Times were hard back then and Len Matthews, like many other Newfoundlanders of his day, had no choice but to begin earning a living at a very young age.
In 1913, at the age of only 11, he left his home at Grand Bank to go trap-fishing on the other side of the Burin Peninsula.
Two years later he gave up trap-fishing and was promptly hired as a deckhand on a local vessel carrying freight around the Newfoundland coasts. In 1916, he secured a berth on a banking schooner and four years later, while on a fishing trip to St. Pierre Bank, Len and fellow Grand Banker Charles Thomas became separated from their mother ship while fishing in a dory.
The two dory-mates, who had been fishing some distance from their schooner the “Florence E.” during most of the day, couldn’t make headway rowing back to her because of a strong tide running and a heavy wind that had come up suddenly.
Soon darkness surrounded them and they decided the best thing to do was head for home. They did just that and after rowing and sailing for three days and three nights, they finally arrived safely back at Grand Bank.
In 1922, Len Matthews gave up bank-fishing to pursue the much more financially rewarding sea-going career of “rum-running.” The basic pay of $75 per month was exceptionally good, plus each crewmember was allowed to sell some of their own booze to our prohibition-stricken neighbours to the south, which resulted in many Newfoundland seamen earning extra money in years when dollars were hard to come by.
Two years of this was enough, so he went for another career change and decided to stay closer to home when he began inshore dory-fishing out of Grand Bank.
For many years after he divided his time between fishing and farming in the spring, summer and fall and leaving home during the winter months to work at Argentia, St. John’s, Sydney or any other centre where jobs were available.
Over the years he developed the skills of boat-caulking and carpentry. In 1964 while repairing a roof on a Grand Bank home, Len Matthews slipped and fell. He broke his right leg, suffered a fractured collar-bone, hip and pelvis, and was in cast for 10 months. He was forced into an early retirement at age 62 and needed the help of a walking stick to get around for the rest of his life.
Some years earlier he had turned his talented hands to building model dories and schooners as a hobby. After his cast was removed he became more serious about putting the finishing touches on some of these vessels and soon his skill at producing quality model boats began to be recognized.
He was then called upon to build a six-foot long dory for the premier of the day, J.R. ”Joey” Smallwood, and another dory for then prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau in honour of his visit to the Burin Peninsula.
It wasn’t long before the Grand Bank builder’s dories and schooners were finding their way all around the world.
Len Matthews and his wife, Marjorie, were the parents of 15 children, eight of whom are now deceased. Most of their sons followed in their father’s footsteps and became carpenters. However, the only one who developed an interest in carrying on the craft of building model boats was his namesake, Leonard Jr.
Len Jr., himself now age 75, spent a lot of time in his younger years in the workshop with his father. He was with him to give a hand when the dory was being built for Joey Smallwood. He also earned a living at carpentry and coincidently, like his father, he was unfortunate enough to also fall off the roof of a house he was working on. It was in 1986 and the fall resulted in a broken back at the young age of 44.
The serious and painful injury also forced him into an early retirement but despite the obstacles, he keeps himself busy turning out model dories, schooners and draggers like his father did before him.
I recently visited Len at his basement workshop to have a chat and to view some of the beautiful models he has on display. He told me he has sold more than 200 dories in recent years, as well as five model draggers and five replicas of the L.A.Dunton, the last schooner to sail out of Grand Bank. He built and sold twenty-five 24-inch dories last winter and is now working on a model of the stern trawler, Grand Prince.
Over the decades the demand for model schooners has been steady, with Len telling me has built and sold more than 150.
Like father, like son.
Allan Stoodley is a long-time resident of Grand Bank. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and he welcomes comments on this or any other article he has written.