If it weren’t for scallop dragging … a profile of my father

At least 4 minutes

Today, my dad turns 75. Quite the milestone. I’d say that it makes me feel old, but he’s the one at the three-quarters-of-a-century mark and so I’ll leave such comments to him.

I was fortunate a few months ago to spend a weekend with him and his wife, Cindy, at their home near Boston. I was taking a history course at Ryerson University and for our term paper we were asked to answer the question: “What global and local historical forces brought you to be residing in your current hometown in Canada?”

His decision to leave Campobello Island, New Brunswick, at 18 for Ontario obviously played a big part in my being born and raised here. And while we didn’t discuss historical forces, I did learn a lot about his life growing up and his choice to come to a new place.

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The home my father was born and raised in along with four others.

Newmans have been fishing on Campobello Island since shortly after arriving there in 1831, so it was only natural that he would join his father, Newton, when he was old enough. He helped out as a boy from time to time to earn some spending money but at 16 he left school to work on the boat full time.

The work was hard and the pay was little. “Sometimes we’d make $3.00 a day on a good day. Sometimes $3.00 or $4.00. Rarely more than $3.00.” And this was no casual day spent sitting on the deck with a line in the water.

Fishing boats in Wilson's Beach.
Fishing boats at the Wilson’s Beach breakwater.

“In the summer, we went hand-lining for pollock and we run herring[from the weir]. In the fall they had the schooners come across from Nova Scotia and we caught herring to put in the barrels for lobster trap bait. That was usually in September and a little bit of October. And then we rigged up for scallop dragging in the winter time.” In the spring they would strip down the boat from scallop dragging, lay it all on the beach and then head back out, hand-lining for pollock and running the weir for herring.

The work was all-day, from Monday to Saturday. The fish market was closed on Sunday and so there was no point catching it, although they would have if they could have. Hunger is a strong motivator.

The fish processing plant today.
The fish processing plant today.

Scallop dragging was particularly tough. “That’s a hard god damned life. It was cold. On the deck of a boat in the winter time. There was no coffee break, it went on and on and on.” All for $3.00 a day. You can hear him give a fuller description below.

 

In the summer of 1959, around his 18th birthday, his mother’s sister, Connie, and her husband, Tommy, visited from Ontario where they were living. Together with his mother they presented the opportunity of coming to Ontario. His first response: “Hell, no!” Others had gone before and told him it was a place of rules and regulations to which they were not accustomed. But in the end his mother encouraged him to go for a better life and he relented. After all, scallop dragging was on the horizon, and after two seasons he couldn’t bear the thought of one more winter on the ocean.

He arrived in Woodbridge on a Saturday afternoon and had a job at the local mill on Monday.

He arrived in Woodbridge, Ontario, on a Saturday afternoon, July 25, with his aunt and uncle and had a job working maintenance at the local textile mill with his uncle on Monday. From the beginning he was making $1.10 an hour, on a millwright apprenticeship, and he thought he had made it. He stayed with Connie and Tommy for two to three years, paying $15 a week board, until they moved back to Campobello at which point he got his own apartment.

While working at Makita he was elected president of the United Steelworkers’ local.

He worked at Robinson’s mill for three-and-a-half years and then Makita sheet metal for another one or two during which he moved into the inspection department. While there he was elected president of the United Steelworkers’ local. He is still proud of the clothes shop and the big raise he secured for the employees during his term. He had the support of the workers, but management was tough on him because of that support and so he began to look elsewhere.

He went to Despatch Industries in 1967, building and installing industrial ovens and washers which would be his major line of work for the rest of his working life. Much of that work he did with his own company, Newman Systems Mechanical. He also owned a TV store in Barrie for five years between 1981 and 1986 so that he could be home while my sister and I were young. But he eventually went back to industrial installations until he retired a few years ago.

Collecting rope on the beach in Hull.
Collecting rope on the beach in Hull.

He lives now in Hull, Massachusetts, with Cindy in a small house next to the ocean. Most of his neighbours are only there for the summer, but he prefers being by the water year-round. It’s also a short drive to Campobello where he visits often to see the few family members still there.

Pollack Cove, Campobello Island
Pollack Cove, Campobello Island.

I think about the tremendous leap it must have been for him to travel with the few clothes he owned to a place he knew nothing about for a chance at a better life. He worked hard since he arrived, although it must have all seemed easier than the life he left behind. He often felt his choices were limited without an education, but he applied his natural abilities to the work he did and provided his children chances he never had.

Rob and Al
My dad and I in March.

I’m forever grateful that he made the choice he did. I also have a new appreciation for scallops.

And if historical forces are your thing, I invite you to read the essay I wrote. I enjoyed writing it and I think you’ll enjoy reading it.

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