Remembering Jimmy Joe, the ‘poor unfortunate’ from Conception Bay

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How Confederation changed life for this long ago resident of Bowback's Cove

Jimmy Joe lived most of his life on the edge of the Bowback’s Brook, just below the overfall before it emptied into the sea.

Dr. William O'Flaherty

Jimmy Joe lived most of his life on the edge of the Bowback’s Brook, just below the overfall before it emptied into the sea.

He wasn’t much of it, as my father used to say. He was a “poor unfortunate” who spent most of his life living alone in a small shack that he called home, a tarpaper dwelling about the size of a modern bathroom.

A community fixture

Jimmy Joe had no close relatives, but everybody accepted him as part of the community and had a caring attitude toward him; and, in the days before Confederation with Canada, he and his little house were standard fixtures in the community of Bowback’s Cove, becoming part of the childhood memories of many of us.

The most unusual feature about Jimmy Joe was that he had a home but had no land to put it on, so he was forced to become somewhat of a nomad, and — like the gypsies of Europe — was forced to live in the lanes and on the community commons and wherever else a kindly neighbour allowed.

A description of his humble abode is required here. The foundation of his house were two large logs, called shores, each curved upward slightly in front and, running parallel to each other, securely fastened to the bottom of the building.

Up front, joining the distal ends of the curved part of the shores was a short, sturdy chain kept in place by eye bolts secured into the wood, used in moving the building when the need arose.

Inside the place was a small cast iron wood stove, vented by a metal pipe protruding through the tar paper roof, a bunk nailed onto one wall with a mattress made up of burlap bags stuffed with dried grass, a makeshift table nailed onto the opposite wall, and a couple of chairs.

And there, in that humble abode, Jimmy Joe lived his life, along with his small dog alongside the brook that supplied his water needs, its sound lulling him to sleep each night for most of his life.

Plenty of fish

A great part of the time, depending on his mood, he lived in a drung on the side of the brook, downstream below the overfall.

He didn’t have to stay there; it was, after all, a simple matter to ask a neighbour with a horse to attach a tailstick onto the chain and move the estate up or down the drung a ways, or, for that matter, further down close to Bowbak’s Beach where, especially in the spring and summer, lots of fish were being brought ashore.

There, all during the fishing season, Jimmy Joe was given all the fresh fish he needed, and, more than that, on into the autumn when kindly neighbours, all of them fishermen (some of them distant cousins) gave him yaffles of dried salt cod to live on during the winter.

Each winter a neighbour who had a piece of heavy timberland at the bottom of Bowbak’s Hill allowed Jimmy Joe to haul his house into the treed area where he was sheltered against the worst of the winter weather.

Indeed, that same neighbour supplied the horse to haul the house onto his property and, on occasion, shovelled out the entrance after a heavy snowfall.

A religious man

I well remember visiting him and his little dog when I was a child, more out of curiosity than for any other reason.

His house was usually overheated and always smelled of tobacco, wood smoke and boiled salt codfish.

On the wall that faced you, as you came in the door, were pictures and religious symbols, testifying to his faith in the religion of the church in Northern Bay which he attended without fail every Sunday.

After his Sunday visits there, and on weekdays as well, he often came to our place asking if we needed firewood chopped; usually the first indication of his presence was the sound of the axe on the chopping block outside, which sound delighted me since it meant I didn’t have the responsibility of performing the chore that day.

His presence was always welcomed and his offer to chop wood for the wood stove was never refused.

He would carry in armloads of wood, enough to fill the woodbox, whereupon my mother and grandmother always rewarded him with a meal, which he ate in the porch, refusing to come into the kitchen.

He would then depart for his walk to Bowbak’s Cove with a brin (burlap) bag on his back with some wood junks inside, and, often, a loaf of bread or a salt fish.

Social assistance

In April 1949, Newfoundland became a province of Canada. Multiple social benefits, previously unavailable, were lavished on the people of the province and one of these benefits was deemed to be available to people like Jimmy Joe.

My father, a staunch pro Confederate, was appointed to review the population in his area and determine who, if any, deserved special consideration. He filled out an application for Jimmy Joe, stating — supported by medical evidence — that he was of limited intelligence, illiterate and deemed eligible for long-term social assistance.

When confronted with the application — and its contents explained — he refused to place his “X” next to his name, stating to my father: “I’m as smart as the next fella …”

He refused to accept the fact that he was judged to be disabled and held on to that opinion for a full year until the local clergyman convinced him that, in the eyes of God, he was as good as the next man, but in the opinion of the Canadians who had taken over the place, he deserved a pension.

He finally relented, and things changed for Jimmie Joe after that. He was sent a cheque every month, and the postmaster, living the distance of a couple of communities up the shore, soon recognized who the man was, and learned that he “moved around a bit” but never failed to send him his cheque on the day it arrived.

Expected payment

Then, other things happened; he stopped doing odd jobs for his neighbours, such as chopping their firewood; after all, he had money now to get all the “grub” he needed, and he didn’t need to live off handouts any more.

As well, the charity previously received from members of the community became less; the people still looked upon him with favour but became less generous in giving him salt fish and firewood for the winter, and expected payment when he wanted his house moved from one place to another.

And, as you might expect, the clergyman who had convinced him to accept a Canadian sponsored disability pension (and who, up to then, had considered Jimmy Joe exempt from church fees), now expected him to pay his “dues,” and contribute to the multiple collections at Easter, Christmas, during Lent, and other sundry occasions in support of the church.

Rotted to the ground

When my childhood days were over and I moved on to other things, Jimmy Joe was still there, still living in his small cabin with his small crackie dog.

Years later, when I came back home he was gone. He had moved away, I was told.

I have, to this day, failed to find what eventually happened to him, mainly because those who knew him had also “moved away” in one way or another.

His little house, they say, stayed, for once, in one location and eventually rotted into the ground.

Jimmie Joe is gone. His small place is gone. But lots of memories linger.

— Dr. William O'Flaherty is author of a best-selling memoir entitled "Tomcats and House Calls: Memoir of a Country Doctor." He worked a 40-year career as a country doctor in Newfoundland and New Brunswick. He was the country doctor in Western Bay, on the north shore of Conception Bay, from 1967 to 1989, and was born in the tiny fishing village of Long Beach, at the lower end Northern Bay. He writes from Moncton, NB.

Geographic location: Conception Bay

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