Gander’s First Manager – Eli Baker

by Frank Tibbo

The new Town of Gander was administered by the Board of Trustees of the Local Improvement District from January 1, 1955, to January 8, 1959. It was sometime during the spring of 1955 that the Board knew the time had come to hire an employee, a person to manage the fledging town. They had made an easy decision. “Eli is our man!” Eli

There were other candidates applying for the position, but Eli Baker won the job ‘hands down.’ He had the experience, education and general good record that made the Board’s decision easy. He began managing the town on May 1, 1955.

There was no Town Council – things were in a transition zone with matters being run by the Board of Trustees. There were no town employees – the Department of Transport picked up the garbage, cleared the snow, put out the fires, bussed the kids to school, supplied the water and electricity, and treated the sewage. There was also no town office.

Mr. Baker was given office space in a CMHC house located on Elizabeth Drive. His job was to build an organization to take over all the functions being provided by the federal government’s Department of Transport at the airport, to introduce a method of tax collection, and to establish a tax rate. His main goal was to make the new town independent of the federal government.

There may have been times during the next 21 years that Eli Baker wondered whether he should have accepted the job. If there were such moments, he kept them well concealed. It was his job to delicately handle first the frustrations of the Board of Trustees, then later, as a Town Council was elected, to guide the councillors as they worked to ameliorate living conditions for the growing population.

To this end, he always ensured that the Board of Trustees and later the Town Council (first Town Council elected January 8, 1959) received the credit when something went right and he willingly accepted the blame when things went wrong. His calm and logical approach to problems, and there were lots of problems, kept things on an even keel.

Don Blackmore was on the first Gander Town Council. “Eli was much more knowledgeable about the town development than any of us newbies to Municipal Government, and we respected and depended on his guidance and advice. So from this aspect Eli did indeed play a large role in the early direction of policy and planning, and only now do I realize how well, quietly and unassuming he governed the actions and policies of those early councillors.”

The original planners decided that the new town would probably grow to 5,000 with 1300 residential units. Services were geared to match this figure, but it became evident very quickly that the town would have to expand its original plans. During Mr. Baker’s tenure, and ever since, the town expanded every year. The original planning guided by Eli Baker meant that future expansion would be orderly and practical.

In an interview with the Beacon in 1976, he said:

“All of this planning and building was not carried out without its notes of pessimism. Even then there were rumours and talk that Gander would be phased out.” He added: “A lot of people who came to Gander when the town was first starting to build continued to support the church in their own communities rather than the ones in Gander because they did not think the town would survive.”

Eli Baker was born in Elliston in 1911. His first vocation was that of school teacher. He taught at Green’s Harbour where he met his future wife Violet from Norris Arm North, Fortune, Newfoundland. His last teaching position was principal of the school in Springdale from 1942 to 1945.

Mr. George W. Warr of Springdale graduated from high school in 1945 while Mr. Baker was principal of the school. Mr. Warr graduated from Dalhousie University and gladly acknowledges that his former principal was partially responsible for his success.

In 1945 Springdale advertised for a Town Clerk for their new council, and Eli Baker applied for and got the job. He remained in that position until 1949.

In 1949, the Sir Frederick Banting Memorial Hospital located at Gander Airport was looking for someone to fill the position of secretary (administrator). That’s what brought Mr. Baker to Gander. He stayed in that position until 1955 when the Gander Board of Trustees advertised for a manager.

An interesting note regarding his tenure as the hospital secretary concerned the hospital fee paid by each family. “One of my responsibilities was to collect $20 a year from each family.”

Mr. Baker’s daughter-in-law Averill Baker spoke with me about Eli:

“We remember him telling with pride that Gander was the first town in Newfoundland that was built to a modern plan instead of being developed ‘willy-nilly’ (my words not his). I remember him telling me with pride how McCurdy Drive was dedicated as the industrial area of Gander, and he liked the idea that the residential areas were not interspersed with businesses as is the case in so many other towns in Newfoundland. Our son is named after Eli and his motto as a lawyer was learned from his grandfather Eli: ‘Right is right, and wrong is no man's right.’ When George first started entering public speaking contests, Eli would help him write his speeches, and I can guarantee you that George may have inherited his mother's agile manner of speaking, but the eloquence of what Eli wrote George can still quote the speech about ancient Greece that won him a trip to the UN in New York when he was still in high school – was passed on to him from Eli.”

Eli retired on May 30, 1976, and died in 1989 at the age of 78.

Note: I, incidentally, served on the Gander Town Council during a portion of Mr. Baker’s tenure. I wish, also, to thanks Mrs. Averill Baker, Mr. Don Blackmore, and Mr. George W. Warr for their assistance with this story.


submitted by F. Tibbo

top return to top