Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Charlotte County Archives Benefit Dinner

On May 28, 2011, I attended a benefit dinner for the Charlotte County Archives. Just previous to the dinner, I was asked to say a few words on researching and the importance of institutes such as the county archives. The following is an except of my speech:

Good evening friends, my name is Jason Gaudet. I am a member of the board for the archives however most of my time over the last decade has been spent in front of a microfilm reader, as a researcher. I would like to thank you for taking the time out of your day to help a worthy cause such as the Charlotte County Archives. If you are here today, you understand the importance of this organization within our community. It is a vital link to our past, to the stories of our people.

Over decade ago, while living in Fredericton, I would spend many hours at the Provincial Archives in an attempt to piece together my family’s history. While friends enjoyed the lights of the local watering holes, I feel in love with the warm light of a microfilm reader. In many cases, genealogical research tends to lead into historical research in an attempt to understand the community that one’s ancestor were apart of. However, I noticed that there was absence of information pertaining to some of the communities of Charlotte County, specifically Blacks Harbour, with a few exceptions being school records and records regarding the movie theatre at Blacks Harbour. How could this be? From family stories and from being a child raised in that community, I knew that Blacks Harbour had an interesting history; an inseparable history between a community and its employer. But where was this information?

Another case was Pennfield Ridge. For many of us, we drive past the old air base on our way to Saint John, taking a glimpse of old cement firing back. Some wonder about the story of the air base. Others retell tales that their grandfathers once told them, often based on nothing more than local hearsay. As a young boy, I was always amazed with these stories. I imaged those vintage bombers landing on those long runways or buzzing out towards the bay. However, I am never one to settle with a simple story. I always need to know more. Unfortunately, there were no records on Pennfield Ridge. So I set off to put together a history of the air base.

Seven months after the declaration of war in Europe, the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan was created. As part of this plan, Pennfield Ridge Air Station became operational in July 1941 as No.2 Air Navigation School. With the use of Avro Anson twin-engine bombers, airmen earned their navigation wing. In May 1942, the RCAF turned over control of the air station to the RAF and Pennfield Ridge became designated as No. 34 Operational Training Unit. The British choose the fast American Lockheed Ventura as the primary training bomber… a decision that will be long debated. At No. 34 OTU, bomber crews learned how to work together in an operational setting. In June 1944, the RCAF took control of the airfield once again. With the war winding down in Europe, there was little need for Pennfield Ridge as an air base and the decision was made to close the gates at the end of August 1945. The airfield sat dormant for a couple years until it was turned over to the Department of Transportation and operated as the official Saint John airport from 1947 to 1951. After being handed back to the Department of Defence, it was used as part of Camp Utopia until that base was closed and the air field was privately sold in the early 1960. Amongst all of these dates, the airfield had an eventfully history. On the lighter side, many men arrived in Charlotte County to train and ended up marrying local women. Some of these marriages even took place in the chapel on the air base. Hundreds of men passed through the gates of Pennfield Ridge. However, the air base offers a more tragic past. Of course, there is the well-known story of an RAF man who was training at the air base and who was eventually tried for murdering a young woman from Blacks Harbour. But there is less known of the over 130 accidents recorded during the airfield’s military history. As a result of these incidents, 70 men died while training at Pennfield Ridge (38 Canadians, 12 British, 12 New Zealanders, 8 Australians). It is worth mention at this point that Camp Utopia had 6 casualties of its own during its operation from 1940 to 1958.

So without institutions such as the archives, how would we learn about our past? How would we know of those 70 men that perished while stationed at Pennfield Ridge or those 6 men that served at Camp Utopia? Would their graves just be cast off as a lonely “veterans” grave or would the story of their lives be known? Another aspect of the history of Pennfield Ridge and Camp Utopia that is overlooked, is their impact on the community. The war was not only being fought overseas but the constant reminder was often heard in the skies over towns of New Brunswick. In some case, tragedy occurred when aircraft crash in our backyards. Lest we forgot the great sacrificed that was made for all of us.

Today, with institutions such as our county archives, I continue to be one of those folks that bring stories out from the past. Recently, I have undertaken a survey and an extensive genealogical project regarding the two cemeteries in Blacks Harbour. In many cases, discovering unmarked burials of those that would otherwise be forgotten. With this project, I first make a detailed survey of a cemetery. Each burial plot is catalogued with all of the relevant genealogical data. Vital records and data are extracted from the archives. In the end, a burial plot (for example of Donald Bradford and his wife Cora) will have birth, marriage and death information and in most cases, even be accompanied with obituaries. Once completed, these projects will find homes in the local libraries and archives for others to utilize. This information will be a great source for those researching their own roots in Blacks Harbour. And in the end, finally the archives in Fredericton will have some new information on Blacks Harbour.

In closing, we learn today a small piece of history regarding this county and we learn this with the great assistance of our county archives. What other stories can we learn? What other stories are waiting to be discovered in archives? Once again I thank you for your interest and sincerely appreciate all of you assistance to the archives."

I have to point out that I was being brief on some items as the point was to highlight the archives and not the subject matter. Though I spent many years on research the WW2 military bases of Chartlotte County, I am no longer active in the project and now endorsed the work of a local group who is taking up the charge to tell the story of the former bases. Overall, the dinner was a great success, generating just under $1,200. Though this is a long way to cover all the cost of operations, the archives is always looking for your support.

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