Local boy made good in Boston States
Long before they started migrating to Toronto and other parts of Ontario’s industrial heartland in search of work, Newfoundlanders had been going to “the Boston States.” Most of them found work, settled and raised families there, never to return to their home and native land.
One example of a local boy who went away and made good was Gilbert H. Crane of Carbonear.
Born September 17,1909, Gilbert would live to celebrate his 100th birthday, and died in December 2009 in Belmont, Mass.
George Garland of Carbonear South, who knew Gilbert well, also grew to admire and respect the man for what he had accomplished in his lifetime, despite some formidable odds against him.
Describing Gilbert’s humble beginnings, George said, like many people in Newfoundland in the early part of the twentieth century, Gilbert’s family was “as poor as church mice.”
His father operated a butcher shop on Water Street, John. C. Crane & Sons, along with his son, Charlie, before the son moved to the States.
Gilbert Crane was nine years old when a horrific accident happened that would change his life. He lost his foot when it was run over by a train.
Thrill-seeking juveniles would often jump the train on the southside of town in those days and catch a free ride to the north side, where the train would stop at the station.
The train tracks ran along near Gilbert’s house, which was located near Earle’s meal plant on Carbonear’s Lower Southside Road.
George says Gilbert and a friend, George Davis, were digging potatoes one day when they saw the train coming. Because it was a dangerous and forbidden practice, the riders used to jump from the train, usually before it stopped, and run as fast as they could to escape the authorities. When Gilbert jumped from the train, his foot got caught under its wheels.
He was sent to the General Hospital in St. John’s for treatment until the stump that was left of his leg healed. When he returned home, George says the local boys used to poke fun at him.
Canon Rusted, a prominent Anglican clergyman in Carbonear at the time, made a wooden leg for Gilbert. But because it was a straight leg, it used to slow him down and he used to take it off and run around on the stump. Eventually the stump got infected and for a while they thought he might loose the rest of his leg.
Accordin g t o George , Dan O’Driscoll, who also lived on the southside, advised Crane’s mother to boil some water on the stove. Every day for several days, they would push the stump down into the boiling water until it was cured of infection. “ They say the pain of having his leg immersed into boiling hot water was so excruciating, his cries could be heard all over the southside,” George said.
Another Carbonear man, Johnny Butt, made another wooden leg for Gilbert, this time with a hinge at the knee so he could bend it.
At 13, Gilbert Crane found his first job on The Labrador, where he worked at the summer fishery.
When he returned he went to work for Saunders Howell, a prominent Carbonear firm, where he was paid four cents an hour. The firm offered him a one cent an hour raise to come in early in the morning and oil the machines. When Gilbert asked for more and the company refused, George says he told them to “take the job and stick it, and he quit.”
The 13-year-old boy with one foot also shovelled snow, but he never got paid for that at all.
So he decided to go to the States where his brother, George Crane, was already working as a painter. The first thing he did there was to break his good leg.
“I don’t know how he ever got into the States with only one leg in the first place,” George says.
It was the decade known as “ the hungry 30s,” brought on by the bank crash of 1929 and the Great Depression that followed.
Times were tough. But Gilbert “did everything in the world” to make the best of a bad situation, George says.
He used to collect discarded watches and sell them.
Eventually, he decided to go into business with a partner. Together they started a rendering plant called Bay State Tallow in Lowell, Mass. They used to collect fat, chicken and bees and render the material out to produce fertilizer and soap. When his partner died, Gilbert took over the business and expanded into other
Well connected politically, George said a photo of Gilbert and former U.S. President Ronald Reagan hung on Gilbert’s wall.
From his meagre beginnings in Carbonear, the self-educated man went on to become a millionaire. By the time he returned to his hometown, on one of his earlier visits, he could have bought the company that had once refused to give him more than a one cent an hour raise.
He could also afford to purchase the best prosthetic limbs money could buy.
After selling his business and retiring, Gilbert made many visits to his hometown.
“ If you met him and he shook hands with you, he was the kind of man who just left a lasting impression,” said Garland.