The area around the tiny village of Peggy's Cove has had a special fascination for artists and photographers for many years. Its fame dates from 1921, when renowned Nova Scotian photographer W.R. McAskill photographed it, calling it "Quiet Cove." William E. deGarthe was born in Finland in 1907, immigrated to Canada in 1926 and settled permanently in the cove in 1955. For thirty-five years he was the community’s artist in residence.
DeGarthe was a marine painter with an international reputation. Later in life he took up sculpture and spent years thinking about carving figures into the granite rock walls found in the cove. Working from rough sketches, deGarthe began cutting into a one hundred-foot granite outcropping in his back yard in September 1977 at seventy years of age. His project was purely personal: to create "a lasting monument to Nova Scotian fishermen."
Conceptually, the carving consists of three sections based on three segments occurring naturally in the granite outcropping: Work, Bounty and Grace. It incorporates thirty-two fishermen, their wives and children, plus two mythical or legendary figures: St. Elmo and Peggy. Many of the people are recognizable as deGarthe's lifelong neighbours and friends, all of whom he carved from memory.
Bounty, in the middle, was the first section deGarthe carved, starting in 1977. It is also the smallest, at only nine feet high. Here, the projecting rock made deGarthe think of a fisherman bracing himself by leaning into wind of strong North Atlantic gale and became the first figure. This section also portrays the legendary Peggy, who was known as keeper of the sea’s bounty, represented by the basket she carries — which is also a symbol of the sea.
The legend of Peggy explains how the cove got its name. On a dark and stormy night in 1848, a ship was sailing from Hamburg, Germany, with sixty passengers to start a new life in the new world. It was shipwrecked on Halibut Rock off Lighthouse Point. The only survivor, a young woman, drifted into cove hanging on to a piece of wreckage. She didn’t know where she was from or where she was going; the only thing she remembered was her name — Margaret.
The locals weren't sure what to do with her, but a village bachelor who had a spare room took her in and started calling her Peggy, the diminutive of Margaret. When people from the surrounding area heard of her, they brought her gifts and other items. Eventually she married the bachelor and stayed in the cove. As her story of strength and survival spread, more and more people came to visit "Peggy at the Cove," eventually shortened to Peggy's Cove.
On the other hand (and for the non-romantically inclined), the village could have been named Peggy's Cove simply because it is at the entrance to St. Margaret's Bay, and the name was assigned by an early surveyor. In deGarthe's carving, Peggy is portrayed as being immortal, as she stands in front of a rope — outside the "mortal coil" as it were, while mere mortals are encompassed by it. During work in 1979, the tip of Peggy's nose was inadvertently knocked off and a month's recarving was required to alter her posture and face to a profile view.
DeGarthe started to carve the section entitled Work in 1979. All the figures are husky muscular fishermen at work-hauling nets, carrying a lobster trap, handling various fishing implements and pulling a dory ashore.
The section entitled Grace was started in 1980. It portrays St. Elmo, the patron saint of sailors, his outstretched wings protecting a fisherman and his family. This section also contains a marble inlay cameo of deGarthe and Agnes. DeGarthe became seriously ill in 1979 and used an assistant to help him with the carving from 1981. He died in 1983 at seventy-five, having only worked on the monument for six years — not enough time to complete it according to his original plans. Agnes, who passed away in 2008, had earlier donated the monument and the land on which it sits to the province, making it the smallest provincial park in Nova Scotia, and perhaps in all of Canada.