This page is from a heritage partnered project. It was written in 1998 by students from Stephenville Integrated High School and edited by their teachers. It has not been vetted by the heritage website's academic editor.
For over a century life proceeded at a moderate pace for the residents of the peaceful little village of Stephenville on the northeast side of St. George's Bay. As 1940 drew to a close, though the world was at war, the 500 residents had seen little disruption. Their work -- fishing, farming, and lumbering -- was the same as it had been for their fathers. Their culture was largely French and Roman Catholic with social lives revolving closely around the church, family, and community.
Americans Arrive in Newfoundland
Most were unaware that October 20, 1940, had been the most significant day of their lives; Britain, on behalf of Newfoundland's Commission of Government, had signed a lend-lease with the American government that was to turn over 8,159 acres of their farmland into the United States Air Force's largest overseas base and deliver a massive cultural shock to the tiny community. In January 1941 the Army Corps of Engineers arrived to take over their land and their lives would change forever. The impact of the influx of thousands of American servicemen and civilian workers from other parts of Newfoundland would be seen in all aspects of life.
Leisure Activities for Servicemen and Civilians
Nature has blessed St. George's Bay with the finest opportunities for recreation in the world. There are several fine salmon rivers, numerous trout streams, big and small game hunting grounds, and an abundance of cod, mackerel, lobster and halibut in the bay. The Americans quickly took advantage of these to provide leisure activities for their servicemen and civilian workers.
Special Services provided camps first at Bottom Brook and later at Camp 33, in Grand Lake. These camps offered boating, moose hunting and fishing. All hunting and fishing gear, boats, motors, vehicles, snowshoes and skis were provided. Servicemen and their guests could take advantage of three day trips to these camps. Gull Pond was used for camping and boat races, a tradition continued to the present day. On a more informal basis servicemen could swim and fish in the bay.
The second phase of base construction added a number of recreation facilities: a bowling alley (now Caribou Curling club), a fitness centre (Base Gym), a golf course and tennis courts. A ski lift and tobogganing facilities were set up on igloo road. The Americans also constructed a number of first class sports fields where competition in baseball and soccer took place against local teams and other bases. It is believed that the leadership of Stephenville and Port-au-Port in Newfoundland baseball owes much to this area's early introduction to this very American sport.
A Change in the Entertainment Scene
In less than twenty years the entertainment scene in Stephenville was changed dramatically with the addition of first class facilities to be enjoyed by both military and civilian personnel. Many of these facilities are still used. The Civilian Caribou Club, Officers Club (now Canadian Legion), Harmon Theater and the USO building in Corner Brook (the White House) served personnel from west and central Newfoundland.
The thousands of civilian workers from St. George's Bay and elsewhere in the province who were involved in the building and/or maintenance of Harmon Field, were able to avail of the exciting entertainment scene that developed around the American Base -- from the first hamburger and coke to the first glimpse of an international star like Frank Sinatra. The Caribou Club, which at times had a membership of 1,000, was created for the entertainment of civilian workers. Just as Newfoundlanders could sign their American friends into any activity at the Club, the Americans could reciprocate by signing them into military functions. For the really big shows with international stars (Sinatra, Hope, etc...) there would be two separate performances -- a second night for civilians.
The list of international stars who played at Harmon is an impressive one: Forest Tucker, Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy as well as Bob Hope (1943); Frank Sinatra, Ed Robinson, Lana Turner and Hedy Lamarr (1945); and Elvis Presley, who sang a few numbers in the terminal in 1954. However, things were quite lively even without the stars.
There was music and dancing every weekend on the base and at the other sites around the area. Movies could be seen at the Harmon Theater, which also had a large stage for live shows. Bars and game rooms for slot machines were available. The United Service Organizations (USO) program sponsored high quality shows using a lot of local talent. The United States hostess group from Corner Brook would travel to Stephenville for special dances at Christmas and Thanksgiving. Civilian workers from Stephenville would travel to Corner Brook on the G. I. Trolley, or in military vehicles, to attend concerts, dances, etc... Local musicians played on base and at various sites around the west coast, picking up a great deal of American music and dance styles along the way.
The Pine Tree Waltz is based on the recollections of a young musician who remembered those happy days when beer was ten cents and young people from all over the bay flocked to the site for dances.
Advantages and Disadvantages of American Presence
Culture shock must have had some negative aspects and no doubt much was lost as the little French community was torn apart, and the new culture of Harmon Field created. However, it is difficult to find anyone who lived through the base years expressing regrets. Most people seem to remember the excitement, the fun, the friends and the prosperity that came into their lives. An indication of the affection that Stephenville felt for Harmon and its personnel could be seen in the Yank Come Back celebration of 1986 and the creation of the bi-annual Harmon Field Day to recapture the spirit of the times.
Harmon Field Day evolved over the years to become The Friendly Invasion, an annual summer festival that remembers the friendship that was forged between the local people and the American military personnel from 1941 to 1966.