HISTORY of CORMACK
The Upper Humber Land Settlement, as the area was first named, followed some trial and error with similar experiments in Newfoundland. Between 1934 and 1942 the Land Settlement Scheme of the Commission of Government established 11 land settlements containing a total of 340 families, but the Scheme was abandoned in 1938 due to mismanagement.
With the exploratory resource survey conducted across the province by P.J. Murray in the early 1940's, the government was able to identify a number of good potential farming areas in Newfoundland, and the Upper Humber Valley with its high proportion of fair to good soils was one of these locations.
The Post War Settlement Program, which designated the Upper Humber for settlement was intended to both rejuvenate the island's declining agricultural industry and provide an area for returning war veterans to settle. It consisted of finding possible agricultural areas, surveying those with potential, training ex-servicemen in agriculture and helping them relocate to the surveyed farming area where they would be assisted in building on, and clearing, the land.
A large amount of that arable land was located east of the Bonne Bay Highway, approximately ten miles north of Deer Lake. After the soil survey, the government negotiated with Bowaters Newfoundland Limited and secured approximately 30,000 acres of good agricultural land, and the community was established under the Land Development Act (1944). The settlement was to be laid out over this area and divided into blocks for each farm. Land divisions would be located along the main road and a few side roads. It was hoped to establish 300 ex-servicemen in the settlement by the end of 1948, and it was thought that at the beginning many of the settlers could supplement their incomes by logging.
Under the relocation scheme each family would get 50 acres of land, of which 10 acres had to be cleared before settlement, plus a six room bungalow and money ($724) for the purchase of foundation livestock, farm implements, seeds and fertilizers, barn construction, and one winter’s maintenance allowance. They would have a permit to occupy 20 acres for one year, and after five years they were entitled to a grant if land improvements were done. The settlers would have to repay $500 for the dwelling house and would have to pay $1,000 over a ten year period for the grant and agree to work the land. The remainder of the land was to be held in reserve until the occupant decided to expand his farm. It was intended to keep a reserve of land for new farms for farmers' sons and subsequent immigrants. Settlers could be turned off the program if, after two years, they proved unsatisfactory.
217 veterans applied under this plan and 163 were approved. Previous farming experience or a twelve month training course in Canada were required before settlement. Notices were sent in newspapers and over the radio to inform war veterans about the Upper Humber Land Settlement. A prospective settler then had to have an interview with Mines and Resources in St. John’s. Of those who applied, 11 had farming experience, 44 went to Nova Scotia for training, 7 to New Jersey, USA, and the rest to the experimental farm at Mount Pearl.
Construction began in June 1945 under the supervision of K. W. Gillingham and Dave Joy who had experience at the Markland farming settlement during the thirties. The only access to the area was a tramway that Bowater built from Reidville to Adies Lake. Equipment to clear land and build roads was transported by this tramway. Arrangements were made with Leonard Earle of Pasadena whereby he would supply all lumber for necessary buildings.
The first veterans arrived in May, 1946 and lived in 12'x16' bunkhouses, each housing six men. A staff house was built also. These buildings were to be disposed of as farm units after their initial use.
The area was heavily forested and the birch trees were numerous. During 1946 the ex-servicemen were put to work doing a variety of tasks to support themselves, jobs such as clearing snow from the tramway tracks, cutting railway ties and juniper poles, cutting birch and clearing their own land which they did for 55 cents an hour.
Some of the ex-servicemen had no concept of what the area was like. They all received the 50 acres of arable land, in addition to a few more acres of non‑arable land, and were, for the most part, very enthusiastic about the land settlement at first. Later many believed the land was cleared improperly, resulting in most of the topsoil being pushed into the windrows.
In the fall of 1946, the first families began to arrive, and faced a tough first winter. They had to work for a living in the woods, complete the work on their houses, provide firewood, and sometimes walk ten to fifteen miles to Deer Lake for supplies. Tractors ordered from the USA were not available until midsummer of 1947, which held up road clearing and road construction. The main road was constructed in 1946-47. A series of side roads were constructed in 1947-48.
96 six-room bungalows were built by a contractor, Frank Pye. The style of the houses were all the same, with the exception of a decorative peak which was located in the middle or to the side of the frontal roof. The 28' x 30' houses were large enough but they did have their problems. Green lumber was used for construction, they had no insulation or basements and the brick chimneys often developed large cracks in them. Even when completed the houses were extremely cold.
All of the ex-servicemen were Newfoundlanders, but many of their wives were ex-servicewomen and war brides from overseas urban centers in Scotland, England and Ireland where running water and electricity were taken for granted. Many ultimately found the isolation too much for them, but some expressed appreciation for the peaceful and quiet surroundings after experiencing the horrors of the war. Some of these hardships are described in The Story of a War Bride by Yvonne Wiseman who lived in Cormack from 1947 – 49.
A large number of settlers came in the spring of 1947 when the crop planting began. With the small amount of money they got from Government, they bought horses, ploughs, hoes and fertilizer. But the overall lack of funding restricted occupation and farm activity. Only 90 of the proposed 300 farms were cleared by 1947 and the first cash crop failed because of late planning and a severe late August frost.
In the spring of 1948 farmers had no money for seed or fertilizer and applied for $200 loans. The government initially refused but eventually agreed to an advance of $200 over two years. High fertilizer requirements and potato disease minimized returns and by late 1948 there were only 48 active farmers growing potatoes, turnips, hay and root crops on 362 acres of cleared land. A September storm, the September Gale of 1948, also devastated the area, destroying crops and a warehouse, and making repayment of government loans difficult.
The small acreage cleared made it difficult to keep cattle because of the lack of pasture. The Government paid $10.50 an acre to clear land but it cost nearly $100 an acre to clear land of trees, shrubs, boulders, rocks, and weeds and then put in seeds and spread fertilizer.
Another problem was the limited access to markets. They formed a farmers’ association, the Upper Humber Farmers Association, which found markets for their produce, mostly to Bowater’s woods camps. Some farmers delivered their vegetables to Deer Lake using horse and cart and they could access areas around Bonne Bay, but other markets were difficult to get to. There was also competition from other centrally located farmers. Corner Brook was serviced by places such as the Codroy Valley. Most farmers sold directly rather than using the Association, which charged 5%.
When people started getting trucks, they went to Corner Brook, Bonne Bay and Stephenville to sell their produce. The main road however, was in very bad condition. There were large, almost impassable, mud holes in spring and even after the road dried, there were ruts sometimes a foot deep. Prices for crops were very low, so to survive their income had to be supplemented by working in the woods from January to mid-April. A lot of the wood cut in the early years was birch for railway ties, which could be taken to Deer Lake and sold for a $1.00 each. Pulpwood became more important later. Residents with horses worked at Herb Porter’s woods camp by Grand Lake, while others went with their horses to Lomond.
With no other family members around to help them in time of need, the settlers, who had roots from all areas of Newfoundland, developed close bonds. Cards games and house parties were favorite recreational pursuits as well as opportunities to exchange ideas.
Wildlife was plentiful and rabbit and moose became a big part of their diet. Kept frozen in winter, quarters of moose would be hung in the shed and cut when needed or bottled during warmer weather, and the newly cleared land produced large quantities of wild berries.
Soon after settlement, eighty‑five of the settlers set up their own consumer’s cooperative where they could buy groceries and supplies. Buying shares for $5.00 each, they brought in a small quantity of supplies and obtained one of the sheds belonging to government. They took turns working at night until it was well established enough to be able to hire a manager.
In 1948, the settlement was named Cormack in memory of the explorer and natural historian, William Epps Cormack. The name was chosen from a list submitted by the people of Newfoundland.
In 1949 there were 88 ex-servicemen settlers and their families residing at Cormack. With confederation came a number of changes, which had a great effect on the success of the agricultural industry in the area, the greatest being the removal of tariff restrictions on Canadian mainland agricultural produce. The only Newfoundland agriculture sectors, which managed to weather the change were the egg and fresh milk producers, owing to the freshness of the products demanded in the market place. Cormack, with its root crop industry, smaller farms, and higher costs, could not compete with mainland prices.
Various forms of assistance which were initiated by the Commission of Government, were maintained by the Provincial Government such as land clearing schemes and freight subsidies. A Farm Development Loan Board was established to give loans for the improvement and extension of existing farms and the purchase of equipment, agricultural land and livestock, which enabled some farmers to continue.
By 1950, of the 92 farms originally occupied, 15 had been vacated and 12 other settlers were no longer farming. To many, the daily grind and uncertainty of farming was unacceptable so they left to seek better job opportunities in west coast communities such as Deer Lake, Corner Brook and Stephenville. With changes of ownership only 70 farmers remained and about 50 families were in residence. See voters list for 1955 and 1966.
A fall 1950 effort to sell some unused or vacated farms to non‑veterans was largely unsuccessful, but a drastic price reduction enabled most to be sold in 1951, when 84 homesteads were occupied by farmers, although only a few were full time. This expansion may have helped ensure the survival of the community.
The first Church of England gatherings were held in the staff house and then in the school, with ministers coming from Deer Lake and Corner Brook to hold services. In 1947, Bishop Abraham asked all parishes to donate funds to build a Church of England church in Cormack. With donations from the people and a bank loan of $1000, about 8000 ft. of lumber which had been left over from the Department of Mines and Resources buildings in Cormack was purchased. The church, named St. George’s Church was erected as a memorial to the veterans and was used for nearly 50 years. A new church erected on the same property remains a memorial to war veterans, the only one of its kind in Eastern Canada.
Obtaining emergency medical care was a major source of worry for the first settlers. A trip to Deer Lake could take one or two hours by horse and cart or horse and sled depending on the conditions, which was especially difficult for expectant wives. When Lililus Hillier came from Lamaline with her son Hubert in 1947 she saw the need and decided to train in midwifery at the Grace Hospital in St. John’s. From the time she first delivered a baby for Mrs. Vera Sheppard in 1948 to her retirement in 1962, she assisted in about 240 births, 117 girls (including one set of twins) and 123 boys (including two sets of twins).
The first mail service was provided by George Gosse, who occupied the first house built in Cormack, nearest the staff house. By 1950 the mail service was taken over by Saumarez and Margaret Duffney. Margaret was postmistress until 1972 when rural route mail service began.
When the community started most of the ex-servicemen were young, some were not married and others just recently married, and as a result there weren’t many school age children yet. During the winter of 1947 Augustine (Gus) Roberts had his sister Irene housekeeping for him. When residents found out she was a teacher, they asked her to start a school. She converted the front room of his house into a classroom, and in March, 1947, with just nine students, classes started.
In 1951, Cyril Sheppard became the teacher, using the staff house as the school. Later a three room schoolhouse was built near the staff house for primary grades. Attending school was difficult especially in winter, as the farms were widely spaced. In a subsequent attempt to further improve the community the government provided another elementary school in Cormack West and a grant to the Deer Lake School Board to transport older children free to the high schools in Deer Lake. In 1965 there were 112 pupils up to Grade Eight in the two schools. A new school was built in 1967 to service the whole community up to Grade Eight and later only to Grade Six. The school closed due to declining enrollment in 1998, and all school children are now bussed to Deer Lake schools.
A building to house a public library and a council office and meeting room was established in 1967 with funding from the Canadian Centennial celebrations. Both were relocated to the Community Centre after renovations and addition of a new section in 1981-82. The Centennial building was converted to a Senior Citizen’s Centre, and is now designated as a 50+ club.
After its initial construction the Cormack road was extended to become part of the Cross Country Highway which bisected the community. This increased the flow of traffic and gave easier access to Big Falls on the Humber River. Big Falls was developed in 1954 as a provincial park by the government and was named Sir Richard Squires Memorial Park. The new route for the Trans Canada Highway bypassing the community east of Deer Lake was built in 1965.
The community gradually became more of a rural dormitory community for Deer Lake with extra income for families from part‑time farming and logging. After a short period of growth from 325 in 1951 to 486 in 1961, the settlement had declined to 432 in 76 families by 1966.
The Land Development Act provides a clause which states that in the event there is no governing body in the community, some other administrating board may govern. This was the case with the Board of the Cormack Cooperative Society. All dealings with the Provincial Government were done through them, but the job of governing the community soon became a task too big for the Board to handle, and the people elected to have a Community Council in 1964. The first councillors were Pearce Upward, Cyril Sheppard, Gordon Cullihall, Ishmael Smith and John T. White.
The community incorporated on April 8, 1964 under the Community Council Act, 1962, its boundary gazetted in June 1969. With a council, efforts that had begun in the 1950's to get Cormack supplied with electricity and telephones could be pursued more effectively. Bowaters had initially offered free access to the Deer Lake supply, but the $70,000 equipment cost for distribution was too high. Electrical service came to Cormack with the first connection on April 5, 1965. Telephone service arrived in 1969, with a telephone system installed in December 1970. Because the community was so spread out, an interconnected water and sewage system was impractical and all the houses still have their own wells and septic tanks.
Agricultural development was stalled due to the late arrival of electricity. The result of this was with a drastic drop in the percentage of farms between 1955 and 1966 and the late development of the swine, dairy and broiler industries. During the 50's and 60's when jobs were readily available in the forest industry, many of the original settlers had changed occupations. The settlers who stayed long enough to meet the requirements of the lease, acquired title to their land but, by then, farming was only a supplementary source to their income.
After 1966 there was a levelling off effect. Some of the farmers stayed with root crops, but new types of farming, dairy, broiler, and strawberry farming and hay production were introduced.
The Province began a 600 acre pasture in 1967, the largest of thirty throughout the province, to provide cheap grazing for the cattle and sheep of the Cormack farmers and allowing the farmer’s own land to be sown for winter feed. The government also provided veterinary services, mineral supplements, a program of spraying and dusting for parasites, and the services of a purebred bull at the pasture.
The population in 1971 was at 561 in 100 families with a labour force of 130. Local employers included three sawmills, the Co-op store, Humber Valley Farm Equipment and the school board with 34 local jobs, but most jobs were outside the community.
During the 1970's the district vocational school at Corner Brook offered a course in pottery which attracted many local residents. Although the course was phased out in 1975, it served to interest the Humber Valley Development Association in the possibility of processing clay from the Wild Cove deposits near Corner Brook. A building was purchased in Cormack, but successive operators were unable to make it viable and it eventually closed.
The paving of the Bonne Bay Highway to Gros Morne National Park enabled Cormack to obtain pavement on Veteran’s Drive, the main road through the community, in 1973. With this, it became just as convenient to shop in Deer Lake as in Cormack, resulting in the eventual closing of the Co‑op store.
The paving of the main road through Cormack also enabled the construction of a stadium in 1972. Officially named Veteran’s Memorial Stadium on March 3, 1981, it operated mainly as a winter sports arena until its closure in 1994 due to building codes and the regionalization of recreational facilities. The structure was dismantled in 1996.
In 1975 there were 12 full time and 12 part time farmers who raised one or more of beef, dairy, hog, broilers or root crops. By 1976, when the population was 672, only 20 farms remained in operation, the majority of citizens were still employed outside the community and Cormack became even more of a dormitory for Deer Lake and even Corner Brook. Residential development was encouraged by the community council in the 1970's to ensure basic services. This type of development was aided by low land prices and few building restrictions.
During the 1970's the Newfoundland government tried to revitalize farming which had declined mainly because of limited market access and competition from mainland producers. The Department of Agriculture was interested in expanding agricultural development and was taking steps to ensure that lands with good agricultural potential were reserved for farm use. During the latter half of the seventies, it prepared inventories of good available agricultural land with a view to establishing controls to ensure that such lands be reserved for farm use. The first Community Plan was completed in March, 1976, adopted July 4, 1977 and came into effect Oct. 6, 1978.
In 1977, Vegetable Marketing Associates Ltd. (VMAL) was formed to help alleviate marketing problems and co-ordinate the sale of produce. The Department of Rural, Agricultural and Northern Development (RAND) built and equipped a centralized processing building at Deer Lake in 1979, but a combination of factors ended the operation of VMAL in 1982. Persistent marketing problems led to the closure of three hog operations in 1984 due to glutted mainland markets.
Early in 1980 the government issued an invitation for public applications to develop five new farm units covering a total of 405 ha (1,000 acres) in the area. Traditionally, however, few people have been attracted to farming or have had the capital necessary to operate a farm as a profitable commercial enterprise.
Today with larger markets, refrigeration, better transportation and a more diverse agricultural base, Cormack, with its predominant dairy industry, is considered a major agricultural area.
Because of the excellent building conditions, the attractive surroundings and the comparatively low land prices, the community continues to spark interest as a residential area for people employed outside the community and those who wish to retire in a quiet setting.
**Compiled by Marie Morris from library files and the following sources:
Encyclopaedia of Newfoundland and Labrador
When I Was Young: A History of the Humber Valley
Decks Awash: November, 1985