Reproduced with permission from The Beacon Supplement  July 31, 1991.


Winter of '38

During the winter of 1938 the female population of Gander was one.  She was Mrs. Brant, the wife of Flight Lieutenant Brant of the original Signals Unit.  She found life a bit rugged but apparently, interesting.  At that time, roads were non-existent and the Signals staff either skied to work or went in a contraption known as the “Prairie Schooner” which was a small wooden structure fitted with skis and towed by a tractor.  This original “mobile home” was fitted with a coal burning stove and a supply of food. 

 During blizzards pocket compasses had to be carried, otherwise, there was a very good chance of losing the way and becoming a casualty.  Mrs. Brant and her husband had to ski to the railway station, another mere shack, for food supplies, and, at one time, were marooned for four days by a ranging blizzard. This taught them the necessity of keeping sufficient food and supplies on hand.  The Brants lived in a shack with no furniture.  They cooked on a pump-primus oil stove, used cable drums for tables and apple barrels for chairs.  Mrs. Brant was asked to make up the first food to be requisitioned by the engineers to supply families  that would arrive later. 

 The Brants first home in Newfoundland was at the marine base in Botwood where they lived throughout the winter in a house without heat, except for the kitchen stove.  But, this was the way of life in most Newfoundland outports before the advent of such modern amenities as electricity. 

 Hearing of their plight, an aunt back in England decided to help out and sent some long flannel night shirts.    Using those, and the early “newfie” heating pad (heated birch junks wrapped in old blanket pieces and tucked between the bed clothes), they managed to survive the harsh winter climate.  The lowest temperature F/O Brant remembered was 34 degrees below zero Fahrenheit but this was uncommon. 

 By February, 1939, there was the nucleus of a small town at Gander……there were six women and 1500 men.  They had parties in the dining building; they skied, skated, fished and formed a club call the Newfoundland Airport Club for which the local government granted them a liquor permit.  All service personnel, members of the engineers and officers were eligible.

 They bought a movie projector and piano and with films from St. Johns gave shows for which they charged 25 cents admission.  A makeshift cinema was set up in the dining room of the administration building.  Many Newfoundlanders saw their first movie there. Dances were sometimes held after the show     and the gentry turned out in style. 

 By the end of 1939, the female population had grown to 20 and the first native Ganderite was born.  He was Donald Myrick, whose father was a Newfoundland on the radio staff of the RAF.  There was no hospital or clinic facilities at Gander at that time so the health of all the workers fell to Dr. Knapp from Lewisporte who made frequent trips to pull teeth, deliver babies and attend to various bouts of the common cold, fevers and other minor maladies.  He dispensed medicines from a small shack and with his little black bag rode the rails on a small speeder to “help the folks who were building the big airport.”  The doctor and the folks were lucky, health was fair for the most part and there were no epidemics.

 The first dance Flight Lieutenant Brant attended with his wife at the land base was a memorable one.  It was occasioned by a visit from the Grand Falls Badminton team.  There was heavy snow and they set out for the dance by bulldozer, five of which got bogged down before they finally got through in the sixth one. 

 Another famous dance was held to celebrate the completion of the Beaver Centre, named for Lord Beaverbrook.  There were so few girls that 70 were imported by train from Grand Falls.  Unfortunately, the army got wind of this, boarded the train when it arrived and had to be ejected by main force. 

 All in all, with the excitement of living at the site of the world’s largest airport at that time, life for Gander’s first family wasn’t too bad.

researched by Carol Walsh


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