Nfld. & Labrador

Dive into a musical ode to a long-lost outport Newfoundland experience: The general store

Wayne Chaulk's song Baxter's Store describes a place and time deep in the heart of anyone who grew up in outport Newfoundland.

Wayne Chaulk captures the memories of Bonavista Bay in song

Musician and songwriter Wayne Chaulk stands at the site of the long-gone Baxter's General Store. (Todd O'Brien/CBC)

Despite being a touring musician, Wayne Chaulk doesn't stray too far, or for too long, from his hometown of Charlottetown, Bonavista Bay.

While he has criss-crossed the country many times as part of the trio Buddy Wasisname and the Other Fellers, he balances the hectic pace of the road and stage with the peace and calm of living around the bay.

There, Chaulk writes intimately about what the surroundings he knows best, in tunes of outport Newfoundland life, be it Jenny and George's wedding up the cove or playing as kids at Dogberry Pond.     

Baxter's General Store is one of those songs.

The song, which appears on the Buddy Wasisname and the Other Fellers 2005 album The Shed, rings familiar with anyone who grew up in rural Newfoundland decades ago, and Chaulk's Charlottetown of 1949 was a far more isolated place than anything in existence today.

"My mother was living here, got pregnant, and back then to have a baby you went to Come By Chance. That's an hour by motorboat, and then you take the train, and probably another hour, and there it is," he said.

Charlottetown of decades ago was a vastly different place from the one of today, and Chaulk captures it in song. (Encyclopedia of Newfoundland and Labrador)

The man behind the store, and song

Chaulk delves deep into memory in his song, drawing on boyhood realities, such as what to do with his allowance of 10 cents a week.

"The night before you'd be lying there — how am I going to spend it? Will it be a Union Square, will it be an Orange Crush, will it be chips, will it be a slice of bologna and a piece of cheese?" Chaulk said, with several of those treats showing up in his song. 

The general store sold, as the song goes, a variety of things of use in any outport:

There were gingersnaps and bicycle pumps and old brown bags of nails/ Oil skin pants and Union squares and white enamelled pails/ Lunch box, piss pots, beach rocks, matchbox scattered all about/ Tobacco plugs and cigarettes and a cat that wouldn't go out...

The song's namesake, Baxter Haley, lived with his wife Jenny and several cats, and they had no children, Chaulk said.

"He was a short man, but huge in terms of the size of his arms and so on and so forth. He was a really strong man, spoke very little, very taciturn," Chaulk said.

"He wasn't a man of words at all, but a kind, quiet gentleman who ran this store. A character."

Clayton's Beach, where the Haley family operated a store, formed part of the inspiration for the song Baxter's Store. (Todd O'Brien/CBC)

Chaulk's song is a compilation of memories of two stores Baxter was involved with.

One on Clayton's Beach Haley ran with his brothers, Chaulk said; another on the side of the road up from the ocean that he ran with his wife. Customers to either came up against an unusual challenge.

"Nothing was priced," said Chaulk.

"Now that's interesting, because I don't think he could read and write, but he had an inherent business sense about him. If you went in the store and asked him for the price of an item he would always turn around, look down the bay toward Platter's Island. He'd look out, take of his cap, scratch his bald head a little bit and just be pensive for a minute or two and then he'd turn toward you and say, '$1.59.'"

Haley's family operated a sawmill. He'd collect end bits of board, two- or three-inch pieces of wood they called "nugs" and bring them back to his store and use them as an accounts payable system that doubled as a heat source.

Baxter would "line them up on the shelf up above, and if you came in and wanted to charge something, what Baxter would do was reach up and take a nug, write your name and the amount and put it up in another little shelf section. When you came back days and weeks later to pay for it, you'd pay him and he'd reach up and take the nug and throw it in the stove," Chaulk said.

This is Charlottetown, a place often drawn on by Chaulk in his music, and his home base. (Todd O'Brien/CBC)

Costco inspiration

Chaulk's inspiration for the song came when he and Kevin Blackmore visited a Costco for the first time in Edmonton.

 "I was looking around, the size of this place and the products and so on and I jokingly said to Kevin, 'B'y, a little bit different from Baxter's General Store back home, hey?' And then the idea of a song, and the contrast, and the way it was, 'cause I think it's nice to pull out stuff from the past and put it in some artistic form," he said.

Chaulk has been making music for decades — Buddy Wasisname and the Other Fellers came together in 1983 at a fundraiser at Glovertown Regional High School.

Chaulk, Blackmore and Ray Johnson had performed separately at the variety concert, but when the show finished early after the material ran out, Chaulk said the MC came backstage looking for someone to go back out and perform.

 "Kevin looked at me, and Ray looked at me, and we said, 'Do you guys want to do it?' So we headed out to the stage — never ever played together — and when we were walking out to the microphones Kevin said, 'You ever hear of the song Cabin in the Pines?' And I said, 'Yeah, Dad used to sing it to me. I know the melody, I know the verse.' And Ray said, 'I heard that too."

Chaulk said Blackmore walked up to the microphone and said, "Here's your new group." The audience just laughed, knowing what the situation was.

The laughs and the music continued after the concert, with the boys assembling every Wednesday afternoon in Johnson's art room.

"We'd find students outside the door staying back listening to it and then the janitor and the odd teacher coming down the corridor," Chaulk said.

After years on the road, the band has finished with extensive touring and now stay closer to the comforts of home.

Chaulk's house in Charlottetown backs onto a hill, and each evening, with the crackle of a fire in his old Findlay Oval stove, that's where you'll find him — lying on the couch in the front room, looking up the hillside as it changes colours with the setting of the sun, with music filling his mind.

These are the lyrics of Baxter's General Store. (Submitted by Wayne Chaulk)

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