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"Old Dad" of Labrador
The Nathaniel Cole Story

By Frank E. Clarke

 

 

In her book, Life on Lear's Room: Labrador, Greta Hussey makes reference to a Victoria family who had great attachment to the Labrador fishery. As far as we know Victoria Village has always been referred to as a fishing community; certainly it is so designated in Lovell's Directory 1871. Nathaniel Cole ( January 1866 - 1938) and his wife Elizabeth (1865 - 1948)) were born in Carbonear. His father's name was Stephen, was born in England, his mother was named Anastasia (called "Stash).". Their adopted son Nathaniel Jr. had two brothers Robert and Archibald. Harriet (Fost), Nathaniel Jr's's wife had two sisters, Winnie married Leonard Clarke and lived on the Waterford Road at St. John's, they had no children. Her sister Florrie married Jackie Bradbury from Bay Roberts. Together they had eleven children. Among them were Bruce, Nelson, Jean, Irene and Ruth. Pictures of Mr. Cole show him to be a rugged man with a stern craggy face. Like his ancestors, he worked at the fishery all his life. For the most part he went to Labrador on any ship that was available and struggled to eke out a living during very difficult times. According to living relatives Mr. Cole either owned outright or was a partner in a number of schooners before he bought the Auster

The first schooner that he was believed to have some ownership in was the Frolic. Her registration number was S880048 with her official number being 092113. She was built in Trinity Bay in 1880 by Alexander W. Bremmer a merchant. At that time he was recorded as the sole owner with 64 shares.. The Frolic was a sturdy vessel she was 60 feet long, 18 feet wide and drew 7 feet of water. Her gross tonnage was 43, with a net tonnage of 41. She was first registered in 1880 and was lost in 1895. Mr. Cole fished out of Batteau aboard her. Another schooner associated with the Cole family was The Silver Cloud. According to Aunt Winnie White (nee Cole) the schoonr was used on the Labrador by Willis Cole and his son James. It is believed that it came into "Old Dad's) posession around this time. The Silver Cloud, registration number S901056, was built on Random Island in Trinity Bay in 1901. She had 1 deck and 2 masts. She was built for Walter B Grieve of St. John,s who was a thriving business there. The Frolic was 52 feet long, 18 feet wide and drew 7 feet of water. Her gross tonnage was 34 tons with a net tonnage of 43. She was registered in 1901 and lost in 1951. A third schooner that "Old Dad" had some interest in was The Bonnilass. Her registration number was S892091. She was built at Sweet Bay in 1892 for James and Damiel Ryan. They used her in the fishing industry for a number of years. She was 55 feet long, 18 feet wide and drew 7 feet of water. The Bonnilass had a gross tonnage of 35 tons and a net tonnage of 35 tons. By 1951 she no longer existed. He and his wife moved from Carbonear to Victoria around 1880 and settled on a large piece of land on what is presently known as the Neck Road. In August of 1895 their adopted son Nathaniel L. Cole was born.

Mr. Cole affectionately called "Old Dad" had his fishing room at Batteau on the coast of Labrador. He probably went there shortly after Willis Cole did. He returned there year after year and by the standards of the day made a fair living. His early days at Batteau were very difficult. His crew usually began fishing at 5:30 each morning. They hauled their traps three times a day and worked late into the night getting it ready to dry. They usually started early in the summer and pulled their traps late in August but would stay until late in September to get a quantity of fish that they would lightly cure for themselves for the winter. Being a gregarious man, Mr. Cole felt that if he was to achieve any degree of success at the fishing industry he must have his own schooner. After years of struggle he managed to save enough money to purchase one. The Mercantile Navy List of 1930, entry number 129880 shows that Mr. Cole (Old Dad) owned the schooner Austur. It is not known the exact date that he purchased it but records of the schooner exist today. The Austur, registration number S911020 was built in Green's Harbour Trinity Bay in 1907. She was a single deck, 2 masted schooner that could sleep five people comfortably. She was built for Mr. Andrew H. Murray, a merchant in St. John's, who used her to carry on commercial business out of St. John's. She was 53 feet long, 17 feet wide and drew 6 feet of water. She had a gross tonnage of 28 tons and a net tonnage of 27 tons. She was registered in 1911. The Austur was broken up and lost at Batteau, Labrador during a severe storm in 1929. Local natives in the area reported that she must have broken her moorings in a severe storm. No sign of her was ever seen again.

It may be speculated that Mr. Cole acquired her around 1910. It is known that "Old Dad" built two boats in his yard at Victoria for use in Labrador. Hattie's brothers from Trinity Bay came to Victoria and helped him build them. One was so large that it had to have a special cart built to take it to Carbonear for launching. Mr. Cole purchased a Coaker engine from the Clarke's at Victoria which they put in the largest boat. The trip went without incident until they got to the top of the Fire Break Hill entering Carbonear. The men had to use a special wheel device which they constructed to lower her down Bond Street to the wharf. She was so heavy that she had to be towed to Batteau. Oral tradition has it that the boat, called "The Old Coaker" because of the make of its engine, was poorly constructed and did not sit well in the water and she gave "Old Dad" a great deal of trouble as long as he had her. Steve Cole told me that when he was around 17 he went to Labrador on the Kyle with Old Dad several times. He said that before the schooners left they for Labrador the men cut long poles in the grove which they used to push their way along by ice bergs that towered above them on their journey Old Dad established his own room in Batteau and returned there on a regular basis to prosecute the fishery. He built his house near a small beach but it was poorly located and he had to go down over a high Banks to reach the water. His bawn was not close to his house. An examination of pictures of the house reveals a sparse structure covered with tar paper. As was usual for these houses, it consisted of a kitchen with an Ideal Cook stove, several benches, and a bedroom that had beds "longers" attached to the walls and laced with rope. The bed springs were made from rope. The house also had a small storage space. The floor was made of well worn wood and there was a bench as you entered the kitchen there was also one near the stove. At the back of the kitchen there were two small rooms, one for the skipper and his wife if she was there, and a smaller one for the cook. The house had a "lean-to" on the back of the house where Arthur and Winston slept. There was a bunkhouse outside for the rest of the crew. The only source of heat was the cooking stove where the cook prepared all of the meals. They burned mostly boughs as there were no trees available nearby. The only source of wood was a great distance away and those who stayed over the winter usually went back into the woods to gather enough for the year. Dried up sticks called "crannicks" were used to light the fire. The men wore Stanfield underwear which was fleece lined under layers of other garments such as sweaters, overalls and denim jackets. From this base Mr. Cole"s family fished until 1945. In 1947 Leonard went down and disposed of all of their equipment. By then the family had scattered to as far away as the United States. It was common practice for the fishermen to take animals with them to Labrador, especially hens to provide fresh eggs. Mrs. Hussy relates that, "...one year, Uncle Nath Cole took along a pig to fatten but the pig fell over a cliff and met its doom...," Certainly a set back to the family who was counting on it to supplement their diet. The fishermen were always at the mercy of the elements and struggled hard to even make a subsistence living. This along, with the heartless merchants, was almost the ruin of many fishing families in Labrador. The Cole's got their supplies and sold their fish to Art Earl of Carbonear who had premises at Black Tickle. A good season produced between 350 to 450 quintals. Prices for fish fluctuated and it was not uncommon for the fishermen to throw away their catch rather than sell it for as low as $1.50 per quintal (112 pounds). Mr. Cole is quoted as saying, "Ay, I've lived long enough to see that fish is no good!"

Mr. Cole, like most Newfoundlanders, was a strongly religious man who continually thanked God for any small blessings his family received. Sometime after he came to live in Victoria he was converted to the Pentecostal faith and practiced its teachings. Old Dad refused to do any sort of work on Sundays and often his son Nath rowed across the harbor and held services there. Mrs. Hussey, who attended some of these services stated that, "These services were sort of hit and miss affairs where mostly the old familiar Gospel hymns were sung. People of all faiths attended." It was common for the crews of other schooners in the harbor to attend any church services that were taking place in the harbor. She reported that hymns such as "Fight the Good Fight", "I've Anchored my Soul in the Haven of Rest" and "The Lily of the Valley" were favorites. As was the tradition during Pentecostal services, personal testimony was invited and Uncle Nath never failed to move the crowd. The main thrust of his testimony was, "When God saved me, He saved me from a journey." No doubt a reference to the hard life on the Labrador coast. Over the years "Old Dad" took many men with him to work in Labrador. One of those known to have taken a berth with him was, Frank O'Leary from Kingston. He was an excellent accordion player who entertained everyone in Batteau. Uncle Nath did not approve of music and didn't allow the kind of music that invoked any form of dance. Quite often Frank had to hurriedly hide his accordion when Old Dad approached the house. Others known to have gone to Batteau with "Old Dad" were "Paddy" Cook, Steve Cole, William Dean, and Harold Ash. It was also custom for the captain of each Schooner going to Labrador to take along with them, young women who cooked and washed for the crew. Some of the women who are known to have accompanied "Old Dad" were, "Aunt Lizzie" Cole, Hattie, Lena Antle, Florrie Peckham, Lavenia Cole, Martha Ann Pye, Marjorie Cole and "Lizzie Summers." Mrs. Hussey relates one story that tested "Old Dad's faith. " The custom was to go to Sandy Bay, Porcupine Bay or Open Bay to get firewood for the summer. In one cove, called Spirit Gulch, was the remains of an old building but no one would touch the wood, claiming it was haunted. Hussey relates, "Old Dad and his son, Nath Jr. were fishing in their schooner, the Austur, at Batteau. This was just before they built their house on the land next to ours. They decided to go to Spirit Gulch for a week or so to spread their fish to dry. The crew, being a little more fearless or unbelieving, laughed at the old superstition and, when they needed firewood, brought wood from the Gulch. All went well until late at night. Nath Cole Jr., and his Wife Hattie, were awakened by a tremendous racket and noise on the deck of their vessel. Mrs. Cole, telling my mother, said, "I was absolutely terrified, but Nath realized that there was something unnatural about the noise on deck and he calmly made way to go up. I clung to him, begging him not to go and leave me. He disregarded my plea and went up. Opening the hatchway to the cabin, he rebuked the spirits in the name of Jesus Christ. The vessel shook once more form stem to stern and then all was quiet and serene." A true story and a testimony of a young married man's faith in God.

It is not now known how long after this incident that the life of the Coles took a tragic turn. As Mrs. Hussey reports, "A near tragedy occurred one summer, just inside our fishing premises. The Coles were living on their schooner then. That was just before they moved into the house on the shore. Their schooner, the Austur, was moored well up in the bottom of the harbor. There were pans of ice floating all around. While doing some necessary work in the motor boat, someone accidently hit Nath Jr. with an oar, toppling him overboard. Somehow or other, he got sucked under and caught between the bottom of the Austur and a pan of ice, making it very difficult for anyone to rescue him. Hope was just about gone when Walt Cole, one of his crew, took an oar, jumped in and swam to the drowning man. Walt pushed the oar in front of Nath who, although semi-conscious by this time, clutched at the ore and was brought to safety. They say that a drowning man will grasp anything. This must indeed be true. Relating it to my father, afterwards, Nath said that the last thing he remembered as he went down for the last time was thinking about his little two year daughter, Betty. Nath survived that ordeal but the icy water must have chilled him through for he never fully regained his health. A serious illness developed and he had passed away on March 23, 1930 leaving a young family." Records available at the local church show that Mr. Nath Cole Jr. (August, 1895 - 1930)) and his wife Harriet M. (June, 1895 - 1973) had seven children, Winston, Alvina, Arthur, Leonard, Frederick, Elizabeth and Nathaniel. None of these currently live at Victoria The Coles returned to live permanently to Victoria in 1929. Thus closing another chapter in the history of Victoria men in the Labrador fishery.

Arrived in Batteau around 1915 when Willis cole went there. Daily life was very difficult 5:30, morning haul bring this in and clean it up and then get a lunch and go out for the dinner haul also at supper time, just outside Harbour. Traps up in August wait til September wait till they got more fish for light cure. Mostly everything was sold cure with 3 days sun. They usually waited for good weather so that the fish didn't spoil. There was a period of relaxation, trawled a bit for winter for free. A good load was between 350 to450 quintals. Winston & Arthur oldest Paddy oldest rest looked young 20-30 Bill dean 28. The Cole's were a proud family crew were fun loving and devil may care, no rough stuff. Smaller catch than the Lears. 500-550 was considered a good voyage. Art Earle Carbonear, gave them credit toward their catch. Inside house board floor, bench as you went in the door on right one on end and one on front near the stove. On the back of Kitchen at the end of the house were two small rooms one for the Skipper and his wife if she was there. and a smaller one for the cook

There was a "Lean-to built on to the back of the house left of entrance door where Winston and Arthur slept There was a bunkhouse built out side for the rest of the crew. Things weren't great. We just had a cooking stove there where the cook prepared all the meals. They had to burn boughs because there weren't very many trees there. Those who stayed during the winter usually went back into the woods and got themselves through the year. Dried up sticks called crannicks were used to light the fire. Men wore Stanfield fleece lined under wear and layers of undergarments consisting of warm shirts, swearers, overalls and a denim jacket and overalls The oldest Nath is old dad. He was a nephew and namesake, Nath had brothers bob and arch their father may be Stephen, old dad had Steven, will and Ned. Stephen is believed to be Nath's father (young Nath) Don't know the circumstances of how Nath went to live with Old Dad. Austur broke her mooring and was drifted out to sea The natives who wintered there told us that nothing was ever found of her spar. The Labrador Natives were up in the bay for the winter.

The Coaker was very heavy and they had a lot of trouble with her and soggy she was towed to Labrador because she was too big to go on board the Aster He did not build his house on a small beach near the water. What appears to be a beach on the pictures is actually Lears Bawn, thousands and thousands of rocks laid side by side to make a place for drying the fish. His house was well back from the water on beach you had to go down over a high Banks to get to where he had his boat. Don't forget small storage space out by the lean-to. In 1947 Leonard one of Nath's boys went down, Old Dad did not fished there in 1929. 1947 Leonard went down to sell their gear from the old store/shed with a peak on it that they bought with the land on the shore from A Mr. Munn. Businessman Leonard came alone, my sister was there cooking and disposed of all of thier traps and other material of no further use to them.. Only took a pig once. Fell going out towards the Wilcox's premises and died. Never took again

Uncommon to throw away fish. Merchants turned it down frequently for little e reason. No services at home or anywhere else. Conducted in Church across the harbor. A flag was raised outside the church to let people know that there was going to be a session the people did not know who was going to preach but the flag meant church was on and so they all went. It didn't matter what religion you were you went to the service. Nath not Old Dad conducted the services. When Mr. O'Leary was playing he used to hide his accordion under the bebnch until Old Dat left. They went up the bay to dry their fish because they did not have a bawn Spirit Gulch Nath lost. Fost from Heart's Delight.

Leonard called after the man on Waterford bridge road. Winston is in New Hampshire, Vinie is in Calgary Arthur Died in Goose bay when he was 40. Brought to Victoria to be buried.. Cold day. Leonard lived at St. John's. Dead came back to Victoria had two legs amputated built house with a wheelchair ramp. Fred in Atlantic Provinces or Stephenville.,le. Elizabeth is in Aurelia Ont, Nath is in Halifax. Check when they moved into Victoria not 1929. They donated the land for the first Pentecostal Church and Graveyard at Victoria, that is where Arthur is buried. Close to the church. Hattie stayed home while the children were being born.

I remember Nath coming with a son Frederick English called after one of the Pentecostal Pastors. He wanted Lear's father to write a letter home for him because he had a gathered thumb at the time. Knew them all her life from 2 years till 21 years old. The old boat was very heavy and they had to haul her up to bottom for winter couldn't move her Johnny Poker Joker etc. Started singing something else and the task went easy, Had to go a long way to get water. Hattie was up visiting Winston, on the way home heart attack, but Nath wife was nurse wanted to go to Nfld, also had cancer. Went to Pentecostal Home in Clarkes Beach Betty And Vinie came home and stayed with Mrs. Evely, who was Willis Cole's daughter. When Hattie died we went to the house. Harry Cole was there and he was William Henry;s son, he lived out by the old hospital. We went to his house and had lunch with him and his wife Ella. Could have been another Nath, Old Dad, Nath, Nath Jr, Baby born after death called Nath. Willis and Ambrose there was another Nath who became a U..C Minister Stove Ideal Cook.

 

 

Page revised: Oct. 2002 (Terry Piercey)

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