Edna Breen and her daughters share stories of growing up in an historic, and world-famous, section of Ferryland.
Story and photo by Dennis Flynn
The two-storey houses and vehicles look like the discarded toys of children in comparison to the enormous mountain of ice looming over on the narrow neck of land. It’s a scene so startling that it garnered international attention, and photographers from all over the world flocked to Ferryland, NL in April 2017, to see it through their own lenses. I’m told the iceberg picture even made CNN’s list of top news photos that year. I was among the many Newfoundlanders who made the pilgrimage for a picture and wondered, in particular, about who lived in the older, neatly kept, beige, biscuit-box style house in the foreground that anchored the shot. More than a year later, I am invited inside that very house by the owner.
On a cold weekend in December 2018, I’m enjoying a warm, friendly conversation over piping hot cups of tea with the charming Edna Breen, age 83, owner of the stalwart house and the last remaining full-time resident of the historic section of Ferryland harbour known as the Pool.
Her daughter, Tanya Murphy, shows me a beautiful painting she has done of the famous iceberg scene. She points to the dwelling we are sitting in and says with a smile, “In the spring of 1918, my great uncle, Dave Sullivan, and his wife, Mary Ignatius Barnable, built their house in the Pool, Ferryland. When his wife died, and finding it very lonely with no kids, he asked his nephew and his wife (my mother and father) to move in with him. That was 58 years ago. My parents raised seven kids here and in the 1935 census, the house was valued at $1,000. Today with the iceberg fame, it’s priceless.”
The Pool is an area of Ferryland that is almost completely surrounded by water, with very little natural protection from the wind, not even a tree, Tanya says. It is at the heart of where Lord Baltimore’s 1621 Colony of Avalon was founded. It certainly matches the description of his colony being a stone’s throw from water to water.
Tanya and her sister, Trina Power, describe it as an amazing place to grow up, with everything as their playground, including the beaches, meadows, boats and stages. They even had the Ferryland lighthouse tower to explore. Neighbours all watched out for each other in those days, and the entire Pool area was open and accessible to the 30-40 children who lived in the half dozen or so houses that once occupied what is now an archeological dig site.
Still, it takes a hardy breed of livyer to stay in the Pool in the winters. Trina says, “We used to get lots more snow and it would block the road to our house for days at a time, but now we don’t get enough down here to build a snowman.”
Tanya recalls that during blasts of high winds, they’d have to make their beds on the floor of the living room as a precaution since, she says with a laugh, “We all thought that the roof was sure to come off. The road to the Pool is on an isthmus and in stormy weather, there was sure to be a washout. I remember several times on my way to school, waiting for the waves to go out, and then running the living daylights across the isthmus before the next wave came in.” That makes rushing across a crosswalk in a big city to beat oncoming traffic seem positively passé by comparison.
Her mother Edna mentions that while the iceberg attracted tons of interest in 2017, she’s been seeing visitors from around the world since the 1960s. That’s when archaeologists from Memorial University first came out and dug test pits on the family lawn and found lots of artifacts related to the Colony of Avalon, including a large iron key.
In the 1990s, Edna herself made an historic discovery. While she was at the water’s edge watching divers (one of whom was her son) working on uncovering a shipwreck, she discovered a very old coin. Edna did the honorable thing and turned it over to archaeologists, who cleaned it up and identified it as an English coin dated c. 1700. The coin is now in the collection of the nearby Colony of Avalon museum.
Edna notes that her husband, who passed away in 2009, was always inviting tourists into the house, whether it was to take a shower or have Sunday dinner. He was a heavy equipment operator who also served as an informal lighthouse keeper in the 1970s and 1980s. That genuine hospitality continues in the Breen home. Just last September, a couple from Switzerland dropped by unannounced with a copy of the front page of their newspaper from 2017, with the house and the iceberg on it. Edna invited them in for tea. Before the couple left, they invited Edna and her family to stay with them if they ever wanted to see Switzerland.
One visitor that Edna did not invite inside was a polar bear that showed up at the Pool in March 1987. It arrived on the southward drifting pack ice and was wandering around outside Edna’s house. Not realizing how dangerous this animal was, about a half hour later, Edna and others were walking along the beach, watching the polar bear skip ice pans on its way out to sea. For days after, the Pool was filled with spectators eager to get a glimpse of the bear.
The likable Edna routinely gets mail from all over the world from tourists she’s met. One lady, an artist from Ontario, gave Edna a framed sketch of her grandmother’s house in nearby Aquaforte, the community where Edna grew up. Looking through cherished photo albums and a wall of mementoes, Edna pauses at her wedding photo taken in Aquaforte. She says, “You know I still have that outfit.”
Knowing the trim Edna is very active as a walker and in her church choir, and she danced the Lancers for years with a local traditional dance group, I gently tease her, “Can you still fit in your wedding outfit?”
Edna replies instantly with a wry grin, “Indeed I can.”
When the laughter subsides, Edna shows me an image of the former schoolhouse in Aquaforte. Edna’s mother died at a young age, so Edna helped raise her younger siblings and helped tend her father’s shop. Even with the grownup responsibilities, Edna has fond memories of her school days. “It is gone now, but served many purposes as a tiny school, and a small concert hall, and a place dances were held. We had great times there, and I remember the old pot-bellied stove and us having lunches around it during breaks, and the teacher mixing up the Coco Malt drink and giving it to us all. One of the other students was Georgie, and he was a relative of mine and quite a likeable character. Whenever Georgie decided we needed what he called a ‘holiday’ from school, he would sneak out and shove an old coat or a blanket or something in the funnels somewhere of the stove, just long enough to fill the place with backed-up wood smoke, and then haul it out before the teacher caught on what the problem was. Of course, you couldn’t stay in there then and teacher would have no choice but to shut it down for the afternoon. We got a good many ‘holidays’ that way,” Edna recalls.
So it went, trading tales and memories for a pleasant few hours with Edna and her daughters.
Should you be among the thousands of visitors who pass by Edna’s house in the summer on the Colony of Avalon walking tours, make time to stop and gaze out at the islands and the Pool. Take a rest or just grab a picture at the famous “Gossip Bench,” which Edna painted up and places out seasonally in front of her home for the tourists. There is also a “Liar’s Bench,” but she confides with a grin that she much prefers the gossips over the liars. Gossip is more about a little fun, no harm meant, and better stories, she says.
Stories are something in great supply in this little house in the Pool.