Newfoundland: Some tourists buy post cards, others buy houses

| August 31, 2010
An old house for sale in Bonvista. The Wall Street Journal, among others, is touting Newfoundland as a place to buy a holiday home. Photo: Emily Urquhart

The late summer sun sets on Bonavista Bay while a crowd gathers on the back deck of a home in Red Cliff, which is more a collection of houses than a town. There's an artist from Toronto at the party, as well as a St. John's-based filmmaker, and a couple from Holland who recently purchased a house down the road. Talk is highbrow and the drink of choice is gin and tonic. Even the weather is civilized. It's not your typical outport Newfoundland scene, or at least it doesn't fit the decades-old stereotype. But these days, at least in summer, this cosmopolitan mix is becoming the norm.

In May 2010, I relocated to Upper Amherst Cove (population 30-ish) on the Bonavista Peninsula in an effort to better understand this recent trend that sees people from mainland Canada, America, and Europe snapping up old saltbox homes originally occupied by fishing families.

My research, towards a PhD in folklore, involves knocking on strangers' doors to ask invasive questions like: "Do you get along with your new American neighbours?" and "How much did you pay for your house? Was it in cash?"

I'm also attempting to piece together a folk history of my recently adopted community, trying to gauge what it looked like before the fish stocks depleted and people began to move away. This mass exodus, formally called "outmigration," is rural Newfoundland's main narrative. News stories from the province detail the trials of the young who leave in search of employment -- finding jobs everywhere from the Toronto literary world to the Fort McMurray tar sands.

The foreign in-migration is inspired by scenic views and cheap waterfront property, a trend that prompted the Wall Street Journal to run a headline proclaiming that Americans are buying up real estate in outport Newfoundland for the "price of a used SUV."

On the Bonavista Peninsula, a northeast arm of the province particularly popular with the CFA ("come-from-away") crowd, prices range from $25,000 to $300,000 depending on the location. The tonier outports like Trinity and Port Rexton on the south side of the peninsula draw in the Cadillac and caviar set while smaller communities like Keels and Newman's Cove on the Bonavista Bay side attract a more solitary type with slightly less disposable income.

While conducting interviews, I am surprised to learn that most property purchases are spontaneous. A vacationing couple will spot a faded "for sale" sign on a paint-peeling saltbox home by the sea and it catches them like a fever. It's not unlike the improbable items people buy at sample sales and while cross-border shopping thinking, "It's just so cheap I can't afford not to buy it." What begins as a whim ends with a set of keys and the installation of a compostable toilet.

The sales are rarely straightforward, especially in the unincorporated communities with no official records. In these cases, surveyors turn to older locals, drawing on their traditional land knowledge and memories to find out, say, where Mr. Skiffington's potato patch once grew. From this they are able to ascertain that the small square of land belongs to the gardener's descendents. This means that land deeds often look like pieces from a jigsaw puzzle.

Like the surveyors, I rely on the memories of the older folks to reconstruct a history that can't be found in archival records or library books. In particular, I learn from my neighbour in Upper Amherst Cove, Wilson Brown, a retired school teacher who was born and raised here like his father before him.

We talk often because, despite his octogenarian status, he's always outside engaging in some form of laborious activity. In the spring he dismantles two old timber-frame homes that belong to his far flung relatives. These are people who toy with the idea of returning home when they retire, but don't presently want the responsibility of a house that's slowly rotting into the ground.

When I stop by Wilson's worksites he takes me on imaginary tours, using the footprint of the house as a guide. He outlines the kitchen and points out the spot where the stove once stood, heating the now invisible rooms and walls. He lifts his gaze, following the path of the staircase to the second floor and rhymes off the names of the children who occupied the bedrooms (several per room back then).

Wilson sees patterns in the landscape that are invisible to those of us who drop in during the summer. He sees the fences that crisscrossed the fields, keeping cattle enclosed and demarcating garden beds. He sees the fishing stages that once lined the shore. He sees his father walking slowly over the lip where the beach meets the grass, hauling a half-full net from a poor days' catch, and when he sees this last image, his eyes well up.

Like Wilson, the summer home owners that I speak with hold a reverence for the past. I visit homes owned by people from America, mainland Canada and Europe, and in each case there are shrine-like testaments to Newfoundland's fishing history and the life stories of the previous owners. In one home, it takes the form of a square of the original wallpaper left on a stripped wall and framed like a portrait; in another, a photograph of the previous owner standing in the doorway of his home on the day of purchase is displayed in the kitchen.

Perhaps the most poignant example is a lobster catch record -- a succinct list of dates that corresponds to the number of traps laid and number of lobsters caught -- written on a living room wall. It's something the owner swears she'll never paint over.

The problem with summering in a place that is populated year-round is that people use the landscape for different purposes. When possible, locals make their living off the land (and sea) while summer residents see the surroundings as part of the décor -- a sea and cliff landscape perfectly framed in the kitchen window. Distasteful piles, objects or scars on the land are not tolerated.

Discussions on establishing an open-pit copper mine in a nearby community are quickly shut down by summer residents who rally and write letters to the minister voicing their objections. The locals see it as an employment opportunity while the seasonal folks see it as an affront on their utopia.

A second issue is that real estate prices have tripled in the past decade making it impossible for young people to return home and buy property, and this is unequivocally attributed to the summer residency trend. It's also kind of a bummer to live in a small community where half the lights go dark come Labour Day.

Despite rising prices and winter vacancy, there are also advantages to summer communities (beyond adding to the local social life). Houses need electrical, plumbing, and carpentry work. They need to be painted and straightened; the lawn needs cutting and the bushes need to be pruned. All of these jobs provide a boost to the local economy.

Now, in late August, shutters are being drawn across the peninsula. Fridges are cleaned and unplugged and linens are folded and stuffed in plastic to fend off vermin and damp. The last step before the long drive, flight or ferry ride home is to drop the keys off with a local neighbour who will be left to check in on the place over the long winter months ahead.

Some Links:

Second home real estate stories can be read here and here.

For information on Atlantic Canada real estate (and resettlement), click here, here and here.

For more information on the out-migration issue, click here and here.

Folklore Department at Memorial University

Emily Urquhart is a freelance writer and PhD Candidate in the Folklore Department at Memorial University. From May to August, she is living in Upper Amherst Cove on the Bonavista Peninsula interviewing year-round and summer residents on the topic of seasonal communities in rural Newfoundland. She wrote The Selling of Rural Newfoundland blog for CBC online.

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