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Painted in fishing dory colours of yellow and red, the business premises of J. Petite and Sons Ltd. are hard to miss in the Fortune Bay community of English Harbour West.
Capt. Jeremiah (Jerry) Petite was the founder of the firm that has been a landmark in English Harbour West for more than a century. The company had its 100th anniversary in 1997.
The Petites are said to be French Hugenots from the Jersey Islands who first arrived on the Connaigre Peninsula in the 1700s. Individuals by the name of Jean and Levant Petite were living in Pass Island, Hermitage Bay, in 1765. The community of Grole, near Pass Island, was home to Petites who later moved to Mose Ambrose, Fortune Bay.
Jerry Petite's family was living in St. Jacques, Fortune Bay, in 1856. Not long afterwards they moved to Mose Ambrose, where Jerry was born in 1864. From the time he was a young man, Petite was involved in the bank fishery and captained his own vessels. He married Bessie Yarn of Mose Ambrose and the couple had a family of 13 children.
Petite's first venture into business came in the late 1800s when he opened a shop in Mose Ambrose. In 1897, the enterprising Petite bought the premises of Richard Marshall in nearby English Harbour West. The Marshall premises consisted of a landing wharf, a small shop and a nearby house.
After moving to English Harbour West, Petite demolished the Marshall house and built a three-storey home equipped with all the modern conveniences of the time. That home still stands today. He went on to expand the business, especially during the First World War when fish prices were high.
Skipper Jerry operated one of the largest and most successful banking operations on the south coast. He is said to have had some of the best skippers who ever fished on the banking schooners in Newfoundland. They included George Jim Skinner, Abe Miles and Bill Miles from Boxey; Will Yarn from Mose Ambrose; Jack Lavey from Belleoram; Jack Mills from Doctor's Harbour; Arch Evans from English Harbour West; and George Tom Vallis and Victor Fiander from Coomb's Cove. These captains were renowned for bringing in catches as high as 7,000 quintals of codfish.
Petite owned 36 schooners, including the Jenny Elizabeth, Palatna, Maxwell R, Topsail Girl, Goldie Belle and Wild Rose.
In 1918, J. Petite and Sons exported almost 25,000 quintals of dry, salted cod fish to foreign markets. Most of the fish was taken by their own three-masted schooners to Oporto, Portugal. From 1914 to 1936, the firm operated a canning factory in Back Cove in English Harbour West, where salmon and lobster were canned for export.
Back in those days, during the summer and fall, the flakes surrounding the business premises were used for drying cod. Making or turning the fish was work often done by the women of the community. Care had to be taken that the fish did not get sunburned as it would then become cullage and fetch the lowest price.
After the fish was dried, it was stacked in yaffles and bulks, placed on hard bars and brought to the fish stores where it was packed into wooden barrels or casks.
By 1945, J. Petite and Sons had begun shipping live lobsters to Boston markets, a practice that continues today.
In 1936, Skipper Jerry passed ownership of the business to his sons, Howard and Jim. Jim withdrew from the business in 1945, and sold his shares to his brother, Howard. In 1953, ill health led to Howard to sell the business to his cousin, Gordon Petite.
Gordon successfully operated J. Petite and Sons up until his death in 1985. Since 1985, his daughter, Debbie, has operated the business with the help of her brother, Harry.
Jerry Petite's fishing rooms were built on the beach, next to the harbour. The rooms consisted of two large, two-storey buildings where the salted and dried cod were stored waiting to go to market, as well as the flakes and wharves surrounding the stores. The stores were numbered 1-5. The original shop was located upstairs in No. 2 store. Inventory included groceries, dry goods, hardware, building supplies, all kinds of fishing supplies, and caskets.
Under the stewardship of Debbie and Harry Petite, the firm of J. Petite and Sons continues to flourish. The original retail shop has greatly expanded and merchandise includes everything from food and liquor to microwave ovens and building supplies. The company operates seven school buses, sells gas, and continues to be involved in the fishing industry. With the heyday of salt cod long past, the concentration is on fresh fish and lobster. The stores are now used mainly as warehouses for building supplies.
Debbie has developed a museum on the second floor of No. 5 store. Items on display include rocking chairs, cradles, day beds, dolls, dishes, trunks, jewelry, life-jackets from various fishing schooners, cash registers, ledgers and a wide assortment of paraphernalia used in the fishing industry.
There's a sailmaker's bench with something called a "vid" which was used to punch holes in the sails. There are weigh scales, fishing nets and anchors, as well as a salt shovel. A device that looks like an ordinary wood log, with handles on the top and sides, was used for levelling a barrel of fish just before the cover was put in place.
A school desk piled with books is not far from a 1900s child's sleigh. One of the books on the desk is a 1923 Newfoundland geography text. Leafing through the book, you learn that Newfoundland received goods from no fewer than 70 countries and sent exports to 35 or more.
Exports of the 1920s were dry cod, herring, lobster, salmon, sealskins, oil made from cod, seals and whales; iron ore, copper, lumber, paper pulp and paper.
The best customers for exports were Great Britain, followed by the United States, Portugal, Spain, Brazil and Canada. Other important export customers included the West Indies, Italy and Holland.
In 1923, Newfoundland's biggest imports were clothing and food.
One wall in the museum has correspondence relating to business.
In a letter dated April 11, 1950 - shortly after Confederation - J. Petite and Sons manager A.C. Wornell offered his condolences to a widow in Richard's Harbour, Hermitage Bay, concerning the unfortunate drowning of her husband, a company employee. Under an official letterhead that says "J. Petite and Sons Ltd., general dealers; exporters of bank and shore codfish, tinned lobster," Wornell wrote:
"It seems that your husband's dory was overturned while they were engaged hauling their trawl. Clayton Skinner was fortunate enough to catch hold of the bottom strap and managed to hang on, but it appears that your husband could not get a good hold and therefore went under before help could reach him."
After offering condolences for the widow's "tragic bereavement," Wornell says he is enclosing a form to fill out with regard to her late husband's dependents. He continues:
"We are doing everything possible to get Workmen's Compensation for you and your dependents, and you will aid us greatly in having this form completed and sent in to Steers Insurance Agencies Ltd. in the envelope provided.
"I would like to impress upon you that this Workmen's Compensation Insurance is a new thing to us, and we are unable to tell you definitely just what you will get out of it. However, if you supply the Insurance Company with the details they desire, and should they approve your claim, you will be agreeably surprised at the results obtained.
"A cheque for the balance of your husband's account is herewith enclosed.
"Please keep us informed as to whether you receive the Insurance from the Customs, and, as I stated before, please complete the enclosed form and forward it in the envelope enclosed."
Over the years, the firm of J. Petite and Sons has undergone many changes, but its dependence on the fishery has remained a constant. Still another constant is the way people refer to the still thriving company. Just as they did a century ago, residents of English Harbour West and surrounding communities continue to say they're going "over the room" or "down on the room" when they talk about going to the business premises of J. Petite and Sons.
This page transcribed by Barbara McGrath (October 2000)
REVISED: August 2002 (Terry Piercey)
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