Cod liver memories

Nathan Kettle
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Grand Bay native recalls history in oil factory

My dearly beloved mother, Ester, a kind loving and caring woman, went about her daily work attending to her 10 children singing the traditional cod liver oil song.

Not only did she sing it, she made sure each one of us received a soupspoon of it every morning before we went to school. This she followed with a soupspoon of syrup to help the medicine go down. Little did I realize that by the time I got to high school, I would be very much involved in the making of cod liver oil.

My dearly beloved mother, Ester, a kind loving and caring woman, went about her daily work attending to her 10 children singing the traditional cod liver oil song.

Not only did she sing it, she made sure each one of us received a soupspoon of it every morning before we went to school. This she followed with a soupspoon of syrup to help the medicine go down. Little did I realize that by the time I got to high school, I would be very much involved in the making of cod liver oil.

Grand Bay, my hometown, had a very productive cod fishery in the 1940s. The markets were good; the fishermen were now dealing in fresh fish; they received four cents a pound for their catch- gutted and head on. However there was additional profit the fishermen could get - they were unable to sell the cod fish livers.

Munn & Co. of St. John's heard about the productive cod fishery in Grand Bay and they decided to do something about it. In 1942, they inquired about this and finally made an agreement with my grandfather Captain Wilson Kettle and my father Howard. They had good seaside property and agreed to erect a cod liver oil factory about 25 feet by 40 feet adjacent to their fishing sage; thus began a new industry for the town.

This building had to house two 90 gallon cooking boilers, two large cooling vats and spaces for three puncheon tubs, each about 60 gallons, to hold the cod livers when delivered by the fishermen.

To assist with erection of the building and to train my family in the processing of the cod livers, Munn & Co. sent a Mr. Benson, an experienced man from Grates Cove, to Grand Bay for about two months.

In 1943, the liver factory was ready and the fishermen could now sell their cod livers, thus making extra money for their catch. The cod livers were very healthy from October to January. At this time of the year it would take about two gallons of cod livers to produce one gallon of number one cod liver oil. The price of cod livers was then 60 cents per gallon. However, in February, March, April, the livers were very thin, it would then take about four gallons of livers to produce one gallon of oil. Consequently, the price paid for the cod livers to the fishermen was reduced to 30 cents per gallon.

My grandfather, who was in 80s at this time, that I spent in Grand Bay, I operated the factory with a little help from my grandfather. If there were livers to be received in the factory after 6 p.m. He was there to see that it was done. After supper, I had to see to my schoolwork.

In 1948 and 1949 were two good years for the winter fishery on the southwest coast of Newfoundland. The fishermen were on the fishing grounds day after day, they did extremely well. I had a lot of work to do every day as those livers had to be processed.

There was no running water. I had to be up at 4 a.m. the same time the fishermen left the harbour for the fishing grounds and pull two 28 gallons of water on a sleigh from a well about a quarter of a mile away. After putting the first barrel in the steam boiler, I would light the fire in the furnace and then proceed to the well for the second barrel.

But the time I returned with the second barrel, the steam pressure in the furnace was beginning to rise. While the pressure was increasing, I would transfer about 180 gallons of cod livers from the puncheon tub with a dip net, into the cooking boilers. As soon as the livers were in place, the steam pressure had normally reached the cooking pressure of 75 pounds. Then the steam valves would be turn on and the livers would begin to disintegrate.

Within half an hour, I would begin to stir the livers trying to break them up as much as possible. To assist with this a garden rake, attached vertically to the handle was used. Moving this object up and down through the boiling livers had a detrimental effect upon their makeup. It took about an hour to complete the process, the steam was then turned off.

Then I rushed to my home, washed, had my breakfast and was off to school, which started at 9:30 a.m. We had a fairly long dinner break. The school was near the house, the house was near the factory. This allowed me time to dip the freshly cooked oil from the boilers and transfer it to the cooling tanks.

When school was out for the day, I would return to the factory to deal with the residue as well as receive the cod livers from the fishermen. The dregs, residue, in the cooking vats had to be moved. This was placed in large cloth bags, 98 pound flour sacks, and carted into a large tub on a catamaran, a kind of sleigh to the pressing room.

The pressing rooms consisted of two wooden frames, each about eight feet high and 12 feet by 24 feet in area. Here would be placed the residue. First a bag of residue would be put in the frame, then a board 12 feet by 24 feet would be placed upon it. This would be repeated until all the reside was placed. When all the bags were there a pole 20 feet by six feet would be lowered upon this material: one end was attached to the floor by a chain. On the other end of the pole was place a 20 gallon wooden tub. To put extra pressure on the bags holding the residue, rocks were added to the tub. The oil from this press was of a darker colour, and was classified as number two oil. This oil was collected into a barrel that was placed beneath the floor at the end of the pressing frame.

The next morning while the livers were cooking, the residue in these bags would be emptied and stored in the corner of the pressing room, these bags had to be cleaned and ready for use that evening.

Please note that the factory was attached to a fishing stage. Thus the pressing room and storage space for the offal was in this section.

The last year the factory was in operation, 1949, there were 50-45 gallon drums of number one cod liver oil produced and 15-45 gallon drums of number two oil.

Confederation put an end to the cod fishing in Grand Bay. The young fishermen, anxious for a shore job, found work with CN in Port aux Basques building the new dock as well as handling the increased freight that came across the gulf.

The dried offal was packaged in condemned Imperial Oil drums. These I made ready on stormy weekends.

Half the end of each drum was cut open with a coal chisel and then one inch thick board was fitted and attached to the underside of the lip.

How did I get I paid? I was given the value of the dried residue. We received five cents a pound for this at the end of June. When I finished Grade XI, I received $100, the amount I left Grand Bay with for Memorial University, still remembering the cod liver oil song my mother used to sing.

Nathan Kettle now lives in St. John's.

Organizations: CN, Imperial Oil

Geographic location: Grand Bay, Grates Cove, Newfoundland Port aux Basques St. John's

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  • wayne
    June 28, 2010 - 14:29

    a very interesting article! i wish we could see more of our local history in upcoming editions of the gulf news or even a supplement added to the paper once a year with such articles,photos,etc.