Bringing the World to Gaultois

  • Downhome Magazine
  • Posted: Aug 14, 2016 12:00 AM
Instead of roads, residents of Gaultois get around on paths and boardwalks. (Courtesy Celes Davar)

There is no such thing as car trouble in Gaultois. No waiting in line for fast food. No rush-hour traffic jams.

The sole community on Long Island off the south coast of Newfoundland, reachable only by ferry, Gaultois (pop. 156) is one of very few communities in Newfoundland and Labrador that remains locked in a simpler time. Instead of roads there are boardwalks; instead of Happy Meals there are home-cooked meals. And though some may consider it old-fashioned, many others are endeared to this last vestige of old-world charm in a society otherwise moving at breakneck speed. Jane Pitfield falls into the latter category. The former Toronto city councillor first arrived in Gaultois (pronounced Galtas) in 2008 on a whim. 

“I purchased a book which was written by Farley Mowat, it was called Bay of Spirits. It was about the trip that he took in the 1950s on an old sailboat down in the area of the Coast of Bays,” says Jane. “But what I enjoyed most were his stories about a town called Gaultois.”

When a preliminary Internet search for the town turned up a real estate ad, she decided she had to see the property - and the place - for herself. After a flight and a six-hour drive she was in Hermitage, and a $1.40 ferry ride from her destination. During the 20-minute crossing, as whales breached and endless fiords appeared in the distance, Jane was already becoming enamoured. 

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An overview of Gaultois (Courtesy Celes Davar)

She wound up spending the night in the empty house she’d come to view - a large, turquoise Victorian home once owned by a sea captain. She met the neighbours, she saw the sights, and she was sold.

“I decided that even if I could only get to Gaultois once a year it would be worth the purchase, because I discovered a paradise,” says Jane. She purchased the property on the spot. Since then, she’s been back 67 times.

Rural Recharge
Jane’s initial trip came at a pivotal time for Gaultois, on the eve of the closure of the town’s fish plant the following year. During that visit, a chance meeting with the mayor of Gaultois turned into a conversation about the town’s tourism prospects.

“He said, ‘Do you think you could help us with tourism?’” recalls Jane. “That was in June of 2008. By August I returned with the furniture to fill the house and I presented a plan in September to the town, which was ‘How to Bring the World to Gaultois.’” And that’s been her mission ever since.

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Gaultois (Courtesy Jane Pitfield)

With her love of rural Canada and a penchant for heritage restoration, the urbanite wasted no time putting her small-town plan into action.

“I never wanted to come with Toronto ideas. I’ve travelled the world, I’ve seen what I think is working in other places. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel, you can just adapt,” says Jane, explaining that fostering the unique character of rural places, like Gaultois, is the key to luring people to them. 

“Rural tourism is on the increase and urban tourism is on the decrease because you’ve seen one city, you’ve seen them all - but go to a place like Gaultois, it is such a larger than life experience,” says Jane. “There are very few places like this left on earth.”

Her first move was re-opening a six-room inn that had been closed for several years. She purchased the building in 2010 and opened the Gaultois Inn the following year after completing renovations. Next came the creation of the Gaultois Tourism Association (GTA) - an organization that has since secured nearly $500,000 in grants for revitalization projects and providing training in frontline tourism and heritage carpentry for residents. Those skills have since been put to use on a multitude of projects, the first of which was the restoration of the town’s historic Customs House, which has been transformed into vacation accommodations. 

“There were, I think, eight individuals who worked on this house and many of them had no previous carpentry experience,” says Jane. “They learned so much that two women in particular have gone on to do lots of renovation work - they can drywall, they can do everything.”

Locals also set to work building a small structure in a nearby resettled community. Operating as a tearoom during Gaultois’ Come Home Year (held in 2013), it now serves as a point of interest for hikers, who may drop in to peruse old photos of the former settlement. Speaking of hiking, since the formation of the GTA (of which Jane is president), five hiking trails have been developed. And another historic structure, the 1925 Garland Store - which Jane herself purchased - has been restored. The last remaining store of a chain owned by the Garlands, once influential merchants in the area, it is now the home of the annual Gaultois Music Festival (first held in 2013).

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The Thomas Garland store is one historic structure in Gaultois that has gotten a makeover in recent years. (Images courtesy Jane Pitfield)

But Jane says one of the most exciting projects is still on the horizon. In 2013, the Heritage Foundation of Newfoundland and Labrador designated the Big Fish Store - a bright red, two-storey building located right on Gaultois Harbour - a registered heritage structure. Constructed in the 1800s, it is likely the last remaining original structure built by the Newman and Company firm on Newfoundland’s south coast. 

Jane says the GTA has its sights set on one day transforming the historic space into a theatre - yet another destination they believe will help bring the world to their doorstep.

Looking Forward
Since it opened five years ago, the Gaultois Inn has hosted tourists from around the world, says Jane. And she says many Newfoundlanders and Labradorians are visiting, too, since most have never made the journey to the remote region.

“Everybody who comes says it was well worth the effort and everybody who comes says they love it and they’ll be back - and most people who come say that they’d like to buy a place there,” says Jane. “Two ladies came from Australia and stayed in the Gaultois Inn for two nights and they just couldn’t tear themselves away. They stayed for another two nights - and before they left they bought a house.” 

That’s the sort of thing Jane hopes will continue happening, because it all helps shore up the future of the remote community.

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Jane Pitfield in Gaultois, a town she refers to as the "jewel the Newfoundland." (Courtesy Nettie Hulme & Fran Cairns)

Gaultois was once one of several communities on Long Island; by 1970, it was the only stronghold that had resisted resettlement. Jane hopes that a reinvigorated tourism industry, combined with continued aquaculture employment, will allow residents to continue resisting offers to leave their home behind.

“One of the reasons that I think I’m there is so that resettlement never happens,” says Jane. “If you move everyone to the cities, to St. John’s, Newfoundland will lose something very precious.” 

Jane says that if the residents of Gaultois have learned one thing about her in the last eight years, it’s that she’s not there to make money.  

“It is something amazing for me to be able to come to a community that’s had its glory day and it’s hit bottom, but there is still so much potential - and that’s all I see, I can only see the potential,” says Jane, who is also currently spearheading a revitalization in the small town of Fort Coulonge, Quebec. “I find it exciting to be able to bring hope back to a community. Perhaps it’s a bit unusual, but I wake up everyday with a strong feeling of purpose, and that’s a lucky thing.” By Ashley Miller