The account you are about to read contains some of my fondest memories of growing up in West Head in the 1960s. I hope you will reply with some of yours for everybody to enjoy.
I am pleased to feature the folk art paintings of my father, Eugene Roache (1921-2013). They reflect the West Head of his and his parents’ day. A very special thank you to my brother, Edsel Roache, who helped fill in the blanks and put it all together.
The sleepy little community of West Head is located on Nova Scotia’s southwestern shore. It sits on a narrow, rocky spit of land that juts out into the frigid Atlantic Ocean. Water surrounds its east, west and south sides. A constant wind blows over the land. Late spring, summer, and early fall can be gorgeous. Winter, on the other hand, can be vicious — no place for the faint of heart.
A large portion of the west side of West Head is uninhabitable. It is covered with a bottomless, wetland known as a sphagnum peat bog. A wide variety of berries, plants and animals call it home. Rare pink lady slippers, carnivorous pitcher plants, and fluorescent pinks reveal themselves to those with a sharp eye. Fir and spruce trees grow on the far side of the bog, deformed by constant winds. Strangely, these scrubby trees have looked the same for as long as anyone can remember.
Beavers, muskrats, minks, turtles, rabbits, red foxes, raccoons, frogs, snakes, toads, porcupines and the occasional black bear roamed freely.
Today, West Head has fewer than fifty full-time residents, mostly adults. The school bus makes one stop to pick up a few children, but it was not always so. If the ancient rocks could talk, they would recount a compelling history.
There were twenty-two families in the West Head of my childhood, many with a houseful of children. I have organized the families, as memory serves, in order from North to South.
Families led uncomplicated lives. It was okay to open the door and walk into someone’s house. Only strangers, door-to-door salesmen, and Jehovah’s Witnesses knocked on the never locked doors. Neighbours borrowed a couple of eggs, a cup of sugar or a can of Carnation® milk from each other. When tragedy struck a family, the whole community pitched in to help.
Several species of wild berries grew in West Head. In summer, children and adults picked strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, black brier berries, bakeapple berries and, last of all, cranberries in the fall. The sweet aroma of jams and jellies filled many kitchens. as women put down a generous supply of preserves to enjoy in winter.
West Head boasted a thriving harbour filled with boats and dories. Known as Townsends’ Harbour, it had no wharf. The boats were tied up at berths in the harbour and men rowed out in dories. I remember most of the fishermen:
- Brothers, Eugene Roache, Ernest Roache, Mervin Roache and Herman Roache
- Brothers, Foster Morash, Ira Morash, Leslie Morash
- Brothers, Manus Roache and Glen Roache
- Clarence Gaetz and Frank Townsend
Clarence Gaetz, Eugene Roache, Keith Roache and Les Morash built fish houses. Fishermen stored out-of-season gear and worked at their lobster traps in these buildings.
One by one, fishermen left West Head and moved their boats to Lockeport and other harbours. They tied up their boats at government funded and maintained wharves. Only a couple of fishermen chose to remain in West Head.
The inshore fishery flourished during the sixties and seventies. The ocean was rich with fish and lobsters. Fishermen did not need a licence to catch mackerel, herring, and groundfish. Only a lobster permit was mandatory which, in 1967, cost 25 cents. Lobsters sold for 60 cents per pound. In spring, fishermen set lobster traps and mackerel nets. In summer, they set nets for herring and mackerel and used hook and line trawl for groundfish — mostly cod and haddock. Hook and line trawl fishing continued into the fall. In winter, fishermen set their lobster traps once again.
In warm weather, fishing nets in need of mending covered most fields. Men, none more famous than Lyman Roache, sat by the hour repairing holes of all sizes. Blackfish and whales ripped holes as big as cars. Ground sharks did more serious damage.
Fishermen began fishing for herring and mackerel with cotton nets that had to be dipped in catechu or “cutch”, a preservative. It was a procedure with many steps.
Eventually, nylon nets replaced the cotton nets and tanning became obsolete.
All that remains in Townsend’s Harbour today is the fish house that belonged to Clarence Gaetz. Long vacated, a vast number of porcupines have moved into it. Given the events of stormy weather and neglect, I suspect the days of Gaetz’s fish house are numbered.
West Head was a haven for children in every season of the year. At low tide in summer, they dug clams and steamed them over a fire at the beach. They dove off the sterns of boats in the harbour and fished and swam from Lyman’s Rock. Children spent entire days exploring the shoreline. One of my brothers recalls playing Cowboys and Indians on Toad Rock, a longtime fixture on the east side of West Head.
During the last part of May and into June, children caught eels in Job’s Pond. The best time to catch eels was from shortly before sundown until about an hour after sunset. Groups of young people from several families gathered at the pond after supper. Each one had a specific job. They worked together to build a fire from driftwood and old traps and caught eels with a hook and line. A couple of them volunteered to skin the eels and to roast them over the fire for everyone to eat. They gave the extra eels to anyone who wanted them.
Families burned off their fields in the spring. By June, the grass would have grown high enough to cut as hay for animals. Although Clarence Gaetz had no animals, he hired Charles Morash Jr. to cut his hay with a scythe. Local children would rake it and put it in Clarence’s barn in exchange for a bottle of Nesbitt’s orange pop. Those who ran out of hay in winter could buy it from Clarence for 25 cents a bag. Gaetz—always a business man.
Darius and Caroline Townsend with their large family of sons, Alonzo, Victor, Neville, Milford and Burnley along with daughter, Brenda lived immediately to our south. “Darius’ Hill”, as it was known, was one of the happiest and busiest spots in West Head. Children played ground hockey, baseball, wrestling, walk-a-ball, horseshoes, croquet, lawn darts, badminton and tennis and anything else they could think of. Community children also enjoyed baseball at Aunt Dorothy and Uncle Elliott Nickerson’s. West Head has a hilly, uneven, rocky terrain, but the Nickersons were blessed with a large flat field, perfect for baseball. West Head belonged to a baseball league and competed with teams from Osborne, Allendale, and Lockeport.
Winter made way for a host of cold weather sports. At low tide, the boys zoomed down the front of Bob’s (Bruce’s) Island on barrel stave skis (sounds dangerous). There was hockey and skating on Merv’s Pond, Dorothy’s Pond and Job’s Pond. Children loved to sled down Darius’ and Lyman’s hills.
My grandfather, Leonard Roache, ran a small store for many years. It was convenient for those who did not drive, those who just needed a loaf of bread or for kids who wanted pop, chips, and chocolate bars. Grandfather Roache let families run tabs during lean times of the year. He maintained most paid up when offshore fishing resumed. At least, that was his story.
West Head had its own school attended by several generations, including my grandparents, my father, and my older brothers. My Dad and his friend John Buchanan drew drinking water from the “Turtle Pond.” Everyone drank from the same dipper. A pot-bellied stove fill with coal provided the heat. The school had two outside toilets — one for the boys and one for the girls.
Recess fun included games of baseball, tag, and hide-and-seek. Another favourite was to climb to the top of a cat spruce tree and then slide down the branches to the ground. Surprisingly, there were no broken arms or legs. Mrs. Jessie MacKenzie (my father’s aunt), Mr. Ernest Nickerson (my mother’s brother), Miss Barbara Ann Scott, Mrs. Arieta Rhyno and Mrs. Irma Buchanan were several of the teachers.
Naughty children forfeited recess and sat in the corner wearing a humiliating dunce cap. The well-worn strap sat in a prominent place on the teacher’s desk.
The West Head School closed in the early 1960s with Mrs. Irma Buchanan as the final teacher. Students from West Head and East Green Harbour were then bused to the brand new Ragged Island Consolidated School in Osborne. They joined with students from Osborne, Lydgate, Allendale and Pleasant Point. The school buses were jammed full of children, three to a seat.
A few years later local men tore down the West Head School and shared the wood among themselves.
And, so ended an era.
While West Head may have fewer than 50 full-time residents, there are individuals scattered throughout every province and territory and almost every country who can trace their roots back to this tiny, rocky spit of land. They have fond memories of the fishing community they left behind.
Many of them would stop in to visit Dad when visiting family. They loved to reminisce about the good old days. They wanted to know about the people of years ago who had since passed away.
Dad looked on as they grew silent and stared out over the water. What were they remembering? Catching eels in Job’s Pond? Playing ball hockey on Darius’ hill? Jumping off Lyman’s Rock? Drawing water from the Turtle Pond?
Oh, yes, all that and much, much more.