Around noon we came to Bonavista and stopped to visit the Ryan Premises, a National Historic Site. We found this very worthwhile and spent about two and a half hours here. These buildings are the Retail Shop on the right,which is a souvenir shop, and that building also includes the old office of James Ryan, the proprietor.
The second building behind that is the Retail Store--which contains the orientation centre with an excellent introduction to the east coast fishery story. This was a comprehensive display that also taught much about the cod themselves. There was a history of the whole fishery, and of the Ryan Premises themselves. James Ryan was the merchant who supplied the needs of the fishermen and took payment in dried cod. He had a large house across the road from these buildings.
On the second floor is the Bonavista museum, a large room with lots of old objects donated by townspeople and organized into area by topics.
There was an excellent display case with drawings and text that explained how the fishermen knew where they were on the water. They memorized the landmarks all around and lined themselves up front and back by these landmarks. That could tell them just where they were on the water, and over what area of sea bottom they were placed. Certain areas were excellent for fishing at certain times. It was possible to catch a ton of cod overnight, just using a "handline."
We had learned much about the plight of these desperately poor, incredibly hard-working fishermen and their families in other displays, and it was a bit unsettling to read about it from the merchant's side of things.
There were two other buildings on the site, a Fish store with more displays and a Salt Store, used to store the huge amounts of salt needed for the cod fishery until modern times when the catch was quickly frozen. Now it contains a display of "Outport furniture," furniture made by the residents of the isolated fishing villages, known as "outports." They made use of whatever they could find, mainly shipping crates, as can be determined by looking at the back of the furniture, or the undersides of drawers, where the original printing is still found.
The season began sometime in May when the cod came in close to the shore following the run of cappelin. The main catch followed until sometime in July/August. The work was intense because the cod would spoil if left in the heat of summer. As soon as the boats came in the fish were flung onto the "stage" with pitchforks. Men, women and children worked together to quickly move the cod to tables where they were beheaded, slit open, the livers saved to make cod liver oil, the rest of the offal thrown back into the water under the stage.
They were then salted and left for some time, after which they were rinsed and laid out on "flakes" which were platforms held several feet off the ground. There they were dried by the sun and the weather, turned several times. When they were dried they were stored and in the fall taken to the store to be applied against the debt incurred when the necessary supplies had been bought "on credit" in the spring.
All that work had to be done very quickly, to preserve the quality of the cod, and because in a few hours there would be another couple tons to process. Men, women and even children worked incredibly hard, just to maintain a miserable level of subsistence.
Here's a view of the Bonavista harbour today, a lovely, colourful place. You can see that the weather has improved over the course of the day.