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Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Argentia Before the Americans -Walking in Grandad's "Backyard"

 So, I still have a couple of posts to write from the LAST time I was in Newfoundland which was about this time last year.  Cory and I are heading up there for a visit next month, so I figured it was time I got around to it.

Walking in Argentia

It's not like me to put off such a labor of love for so long, but these posts actually require real research involving books and not the internet.  At least I didn't have to head for the card catalog, right?  I know everyone here is probably old enough to remember what that was like!  I have a book for some of the information regarding the building of the base titled "Uprooted: The Argentia Story" by Eileen Houlihan and I am relying on some tidbits from family members to fill in some of the rest. 

Black Knapweed

Speaking of the olden days, my favorite part of our trip last year was all the time I had to explore Argentia and let my mind roam to what it must have been like before the Americans came.  So here's a little history lesson on the area for us all. (Any inaccuracies are my own!)

Like most of coastal Newfoundland the area started out as a fishing grounds in the early 1800's and gradually the fishermen stayed and built a community.  Argentia was actually called "Little Placentia" initially, but was renamed Argentia for a silver mine nearby.  Not much ever came from the mining effort, it was the cod fishing grounds that provided a living through the 1800's, with the fishermen trading their cod for other staples and supplies.  My great-grandfather was a fisherman originally from Iona (a tiny island to the north) but married Margaret Houlihan of Argentia and they settled there on her family's land.  He fished in Argentia but at times also went to Boston and fished there as well.

My grandfather Matthew probably at age 16 in 1941

The people of these small communities not only fished but built their own homes, cut their own hay, raised livestock and grew gardens.  Growing up my grandfather's family grew potatoes, turnip, cabbage and carrots which is still a staple of the Newfoundland diet today.  In addition to chickens, sheep and a cow their family at one time also had a black horse named Charlie, and having a horse was handy since it was so isolated that a horse and cart was the main mode of transportation.  My great grandfather took ill with tuberculosis at age 46 and passed away at the age of 48, leaving his wife with mouths she could not feed so some of the children were sent to live at orphanages in St. John's including my grandfather, Matthew.

For my great grandmother and other families times were lean during the Depression and with World War II looming the residents weren't surprised when their community was chosen as a U.S. Naval Base site for its protected harbor and large flat ground area perfect for an airplane runway.

Notice the airfield at top of peninsula, I assume this photo is from after the Americans started building the base.

My grandfather was living at the orphanage at the time of the arrival of the Americans and unfortunately I never thought to ask him before his death about our family connection to the events,  but I am lucky enough to have found an account in the book "Uprooted: The Argentia Story" from his sister, Rose, about how the events affected the family members living there at the time.  They packed all their possessions as the evacuation date approached, dismantled their beds and awaited the arrival of the moving truck.  However it did not arrive for two or three days so at night they had to unpack their bedding and sleep on the floor.  My Aunt Rose worked for the Avalon Telephone Company in Marquise and during the demolition of their deserted town would walk to their old home and eat her lunch there until construction efforts finally forced her to say good-bye to their home in the Traverse's Cove area of the Argentia Peninsula for good.

Aunt Rose at the switchboard

Before the war, Argentia and Marquise had populations of 477 and 283 residents, many of whom were given only a month notice to leave.  Approximately 200 properties in Argentia and Marquise were expropriated by the Americans, and the first eviction notices were delivered as early as December 1940.  The residents received between $3,000 and $7,000 in compensation depending on the value of their land.

The moose love it in Argentia, look at the size of those hoof marks!

It was an amount that many felt was too small to cover the emotional and financial burdens of moving.  Most of the blame was directed at the Commission of Government and not at the Americans.  A committee made two major requests of the Commission of Government: that residents who wished to remain together should be able to resettle as a community, and that the new community should be located close to Argentia and its many employment opportunities.  The Commission of Government acquiesced and in June chose the village of Freshwater, about a mile distant from Argentia, as an appropriate site for resettlement. Although most residents moved to Freshwater, some also settled in Placentia and neighbouring communities.

The old bunkers on the hills overlooking the harbor are covered in berries!

My grandfather ran away from the orphanage at age 15 and arrived "home" in time to move in to the newly built house in Freshwater.  Though he didn't spend many of his years in Argentia, he cherished it and my mother said he would walk the land and call it "my backyard".

My grandfather's family settled in Freshwater, and my grandmother's family and Wayne's family were affected by the hardship of resettlement also but it had nothing to do with the U.S. Naval Base and is a tale for another time.  More about Argentia still to come!


  1. Very interesting story. Sounds like the similarly expropriated Meaford Tank Range here.

  2. A labor of love... thank you for this glimpse into the past!
    Box Canyon