A poignant gift for Dad
Suzanne Wheeler writes book as tribute to her late father, Max Rowe
For Suzanne Wheeler of Grand Falls-Windsor, writing a book about the schooner Fronie Myrtle has turned into a way to honour her father Maxwell (Max) Rowe of Chance Cove, Trinity Bay.
The father/daughter team coauthored “Wooden Ships & Iron Men (Creative Publishers, 2013).”
Built by Wheeler’s grandfather (William) Will Rowe, Max Rowe and his brothers also fished from Fronie Myrtle.
Wheeler felt her family’s story of life on the sea is one that would resonate among families in many nooks and crannies of this province — and beyond.
She’s not far off the mark.
Wheeler got the idea for the book in 2009. She’d been hearing stories since her childhood about the remarkable men who built and sailed the schooner.
Wheeler’s grandfather 1978.
When her father was diagnosed with cancer in 2009 she spent a week with him in Chance Cove. That’s when she broached the subject of a book, she says.
Her father was excited about her idea. Wheeler listened to his stories. During his chemotherapy treatments he wrote his memories in a notebook his daughter had given him for that purpose.
“I told him whenever you’re up to it and you think of something, just jot it down,” Wheeler said during a recent telephone interview.
It wasn’t until one of her final visits with her dad that he handed her the notebook.
“He had tears in his eyes and I knew it had been a struggle for him physically to write as much as he did. Many days he hardly had the strength to hold a pen, but he persevered until he had recorded all he could remember about the Fronie Myrtle,” Wheeler writes in the preface of the book.
Wheeler took the notebook back home with her and began to piece together the story.
“Dad used to be a good writer but was going through cancer treatments when he wrote in the notebook so a lot of it was hard to pick out.”
Wheeler talked to family members and relatives of the crewmen. She researched her family’s history and collected photographs and historical documents related to the schooner.
She then went back to her dad with the additional information she’d collected. By then, his health had deteriorated.
“The cancer went to Dad’s brain. He couldn’t read or talk. He’d look at me and all the tears would come in his eyes and he’d cry. He’d be trying to tell me what should be changed in the book.”
Wheeler’s father had radiation treatments which shrunk the cancer enough for him to talk again and give his daughter the extra information she needed.
Max Wheeler died in 2010, but not before reading his daughter’s draft manuscript. Although extremely ill at the time, he told her he was “extremely pleased” with what she’d written.
Wheeler begins the book by recalling her family roots. Her family’s schooner heritage dates back to 1783 when her ancestor James Rowe (the son of Edward Rowe who moved to Trinity from England in the mid-1700s) purchased property in Heart’s Content and built a dock. Thus began more than a century of shipbuilding by Rowe, his sons, and eventually his grandsons.
The Fronie Myrtle was built in Chance Cove in 1935 and sailed out of that port until 1949, when the schooner was sold to the Whelan brothers of Little Heart’s Ease.
The Newfoundland Commission of Government gave the men the money to build the schooner. It was during the Great Depression, Wheeler writes, and government was offering various incentives to help build the economy and get people back to work.
The response to the government’s offer of thirty-dollar-per-ton shipbuilding bounty in the mid1930s? There was a revival of Newfoundland schooner construction, Wheeler writes.
With abundant wood supply and plenty of available labour, the incentive helped put men — and sometimes, boys — in boats.
In 1934, Wheeler’s grandfather applied to the Commission of Government to build a schooner. The first installment of $350 was enough to start the project. Another $350 came along partway through the construction. At the time, Wheeler writes, the risks involved in the venture were enormous.
“The economy was desperate and people were suffering. Chance Cove was a poor community with a population of 288 people who depended mostly on fishing and logging for their livelihood. Neither occupation was very profitable.”
There was no trouble finding carpenters in the community (besides Will Rowe) to build the boat. Will’s younger brother Sam Rowe, Bramwell and Gordon Brace as well as Benjamin and Alfred Rowe, William Smith and Nelson Allen were all carpenters from Chance Cove who helped construct the schooner.