Local storyteller Dave Paddon tells his family’s story of life and service in the Big Land.
Stored in 11 boxes at the Newfoundland and Labrador Archives is a huge portion of Dave Paddon’s family history. The boxes are filled with correspondence and photos that tell the tales of his parent’s and grandparent’s lives in Labrador.
Two generations of the Paddon family devoted their lives to providing medical services, and later education, to the isolated communities up and down the Labrador coastline. His father Anthony (Tony) Paddon went on to serve as the province’s seventh lieutenant governor from 1981-1986.
Paddon was at The Rooms on Thursday to tell their story, or as much as he could fit into his one-hour lecture called From Dog Teams to Bush Planes.
“I’d need about six hours to do it justice,” said Paddon.
Paddon is a retired commercial pilot and a well-known storyteller around Newfoundland and Labrador. He credits the atmosphere in St. John’s for his fondness of storytelling.
“I never had an inkling of it till I was 52 and moved to St. John’s and then within a year of that I started writing recitations,” said Paddon. “I think the stories float around in the atmosphere here, you know? You’re just walking along the road and one of them sneaks through your ear and all of a sudden you’re spouting it off.”
The title of the lecture refers to the modes of transportation the Paddons used to deliver medical services to the isolated communities of Labrador over a period of 70 years, from 1912-1980.
They would travel from the southern tip of Labrador, near St. Anthony, and as far north as the Torngat mountains by dog sled before airplanes came along. The winter trips could last up to 16 weeks. And they were grueling journeys.
One of Paddon’s tales described how they could gauge how cold it was and the time of day by how far up the walls the frost would climb inside the dwelling they were staying in.
“In a book a number is a number, but when you listen to one tale, or you see an image of somebody who has just found out that they have tuberculous, the impact is so much greater.”
The Paddons battled the Spanish influenza outbreak that eventually killed 10 per cent of the Labrador population in the early 1900s along with outbreaks of tuberculosis.
They didn’t receive much help from the Newfoundland government in those days. Most of the financial support they received came from wealthy American donors.
In the summers, the Paddons would travel in a schooner they had reconfigured into a floating hospital. It was even equipped with an X-ray machine they used to diagnose tuberculosis patients.
Life in Labrador in those years was full of wins and losses, Paddon said.
In the spring of 1945 they had a windfall when 300-400 vials of penicillin washed up on the shores of Lake Melville. The vials had survived a plane crash. They remained intact through the winter, frozen under the water until the lake thawed and they started washing up on shore.
That penicillin was put to good use. The first patient to receive the penicillin was Stephanie Peacock, a three-year-old girl. The penicillin saved her life. Paddon met Peacock just a few months ago. She’s now a retired school teacher living in Gander.
Paddon is proud of his family’s contribution to the health and education infrastructure in the Big Land.
“And it’s also an important part of the province’s history,” said Paddon. “This is my take on it from a family member, a descendant.”
Jeannette Carter and Yvonne Greening attended the lecture with their husbands. They had taken a trip to Labrador a few years back so they were interested in learning more about Labrador and how difficult life would have been at that time.
“We’d just seen a little bit of southern Labrador and once we got off the highway and met people and travelled out to some of the islands off the coast, it was just so interesting and so different than life on the island,” said Greening.
Greening’s husband was the one who ignited her interest after giving her a history book about the Spanish flu.
“It’s one thing to read the book, but it’s very different when you listen to a person describe it,” said Greening. “In a book a number is a number, but when you listen to one tale, or you see an image of somebody who has just found out that they have tuberculous, the impact is so much greater.”