Travelling to Argentia, you’ll find a heavy industrial park established on the rocky shores of Placentia Bay. Well-travelled roads criss-cross over beaten down gravel and paved areas. Warehouses are interspersed over the region or situated along the shore. The pulsing heartbeat of fast-paced business is a reflection of its life-giving energy. Looking around, you’d think nothing remains of the community that had existed there for hundreds of years. But you’d be wrong.
Taking A Step Into the Past
Demasduit was a Beothuk woman. This image was crreated in 1819 (Source: Wikipedia)
Over the centuries, many have passed over the Argentia peninsula. There’s no doubt the touch of the Beothuk could be found on the undulations of the landscape. The first Europeans to arrive in the Placentia area were Basques by the 16th century. Although, there’s little to indicate they traversed the Argentia peninsula. Much like the Beothuk, only our imaginations can conjure their presence now.
When the Europeans settled in Argentia, it became known as Little Placentia. It developed into a thriving herring and salmon-fishing port. Originally from places such as Ireland, Scotland as well as Britain, the people of the region made a living fishing and tending their gardens.
Silver was discovered there in the late nineteenth century. While nothing much arose from the discovery, it will hold lasting memory. In 1904, in honour of its silver lode, Little Placentia’s name was changed to Argentia. 1
Life no doubt went on over the next years, much as it had in the past. By the census year of 1921, Argentia’s population had risen to 477 from 392.
U.S. ships and aircraft in Little Placentia Sound, Argentia, 1942. (Source: Wikipedia).
It was with the arrival of the Second World War when Argentia radically changed. The coming of the Argentia Naval station utterly transformed the community which would soon disappear below a military base. Heavily engineered roads and airfields soon transformed the region. By 1941, gone were the meadows interspersed with clapboard houses surrounded by gardens. It was warehouses, barracks and office buildings that came to define the landscape.
It was this way for decades. At least a couple of generations of Newfoundlanders made a living care of Uncle Sam. By the late 1960s, Argentia had begun to wind down. Then, with the arrival of 1994, it all came to an end. The United States pulled out, eventually leaving the area for the Port of Argentia.
Although it took some time to gather speed, the Argentia Management Authority, now the Port of Argentia, took control of the area. Ably, they transformed it into a well-oiled business. To this day, the Port of Argentia welcomes businesses to take up some real estate in the industrial park.
The Presence of Argentia
Despite the absence of community of Argentia on the landscape, it exists powerfully and quite poignantly for many of the former inhabitants and descendants. Collectively, they feel a spirit of place, one nestled in their hearts and minds.
In distant Roman times, the landscape was replete with sacred places where people could commune with a particular spirit. Now, in a more secular world, it is the meaning of the place that stirs individuals. A spirit of place is regarded as the unique, distinctive and cherished aspects of a place. In this sense, places such as Argentia have a spirit imbued by the lives that had been lived there for well over a century.
Talk of Argentia evokes feelings that, for some, may cast their minds back to a time only distantly remembered. However, the spirit of the place is nurtured through a collective memory. Together, members of the community quilt together memories of Argentia. And it remains vibrantly alive through story, music, paintings and so on.
These are all expressions that share, strengthen, and invigorate the spirit of place. Elements of place such as memories and meanings flood into the mind. This spirit of place is strong, capable of transporting people to another time. A rock is no longer just a rock, for instance, but the place where children of the community may have met to play ball. At a particular contour of the land was perhaps the former location of a home. Most importantly, thoughts of these places will further fortify the connections to place, even if that place is now confined to collective memory. Moreover, the connections amongst the people will be enhanced.
Connections are life-giving. Myriad elements can suture those connections—memories of a laugh, a particular song, a poem, someone’s quirky personality, features in the landscape, maybe even memorable pieces of furniture. All those remembering will nod their heads and smile knowingly. It’s powerful and transporting.
In so doing, those connections are sometimes a subtle and at other times potent sign of belonging. To feel one belongs within a group is something for which many strive. If attained, it quietly affirms things such as acceptance, understanding, comradery and support. They are all sentiments individuals who feel a deep sense of belonging can take for granted. To belong is a deeply moving feeling.
When one goes to Freshwater Community Centre, the walls are covered with pictures of homes and other buildings that were, at one time, a part of Argentia. The buildings had to be destroyed in order to make way for the United States Naval Base. However, those pictures are conduits to a past with which all who feel a sense of belonging will be able to gather meaning. They kindle feelings of affiliation, love, and respect, all contributing to Argentia’s spirit of place.
Image of Garden Gate (Source: Amazon.ca)
In Garden Gate, a recent book by Darrell Duke, he paints a picture of the host of challenges the people of Argentia experienced when the United States arrived. The story evokes the feelings generated by what had occurred—injustice, tragedy, sadness and resolve. Magically, it is able to gently buttress the spirit of place for those who feel a connection and belonging to Argentia.
Even for those not connected, Mr. Duke’s story triggers many of the same feelings it does for those who have a connection to Argentia. These are sentiments with which many can identify. After all, around the world, people have lived through similar circumstances as befell Argentia in 1940. While it may not nurture the same sense of belonging, it will certainly bolster a sprit of place.
Argentia in the Present
While the Argentia to which Darrell Duke refers is long gone, in many ways it isn’t. A community often exists by virtue of its address, the buildings, fences, and roads leaving a tangible footprint. But overall, our communities are truly built from the shared meanings, beliefs, and memories that at one time may have animated the host of walls and clapboard. Even though there is no built presence of Argentia, it will continue to boast a lively presence in both heart and mind.
The spirit of the place is in the hearts and minds of its former inhabitants. In reading a poem regarding Argentia, listening to a story or song, we are touched by its spirit. These are elements defying our five senses and yet there is a spirit that will enliven a place we will always know as Argentia.
Cherry, Kendra 2021 “What Is the Sense of Belonging?” https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-the-need-to-belong-2795393
Relph, Edward 2007 “Spirit of Place and Sense of Place in Virtual Realities” Technè 10 (3), 17-25
1This derives from the Latin argentum which is also the origin of the chemical symbol for silver—Ag.