ST. ANTHONY, N.L. – Francis Patey can still recall catching tomcods as a boy down on the E. Strangemore Ltd. wharf.
Those memories are very dear to him and it’s clear a great deal of affection went into creating his latest project – a model of the wharf.
The now 82-year-old St. Anthony man recently put the finishing touches on the model, depicting life on the wharf as he remembers it some 70 years ago.
Patey has personal memories of that time.
“I used to go down there catching tomcods when I was 10-years-old,” he recalled. “And when I got old enough, probably 14 or 15, he (Strangemore) gave me a job packing fish in the stores, or down the hole in that schooner.”
He pointed to one of the boats on the table, the Hazel P. Blackwood.
“That was a very famous schooner too,” he said.
E. Strangemore Ltd. was operated by Elihu Strangemore in St. Anthony harbour. He was one of three local fishing merchants operating in St. Anthony during the period prior to Newfoundland joining Confederation.
Patey started work on the model after completing a similar reconstruction of the A.H. Murray and Company Ltd. wharf, another merchant operation.
That model was featured in the Northern Pen this past February.
Like the other model, this one includes, along with the wharf, all the buildings, vessels and people that populated the docks during that period.
Populating the background, along a backboard, are the houses in town.
Behind the wharf, on the far end, surrounded by artificial trees and grass, are the houses of Elihu Strangemore and his daughter, Lillian, who Patey says was the financial brains behind the operation.
Beside the wharf, some men are bringing in fish while, on the wharf, there’s a man examining each fish and determining if it’s good for market.
This was the job of Patey’s father, Noah Patey.
Behind him, is a set of scales to weigh the fish.
Patey says the most difficult part of the project was constructing the people.
While everything else is made of wood, he decided it would be easier to make them out of cork.
“Job to make them out of wood because they split,” he said. “It’s all cork, it don’t split. My neighbour next door, he gave me the cork.”
Still, he says, it was difficult.
“You’d get one done and then his head is too big,” he said. “You can’t have a great big head and a little small body and all that.”
Patey plans on building one more wharf model, next time of the merchants Pomeroy and Penney. But he says he’ll take a break before starting it.
The Saga of the Fish Merchants
By Francis Patey
Born in Belvy Bay, probably Ireland Bight, Elihu Strangemore was not only a great fish merchant, but above all a great human being. They say that after he passed on, he was owed more than he had, he was that type of person. If one was in want but couldn’t afford to get, he saw to it that you got nonetheless.
I recall when our family moved into a new home in the 1940s, that same night we had a visit from Mr. Strangemore. He asked my mother why she didn’t have any colour covering (canvas) on her kitchen floor. Her reply: “I can’t afford it sir.” His reply? “Tomorrow morning have two of your boys measure the kitchen floor, then come down to see me.”
The boys did as instructed and when they came back, they had enough canvas to cover mom’s kitchen floor. This was not an isolated incident, but typical of Elihu Strangemore, one of the greatest salt fish merchants in all of Newfoundland and Labrador.
At the beginning of the 20th century, it was typical that most of the larger rural communities on the Great Northern Peninsula had at least one fish merchant. These were businessmen who bought salted, dried cod fish from the inshore fishermen and shipped it to St. John’s.
Not only were these merchants involved in purchasing dried cod, they also operated shops where the people could go to purchase what they needed for their survival, all the way from a grapnel to a pound of sugar or a pack of butter. A lot of good things were then sold loose in bulk, such as tea, sugar, rice, cheese and much more including molasses, kerosene oil and gasoline by the gallon.
The merchants not only helped the people survive, but helped give the community an identity.
Strangemore was good for buying fish and selling necessities, but he also created jobs when jobs were oh-so scarce during the winter months. Some people found jobs as clerks in the store, but when spring came, E. Strangemore Ltd. became a beehive of activity preparing for the busy salt fish season.
Maintenance on the premises took time and workers. Also, after six months without any supplies coming in, a lot of food supplies were beginning to become exhausted and the schooners returned with replenishments. There were also many things to ship back to St. John’s, such as rendered cod liver oil and empty coke drink boxes. These transactions were carried out by some well-known freighting schooners and their captains, who along with their crews also became very much a part of the community during fishing season.
Strangemore had competition in St. Anthony. There was W.G. Moores Ltd. which later was sold and became Pomeroy and Penney. Also, A.H. Murray Ltd. which bought most of their cod green, still under salt, and most of which they bought from the Labrador fishing schooners. The Murrays bought the fish green and cured it themselves either in a mechanical dryer or by nature, sun-dried on the flakes.
In August, when the fishermen got sufficient salt fish dried, they would start shipping to the fish merchant, whether it be Strangemore or another. Shipping fish is time-consuming and hard work. To start this operation the government appointed inspectors or what is called in the fishing industry “cullers.”
My father, Noah Patey, was a culler for 40 years, first with W.G. Moores, then with Pomeroy and Penney. Every day, cod fish was passed over the culling board, singly, and thrown out in different piles, according to quality.
After two or three weeks with the fishermen bringing in fish, the merchants’ stores began to get full, so it was time to call on one of the schooners to come and take a load to St. John’s, something which would take three or four times before shipping had to be closed down for the winter.
Some of the fish merchants operated as long as 50 years, some even more, but there came a time, around when Newfoundland and Labrador became a part of Canada, things began to change in the cod fishery in rural Newfoundland and Labrador.
With refrigeration, a new way in marketing cod began to take place. The new method of preservation was known as “quick freeze.” Companies such as the Job Brothers and Fishery Products bought cod from the fisherman “fresh from the knife,” and delivered it to the market in fresh frozen state.
They out-marketed the salt cod dried on the flake in the natural sun and as the years passed, the famous salt fish merchants simply dwindled away.