LUNENBURG: A Ship on the Shore
Here’s the yard that built the Bluenose, oxen hauling flake cod on a raffish waterfront painted as often as the Taj Mahal. Here are the fishermen descended from German turnip farmers who will slip into a wonderful dialect of their own, when their high-school daughters aren’t around
LUNENBURG, Nova Scotia, is the home port of a people who have taught themselves how to make a good trade with the sea. She is Canada’s fishing capital out there to the eastward. The home of the Bluenose, she is the richest per capita community in the country. Her name on the taffrails of her fine fleet has ranked for a hundred years with Gloucester and Boston in every Atlantic trading port and on every foggy fishing bank from Flemish Cap to Trinidad.
The best way to see Lunenburg all-of-a-piece is to come in by vessel. Here is the gaudiest water front north of San Juan, Puerto Rico, crowded with vitality and color and action. Ranging up the hill behind is the grey drab little sea town with sea boots home for supper in the vestibule.
In the beginning Lunenburg was a settlement of German and Huguenot French turnip farmers and
artisans and their families—1,453 souls in all— whom George the Second enticed out of Prussian Hanover in Germany and Montbéliard, France, in 1753. Their first feel of the sea was when their transport heaved in the North Sea swell, bound out from Amsterdam.
That sea change of the Lunenburg men from turnip farmers to offshore fishermen is surely one of the most remarkable metamorphoses of all time. It is so complete that living in Lunenburg one forgets about it and thinks of the Lunenburgers as having a sea heritage. Strangely, too, it is hard to read about. There is no hint in the early records that they were turning to the sea. It creeps into the archives as if it had happened unbeknownst. Probably it did. “Six schooners and sloops. Six fishing boats,” the census of 1767 lists along with 44 horses, 218 oxen and bulls, and 610 cows. That was the first mention I could find about Lunenburg going to sea.
She was at sea in much more than that the day I asked her to sit still for her portrait, a solid,
neat-as-a-pin, drab little Hausfrau of a town. She climbs her steep hillside with such abruptness that it is always a surprise to see her projected on a chart, stretched out without her corsets, her straight streets crossing at right angles, square as a checkerboard.
She does not look very German. Wooden houses. Dun yellow and grey paint. A German touch maybe in a small stout dwelling with a stubby corner turret fringed at the top with battlements like a Rhine castle. A subdued town that looks even in midsummer as if it loved February.
There is one oasis of warmth in the town. Inside its grey clapboards it imprisons some of the virility and color of the water front. It is St. John’s Anglican Church, the second oldest in Canada. Fishing skippers, owners of the fleet and the exporters fill its pews on Sunday.
The light in the place is rich through a solid row of stained-glass windows, most of them memorials to fishing skippers lost at sea. The wealth that came and is still coming from the sea belongs to St. John’s whenever it asks for it. It uses it to good purpose. There is no more quietly beautiful or dignified place of worship in America. Its records go back to a baptism June 13, 1753, six days after the founders of the town landed. A girl was born in a lean-to made of a blanket thrown over a bush the first night ashore.
There is a broad gap in the records. Someone tucked a handful of them in a cornerstone during alterations 100 years ago. The archivists of half of Canada are waiting for a sill or two in the church to rot enough to merit putting the lifting jacks to work to make repairs. Then they plan to whisk the missing records quickly out.
I walked up Lincoln Street with its hedgerow of parking meters. It is as close as Lunenburg comes to a main street. (The real main street of course is the compass bearing to the “Q” of Quero Bank.) The shops are solid. Lunenburg welcomes her steady flow of summer tourists with a workaday nod. There is no hot-dog trade. Smoked halibut flitch, probably the best in the western hemisphere, was a leader in the meat markets the week I was there.
I dropped in to see if Ray Silver, of Geo. Silver Co’s style emporium, had a DesBrisay history we could borrrow. (County Judge Mather Byles
DesBrisay published an excellent history of Lunenburg County in 1870.)
“Doc Zinck’s got one,” Ray said. “What’s up?”
I told him.
The ladies’ ready-to-wear department at that moment was clearing for lunch. The girls stopped in mid-flight and I faced a ring of accusing fingers.
“Don’t you dare make us talk funny,” they charged. “Don’t you dare. Dis and dat and dese and dose! We don’t talk that way any more and don't you say so.”
I had to settle on the spot for just an occasional “cornin’ wit’.” The Lunenburg speech is a lovely thing. The guttural that predominated in the early days and still can be heard in the old-timers in the outports has become a soft pleasantness. Lunenburg High School, which looms like a big rambling castle on a hilltop, is straightening out grammar. But pray heaven the day is far away when the ultimate perfection is reached and one no longer “Comes wit’ ” but just “accompanies” or the rum no longer is “half all” but is “half gone.” Language is a living, verdant thing and Lunenburg has a marvelous heritage of it.
“Don’t forget our new curling rink,” Silver called after me, “or our new yacht club out Princess Inlet. Lunenburg isn’t all wharves and vessels like you story writers make out.”
That afternoon there was a yoke of oxen headed for the same place I was: the water front. It was a touching link with the past. Lunenburg County, with its tough rocky soil and heavy winter snow, could not have been farmed without oxen.
The water front was set against an early winter ultramarine bay. The docks were crowded with the gleaming black hulls of the yellow-sparred vessels, sheer-lined in gold. There was another team of oxen unloading heliotrope-tinted fish, dry and hard as boards, which were being fisted up yaffle by yaffle into bright-red handcarts.
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named by the many artists who flock to the town in the summer. The ungainly, straight-walled buildings, perfect in their surroundings, have been painted as much as the Taj Mahal.
The air of the place was a spicy Byzantine you could taste on the tongue with a rich fume of smoked fillets wafting down from “Smith’s” smoking sheds to mix with the aroma of salt cod and the tarred reek of caulker’s oakum and the salt tang of the northern sea. It was caulking and rigging time in the fleet and the ring of the caulkers’ mauls was a merry chatter.
The wharves and the adjoining offices are Lunenburg’s bourse as well as its workshop. The great names in Canada’s fishery are proud on the sheds: Zwicker & Co., Adams & Knickle, Acadian Supply, Lunenburg Foundry, Rhuland Bros.
Zwicker & Co. was founded in 1787, the oldest firm in Canada to remain in a single family. Homer Zwicker is national vice-president of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce and the town is very proud of him.
Not All Beer and Skittles
“Smith’s” is what Lunenburg still calls the big sheds and wharves down at the north end of the harbor. Smiths have always run the business. Lunenburg Sea Products displaced Smith and Co. as the firm name and the town is still grim because it was changed again to National Sea Products when the company joined a big nation-wide combine. Lunenburg does not like to feel it is only a “part” of anything.
At the other end of the harbor is Rhuland Bros., the shipbuilders. It is a wooden yard still using broad-ax and adzmen. A whole big hillside sloping up from the building ways is strewn with a tawny drift of big ship timber. In the little office John Rhuland, a partner with his two brothers in the firm, waved at a typewritten list thumbtacked on the wall of the launchings of 220 Rhuland-built hulls. Dog-eared and grimy, it is a catalogue of dreams. All the fleet worth mentioning is there. All alone under the subhead “1921” the only hull built that year stands a great name. She was built alone. Life marked her off to stay that way forever Bluenose.
Back on the wharves watching the caulkers hunching along on their one legged stools as they drove long tresses of oakum into the deck seams of Ernie Moseman’s Marjorie-Dorothy was a coterie of captains. Ernie himself was there, cocky as a rooster. Billy Deal was there and Rowly Knickle and Moyle Crouse in a grey pin-stripe suit.
“Now Charlie,” Ernie said, “what can bring you down here this time snoopin’ around?”
I told him.
“Well,” said Ernie. “Life here ain’t all beer and skittles and Smiths and Zwickers. You better get in the preachers, Charlie. And we got some senators struttin’ around here now. There’s Duff and Kinley and there’s Henry Winters’ boy, Robert.”
“There’s a good boy,” Billy Deal said. “He’s in the Cabinet; Minister of Resources and Development. We’re proud of that boy.”
“Yes,” said Ernie, “but the rum’s no good any more. But it’s got so a man can get a good piece of fried halibut in town now. The cookin’s better. Bluenose Lodge and that Boscowan Inn place where they got carpets and
Hillside Hotel and old man Risser’s.”
“Risser can cook turnip,” Moyle Crouse said. “And that snowy weather meal—codfish and pork scraps and boiled potatoes.”
“You mustn’t say anything about the hospital,” Billy Deal said.
There was a pause here you could cut with a dull bait knife for I certainly should not say anything about the hospital. It is an ambitious project to give Lunenburg and its staff of excellent doctors, who have no hospital at all now, a modern plant with a crack operating room. Construction was well started when the money ran out. j Argument reached such a pass that a I referendum was held. It was voted down. But the gaunt, quarter-finished j building stands helpless in the rain, j howling accusation. Lunenburg’s tremendous civic pride is challenged by it and, ironically, its frugality as well for every sailor knows what a waste it is to let weather beat into an exposed structure.
Lunenburg feels terrible about the hospital. Eventually, if precedent is any guide, the hospital will be finished and probably on a more lavish scale ! than it was originally conceived.
“You should get Dutchy Himmelman in there,” Rowly Knickle said breaking the silence about the hospital. “There was a fella, now. He was part of Lunenburg.”
Dutchy was Albert Himmelman, a cordage salesman and a legend.
“Tell about the time the whole engine dropped out of his car,” Rowly Knickle said, “on the top of Bridgewater Hill. It fell right out on the road. That’s the kind of a car he drove. There were two husky young fellas coming along with a team of oxen. Dutchy got them to load the engine in their wagon and follow along.
“ ‘Now just give a little push,’ ; Dutchy said.
“He rolled down the hill and into ¡ Bridgewater garage just as nice.
“ ‘I think she needs a little oil,’ said Dutchy to the attendant.
“Now that fella when he lifted the hood ! His eyes got as big as portholes.”
Rowly punched Moyle Crouse gently with his fist, a shoving punch to keep himself from exploding alone. “That fella threw up his hands. No engine!
‘I think she needs a leetle oil.’ Oh, that Dutchy!”
“Steddy Berringer!” Moyle said. “The time when they were talking about planes.”
Steadman Berringer was Lunenburg’s famous butcher, the father of the famous Lunenburg “pudding” a cold, lard y sausage made of meat scraps, and cheap too. When someone in Steddy’s shop moaned about the rising price of butter and wondered what the poor people were going to put on their bread, Steddy would say “Let dem eat puddance.”
But the time about “planes” was a discourse on language. There was a salesman from a meat-packing house in ¡ Steddy’s place on Lincoln Street. He | and Steddy were agreeing that English i was a hard language to learn, a subject Steddy could talk on with considerable authority. A shipwright came into the shop with a big joiner plane under his arm.
“Now take what this gentleman has | here,” said the salesman. “That thing’s a plane. But the word means ! an ugly girl and a flat field too and then again it means—”
“Ya,” said Steddy, “and dere’s chill plains ”
Steddy was an avid Presbyterian,and when the United Church was formed he watched his church’s membership disappearing with sad wrath. The United preacher bragged about it, using a figure of speech Steddy well I
understood. The new church, he said, had the very tenderloin of the Presbyterians.
“Well,” said Steddy sadly, “I guess that leaves us the milk meat and the shin bone.”
The old and the new are in conflict in Lunenburg and to date it is a draw. The long-trawl method of catching fish dates back to the days of sail. The vessels nested from eight, to 12 two-man dories and launched them when they were over fish to cast out as much as two and a half miles of bated set line per dory. The splendid, stocky boot-stomping Lunenburg doryman was developed in the long trawl.
When power supplanted sail the style of fishing did not change. New vessels held closely to sailing hull lines, adding more beam and length to carry the increased weight of motor and fuel and give more fish-carrying capacity. Two thirds of the fleet today are these motorized dory vessels.
The remaining third is something different. They are beam trawlers, draggers. The dragger is a short, very heavy and powerful tug-boat type of hull with enough horsepower to drive a mine sweeper and dynamoed and electric motored and power-winched like a floating machine shop. She carries no dories. She catches her fish by dragging a great bag net then winches in and hoists aboard. She ships a small crew and they seldom leave the deck.
Lunenburg fought off the dragger for years.« She threatened unemployment, cost a king’s ransom and was a threat to the town’s economy and to the fleet. The fleet is owned all over town by syndicates of shareholders. The barber who cuts your hair and the butcher and baker as well as the banker are apt to own a piece of vessel. Many of the sizeable fortunes in town can be tagged with the name of the great vessels who paid for themselves in a voyage and then went on to dump dividends on the wharf year after year, sometimes as high as 50 and 60%. But the cost of a dragger is so great no homespun syndicate can afford her. To date only the big corporations have been willing to make the ante and then only when urged on by government subsidy.
The struggle is closed. It is dorymen and the long trawl vs. the machine and the dragged net. The machine will win in the end, precedent and logic and progress decree. But Lunenburg is only 50% sure of that. If a depression should come, or the price of fish tumble
who knows? The dory vessel may still be the answer.
Most of Lunenburg hopes she can survive. The dory is a sea perfection like a gull. God knows who invented her, but the sea and natural selection generation after generation perfected her. She reached her highest point in Lunenburg and when she does die she’ll die there.
1 was thinking about dories walking up Montague Street to see Douglas Adams, the mayor. Montague Street is the first step up from the water front. The big firms have offices there because it is a civilized street where a stenographer can come to work without running a gamut of water front wolf whistles and a car can drive up and park. But I had to trail the mayor down to the Adams & Knickle wharf before I found him.
The mayor looks like Edward when he was Prince of Wales. There is no reason why he shouldn’t. After all Edward descended from Hanoverians too.
“Don’t forget the Exhibition,” the mayor warned, “and the new jail. And, oh yes, we’ve got an Earl Bailly picture in the Chamber of Commerce
now. We had an Early Bailly Day last year.”
Bailly was more important than the Exhibition or the new jail. The Exhibition is the fisheries fair held every fall with the whole industry on display. And the new jail is positively deluxe, a penal palace that makes 30 days for vagrancy look, from without at least, like a privilege. But Bailly—
Lunenburg may never have a poet but she has an artist. He is in his 40’s now. When he was something less than 10, polio crippled him. He lives in a wheel chair, painting against a fixed easel with a brush held in his teeth. God permitted that they be excellent teeth set in a magnificent powerful head. No one has ever felt or painted the rugged Nova Scotia coast better than he. He has been doing it for years for tourist peanuts, but getting better every year.
His sunny studio was ablaze with the blues and greens and browns and greys of his and the Atlantic Ocean’s trade, caught on his canvas. There was a fine one on the easel, a headland bursting a seathe Atlantic Ocean itself, with all its power, hammering on the Nova Scotia shore.
The Bold Blazing Water Front
I never cease to marvel at Bailly. The seas he can only sit on the shore and watch and never really feel, the winds that can only whip at his cape, he knows better than those of us who go out into them.
“Oh, I’m going pretty good, Charlie,” he said. “Pretty good. You know how it is. Some days you can’t lay up a cent. But say, here’s something for you. A couple of good voices in town. A pair of young girls this time. Mrs. Berty Oxner’s daughter Diane. A nice soprano. And you know that big Lutheran preacher, Ball. The other one is his daughter Alice. A mezzo now but it will probably end up a nice bosomy contralto.”
We talked how Lunenburg had always been musical. Maybe the high time was when the Lunenburg Opera Company took the “Chimes of Normandy” to Halifax in 1919. All Halifax put on its formal togs and came out to have a good chuckle at a company of cod-fishing Dutchmen from down the cove presumptuous enough to think
they could put on an opera. They ended up standing on their seats and cheering.
Bailly called to his mother, Willietta, to ask her if she remembered that night. She did with great pleasure. She came into the studio bringing in a smell of the fresh bread we were having for supper.
“This pirate,” she said, calling Bailly by the name she has always had for him, “is too young to remember. But he’d have been among the > c ' ers. And remained to pray along wiih those Halifaxers.”
He grinned up at her. He would never have made it without her. It was she, looking down in despair at the little twisted baby frame fate had left her, who first shoved a pencil into his mouth and screamed, “Draw!”
There was a cloud-barred moon over the post office when I headed back for Bluenose Lodge and bed. But I forgot about bed and ended up a mile away on Kaulback Point for a sight of the town in the moonlight. You can see her all-of-a-piece from the high ground there as well as from a vessel’s deck.
And she is all-of-a-piece. Bailly and I had been talking about that and we both felt the same way. He paints her and I write her as if she was split in two: the drab little town where nothing ever happens, the bold blazing water front teeming with life. But they are not two things. They are complements of each other, two parts of the same thing—a sea port.
SheLike a Ship
Lunenburg was built and still lives in the mood of sail. Then the fishery was not only more dangerous than it is now but it carried practically every man in town away and kept him at sea from March until late fall and sometimes early winter with voyages to the West Indies. The men lived a life of color and adventure. The women, until the voyaging was done, a drab life of fear and waiting. The little grey town lived her life of fear and waiting too. That is why she is grey.
But along about Christmas, Lunenburg changes. The waterfront is the drab place then with the oxen in blanket and the vessels cold and shivery and the wharves ankle deep in salt slush. But the snow mantles the town. She is warm lights at night shining out of snug warm dwellings. Her winter air is merry and happy with frost on the shop windows and the women rosycheeked and hurrying to get home and start a good supper for hungry men.
“Do you,” asked Bailly, “Call every town ‘she’?”
“No,” I said, “I’m not conscious of it.”
“You frequently call Lunenburg that. ‘She,’ like a ship, eh?”
“She” like a ship indeed. A well docked one, safe home after a rich voyage. ★