Dale Jarvis, Intangible Cultural Heritage Development officer with the Heritage Foundation of Newfoundland and Labrador, observes, "While electric streetlights and fast-moving cars may mean that the spirits haunting old cemeteries are less likely to be seen these days, the old stories still exist."
To prevent these stories from slipping from sight and memory, the Bay Roberts Cultural Foundation and the province’s heritage foundation have been documenting local stories and traditional knowledge. The result is a booklet, "Folk Belief and Legends of Bay Roberts and Area," edited by Lisa Wilson and illustrated by Graham Blair.
Many of the stories were contributed by Kimberley Welsh’s class at Ascension Collegiate, Bay Roberts, while others were taken from oral histories Lisa Wilson conducted with seniors from the area.
Beliefs include exiting through the same door you entered on Friday to stave off bad luck, and crossing your socks when you remove them before bed to prevent bad dreams.
Cures and remedies include taking a gold ring and crossing your eye to remove a sty, making bread poultice to heal boils and skin infections, and using stinging nettle soup or tea as a blood cleaner. To cure warts, cut a potato in half, then bury one half and forget about it. Or, throw salt over your shoulder.
Ghost stories are a dime a dozen. Wilbur Sparkes’ grandfather, looking down over Aunt Jane Churchill’s Hill in Bay Roberts, spied "this white thing." He said, "Now, that’s the Devil, trying to tempt me." I won’t spoil it for the reader by revealing the ending to this story.
A Port de Grave matriarch, Greta Hussey, tells about a woman in Hibb’s Cove who taught school on Kelly’s Island. A mailboat, en route from Holyrood to Bell Island, caught fire and burned. "Afterwards they would see her ghost coming down the bay."
Fairies traditionally have had a reputation for abducting people. Josh Russell of Clarke’s Beach was told of an old woman on Barrack’s Lane, Bay Roberts, who had "the fairies in her backyard and even (had) little houses in her backyard made for them." Gerald French of Bay Roberts remembers his mother telling him of a "little tiny small woman" by the Cable office who suddenly disappeared.
However, fairies were helpless against charms. Kerri Neil of Spaniard’s Bay warns, "Don’t go into the woods without bread in your pocket and odd socks on to protect yourself from the fairies." Alicia Linthorne of Upper Island Coves concurs: "carry bread crumbs and/or silver to keep fairies away."
And then, there are unwelcome visits from the so-called Old Hag. My late father often awoke at night, immobilized by her.
"The Old Hag," Lisa Wilson explains, "is an infamous character in Newfoundland folk belief who preys upon people who are fast asleep."
Brandon Cross of Shearstown suggests: "if you spell your name backwards you’ll wake up." Ryan Adams of Upper Island Cove recalls the time the Old Hag paid him a visit: "there was a weird smell, like old clothes, and it felt like someone was in the room with me." Brittany Corbett of Clarke’s Beach tells about the Old Hag choking her father. "He couldn’t scream for help or breathe. He could feel the hands on his throat."
Olive Strickland of Spaniard’s Bay tells of "a man who came to town and settled for a while." He built himself a little shack in Juggler’s Cove, in Bay Roberts East. He had a box wrapped in canvas. "He carried it up and he got aboard the train. No one ever heard tell of him after. It had to be something," Olive suggests, "it was all they could do to lift it aboard."
Dale Jarvis concludes his Foreword, "We are certain that this collection represents only a small part of the oral traditions of the region, and that there are many more stories out there waiting to be told."
A questionnaire is appended to the booklet to encourage readers to "go out, ask some questions, and tell some stories of your own."
"Folk Belief and Legends of Bay Roberts and Area" is slated for release on 3 May at the Bay Roberts Visitors Pavilion, from 2-3:30 p.m. Students from Ascension will read some of the stories. The drop-in event is open to the public.
— Burton K. Janes lives in Bay Roberts. His column appears in The Compass every week. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org