CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

The Selling
of Rural Newfoundland

Every house has a story

“You get into the rhythm of this place and leaving becomes hard to fathom,” my American neighbour says one afternoon as we’re standing on her lawn and watching the ocean for whales. She tells me that she’s extended her stay by a week, sensing that she wouldn’t be ready to go when the time came.

I know what she means. Today I am repacking the detritus of my life, my animals, and my husband and driving back to town. I am slowly and reluctantly shaking off that rhythm along the way.

What I’ll take with me are the stories I heard — the human narratives behind the realty signs that dot this landscape.

Two weeks ago, a handmade ‘for sale’ sign went up on a house here in the Cove. The price tag was $15,000. My visiting parents and in-laws from Ontario excitedly ran down the hill to check it out, but the sign had already been removed.

1. Realtor Sign in Bonavista.JPGMany buildings are advertised through realtors based in St. John’s, like this house in Bonavista that recently sold for about $30,000

Later, I learn that the sign was a prank pulled by the owner’s (clearly very sophisticated) six-year-old grandson. However, the house really did sell — to Jenn Brown, 24, the owner’s daughter. (Like the grandson, I can only speculate on the price-tag.)

Jenn is young, and employed in the arts, but by working with a local bank and counting every penny she was able to purchase her father’s family home where she was raised. The house sits at the foot of Brown’s Road, which is not indicated on any sign post, but locally named for the Browns that populated this hill for over a century. It’s a historical lineage that persists with this recent real estate transaction.

Then there’s the seemingly abandoned yellow house on the other side of the Cove. It has a rather dramatic tilt. One neighbour tells me that you have to tie the kettle to the stove when making tea. Still, it has a lovely steep roof and saltbox shape with two structurally sound outbuildings. We’ve inquired, and, it’s not for sale.

2. The other side.JPGThe community is small, but it takes months to meet all the residents in Upper Amherst Cove

I think of the artist I met from Ontario who’d left a note tacked to the door of a different falling-down yellow house expressing her interest in purchasing the place. It was a whim she quickly forgot until the phone call came a year later: If you want it, it’s yours. Now it doubles as her summer home and studio.

Remembering the artist’s story, I sit down and write a note: Dear Yellow House Owner: If you ever decide to sell your home, please contact us. We spent the spring and summer of 2010 here in Upper Amherst Cove and we were married on the flat rocks by the shoreline. We are very interested in purchasing this house.

3. Handwritten For Sale Sign.JPG A handwritten ‘for sale’ note posted at the King’s Cove Liquor Express

I haven’t seen any sign of life at the yellow house, and the owners might not visit for another ten years. But a lot can change in that time — the market could tank, inflate or level off, and by then we’ll have paid off our student loans and be in a position to buy property.

Or maybe this is the end of the yellow house’s story, and over the years it will continue to sink into the ground until the floor finally cracks and you can no longer open the door.

4. Yellow house.JPGThis yellow house is not for sale although several people have inquired

A different kind of spontaneous commitment

August 9, 2010

While peering into the lives of summer home owners, I can’t help but entertain a few real estate fantasies of my own. In the past a PhD salary might cover a little saltbox by the sea, but these days it won’t even get you a rubber dinghy. So, the Arctic Scientist and I choose to make a different kind of spontaneous commitment here in the Cove: we decide to get married.

The first step is to track down Wesley Shirran, 89, who has been doling out local wedding licenses since 1976. Mr. Shirran lives in a baby blue trailer off Bonavista’s main street. A hand-stenciled sign that reads ‘Justice of the Peace’ is nailed to his white picket fence and all business transactions take place in his rose-coloured back office.

1. Justice of the Peace.JPG A hand-stenciled ‘Justice of the Peace’ sign is posted outside Wesley Shirran’s home in Bonavista..

That the Arctic Scientist happens to be in absentia for this legal transaction is no matter for Mr. Shirran. It’s just another day as his wife cooks a cod’s head dinner while I fill out government forms and forge my future husband’s signature.

When the Arctic Scientist returns we meet our officiator, Chester Stone of Munroe ship building lineage, at the Clarenville Inn to sign forms and discuss wedding day plans. We mention the rigorous trail the procession will follow to reach our chosen point of betrothal. Mr. Stone is game, but his wife is leery. Even behind her Blublocker sunglasses I see her eyes fill with apprehension. This is because Mr. Stone, a retired judge of unknown vintage, needs a new knee. I’m filled with similar concern when I watch him limp off to his car after we’ve handed over our important documents.

Upper Amherst Cove.JPGA field book sketch of Upper Amherst Cove as seen from across Blackhead Bay.

With just a few days left until W-day, we visit Harry Wareham, unofficial mayor of Upper Amherst Cove, to ask if we might borrow his three-wheeled ATV.

“I don’t mean to discourage you two,” Harry says. “But, I don’t think you’ll get a retired judge on the back of a one-person trike. It’s not likely that he’ll agree to participate in an illegal activity.”

rentalhouse.JPGA field book entry listing the details of the summer rental home.

He goes on to point out the dangerous nature of the trail, detailing his own gruesome trike accident this winter from which he’s still recovering. Harry lifts himself from his sofa and with the aid of a walker shuffles over to the front window.

“You could try that trail over there,” he points to a wooded area that tumbles out into a rocky outcrop. “It’s shorter and flatter and you won’t need a trike.”

The trailhead happens to cross the land of the newest home buyers in the Cove - a couple from Ontario. After securing the right-of-way, I hit them up for a post-wedding interview.

When the big day arrives, summer home owners and year-round residents wave from their porches as our tiny procession (two sets of parents, bride and groom) passes below.

trinitydaisies.JPGDaisies in Trinity, a summer home enclave and nice place to visit on your honeymoon.

After the ceremony we pose proprietorially outside the rented summer home that we’ll never own before driving off to Port Rexton — now officially Mr. and Mrs. Arctic Scientist — for a one night honeymoon.

Within a day the news trickles down the Coves and we’re met with congratulations from acquaintances and strangers alike. We won’t stake a property claim here in Bonavista Bay, but at least we’ll leave our story behind.

Looking at the water versus fetching it

July 26, 2010 One morning in June my neighbour, Wilson Brown, calls me over to ask a favour. I am passing by during my daily dog walk and he is out in his garden hoeing potatoes. "I need your help with something," he says. "You and I will carry some buckets to the top of the hill and fetch some water from the well up there. We'll need to make about ten trips back and forth. Do you think you can do that?"

Wilson isn't your typical octogenarian. He's been charged with dismantling several houses in the Cove that belong to various far-flung cousins and I see him lugging the timber frame remains into his flatbed truck every day. Still, I feel that I should help the old guy out. I am speechless. My mind races through the possibilities. Why does he need this water? Can't he buy it bottled? Or call a plumber? Why does the Arctic Scientist have to be in Labrador when these kinds of issues arise?

wilsonbrownhouse.jpg A field book study of Wilson Brown's house from early May, 2010.

I am so focused on finding ways to avoid the hillside water-fetching that I don't immediately notice that Wilson is laughing. Oh, this is a joke. I'd interviewed Wilson a few days before, plundering his memory for glimpses into the life of Upper Amherst Cove when it was an active fishing community with almost double the number of people and houses. He'd described the many chores he'd carried out as a young man growing up here. Later that night, after our interview, he realized he'd forgotten to add water-fetching to that list. A retired school teacher, he'd now successfully imparted this information.

hannahrogers.jpgMrs. Hannah Rogers fetching water, Fair Island, Bonavista Bay, 1952. (Courtesy of the Maritime History Archive)

Wilson painted both an idyllic and difficult portrait of a way of life that persists only in memory. He sees the fishing stages that once lined the shore, where I see a government imposed guard rail that works to further separate the people from the water. And, like many people I've met this summer, he describes aspects of the natural and built landscape in words and gestures that I simply cannot decipher.

generalstore.jpg The general store at the entrance to Upper Amherst Cove has been closed for years.

As a newcomer, I don't know the physical world to the same degree as someone like Wilson. He was born and raised here, in the house that his father built, and has worked this land and the surrounding waters in ways that no other summer home owner will. Yes, Wilson is a summer home owner, despite the fact that he was reared in the home that he now occupies in the fair-weather months.

A few weeks after Wilson taught me the value of (narrowly avoiding) hard work I interview two summer home owners from Vancouver who have no ancestral ties to the area. Near the end of our chat I spy movement in the ocean, visible from their kitchen windows. It's a dolphin and he's performing like the talent scout from Marineland is on shore. Distracted, I leave my Edirol running for a few moments before shutting it off to end the interview. The last seven seconds captures a cacophony of wildly shrieking mainlanders (myself included) reacting to the surprises of the North Atlantic seascape. It is perhaps the most valuable seven seconds of tape that I will record this summer.

watchingcapelin.jpg Government workers stop by the guard rail in Upper Amherst Cove to check out the capelin rolling.

Seasonal residents don't know the landscape in the same way as Newfoundlanders, but sometimes their reaction to it can be just as emotional.

It's that time of year again

Editor's note: Emily is very interested in hearing what you think about the changes you see in rural Newfoundland and Labrador. Please add your comments below.

They arrive around the same time that the lupins start to blossom along the road and the caplin begin to roll up the shoreline. Taking into account the island's history of migratory settlers, it could be argued that they are just as natural. I'm talking about seasonal residents -- summer home owners who settle in rural Newfoundland for anywhere from two weeks to four months during the warmer (i.e. less snowy) months.

I'd heard that there were people from all across North America and Europe who owned houses in communities like Keels, Duntara and Newman's Cove on the Bonavista Peninsula. Even the Wall Street Journal reported that Americans were buying homes in rural Newfoundland "for the price of a used SUV." I thought, "Really? Who are they? Why did they choose this area and how do the locals feel? Someone should really look into that."

This is how I ended up here in Upper Amherst Cove, along with my partner, the Arctic scientist, who is often away in Labrador.

The population of the Cove is up for debate, but hovers somewhere around 30 souls.

emily1.JPG How much is this view in Upper Amherst Cove worth?

I'm more closely evolved from the summer residents than the livyers and as an Ontarian expat living in St. John's I knew this research -- towards my PhD thesis in Folklore at Memorial University -- would be a challenge. How would I approach people? Luckily, I have two unruly, yet useful ambassadors.

emily2.JPG An early field note chronicling the world outside the kitchen window.

When moving to a rural community with the intention of conducting research and interviewing the people who live there it's important to bring a pair of disobedient animals -- preferably a cat and a dog. Because these animals will disappear for days on end, threaten the baby goats in the adjacent field, and generally wreak havoc on the local canine balance, you have an immediate ice breaker (usually initiated by an apology).

It started with my cat, Oliver Patrick, escaping out the back door of our rental home the day after we moved in. An encounter with a pack of local dogs sent him roof-ward where he perched during an afternoon hailstorm refusing to be lured down even by the promise of Chicken Liver Fancy Feast. Then he disappeared into the woods. This prompted a somewhat hysterical door-knocking flurry during which I introduced myself to many of my neighbours and asked if they'd seen a moderately overweight calico cat.

emily5.JPG A creative land buying technique seen in Newman's Cove.

Oliver Patrick sauntered in three days later looking bored and somewhat smug after his romp in the wild, but news of his disappearance spread far and wide. Months later I still meet people who'll ask if my cat ever came home. Mostly due to animal interference, I have been able to meet and interview quite a few year-round and seasonal residents.

The summer folks come from all over. Some have family ties to the area while others end up here by chance: an enticing For Sale sign spotted during a family vacation; a word-of-mouth deal on a home they'd never seen in a province they'd never visited.

emily3.JPG Old buildings no longer in use, like this one in Newman's Cove, capture the interest of prospective buyers.

This cosmopolitan influx gives the local economy a summer boost while the seasonal residents get to take in the seaside landscapes and fresh air, never having to battle a winter's gale or shovel their driveway. But, I wonder, can you truly experience life on this island in one season?

emily6.JPG A faded For Sale sign in Trinity.

Links to consider:

International buyers eye Canadian real estate

Recreational property market heats up

Cabin-buying fever on the Avalon Peninsula

Americans fined $37,800 over P.E.I. land buy

Isolated N.L. residents moving on

Please feel free to contact me at Emily Urquhart