This is an academic paper that was written by Terry Sharpe, daughter of Kenneth Stokes. Terry submitted to Dr. Larry Small on March 20, 1990, as part of her Folklore 2300 course at MUN.
The Process of Becoming a Man in Traditional Newfoundland Society
Submitted to Dr. Larry Small on March 20, 1990
Submitted by Terry Sharpe
This paper will attempt to look at the process of becoming a man in traditional Newfoundland society. This paper is based on interviews held with Mr. Kenneth Stokes, the writers father, and covers the years from approximately 1922 to about 1963. It attempts to look at his growth from a young boy to a married man .
His story begins in the small community of Safe Harbour on the north side of Bonavista Bay, Newfoundland on November 24, 1922, the day he was born. He was the first born child of Nelson and Helen Stokes, both from Safe Harbour, or Puddingbag Cove as it was earlier called. He was the eldest of nine children, five boys and four girls. Only one of the children, a girl named Ester Sadie Marina Stokes, did not survive childhood, a remarkable survival rate in a time when doctors were few and midwives attended most deliveries. As the oldest boy in the family Kenneth was expected to live and behave in a certain way that the later born children were not.
Kenneth started his story by telling me about the home in which he grew up in the tiny village of Safe Harbour. He described his family home as being a fairly later two story dwelling. It was heated by a wood stove and a coal stove during his early years. The lighting for the home was provided by kerosene lamps or lanterns, the wick variety at first and later the mantle type. He recalls that the stove in the kitchen, at first, did not have a hot water reservoir and that his mother had to boil all the water on top of the stove in large boilers to do all household chores such as the washing and cleaning. From a very early age Ken and later his brothers, were responsible for fetching the water from the well, and bringing in the copious amounts of wood these old stoves would guzzle up. Later a reservoir was added to the stove and this made life for everyone in the family a lot easier. The house had three large bedrooms that he recalls were kept spotlessly clean by his mother. Each room had its own chamber pot, wash basin and jug. The canvas floors were covered with homemade rugs that his mother had hooked from scraps of material gathered from clothing that was not longer of any use. The beds were covered with homemade quilts, also made by his mother, that he recalls were so heavy that when you were in bed you could hardly turn over. Each night, their mother would heat birch junks or beach rocks in the stove and the older boys were expected to help her bring them upstairs to heat the beds for the children and the adults. At other times, she would heat up the irons and iron their bed clothes all over to make them “warm and snuggly” on very cold nights. This was the loving environment that he recalls growing up in.
Outside the home environment, the community of Safe Harbour was also a very friendly and nurturing place in which to grow up. Everyone in the community knew each other and all would gather at social functions. There were basically two religious denominations that lived in friendly communion with each other in this small village. The Anglicans and the Methodists each had their own church and school. The Methodist church, to which his family belonged, although his mother was listed as Episcopalian on her marriage certificate, held Sunday service every week. The minister visited once a month, when weather permitted, but the services went ahead each Sunday and were handled by a lay-reader, a Mr. Charlie Hounsell, in my father’s time in Safe Harbour. The children who were old enough were all expected to go to church on Sundays. When their father was home he took them, otherwise they went with their mother when she was able to go or else they were expected to go alone. Ken does not recall any of them ever questioning whether or not they wanted to go, as children often do today, they went because they knew they were expected to go. The church was only about a ten minute walk from the family home, just beyond the school, so it was always a constant element in their lives. Even when his mother could not attend church she could easily watch them wind their way along the road. She knew her eldest son would take care of his siblings as he was taught to take his responsibilities as the eldest seriously. This was a trait he carried with him all of his life.
The children in the Stokes family were all expected to attend school, at least up until they were old enough to help supplement the family income, or help provide necessities for the family. My father recalls the Methodist school that he attended as being a two room dwelling. One room housed the younger children from grades 1-5, while the other room housed the older students from grades 6-11. There were two teachers, a Miss Mary Sturge, taught the younger group, while the older children were taught by a Mr. George Moores. Both teachers were extremely strict, but only punished the most undisciplined children. Each child in grade 4,5,6 and beyond were expected to bring kindling for the school cove and take turns lighting the fire. When it was your turn you lit the fire for a whole week and then someone else took their turn. The children wrote on slates in school for their spelling and arithmetic, with their sleeves being used for an eraser. He recalls having to memorize a lot of their work because one it was erased from the slate it was gone. He said this required a lot of concentration and there was no time for fooling around. The test books they used were the Royal Readers, along with Tom’s Dog. These were not very exciting but they were all they had. At home, he recalls doing his homework using a scribbler and a pencil which were cherished commodities. The children were expected to attend school from September to June when they were dismissed for the summer vacation.
The summer vacation was a happy time for the young children. He recalls that they spent their time running around the rocks of the harbour, catching conners and tom cods, and going out in the boats. Some children went to the swimming hole but like most children of that era he never learned how to swim. At the end of the summer and early in the fall of the year they all spent their time picking blueberries, partridgeberries, blackberries and marshberries for their mother, who would then make them into preserves for the family to enjoy in the long winter months when supplies were often hard to come by. Families had to be self sufficient if they were to survive the long cold winters in their often isolated villages. On rainy days, they were sometimes allowed to play in the house or out in the store. They were allowed to play like this until they were about 12 – 13 years old, but after that they were expected to help out with more of the daily chores. The children always helped out with the sheep, hens and the barn up to this age, but it he recalls that those duties were considered more fun than work. As a young boy, especially during their summer vacation, the boys also loved to play kick football. As there were no balls to be purchased the boys had to make their own footballs. My dad’s eyes lit up as he recalled how they would relish getting a bladder from one of the pigs that someone in the community had slaughtered for food, pickling it for a few days to make it tough, and when it was ready they would blow it up and tie it with string. They would have hours of fun playing with this toy that they had made with their own hands.
Grade six was the last year that he was fortunate enough to attend school, for at the ripe old age of not quite fourteen he left home for the first time to work. Like many young Newfoundland boys, he went to the Labrador Fishery for his first job. At that time, Skipper Sam Blackwood had a schooner named after his sister, the Maggie Blackwood. It was a 95 ton schooner which hoisted seven sails. It carried a total of twelve crew members, ten full shares and two half shares. Dad knew a few of the crew members, such as Skipper Sam, George Winsor of Wesleyville, who was a little older that he, and Albert Attwood, a cousin, who was a little younger. Dad and Albert signed on as the two half shares. Dad’s job on this voyage was as cutthroat, while Albert was a deckhand, whose job was to prong fish to the salters, fetch water and clean the decks. The two salters on this voyage were Ron Barbour and Len White, two men in their thirties who had been fishing all of their lives and were very good at their jobs. The two young boys admired their expertise and paid close attention to all the details. Accommodations on Skipper Sam’s schooner were considered to be adequate. The men each had their own bunk which was not overly large. During the week, they had to wash in a basin of water and Dad recalls generally feeling dirty, something he was not use to growing up in his mother’s household. Sunday was the day for a complete clean up. They went to a river if the mosquitoes were not too thick to take their bath. However, as often as not, their then clean body had to be put back into the dirty clothes that was stiff with salt. That first trip took from about June 20th to August 8th, but of this time only 13 days were actually spent fishing. He recalls the catch that year was 1645 quintals of which 900 quintals were shore fish(light salt) and the remainder was Labrador salted. In all, a lot of throats for a young man of fourteen years to cut.
After the schooner left Labrador, their work was far from complete. They headed home for Safe Harbour to make the fish, and when it was cured which was approximately September, they had to reload the fish back on the schooner and make the trip to St. John’s. This was another first in this young man’s life. The city of St. John’s looked big to him compared to anything he had encountered this far in his life, but he recalls that it was not very difficult to find your way around. He said that all you had to do to get back to Water Street and the schooner was to keep going down the hills. They stayed in St. John’s for a couple of weeks unloading their catch and selling it. His share for the voyage was about $90.00. Out of his very first salary he purchased a new suit, an overcoat and gaiters for himself, at the Premier Garment store on Water Street. The store gave him a free shirt and tie for purchasing the overcoat. The young boy had become a man before his fifteenth birthday in November.
Ken also bought a coat for his oldest sister, Annie, but he could not afford to buy clothing for the other members of his family. He knew, however, that the clothes that he had bought for both himself and his sister would eventually be passed on to the younger members or made over into new clothing for his siblings by his mother. He remembers that he saved the remainder of his money to take home so that he could help out with supplies if needed and he could also buy tobacco and other miscellaneous articles for himself and his family during the winter. Most young men of 14-15 years of age smoked in those days or chewed tobacco, like their fathers and was considered a rite of passage.
At the end of September they returned home to Safe Harbour. He was fifteen that November and during the winter months he was expected to go into the woods with his father, his uncle Joe, and his mother’s step-brother, Carson Attwood and also Ben Dyke, to cut pulp wood. They stayed in a log cabin belonging to Charlie and Bill Barbour, that was about 5 miles from their home. Dad was expected to do the same work as the older men. They left home every Monday morning and returned home again on Saturday evenings. The work was hard and the hours were long. They would handslide the wood using three or four dogs and as soon as the first frost froze the ponds over and there was enough snow to make a path, they would carry it to the nearest pond and leave it there for others to take out in the spring to South West Arm where the ships would pick it up. They would continue this routine from mid-March until early April each year.
When that job was finished, Dad and his father would then begin to work on cutting and collecting wood for their own woodpile to ensure their own family could be sustained for another year. The routine established for this was to trek for about three miles from home early every morning and cut wood and then pull it home on their dogsled. When they arrived home, they next had to stack the wood in piles around the door to dry. The wood that was collected each season and was piled and dried for different seasons of the year. Only when enough firewood was collected for the family’s need was the next job started. Dad and his father would sometimes go across the harbour with the dogs and the slide, brine bags and boxes to collect kelp for their spring garden. he recalls how dangerous this was as many times they had to cross black(thin)ice. However, when it was really dangerous my grandfather would make his son stay home and he would make that treacherous but necessary trip alone. When enough kelp was collected to fertilize the garden, they moved on to the next job on their long list which was mending the fences before they left for their summer jobs. The boys would have to clear away any old stumps and prepare the garden for planting. The garden itself would be planted by my dad, his mother and his other brothers as they became old enough to help. They planted the food that would be required to sustain them through the year such as potatoes, cabbage, turnips, beet and carrots. He remembers that the turnip and cabbage did not grow well probably due to the lack of required nutrients in the soil.
In June, at age 15, Dad left for his second voyage to the Labrador Fishery. This voyage took a little longer than the first and they did not return home until late in August with a load of 1600 quintals, all Labrador salted. The price for fish was up that year so Dad’s half share amounted to about the same as his first voyage. The previous sequence of events was again followed after they returned to Safe Harbour to cure the fish. Once again the young man went on with his Skipper and crew to St. John’s to sell their catch.
His third voyage to Labrador was his final trip to the fishery. He had a 3/4 share on that trip but the fishery was poor that year and they returned with only 700 quintals of fish. The Government, however, gave a rebate on salt tat year and this helped to boost their income. He remembers buying himself a new gold ring out of the rebate money. He wore the ring for his entire life and still has it although it now has a crack in the band. The ring was a symbol of the hard work he endured in trying working conditions and a symbol of his becoming a man.
At the ripe old age of eighteen, he decided to try a new venture and career, to earn money during the winter. He had returned home from St. John’s in December and stayed until New Year’s Day. On that day, Dad and Carson Attwood, Walt King and Gaston King left for Corner Brook on the Newfie Bullet to work on the pull-off in the logging camps. It was a long trip across Newfoundland, but it was a new adventure and like most young men they were enthusiastic about their new venture into manhood. Their enthusiasm however was short lived as their living and working conditions in the logging camps were atrocious. The young men had to sleep on bunks covered with boughs and they used bear skin rugs and blankets to keep them warm in the freezing conditions. The camp had a cement drum, cut in half for a stove, to cook on. The food consisted of saltmeat, beans and cheese. The work was very hard and tiring. They loaded horse drawn sleds with wood and brought it down to the river for the drive. Dad and Carson both got lousy shortly after they arrived and they decided that the job was not worth the money if it meant being chewed alive by lice. Dad recalls heading home shortly after that and when he reached his house he stripped off all of his clothes and his mother burned every last shred of his belongings so as not to infect the house and its occupants. His mother then proceeded to comb all the lice out of his hair and used a solution to burn any remaining lice and nits off of his head. He thinks she used Kerosene, because he said it burned like hell. He was clean once more and never experienced being lousy again for the rest of his life. He decided that a logger’s life was not for him! In February, he gladly returned to helping his father in the woods around home again.
In March of 1942, he left for St. John’s with his father, who was now a carpenter by trade, to work for his father’s half brother, Belah Stokes, who by this time had established a small construction business on Gear Street. The Americans were in Pepperell then and work was plentiful, but hard. Dad’s first job, however, was not on the base but on Cornwall Avenue, where they were building a house for a Mr. Moores. Fred Baker was the foreman and Dad was the carpenter’s apprentice. He was a diligent student and eager to learn his new trade. one of his least favourite jobs was when he had to clean up the lumber and remove any nails that might be left in it. The men had to walk to their assigned jobs in the mornings and return in the evenings to Gear Street. He recalls that they often had to carry a forty foot extension ladder to repair windows, etc., often over very long distances, along with their tools and return everything back to the shop on Gear Street in the evenings. They worked under these conditions until about 1945-1946, when uncle Belah bought the company’s first truck, a Ford, which the men nicknamed the Green Hornet. This addition to the growing business meant that the men could spend more time on the job and less time travelling with heavy equipment back and forth between the job and the shop.
During these early years he boarded in a number of different homes from March until December when he returned home with his father. He recalls that the food in these boarding houses was very good and never scarce. The ladies of these homes were proud of the hearty lunches they packed for their boarders. He recalls looking forward to the hearty and delicious suppers that would be waiting for him at the end of a long hard day. He said that his first year working in construction was especially hard.
That year he had given up his birth in Skipper Sam’s Schooner to Carson Attwood. Carson and Dad both made about $1000.00 for their seasons work, but whereas Carson got to keep most of his earnings, Dad cleared only about $400.00 after he paid for his board and keep. He said that although he found fishing easier, more enjoyable and often more lucrative, he did not feel that he wanted to spent the rest of his life as a fisherman. He therefore decided that the lower income as a carpenter would be worthwhile and more beneficial in the long term.
Life in St. John’s also had some fringe benefits that appealed to a young man of those times. For entertainment, they went to the movies at the Nickel, Capitol, and Majestic theatres, something that would have been impossible on a schooner or even at home. New Gower Street was a popular place at that time for walking. Bowring Park was the spot to go on Sunday afternoons, and leisurely stroll along Lemarchant Road, or the Cow Path as it was called was a favourite on Sunday evenings. The young men would dress up in their best clothes on these little excursions, a shirt and tie were always worn with their suits, and in the fall an overcoat and hat were also worn. There would be hundreds of people out on these walks. \it was a real social occasion where young men and women could stop and talk, smoke or just watch passers-by. The police patrolled the roads carefully and when people stopped to gather for too long, they would tell them to move along. To get to Bowring Park these young people usually walked, rode the city bus,(Capital Coach),or hitched a ride for ten cents in a pick-up operated by a few entrepreneurial young men. In Bowring Park, the afternoon would be spent sitting on the grass, walking around or even for some a swim in the river. There were no permanent girlfriends in his life at this point in time.
Another form of entertainment was a game of cards played down on the schooners from home, when they were in port freighting. The Water Street area would be blocked when the freighting schooners were in port, especially on Saturdays.
After the construction season ended, Dad would return home every fall and work in the woods with his father getting wood for the family, getting the garden ready for planting, painting the house, tarring the roof or doing any work necessary around the home.
In 1945 the family made a major decision that would change their lives forever. My grandmother Helen/Ellen Stokes, was tired of being on her own and caring for a large family by herself for the best part of the year. They therefore decided to move the family to St. John’s. My grandfather, Dad and his brother Norm built a house for the family on Pennywell Road (#306). They built a two story house with four bedrooms. The house was quite nice compared with the other houses on this road, as most at this time were just summer shacks. They started the house in May and the family moved in that September. My father’s uncle Belah Stokes provided the lumber for the house and my grandfather paid him off over the next five years. My grandmother Stokes was quite pleased with the new house her family had so lovingly built for them as it had lovely hardwood floors and French doors, a large kitchen, living room and dining room, as well as a sun porch and best of all indoor plumbing. The men of the family were extremely proud of the home they had built for their family. It was a home that provided love and comfort to succeeding generations.
The traditional habits of Safe Harbour were for the most part transferred to the St. John’s home. Certain meals were prepared by his mother and served to the family on specific days of the week and the meal hours were fairly rigidly established. Breakfast was at different times of the day for the varying ages in the family, but lunch was served between 12-1, and supper was between 5-6 every day including Saturdays and Sundays. His father had a designated place at the head of the table, but everyone else could sit wherever they liked. My grandmother, apparently, was always the last to sit down to the meal after she had served everyone else in the family. On Sundays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays he recalls the traditional meal was always Jigs Dinner; saltmeat, potatoes, cabbage, turnip and dumplings. However, unlike the earlier days in Safe Harbour, the vegetables were no longer grown in the family garden. In the preparation of these meals my grandmother always counted out specific portions for each individual person in her family and then added extra to make leftovers. The leftovers, of course, then would be served on Mondays, the traditional washday and on Wednesdays. If there was not enough leftovers for Wednesday then homemade beans, either boiled or baked would be served, with homemade bread of course. Homemade bread was made every second day. It was prepared the night before and left to rise overnight, then baked the next morning. With five sons and three daughters to feed my grandmother always needed to make plenty of bread. Dad said that fish was the traditional fare for Fridays, even though the family was not Catholic. This could be either fresh fish, fish and brewis, fishcakes or roasted saltfish. On Saturdays, my Dad recalls always having pea soup with dumplings. My grandmother always made tarts or pies for dessert, and the boys and the girls of the family would fight for any leftovers.
A couple of years after moving to St. John’s, about 1947, my Dad began seriously and he met my mother one night when they were both stood up by their arranged dates. My father, ever the gentleman asked my mom if she would like for him to walk her home. She was working at the Sanatorium on Topsail Road at the time and was staying in the residence there. It was quite a long walk for them and then he had to make the long trek back to his home on Pennywell Road. They had known each other casually before, but, after this evening they started to date seriously. Engagements were not all that common in those days but these two decided at Christmas that year to get married. The invitations were prepared and sent out for a February wedding, but all of their plans had to be put on hold after my Dad fell sixteen feet, through a two-story house he was working on. He broke his hip on the hammer that was attached to his overalls, just thirteen days before their wedding. He was hospitalized for 28 days. the wedding was postponed until March 24, 1948. Their wedding reception, which they had catered, was held at his parent’s home, which only a few years earlier he had helped build.
The young couple stayed at the family home for a few months after their wedding and then decided it was time to strike out on their own and begin the next phase of their life. They rented two rooms on Pennywell Road while they built their own home on Kitchner Avenue, just around the corner from his parents home. Dad, his father and brothers built a lovely three bedroom bungalow with hardwood floors, a bathroom with running water, but no bathtub, and at first this home was heated by an oil cabinet. By 1958, a furnace was installed and the galvanized tub that was used for baths was replaced by a porcelain bathtub with claw feet. Dad, by now a very good carpenter, built his own coffee and end tables for his new home. His uncle Belah had once again supplied the lumber for the house, which Dad paid off the following year by working extra hours in the night time doing carpentry work for other people. The trip to independence was hard but much easier than for a lot of young men at that time who did not have the family support had help that he had. The house had been started in May and it was completed on September 8th, except for the door jambs and the doors which were installed after they moved in. The house was snug and warm, and it was completely their own. It provided his own family with a happy environment for the next 15 or so years, when it was sold and the family moved to Grenfell Avenue Extension, once again one street away from his mother and father’s house, as well as his brother Hubert’s home on O’Dea Place. This time he was happy to let his brother Hubert, who now owned a construction company, build these houses for the family.
During the early years of his marriage, through much hard work , he was able to earn enough money to buy things for his family that he never had such as new cars, and even one of the first televisions on his street, for his family. His children were always dressed in nice clothes and his wife did not have to makeover clothes or wear hand me downs that his sisters and brothers had had to wear. However, the most important thing he provided his family with was an abundance of love and care, just like he had received as a young child from his parents.
Basically, these were the processes involved in his growing up and becoming a man in a traditional Newfoundland society. However, he also recalls events that happened during his years in Safe Harbour that were part of the fabric of who they were. During his early years he recalls his brothers as being great prankster, a trait that they maintained all of their lives. They played hell on people in Safe Harbour who had occasion to visit their outhouses. The boys would cut off boughs and tickle the backsides of people as they went about their business; they once switched a man’s horse, which was quite docile, for another man’s horse that looked just like the first, but had a real mean streak. The second horse had a tendency to bite anyone who went near it. The poor old fellow could not understand what had come over his poor old docile horse, until a neighbour noticed a slight difference in the horse. The old man was known to have cursed and said that he would bet anything that it was Nelson Stokes’ boys who had pulled that prank. His brothers also let a goat into a friend’s house and this as you can imagine caused quite a racket. These pranks were considered to be part of sowing your oats, growing up and not considered malicious. If the young people of today did these things, they would be labelled juvenile delinquents, but in the small community of Safe Harbour Bonavista Bay, it was just considered adolescent fun.
He also recalled another important tradition growing up. At Christmastime, they would always go mummering for the full twelve days of Christmas ,and how much fun they had as they were welcomed into each and every home they visited, To this day he says that it was the best part of that season. Unfortunately , today this is almost a lost tradition, but they all looked forward to it and thoroughly enjoyed this great Newfoundland tradition.
Today, society has changed and the processes involved in becoming a man, or an adult for that matter, are also different. The good clean fun, the happy adventures of their youth, the fearless walks along the city streets at any time of the day or night, can no longer be enjoyed. A Sunday afternoon stroll which was considered a form of entertainment then, but, today young people would balk at such an idea. Even the fishery has changed beyond what my father remembers. Gone are the beautiful old schooners, often with their trademark patched sails, the general stores that provided supplies and the waiting for the men to arrive back home in the fall of the year from their summer jobs on the Labrador. Many people have resettled from the small communities where they grew up and moved to bigger more viable communities with less isolation. The constant threat of poverty, not having enough food on the table or enough wood in the woodpile have changed the fabric of the people of this island. The home that they built for the family that was in the middle of summer shacks quickly became a hub for other families, like theirs, who moved from the Bonavista Bay area, from which he came, once again making it feel more like home.
Dad remembers his childhood and adolescence as a time filled with happiness, love and plenty of hard work, especially for him the eldest male in the family. In many ways it was a better life that the life we have today, but it was definitely harder. The rewards were mostly intrinsic, as people took pride in their work and their achievements. According to my father ,life overall was solid, fairly predictable and overall not too bad.
His crowning achievement on his journey to becoming a man in a traditional Newfoundland family was his ability to provide a good home, filled with love, for his wife and four daughters, which he always said was his greatest accomplishment in life.