Haunt­ing Beauty: A Day in Petites

Film crew doc­u­ments de­cay­ing out­port for Land and Sea

The Gulf News (Port aux Basques) - - FRONT PAGE - BY ROSALYN ROY

There is an al­most postapoc­a­lyp­tic feel to Petites.

The large wharf at the mouth of the har­bour has crum­bled so much, it has be­come un­us­able.

The old ice­house rests close to the water, up­ended en­tirely onto its roof.

A house still stand­ing in May had col­lapsed by late Au­gust, an­other vic­tim of the North At­lantic’s salt­wa­ter winds.

To peek into some of the de­crepit and aban­doned houses is to won­der at the speed at which their oc­cu­pants left.

In one up­stairs bed­room, clothes and school­books are left to rot on the floor. In an­other a full jar of peanut but­ter col­lects mold on a chipped and stained counter, while other goods or house­hold cleansers are left ex­posed be­low, no longer pro­tected by cup­board doors that have ei­ther fallen or been ripped off.

Ex­plo­ration of a third house shows tidy, crisp base­ball caps un­touched by the el­e­ments de­spite a bro­ken win­dow, while im­me­di­ately to one side a bed and a rack full of mag­a­zines have been ut­terly ruined by wind and rain.

Keep­ing watch over the town’s over­grown ceme­tery is a teddy bear slumping on a white plas­tic lawn chair. What­ever cute ex­pres­sion he once wore has given way to an al­most psy­chotic glee, his face ripped off be­low the droop­ing nose, leav­ing only an ob­scene and gap­ing hole.

Above all, there is the quiet, bro­ken only by the buzzing of an enor­mous bee­hive whose oc­cu­pants are dis­in­ter­ested in any­thing but the abun­dance of wild­flow­ers grow­ing from every avail­able patch of soil – even the large gran­ite stones that once served as the town’s walk­way.

The money shot

To­day there is more sound than usual echo­ing off the red gran­ite rock. Ham­mer strik­ing nail sig­ni­fies that re­pairs are once again un­der­way at Bethany United Church.

And from across a field, tucked par­tially be­hind a sway­ing green house, Christo­pher Richard­son finds his money shot and calls out to his free­lance col­league and cur­rent boom op­er­a­tor, Peter El­liott.

“Right here,” yells Richard­son, his arms out­stretched with fin­gers ex­tended to form a crude frame un­til Peter lugs over the cam­era.

“This is the spot right here!” Richard­son is the founder of Cranky Goat En­ter­tain­ment, and to­day he’s also serv­ing as pro­ducer, di­rec­tor, screen­writer and cin­e­matog­ra­pher. The St. John’s com­pany has been con­tracted to film a doc­u­men­tary episode for CBC’s Land and Sea, one of four they pro­duce each year.

“I did a film called ‘ Where Once They Mat­tered’ a few years ago for the Doc­u­men­tary Chan­nel and the re­gional CBC out of Halifax, for the ‘ Ab­so­lutely New­found­land and Labrador’ strand that they do,” said Richard­son.

“It was about sav­ing 20 ponies on the other side of the coun­try and ship­ping them back here. There were 20 New­found­land ponies starv­ing to death on a farm.”

Thank­fully the ponies were saved, re­turned to their na­tive prov­ince, and the doc­u­men­tary proved so pop­u­lar that Land and Sea re­quested per­mis­sion to show it as a two-part episode.

Richard­son was asked to think about do­ing a hand­ful of episodes for Land and Sea each year.

“It was kind of an ex­per­i­ment for them be­cause they’d never done it be­fore,” re­calls Richard­son. “They’ve never had an in­de­pen­dent pro­ducer work with them be­fore.”

But it was El­liott, a his­tory buff, who stum­bled across an ar­ti­cle about Petites and thought the re­set­tled out­port and on­go­ing church restora­tion would make for a great show.

“New­found­land’s new to me,” said El­liott, who is still dis­cov­er­ing the prov­ince six or seven years af­ter moving here. This was his first visit to the south­west coast. “I’m al­ways look­ing all over the is­land for sto­ries.”

El­liott is also a doc­u­men­tary film­maker and writer, and when he’s not scram­bling over bogs and rocks for a cam­era shot, he does a lot of free­lance edit­ing for com­pa­nies like Cranky Goat. He also cur­rently serves as a his­tor­i­cal con­sul­tant for the tele­vi­sion se­ries Fron­tier and has even helped re­pair their ca­noes. He also teaches film­mak­ing in north­ern On­tario.

“I did a movie on a cas­tle that was rot­ting in the bush west of Thun­der Bay, On­tario,” said El­liott, “and that movie led to the cas­tle be­ing re­stored and that led me to this story.”

This story, as El­liott puts it, is that of John and Ju­lia Breck­en­ridge.

The On­tario cou­ple pur­chased Bethany United Church for the princely sum of one dol­lar and, for the past cou­ple of sum­mers, has poured in undis­closed amounts of money and sweat in an ef­fort to keep it from ruin.

One would think that would make the Breck­en­ridges hugely pop­u­lar with the for­mer res­i­dents of Petites, and in­deed they’ve earned a lot of ku­dos for their trou­ble.

But there are some who aren’t as sup­port­ive.

Ju­lia has heard some ob­jec­tions too, mostly from those who think the cou­ple is try­ing to re­cruit free labour to fix up a church into a sort of pri­vate cot­tage.

That’s far from the ac­tual goal of the restora­tion project. Even­tu­ally the Breck­en­ridges hope to give the church away to an en­tre­pre­neur who will con­tinue to pre­serve it, cher­ish its sto­ried his­tory, and use it as a fo­cal point to help re­cruit eco tourists to the area.

The cou­ple firmly be­lieves in leav­ing the world in a bet­ter place than they found it, and that be­lief is a large part of what drove them into to restor­ing the church.

“Look. Look around you,” said Ju­lia as she took a small break from scrap­ing the flak­ing, dis­coloured paint from the church’s ex­te­rior. “It’s so beau­ti­ful and we love be­ing here, and that boat trip in the morn­ing? It’s just the right thing to do. It feels good in my bones.”

Work to be done

Nearby her hus­band John is ham­mer­ing away from some­where beneath the church, work­ing to shore up the foun­da­tion. The orig­i­nal sup­ports are well past their due date, and it’s no small feat to re­place them by him­self.

More help will ar­rive in a cou­ple of days but in the mean­time, there’s still work to be done. On the rare oc­ca­sions he pauses, it’s usu­ally just to head down to the boat to re­trieve more sup­ports or sup­plies.

Af­ter a lunch of tra­di­tional New­found­land fare – lob­ster sand­wiches, boiled raisin cake, mo­lasses cake, tea bis­cuits, bakeap­ple and par­tridge­berry jam – ev­ery­one gets back to work. Richard­son and El­liott lin­gered un­til mid­week, in­ter­view­ing lo­cals who drop by to pitch in with the re­con­struc­tion or just to visit.

“Every place… We hope we do them jus­tice so that when peo­ple see them they get as ex­cited as we are when we’re here,” said Richard­son of mak­ing doc­u­men­taries for Land and Sea.

“I think so far we’ve done pretty good.”

Back at the only us­able dock Roy Vau­tier, his wife, and a cou­ple of friends are load­ing trea­sures they had pre­vi­ously left be­hind into their boat.

Vau­tier lived here un­til 1975 when he moved to Yar­mouth. Like a lot of Petites na­tives, he still vis­its. Though he no longer keeps a cabin he still comes back for the fish­ing. He es­ti­mates any­where be­tween 11 to 15 peo­ple were still liv­ing in 2003 un­til it was re-set­tled.

“Back in ’66 we had a house over here on the side of the hill, just down be­low where that shed is,” he said, point­ing al­most di­rectly across the har­bour.

Vau­tier has lots of sto­ries to tell – tales of doc­tors’ ships that used to stop by to re­fill water to mix medicine from the com­mu­nity’s pris­tine, spring-fed ponds.

He can re­call who got the first gen­er­a­tors be­fore elec­tric­ity fi­nally came in, point­ing to dif­fer­ent homes as briefly re­calls some of the town’s his­tory.

He waves a hand at a shore­line where a row of 10 stores once of­fered every­thing from dishes to clothes to yarn and even con­doms. He eye­balls the ice­house, which once played an im­por­tant role in Petites’ econ­omy.

“In the spring of the year when the com­mer­cial sal­mon fish­ery was on the go, the guy here used to buy the sal­mon and they packed them in ice, then shipped them out from here,” said Vau­tier.

Most of the fish was shipped to Bos­ton.

“They had to go across the gulf.”

Vau­tier climbs down into his boat and casts off, wait­ing un­til an­other boat clears his port side be­fore he and his com­pan­ions wave good­bye and head out to sea.

In such a tiny har­bour it’s prac­ti­cally a traf­fic jam.

The Land and Sea episode fea­tur­ing Petites is slated to air in the first quar­ter of 2018.

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Peter El­liott op­er­ates the boom while Christo­pher Richard­son works the cam­era, cap­tur­ing footage of the church re­con­struc­tion.


The re­set­tled out­port of Petites is the fo­cus of a Land and Sea doc­u­men­tary pro­duced by Cranky Goat En­ter­tain­ment.

For­mer res­i­dents of Petites left be­hind many per­sonal be­long­ings, such as this child’s bi­cy­cle, which are steadily be­ing de­stroyed by the harsh win­ter cli­mate.

Even fish­ing dories were left be­hind to rot when Petites was re­set­tled in 2003.

Along with some friends and for­mer res­i­dents, John and Ju­lia Breck­en­ridge will spend over a month shoring up the foun­da­tion and some cos­metic work such as paint­ing the weath­ered ex­te­rior.

Re­con­struc­tion con­tin­ues on the dis­tinc­tive Bethany United Church.

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