Monday, July 24, 2017

Learning about St. John's, or "that old flannel shirt you love to wear when you're sooky" #Collectivememoriesmonday

My name is Andrea McGuire, and I am a folklore MA student at Memorial University. This summer, I am working in partnership with Conservation Corps NL and the Intangible Cultural Heritage office as the Cultural Conservation Intern. Throughout my degree, I have interviewed dozens of people about their stories and traditions (especially those related to hitchhiking, which was the subject of my master’s thesis). In this position, I am helping Dale with the Living Heritage Podcast, gathering folk tales for an upcoming project with the Local Immigration Partnership, and conducting a slew of oral history interviews.

So far, most of these interviews have centered on memories of old St. John’s. Upon returning to St. John’s in 1975 (after dwelling in such places as Toronto and Australia), interviewee Barry Whelan likened the city to “that old flannel shirt you love to wear when you’re sooky.” Having lived downtown for the past nine years (with no compulsion to stray further afield), I can definitely relate to this sentiment. But what is it about the city as it was and its modern iteration that remains the same, other than this continuity of sooky attachment? It can be fun to imagine historical features overlaying the modern landscape—the apparition of a horse, the humming of the streetcars—but how do these versions of St. John’s fit together?

Since beginning this job, I have learned a great deal about the city and the way things used to be. Some memories are easy to relate to—interviewee Madge Noseworthy, who was born in the Battery in 1931, offered vivid recollections of picking blueberries on Signal Hill, saying, “I remember you’d go off berry picking and when you’d come back, your mouth’d be blue from eating the berries, you know? But they were gorgeous to eat!” (Madge later mentioned her distaste for store-bought blueberries: “Even in cookies, they’re not nice.”) Blueberry picking on Signal Hill has certainly stood the test of time. But other historical details seem impossibly far away, almost of another place—horses carrying freight from the harbour up the hills; a downtown replete with “four or five theatres that everybody knew,” where, as Barry Whelan remembered it, “the real thing to do was bring all your comic books to the movie on Saturday afternoon … you went all around the place and everyone went crazy trading comics”; people ice-skating, somehow, across the Narrows; and the sight of horse troughs in the streets (complete with low-hanging watering troughs for dogs, since horses weren’t the only thirsty animals on the block).

The last watering trough for dogs and horses in St. John’s, situated in Bowring Park.
July 8th marked the 125th anniversary of the 1892 Great Fire, and the ICH office all kept busy with a number of commemorative activities. My task was to mind archival photographs of the city in ruins, which were displayed in the Bannerman Park pool house. Over the weekend, history buffs and swimmers alike wandered into the room, and many visitors spoke about their ancestors’ brush with the fire. Until this weekend, I was unaware that thousands of citizens camped in Bannerman Park for months in the wake of the disaster. Since then, however, the fire of 1892 (and subsequent mass camp-out) has come up repeatedly in my interviews with long-term residents. It seems clear that the fire is firmly lodged in the city’s collective memory.

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