Haunting Beauty: A Day in Petites
Film crew documents decaying outport for Land and Sea
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.