Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Quality Time With The Western Star

I've always wondered how and when the mill whistle became associated with Remembrance Day, marking the two minutes of silence. In the past few days, I've been trying to come up with strategies to pinpoint this information, since in conversations and formal interviews no one seems to know the history behind it -- just that it's "always" been that way.

Since the mill whistle is barely mentioned in most publications (for example, I can't recall reading those words at all in Horwood's "Social History of a Paper Town"), it seems unlikely that I'll stumble upon it in similar sources. I expect that papers related to the mill may have documentation of this practice hidden in them, but of those I've been able to access and search, nothing has turned up. So, then I thought that perhaps there might be some description of the observance of Remembrance Day or Memorial Day in the local newspaper, then a weekly publication. I decided to begin my search today at the library at Memorial University -- Grenfell Campus.

I started with the DAI (Digital Archives Initiative), which has scanned to PDF (and indexed!) issues of the Western Star dating between 1900 and 1926. While I found a few interesting references to mill whistles being used to help locate individuals lost in the woods and to summon the fire brigade in areas like Grand Falls (which will provide great comparative narratives), I found no references to mill whistles in relation to Remembrance Day or Memorial Day, and no references at all to the Corner Brook mill whistle. This isn't entirely surprising, given that the mill only opened in 1925, but one has to be thorough and there were other mills with whistles operating in Corner Brook prior to the opening of the paper mill.

Unfortunately, once you get to April of 1926, you have to switch to microfilm to read the Western Star. No convenient search mechanisms available here. As a matter of fact, you might even need special training to operate the rather terrifying machine on which you are expected to read the film. It took me forever to get it loaded and then even longer to locate someone to point out the obvious means of rotating the page ninety degrees (boy did I feel stupid). I decided to search around the two dates in question -- July 1 and November 11 -- as a way to trim down a gargantuan task. I managed to scan through 1926 and 1927 before my eyes decided to go on strike. A migraine quickly approaching, I decided three hours of staring at glowing screens was more than enough for one day. I walked away empty-handed, at least in terms of my quest to find references to the mill whistle, but thinking that perhaps over time the answer could be found.

I also realized that my approach may be flawed. You see, newspapers of the past aren't like those of today. Yes: Mistress of the Obvious, reporting! I think I knew that. I mean, I often laughed at the thought of columns dedicated to naming who had arrived by train that week and/or checked in at the Glynmill Inn. But I made the erroneous assumption that beyond this there would be coverage of local happenings. The reality is, there isn't much local in the local paper from that time period. A great deal of each issue is devoted to international news and advertisements, with the occasional update from the paper mill. Local columns are informative: remember to support the poppy campaign, there was a dance the day after Memorial Day, etc. They aren't particularly descriptive, as least not in the way modern papers are. So, I may not find an entry that describes how Remembrance Day and Memorial Day were observed in the early years of Corner Brook. And even if I do chance upon such a reference, the most it would give me is the first time the whistle was mentioned in news coverage of an event -- and that may indicate more about changes in reporting styles than anything else.

Still, it's my plan to continue this search for descriptions in the newspaper with the help of an assistant. And I will keep my fingers crossed that the remaining years of the Western Star are digitized soon to allow for even better searching for future projects!

If you have thoughts on how/where I might find the answer to the question of when and how the mill whistle became part of the Remembrance Day observance, please send me a message at millwhistle@hotmail.com.


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