Nfld. & Labrador

Sorting through history, one overflowing box at a time: Joey Smallwood's legacy still being unpacked

N.L.'s first premier was known for his meticulous documentation, but all that history is taking a loooong time to sift through.

The Father of Confederation’s considerable collection is giving archivists a bit of a headache

One of the most popular finds in the backlog was some outtakes of Smallwood's famous 3-D pictures. (Jeremy Eaton/CBC)

Chief among the historical tidbits quietly tucked away on the massive third floor of Memorial University's Queen Elizabeth II library is a set of papers, pictures and trinkets that detail how modern Newfoundland and Labrador came to be.

Archivists have stacked boxes upon boxes of material from this province's past from floor to ceiling. From Codco to Churchill Falls, all are housed in sprinkler-less spaces with special air conditioning units designed to suck all the oxygen out of the room in case of a fire.

Memorial University already had a massive collection of Smallwood papers — around 600 boxes full. (Jeremy Eaton/CBC)

Near the back of one of many large rooms you'll find hundreds more cartons with a printed label, J. R. Smallwood Papers, holding the writings of Joseph Smallwood, the man responsible for uniting the Dominion of Newfoundland with the Canadian Confederation in 1949 and the province's first premier.

The sheer size of that collection in particular has given a generation of students a lot of work to do.

"All his political papers would be about 350 boxes," archivist Linda White says. "They came here in 1972 after he was out of government."

Then there's the material that arrived after Smallwood died in 1990 — approximately 250 more boxes.

"That was the material that came from Roaches Line [Smallwood's house]," White explains.

This is just one of around 60 boxes of Smallwood stuff staff are sorting through. (Jeremy Eaton/CBC)

A backlog of Smallwood stuff fills up yet another 50 or 60 boxes.

"We have an army of students here working," said White, standing in front of a few open banker's boxes overflowing with black and white photos, reel-to-reel film and the 3-D style photos Smallwood had a penchant for in the 1960s.

"Everyone loves them. But it's not just one or two, there is a full banker's box of them," she said.

Among them is the one that Smallwood selected and used, but there were also two others he took that not many people have seen: a well-dressed Smallwood seated and standing in front of a tree and concrete building. On the back the only thing written is "Made in Japan."

Archivist Linda White started posting 'Unpacking Smallwood' pictures online to show off what the university was finding in the backlog. (Jeremy Eaton/CBC)

That's a problem for White. Most of the photographs — hundreds of thousands of them, she said — contain nothing on the back explaining who the people in them are.

But before trying to document them, her army of students are protecting them.

"These pictures are now from the '60s, so our students are putting each photograph in proper archival sleeves [for] preservation," said White.

Then those photos are placed back into special boxes to help protect them. Every now and then, she or one of the students finds something they feel should be shared with the public online.

"I could see the Smallwood photos were catching on and people like commenting," she said.

Among the items found in the backlog is a special lamp Smallwood had made prior to the construction of Churchill Falls.

Using one of the first core samples as the base, the shade is a map of the town and power plant. White said she knows of only one other that exists.

As far as the university knows, there are only two of these Churchill Falls lamps in existence. (Jeremy Eaton/CBC)

Smallwood lesser known today

While Smallwood did his best to have his every move documented and preserved for posterity, a lot of first year students at MUN were born a decade after he died.

Using one of the 3-D photos that didn't make the cut, CBC News asked students studying at MUN's library if they knew who he was.

"I know it's Joey Smallwood, but I don't know as much as I probably should considering he was the first premier of the Canadian province," first-year student Morgan Winter said.

While the photo did incite a lot of laughs, most knew his name but not much more: something that White has been seeing more of in the past few years.

"It's kind of a sad and it's kind of funny," said White. "I don't even ask them now, I just say, 'This is Smallwood, he was premier of Newfoundland."

Using a 3-D picture of Joey Smallwood, CBC's Jeremy Eaton asked MUN students in the library if they knew who was in the photo. (Jeremy Eaton/CBC)

While White and her hired help work through the stacks of banker's boxes, she points out that that all the other information about Smallwood is available to the public — you just have to drop by the Centre for Newfoundland Studies.

But don't expect to take a stroll through the towering piles of artifacts in this room any time soon, White said.

"Not in my life time. We have tons and tons of stuff in backlog."

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