening to the tales and recitations of the old sea masters. It is always a rare pleasure for me to come across a gatherings of Newfies engaged in conversation about their seafaring exploits, and these exchanges at times heating into arguments are a lively mixture of sea adventure, detailed descriptions and humor. At almost any party, wake or wedding you can begin a night's long history of fishing in Newfoundland by merely asking a simple question such as "Say, Jack, have you ever made one of those fishing trips to Labrador that I've heard some of your people talk about?" Just that one sentence can begin a conversation which could cover the entire disaster of the ship Newfoundland in 1912 and end up in a heated debate about what really happened to the Southern Cross.

I enjoy observing the expression on the faces of these men when they talk about the things of home. Their eyes glow with a certain yearning and respect for the things they discuss. They smile happily when they boast of the great haul they made that year in Labrador, by a deep forlorn sadness overtakes them when they recall the names of the men whose lives were lost in the never-ending story of the sea. "Yes, I remember him," they nod solemnly. "He was from Conception and I knew a lot more that went down with the Cross. thee was the Castello boys from Colliers, big Jack from Belle Isle, that red-headed chap - what was his name? - from North River."

One after the other the names will fall from their lips. Rarely is any name not the same as that of someone present. I have grown so used to their stories that I feel almost a part of their experiences, almost that I knew the boys who didn't make it that trip.

As I listen I make it a point to try to uncover what these former Newfoundlanders miss the most about their homeland. They seem to hold a longing for the simple way of life. Reverently they recall the beauty of their native land and the lives they lived as part-time fishermen and farmers. A common expression of theirs is,"You never had to keep your nose to the grindstone back home." They miss the cattle and the gardens, the fishing in streams, the salt-filled air and the call of the sea. As I listen to tales of the Newfoundland of long ago, I can close my eyes and imagine I am back there with the storyteller. The invigorating salt air fills my lungs as I rode beside him on his fishing boat,, and as he rattles on with his stories I cam almost hear voices husky and clear coming from a passing boat. "What do your skipper think of the fat this year?","Go home and turn your salt" - expressions such as these, which at one time appeared strange and without meaning to me, are now an accepted part of my vocabulary. I not only understand them, but can readily appreciate their usage and humor.

I have learned much about the personal sea history of the sixteenth largest island of the world. I have learned that the ship southern Cross lost in 1912 with 180 men aboard had been on its way to St. John's from the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Among the missing crew mostly from Conception Harbour and Colliers, were Mickey Conway, George Hall, Jim Walsh, John C. Colliers Walsh, the Costello boys (three) and many others. My friendly advisors have also solved the mystery of what happened to the Cross. It hit a gale, the bulkheads busted and all the stock went forward. There is a legend that years later one of the boat's hooks belonging to the Cross was found up the coast of Ireland.

And I have learned in detail about other sea mishaps familiar to the people of Newfoundland. I have been over the story of the Florizel, the Newfoundland, and the many small sailing vessels which net disaster on their yearly trips from Newfoundland to Labrador. The stories have appealed to my adventurous nature and have stirred my imagination. To me Newfoundland is the most under-publicized adventure island of the past. Facts prove that it has played a leading role in the romance of the sea.

The Newfoundland people and their descendants living in the United States can be justly proud of their accomplishments. Many Newfoundland boys fought for the Stars and Stripes in battle; some of them making the supreme sacrifice. The men of this sturdy stock are well known for their ability in construction work. Very few buildings of any importance along the eastern coast have been completed without the hard work and ingenuity of many carpenters, iron workers and other tradesmen from back home. This is also true of bridges, factories, steel mills and industries which are so important in the stability of the still-growing United States.

The Newfoundlander with his sincerity, humor and love of fair play is welcomed in all communities. Gradually they are beginning to play more important roles in society. The descendants, especially, are taking more and more advantage of educational opportunities. They are becoming lawyers, clerks, statesmen and doctors. Just as the Irish, German, Italian and other nationalities have their associations, societies and clubs, so do the Newfoundland people have their own organizations. Although I an sure there are others, I am familiar only with the one that is in Camden, New Jersey. It is a center point, so to speak, for all the back-homers from Philadelphia and New Jersey. The folks can get together for dances, parties, meetings and the like and reminisce about their days back in Newfoundland.

One of the most enjoyable evenings I ever spent was in conversation with two Newfoundlanders whose ages were way up in the seventies. Both were good with the chatter and equipped with enough fishing and sea experience to indulge in never-ending story-telling. A case of beer was set between them and the more they indulged the louder they argues their abilities as fishermen and sea masters. I realized that they were trying to impress me as to who was better of the two and for this reason I kept quiet. Finally, however, they agreed on one point - the boys from back home were the greatest seamen in the world. This one fact they were certainly sure of. Partly from their recollections and partly, I suspect, from the beer, their eyes grew misty as the two of them became most sentimental about their land and its seamen's accomplishments. Quite suddenly they broke into song. I don't know whether they made the words up themselves, but I did enjoy their offering:

Song

Wherever you go you'll always find a boy from Newfoundland,
He's the pride of every country, good fortune on him smile,
They sail the river Slaney and they cross the river Nile,
Way down in South Africa you'll find the on the roll,
With Peary's expedition they got nearest to the pole.

After this musical offering they held their glasses in the air. "A toast to the land of our birth," they cried with emotion, and suddenly, as if both minds joined together in a single thought, they raised their glasses once again and shouted, "God bless America, our home sweet home and good luck to Newfoundland, my the sun always on it shine."

 

 

Back to: The Treasury of Newfoundland Stories Menu

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

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