The American Impact

In the middle of the 20th century, Newfoundland was a backwards place. Europeans had begun settling there in the beginning of the 16th century, and generation after generation of their descendents hadn’t made too many changes.

Cod was the key to survival, and Newfoundlanders fished the Grand Banks, drying their salted catch on wooden flakes and packing it in barrels. The advent of refrigeration was bringing competition to the fishing grounds and centralizing the processing of the cod, but there was still plenty of fish out there.

There were no roads as we know them; people and goods moved by boat. Inland were only a few mining operations and some lumber camps that cut the small pine trees for pulp. No farming, either, unless you count kitchen gardens of cabbage, carrots, and that Newfoundland staple, the turnip. Scurvy was common.

One thing was uncommon, and that was cash. At the market, the day’s catch was tallied and exchanged for sugar, flour, cotton, tobacco. Sometimes the wives would buy on credit — a friend in Nova Scotia described the way they do this, even today. The minute the man slips his lines, his wife is headed into the local grocery store. Woe to the fellow who has a bad day fishing!

Into this pastoral picture came the U.S. government. At the time, Newfoundland was not even part of Canada; it was still a British colony. It was also the perfect stepping stone to Europe, where World War II was raging. Negotiations were quickly completed for 99-year leases on three pieces of land to be used as military bases. When the Americans arrived, they were in a tearing hurry to build barracks, airfields, and hangars. Locals, used to a slower pace, joked, “What’s their hurry? They’ve got 99 years!”

The expropriation of the land was a sad ordeal for the Newfoundlanders, who had no idea what hit them. Communities were broken up and people were given menial sums for their holdings. The amounts were so small that relocating was difficult, especially for older people who were just barely scratching out a living on the “Rock” anyway. But there was a positive side to it: The Americans brought a huge influx of money to the region, and young men and women flocked to the bases for jobs.

It would change a lot of lives and split up families. At a restaurant in Trepassey, we met Mary, a widow from New York traveling with her son and his wife. Their clothes and accents seemed very American. But Mary was born and raised on the eastern shore of Newfoundland’s Avalon peninsula, part of a large family. In the mid-50’s, she and two of her siblings had the chance to work on the Navy base. That’s where she met her husband, an American serviceman. She’s been back a few times, but it’s been over 18 years since her last visit. Newfoundland is not her home any more.

It’s a common story, and there are thousands of women like her. They and their husbands are returning to Newfoundland now, as tourists in their retirement years. On the ferry from Nova Scotia, we met a couple of fellows who were stationed on the base in the 1940’s. Their group numbered over 20, all retired military men. For many, it was their first visit since they were stationed in Newfoundland over 50 years ago.

Down the road, in Fermeuse, we stopped at a medium-sized grocery with attached restaurant and gas station. I stuck my head in the office. “Are you Jerome? Your sister, Mary, said to stop in and say hello.”

The elderly man at the desk looked surprised. “Oh, do you know my sister from the States?”

“No,” I replied, “we just met her two days ago, at the restaurant in Trepassey!”

Unlike his sisters, Jerome never worked on the base and never left home. His Newfoundland accent is thick, full of “dis” and “dat” and extra s’s on the ends of verbs. He invited us in for a cup of coffee, and we sat in the restaurant (closed for the season) overlooking the harbor.

The store, which Jerome owns with his son, looks to be a profitable operation now. But he admits that the 90’s were “a bad time.” In 1992, the Canadian government closed down the cod fishery, leaving many fishermen without a livelihood. Jerome seemed more sad than bitter. “You can’t even go pleasure fishing now. If I wants a piece of cod, I have to buy it.” I tried to imagine the impact of this for people who ate fish at almost every meal. “Everybody eats chicken now, instead of fish,” he said.

Two years after this fatal blow to the codfishing industry, the Americans left. There were many years to go on those 99-year leases, but nobody needed a stepping-stone to Europe any more. They closed the three bases, leaving acres of abandoned buildings and crumbling concrete runways. One portion of Stephenville looked like a ghost town, every pane of glass broken, weeds growing through cracks in the pavement, graffiti unchecked.

Newfoundlanders are unhappy about the closure of the codfishing industry, but we didn’t hear any negative comments about the Americans. As a matter of fact, we talked with a couple of people who think Confederation with Canada in 1949 was a mistake. “We shouldn’t have gone with Canada,” several of them told me, “We should have gone with the Americans.”

What a funny thought: Newfoundland as the 51st state? I guess in this day and age, it’s nice to know somebody still likes us.