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Author: Boxey-Uncle-Kev

From its early beginnings in the 1800's as a farming town, to fishing years later, to hosting an American Air Force base during WWII, to being famous for owning an airport with one of the world's longest runways in the 1960's, to becoming an educational industrial center, the town of Stephenville has a long history of re-inventing itself to ensure its survival for future generations.

Visit the Town of Stephenville's web site.

The Town of Stephenville was incorporated in September 1952. It is believed that the town was named after Stephen LeBlanc, one of the first settlers in the area.

Stephen LeBlanc came to the area in 1848. Until about 1879 the community was known as Indian Head, because of the resemblance of a face in the mountain with the same name. Indian Head first appears in the Census of 1857, with 107 inhabitants. The name Stephenville was first used in the 1874 Census when the population had grown to 268.

At that time the main occupation was farming, however by the turn of the century most people had taken to fishing lobster and herring.

The area continued to be populated mainly by Roman Catholic French-speaking people until World War II. After this time many of the French surnames were changed to English (LeBlanc became White and so on).

Indian Head (Stephenville)

By 1935 there were nearly 1,000 people in Stephenville and more people were being employed in the industry. Early businesses in the town included a mill on Brook Street, M.J. Bishop, Goodyear and Sons pulp-wood contractors and A.V. Gallant's sawmill.

The cultural mix in Bay St. George is different and rich, making it a defining characteristic of the area. Just as important, however, is the different economic mix.

Newfoundland was founded on fish. So was Bay St. George. The difference is that Bay St. George, unlike much of the rest of rural Newfoundland, moved on from fish to other industries.

The major impact came not from the residents, but from a visitor. The defining moment in Bay St. George's history and economy is the decision of the American Air Force during World War II to locate an air base in Stephenville. Almost overnight, Stephenville was transformed from a fishing and farming village of mostly French speaking Acadians, to a boomtown of 7,000 people who came from all over Newfoundland to find work building and staffing the base.

Still being the property of Great Britain in 1941, Stephenville was the largest area in a land-lease agreement between the Brits and Americans. The base, eventually named in memory of American test pilot Ernest Harmon, became the largest U.S. air force base outside the continental United States and was a major refueling stop for aircraft en route to Europe.

Stephenville, 1956
At one time the base housed as many as 5,000 military personnel and apartments and other facilities were constructed over a period of 25 years. The thriving town of Stephenville was formally incorporated in 1952.

The base kept Stephenville and Bay St. George's economy humming along until its closure in 1966.

That sent the economy into a tailspin. But the abandoned base left many important things in its wake that have since been essential in the economic and psychological make-up of the area and its people.

It left an airport with one of the longest runways in the world, it left lots of well-built housing and it left an infrastructure of office and industrial buildings. (It also left considerable amounts of oil and gas in its tank and pipeline system, things that are only now getting cleaned up, and possibly toxic waste in the many military dumps that litter the landscape, something that will be determined by further investigation.)

But perhaps the base's most important legacy, which hit the people at first like a shock but later became a source of quiet confidence, was the realization that the local economy was not going to be propped up by outside sources and that the area would sink or swim based on its own wherewithal.

Things were grim for a couple of years, but in that time progressive steps were being taken, most importantly the creation of an adult education centre to improve the education of many local adults that had dropped out of school early, lured by the prospect of well paying employment on the base.

That adult education centre, along with local heavy equipment and vocational schools, eventually grew into the first community college in the province. The Bay St. George Community College became the model for the community college system developed in the rest of the province.

The leadership and expertise that was developed here was recognized in the spring of 1996 when Stephenville was chosen as the headquarters of a re-structured provincial community college, now known as College of the North Atlantic.

Da Mill
In the 1970's, the provincial government also facilitated the arrival of the Labrador Linerboard Mill, which floundered by the end of the decade. But more importantly for the area, pulp and paper giant Abitibi-Price took over the mill.

Abitibi-Consolidated's mill now employs more than 300 workers directly plus the spin-off effect of loggers working to supply wood to the mill as well as jobs in other related industries. No question that the Abitibi mill is the foundation of the local economy. Remove it and the area would be in serious trouble.

But it would survive, as it survived the removal of the American base. The economy here is diverse and innovative. Stephenville has a growing retail base as it serves Bay St. George, and increasingly Burgeo and Ramea as a regional service centre.

People want to work. So outside investors, leave your lazy Atlantic Canadian stereotypes at the door. It doesn't work here. People do.

The most exciting possibility for the future without doubt is the prospect of an oil industry developing on the west coast. So far, most of the activity has centred around Bay St. George.

There are also other natural resources in the area - the limestone-dolomite quarry in Lower Cove, salt deposits near Fischell's and so on.

The present population of Stephenville is over 8,000 with many more people living in surrounding communities. The town has many modern facilities including a swimming pool, hockey arena, new water system and so on.

With an airport, a virtually ice-free port, lots of available industrial and office building space, a willing work force, high hopes for tourism development and a dynamic business community, Stephenville and Bay George look like they'll have a bright future.

Article by: Kevin Strowbridge, www.offdarock.com
Main source of information: www.town.stephenville.nf.ca/january15.html


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