If you were to google “root cellar capital of the world,” you would come up with only one place - Elliston, Newfoundland. And we were able to visit there in a driving rain with temperatures in the low ’50’s. This town was hit hard by the cod moratorium just like all the towns on the Bonavista peninsula. A shrimp plant that had been doing well was leveled by Hurricane Igor and closed in 2010. Sometimes you just can’t catch a break. Those Elliston residents that did not flee to jobs in Alberta or Ontario, looked for a way to put their town on the tourist map. They brain stormed about what attributes they had that made them special: a beautiful beach, a significant puffin breeding area, and about 150 root cellars.
In this climate the only crops that can be grown are things like potatoes, turnips, potatoes, carrots, potatoes, cabbage and potatoes. Once you grown them you have to keep them fresh throughout the winter or you have nothing to eat. Thus, the root cellar. In many parts of our country such cellars were dug into the ground, but here the ground is so rocky they were built up with stone, wood, or concrete supports, buried under piles of sod. Around here the sea never really freezes and the cellars provided enough moisture and temperature stability to keep root vegetables as yummy as the day they were dug out of the ground. At the time that Elliston decided to come out as “root cellar capital of the world,” many of the cellars were no longer used and in collapse. Luckily, a few locals had the skills to bring them back to life and if you build it, they will come. We missed the root cellar festival last week, which features a jigg dinner, which consists of boiled salt beef and root vegetables. It’s the kind of dinner my mom used to make when we had pretty much exhausted my father’s paycheck.
Despite the strenuous efforts of our tour leader to telephone and arrange the root cellar tour guide, he never returned her calls. She has had many similar experiences the last few days. A manaña approach to life seems to be the Newfie way. Undaunted and uninformed, we headed out to the puffin area in a driving rain. The puffins were nestled in their grassy dens and looked about as happy to be outside as we were. There is something about their unique faces, that makes it impossible to stop photographing them, no matter the weather.
Looking for warmth and dryness, the group made an unscheduled stop at the Sunset Inn, which had a dining room. They tried very hard, but it took over an hour for them to feed us. By then the rain had stopped and we were ready for Port Union.
PU is the only town in Canada that was planned, built, and created by a union, the fisherman’s union. Their patron saint was William Coaker, a man with so many accomplishments he was eventually knighted. He left school at the age of ten and lead his first unionized strike of boy employees at one of the largest of St. John’s exporting firms. At the age of fourteen he was a branch manager of the firm and took over its management four years later. When the banks crashed in 1894, he was left bankrupt and had to start over.
He grew concerned about how fishermen were treated by the firms that purchased their fish. He concluded that the only way they could improve their lot in life and free themselves from the servitude imposed on them by the credit system under which the fisheries were organized, was to organize a labor union. He started with public meetings and published a newspaper called the Fishermen’s Advocate to spread the word. Then he began a trading company which supported supplies and sold them at cost, freeing the fishermen from the incessant debt they had accumulated with the fisheries.
Ultimately he bought land to build a town, which was so progressive it had electricity in 1918 when parts of New York City were still in the dark. The town consisted of a trading company, fish store, and dry goods store, all equipped with elevators. The first electric fish dryer in Newfoundland was installed here. The prosperity these developments brought to Port Union, lead to building a seal oil plant, a machine, shop, forge, stables, garage, coal sheds, cold storage plant and boiler house which heated the premises. Homes for management that had running water and electricity lined the main street and homes for fishermen that only had electricity were built on the hillside. Coaker lived in a nice home he called the Bungalow and built a hotel to house all the businessmen and union delegates that came to Port Union to visit him. Needless to say, the traditional fisheries folks hated him, but his newspaper and political l success kept his push for social and economic reforms alive throughout his life.
Sometimes you can win.