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Grenfell prof back from filming documentary on Newfoundlanders

Living in Argentina

(April 6, 2000, Gazette)

Ninety-nine-year-old Eliza Lewis chats recently with David Quinton, producer/ director of the film, Letters from Eliza, at Puerto Santa Cruz, Patagonia, Argentina. She is holding a bottle of Bidgoods bakeapple jam, a gift from Newfoundland. Her interest in Newfoundland, her birthplace, has never wavered.




(L-R) – Margaret Ann (Elliott) Downer, three unidentified friends in Patagonia and Will Downer. At the sheep farm, the Horkitas, near Puerto Santa Cruz, Patagonia, Argentina. Circa 1940.

Photo by Janice Galliott

By Pamela Gill

In 1914, a teenage girl left her home on Fogo Island and sailed to Patagonia in southern Argentina.

Today, Eliza Lewis is nearly 100 years old. Though now a Spanish speaking Argentinean citizen, she has not forgotten her childhood days in Newfoundland.

Her memories of boats laden with codfish, caplin rolling on the beach, icebergs drifting by and the dancing Northern Lights have been kept alive through the letters she’s written over the last 80 years to the relatives she left behind.

Among those relatives is Dr. Don Downer, an environmental science professor at Sir Wilfred Grenfell College. Fascinated with Eliza’s letters, Dr. Downer recently returned from helping to film a documentary on the life of Eliza, her 80-year-old son Leonard, her 26-year-old grandniece Susanna and the 50 or 60 other descendents of Will and Margaret Ann Downer, the first Newfoundland settlers in Patagonia. Dr. Power also is researching a book on Will Downer, Margaret Ann, their story from Fogo to Patagonia and their descendents today.

And how exactly did Newfoundlanders end up in Patagonia? Before leaving for Argentina on Sunday, March 12, Dr. Downer explained that his relative Will had originally set out from Fogo to make his fortune in the California gold rush. He was shipwrecked in a storm off Cape Horn around the turn of the century, and began a new life in Argentina.

After almost two decades of sheep herding and raising horses, he decided to make his way back to Newfoundland. There, he married Margaret Ann Elliott who had three children from a previous marriage: William, Daisy and Eliza. Shortly thereafter, they set sail for South America.

When complete, the documentary, titled Letters from Eliza, will record Eliza’s first meeting with a Newfoundlander in 87 years. Dr. Downer, producer/director David Quinton and videographer Howard Pack made the trip to Argentina and drove up the coast to Puerto Santa Cruz, Eliza’s home. There, they recorded not only a family reunion of sorts, but also the way of life that these Newfoundland descendants have carved out for themselves in a country in another hemisphere.

“When we arrived we were met at Rio Gallegos airport by two cousins, Roberto and Mario Arbegia, and their wives,” said Dr. Downer upon his return. “They had a big sign boasting the name ‘Downer’ and were grinning from ear to ear.”

Today, members of Eliza’s family run a 12,000-hectare farm with roughly 5,000 sheep, almost 100 chickens and 40 horses.

Their adaptation is demonstrated through the language they speak: Eliza, who is primarily English, now speaks Spanish functionally. Her son Leonard is fluent in both languages, but Susanna speaks only Spanish. Nevertheless, Eliza has passed on her love of Newfoundland to her grand niece, and Susanna now writes letters too – in Spanish.

“Eliza has been writing letters to the relatives she left behind since 1914,” says Dr. Downer in his Grenfell College office. Behind him on the wall is a black and white photograph taken in 1927 of a much younger Eliza, which she gave to him during his visit. “Though she never came back to Newfoundland, she’s maintained very strong links with her family in Newfoundland.”

Dr. Downer and his two counterparts had the experience of seeing for the first time many kinds of animals they’d only heard of before: small South American three-toed ostriches (‘rheas’), miniature camels (‘guanacos’), condors and even pink flamingos.

After travelling for two weeks throughout the region where Eliza lives, the documentary team returned from Argentina on March 27.

“It was a wonderful experience; I don’t think I’ve had quite an experience like it before, for two reasons,” said Dr. Downer. “One, because this is a branch of my family I’ve never met before, they live so far away. And two, because of the exotic country we experienced. It was enormously interesting. Even the soil: I’d take it up in my hand and let it fall through my fingers. There were cyan coloured lakes, magenta hillsides with fall colors, towering snow-covered mountain peaks and vast blue-green ice fields. The colours were truly spectacular.”

Perhaps Dr. Downer’s young cousin Susanna will have the opportunity to sift through her fingers the land of her forefathers: the team’s hope is to bring her back to Fogo so they might film the Newfoundland side of the story – if the remaining funding can be found.

Others involved in the documentary project include Elizabeth Reynolds, another cousin and co-host with Dr. Downer; Ken Pittman, associate producer; and Jim Byrd, executive producer. The documentary to date has been made possible with support from the CBC, Sir Wilfred Grenfell College, Memorial University of Newfoundland and personal finances.