A Place to Call Home

  • Downhome Magazine
  • Posted: Nov 20, 2019 10:36 AM

What stories of resettlement taught me about belonging

By Sheri Strickland Doyle

Fresh sawdust was still blowing across the floor of their new bungalow when Ruth Priddle and her children stepped off a schooner in Milltown, Bay d’Espoir on June 16, 1969. It was just after noon. With a bit of money from the government resettlement program, the family left the now-abandoned fishing settlement of Pushthrough in Hermitage Bay to start a new life in a new town.

Mrs. Priddle’s husband and son had already left Pushthrough in the spring to start building the new home in Milltown. Day by day, the bungalow took shape across the dirt road from the saltbox home my father grew up in with his 12 siblings.

The new house was painted dory buff - a common yellow paint used for fishing boats. In the small, dory buff house Mrs. Priddle, my godmother, raised her own children and formed a bond with my grandparents, her neighbours, Amelia and Stan Strickland.

My bond with Mrs. Priddle also grew over the years. I made it a point to visit my godmother on many summer trips to the South Coast, whether I was living in Labrador, New Brunswick, Toronto or Alberta. Visits with Mrs. Priddle are still a fascinating story time, topped off with hot cups of Tetley and trays of peanut butter balls. At 92, she has left the bungalow and now lives independently at the local seniors complex. When I bought her bungalow as a summer home for my family a few years back, our conversations quickly drifted to the home’s past and stories of resettlement.

Pushthrough of the past

Young Eastern Canadians like me know a bit about relocating. Leaving it all behind and moving west for work and new opportunity has been a way of life for a lot of us.

The opportunity to own the Priddle home is like owning a piece of history. Every Newfoundland home tells a story, and if the wooden walls of an island bungalow or saltbox could talk, they would tell stories of heartbreak, resettlement and family. Music and friends. Saltwater joys. 

The walls of this house were held together by handcut wooden beams brought by boat to Milltown from the original Priddle home on the rocky shores of Pushthrough, about a 30-kilometre boat ride away.

In the 1960s, the only way to get to Pushthrough was by boat. There were no roads, no modern electricity networks and no flush toilets or running water. Water for drinking, boiling and washing was hauled from a nearby well in buckets and carried more than a kilometre home. Groceries, mail, tools, clothing and other supplies were delivered by coastal boat a couple of times a month, if the weather allowed for safe passage. A doctor came to Pushthrough monthly on a boat from the nearby community of Hermitage. 

Everything was done by hand. Mrs. Priddle would scrub clothes and diapers on washboards, and pots of soup and porridge were stirred on top of the woodstove - the only source of household heat. Homes were lit by kerosene lamps at night. Household linens were sewn and embroidered into intricate designs from flour sacks. In the winter, socks, mittens and petticoats were sewn and knitted by the fire.

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Pushthrough in 1960. Conrad Hiscock Photo.

Mrs. Priddle would tuck heated bricks into her children’s beds in the absence of sufficient woodstove heat. The summers were spent growing vegetables and catching fish in preparation for the harsh winters. It all sounds like the makings of a Victorian novel, but this was home life in 1960s outport Newfoundland.

Resettling to Milltown brought the promise of running water and more modern amenities. The Newfoundland government’s resettlement programs in the 1950s to 1970s saw thousands of Newfoundlanders relocated from their family homes to more populated and easier-to-access areas, sold on the intention of better services for the population. 

Some people from Pushthrough relocated to Bay d’Espoir, an attractive area for work with recent hydroelectric projects and forestry jobs. Others relocated to Hermitage, St. Albans, Gaultois, Burgeo and other nearby communities.

While the promise of running water, roads, electricity and life-saving medical services was an obvious advantage to resettling to a new area, the rich traditions, relationships and homes of these close-knit communities soon vanished at the hands of resettlement.

Luckily, my visits with Mrs. Priddle were proof that the memories and oral traditions of these places were very much alive through storytelling. Questions about black-and-white photos of forgotten places turned into conversations about musical nights, fishing trips, community soup suppers and holiday traditions. Memories that are shared can last forever.

My godmother’s only regret living in Pushthrough was the lack of medical services. She lost two children on the settlement. One baby died of SIDS at Christmastime at three months of age; another passed at seven months old from measles, along with several other children in Pushthrough before treatment could arrive on a coastal boat.

Coming to Milltown, the Priddles left behind the graves of their lost children. They also said goodbye to neighbours, friends and the home they knew. The last Pushthrough family was resettled 50 years ago. The community now sits alone on its rocky home, the cemetery a remaining marker of a community long gone.

The move to Milltown

With hard work, the single-level house in Milltown would grow into a new, welcoming Newfoundland home. The family got to work sowing their gardens, and the hill behind the new house became an impressive potato garden with onion, carrot and beet seedlings. The rich soil in Milltown was a welcome addition to the blossoming property, a contrast to the rocky soil in Pushthrough. 

Water was soon piped into the home from the local Strickland Mill. Hens were heard clucking in the yard and fresh eggs kept coming into the kitchen. The family soon enjoyed their first meal in the home - a fresh chicken cooked in their new wood oven. The children ate their first ice cream cones thanks to stores now within walking distance.  

The crawl space under the home served as a root cellar to store potatoes and goods over the winter months, cozied up next to the occasional batch of fresh home-brewed beer.

Generations later, the home is a place to make new memories. The flooring and curtains are new, and while the walls are painted a fresh coat of smoky blue, they are still held together by the thick, resettled wood from Pushthrough. Although we have moved many times, it feels like a second home to me, my husband and daughter.

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The author, Sheri Doyle, with her daughter Maeve and Mrs. Priddle

As we work to clear brush in parts of the old garden, the berries, crab apples and fresh plums are ripe for the picking to make preserves or snack on. While they may not be stored in a cellar anymore, I’m sure they taste as sweet as they always have.

Visits to the house are all about exploring. Like Mrs. Priddle’s children, my baby Maeve also enjoyed her first ice cream cone in Bay d’Espoir, this time at the local Lee’s Convenience. Maeve was also excited to see a hen pecking around a neighbouring garden, down the same dirt road our families have walked on for generations.

Whether we are boiling a cup of tea for neighbours or hosting a BBQ for the Stricklands in August, the door is always open. The home will continue to be a place of love and belonging, as it was years ago when the Priddle family resettled here.

They say home is where the heart is. Mrs. Priddle and her little house taught me that your home is what you make it.