HAWKE’S BAY, NL – Sam Hoddinott still recalls the winters and Christmases of his childhood, a way of living much different than the Newfoundland of today.
Hoddinott spent his early years living in Brig Bay, Daniel’s Harbour and Spirity Cove.
When he was a boy in the 1930s, the ways and techniques used to keep warm during the cold and stormy winters on the Northern Peninsula were often limited.
“It seems it was the coldest winters then, nearly froze the earth to death,” Hoddinott said. “In the morning we’d check on the horse and she’d be bleeding through her nose it was that cold.”
Like other homes of that period, the Hoddinott household was built of lumber logs. With a wood stove that was hardly useful for heating the home, building paper was pasted along the walls with flour to insulate and stop the wind from getting in.
But only so much could be done to protect against the late-evening and early-morning freeze.
“The old stoves we had then were good for nothing. You’d get up in the morning and the whole bed pan was froze solid,” said Hoddinott. “If you had a bucket of water left out overnight, in the morning you would have to get a hammer or axe to beat at it.”
To stay warm overnight, Hoddinott says his mother would sometimes heat up a rock by the wood stove and place it on the bed he and his siblings were to sleep in. The heated rock could provide some warmth and comfort during these chilly evenings.
“When you look at how we live today, it’s pretty hard to believe we went through it all,” Hoddinott said.
Throughout the island, square dances were a popular event as the Christmas season approached. Growing up in Brig Bay, square dances were never accompanied by guitars, fiddles, accordions or even spoons. Hoddinott says the music was provided solely by voice.
“It was all what they called ‘chin music,’” he said. “A fellow would go ‘diddle-do’ and so on and the people would dance along to it.”
There were no microphones in those days, so it took a particularly talented singer to belt out his voice and have it resonate through the room and get the people swaying.
“The guy who was the singer at that time was from Bird Cove,” Hoddinott recalled. “He used to go around and sing at the different communities so they had something to dance to.”
At age 11, Hoddinott moved to Daniel’s Harbour where the same Christmas-time square dances took place – but having a violin player in the community brought a whole new element to the dance.
Hoddinott says there would also be a Christmas dinner held at the local school with soup, sandwiches and other supper items.
When Christmas Eve came, Hoddinott and his siblings would hang up their stockings before bed.
As the parents retired the children to bed, Hoddinott says he would sometimes hear a knock at the door. Knowing it was Santa Claus, he would shut his eyes and force himself to sleep.
When they awoke the next day, the stockings were filled with things like candy and apples.
Growing up, Hoddinott and his father would be hard at work well into the fall as winter approached. They cut down logs, and would haul them by sleigh to the seashore to saw them during the early snowfalls.
The sleighs were first pulled by a team of dogs, until Hoddinott’s family had saved enough for a pony.
“Dad used to cut the logs and I would roll them off a landing onto our sleigh,” Hoddinott said. “I was working in the woods two years before I could carry a log on my shoulder. When I brought down that first piece, I thought I was a man.”
The Hoddinotts would sell this lumber to merchants in hopes of having enough money to last them through the harsh winters.
But in those pre-Confederation days, merchants often took advantage of these workers. Money was short, and poverty was high.
“There wasn’t much money then,” Hoddinott said. “One old guy told me his mom wrote a letter around Christmas to send to his sister in the United States, and it cost three cents postage to send the letter. She had to wait until her husband started fishing in May to have the money to post that letter – that’s the way it was then.”
As the winter grew closer, each family stored food in root cellars. They were often filled with potato, turnip and cabbage, first grown and then bottled and preserved.
Drinking water was often collected with make-shift wells, made by digging out holes along banks.
“Sometimes the horse would come up to the well and have a drink. Then the horse would turn around and [defecate] in the well,” Hoddinott said with a laugh. “If you wanted a drink then, you’d have to get the shovel and shovel that out and wait for the water to clear up.”
When Confederation came, so too came running water and better standards of benefits and employment, such as sawmills.
If a thaw came during the winter, Hoddinott says he and his father would travel off to the sawmill in Hawke’s Bay to do a few weeks work before the cold returned. It offered a steadier stream of income and ease on the community.
Hoddinott was 17 at the time of the vote for Confederation with Canada. He still recalls fondly the overall improvements in life he saw result from it.
“I always felt strongly for Confederation,” said Hoddinott. “I was too young to vote at the time, but I insisted that dad voted that way.”
The Northern Pen’s recurring feature looks at the lives of seniors along the Northern Peninsula and southern Labrador. If you know a local senior with an interesting story to tell, email or call the Northern Pen.