38 YEARS AGO – AUGUST 1981 RECONNAISSANCE FOR A NEW LIFE

I had received a phone call from the Executive Director of the Prince Edward Island Heritage Foundation, asking that we meet to discuss a proposal she wanted to make to me. In a scene from a spy thriller I drove to Cape Tormentine, left my car in the parking lot and sailed across on the ferry. The Director met me on the other side, and drove us to a truck stop near Crapaud that was famous for its pies. In the next hour or so she told me that she believed that I had the right ideas to carry on the work of the Heritage Foundation, as she was intending to retire in the next year or so. She offered me the job and I was hugely tempted. She then drove me back to the car ferry.

I went away and mulled over what had been proposed to me. I spoke to friends who thought it was the perfect career move for me in spite of the fact that I was now well-established at Mount Allison. I spoke with my employers who were very sympathetic and encouraged me to do what I thought best. I decided to move to Charlottetown.

Immediately I felt it necessary to explore, as much as possible, this decentralised museum system that I would be serving in the time to come. In glorious late-August weather I began in Prince County and moved East in my explorations. This account is based on my journal and notes from the time.

 

GREEN PARK YEO HOUSE AND SHIPBUILDING MUSEUM

This huge site is centered around James Yeo’s very lovely 1866 centre gable house inspired by the romantic A. J. Downing styles. Part of the original estate has survived and is now a Provincial Park. It was here, and in other local shipyards, that Yeo built around one hundred and fifty ships, which were all exported to the UK to be completed and resold.

(Robert Harris – James Yeo – CCAG)

James Yeo (1789 – August 25, 1868) was a Cornish man of little education, a violent drunk, but with brilliant and aggressive business skills, who emigrated to the area probably in 1819 and for the rest of his life came to control the local, and often, the Provincial, economy. His life (see below) makes interesting reading at a time when PEI was struggling to establish a viable economy.

http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio.php?id_nbr=4785

Green Park is located in a part of the province noted for its shipbuilding activities in the Nineteenth Century. Many settlers emigrated from Devon and their descendants are still found on the properties they settled in the 1830s. Their story, and that of shipbuilding, has been elegantly told by Basil Greenhill and Ann Giffard in their very readable book book, Westcountrymen in Prince Edward’s Isle (1967).

The countryside is beautiful, filled with historic churches and houses, and near the Mi’kmaq Reservation of Lennox Island.

(Photo courtesy of R. Garnett Airscapes.)

When I visited, an interpretative centre, with incomplete displays, had been built, as had the main components of a shipyard, such as saw pits for cutting timber, a steam box and carpenter and blacksmith shops. There was an incorrectly-built ship’s hull left over from the days when PEI Tourism owned the site.

This very fine lithograph from the 1880 Meacham’s ATLAS shows the house in its heyday, just a few years after James Yeo’s death. Yeo had lived to enjoy it for two years – if he was capable of enjoying anything. Visiting the site was like stepping back into history, and the gentle atmosphere of the period rooms on a quiet sunny day with the fragrances of summer was a powerful experience. The guides, all local, echoed this genteel atmosphere and were unobtrusive yet always willing to answer questions. The strongest recollection I have is being offered a scone, just baked in the great kitchen fireplace, topped with wild strawberry jam. It was unforgettable. What a beginning to my tour!

 

 

THE EPTEK NATIONAL EXHIBITION CENTRE IN SUMMERSIDE

In the 1970s the Canadian Government built over 20 small cultural centres across the country in communities that would probably never have museums or places to display art. These were called National Exhibition Centres and in 1978 Summerside, through the lobbying of the Heritage Foundation, was able to get one.

These were relatively small but very well-planned rectangular structures. The one in Summerside, perhaps following a National model, was divided into three longitudinal sections, the front part or reception area had office space at one end, and the rest a small exhibition space. Beyond this was the main gallery, beautifully proportioned and adaptable to any number of exhibit designs. Folding walls could create two rooms if necessary. The back part of the building contained the receiving area and a workshop.

The plan was that the Centre could display various travelling exhibitions of Canadian art, all Government-funded, and could be used for locally-generated exhibits, such as the wonderful annual shows of the Summerside Art Club. The Heritage Foundation could theoretically mount shows there as well. Various lectures, and other cultural events, were planned in the course of every year.

The Director of the Eptek Centre at that time was a dedicated and knowledgeable man full of ideas for future public programming projects and the skills necessary to execute them.

In the left of the entrance to the Eptek Centre, occupying half of the front portion of the building was the Prince Edward Island Sports Hall of Fame, opened in 1978. An arrangement had been made with the Directors of the Hall of Fame whereby, in an impossibly tiny space, there would be a display celebrating, with portraits and artefacts, those Island athletes, in all branches of sports, who had been inducted to the hall. A very talented local artist and writer had executed all the portraits of the inductees and designed the displays that so crowded the tiny space that they had literally climbed up the walls. I discovered during my visit that this arrangement pleased nobody and was a serious bone of contention between the Foundation and the Hall of Fame Board. I was puzzled how this highly inappropriate and unsuitable arrangement had come to be in the first place.

In my travel account I will skip over Charlottetown on my journey East so that I can return to it at the end and examine it as the Centre of Power.

 

ORWELL CORNER HISTORIC VILLAGE

Orwell Corner is only 29.3 km from Charlottetown, located in lush farmland, and blessed with vistas that look like something Constable would have painted.

When the Trans Canada Highway was being built in the 1950-60s era, it was decided to bypass the little crossroads of Orwell, probably because of the congestion of buildings, including a church and cemetery, and swing to the south to continue on to the Wood Islands Ferry. This Meacham’s 1880 ATLAS plan of the village gives a clear idea of the configuration of the area and the spirit of place that the Historic Village tries to maintain.

Only an aerial photo (courtesy R. Garnett – Airscapes) can give you an idea of how special this tightly-evolved site is.

When you enter Orwell Corner you would never know that you are close to a major highway. You have truly stepped back into late Victorian times. The site was very well developed in spite of the fact that the corner bordered on private property with a residence. The main focus in the interpretation was the general store, which also served as a home, and the local post office.

When I visited 38 years ago I was delighted with the way this space had been articulated. Visitors were allowed to go upstairs and one of the most evocative and moving displays was a room with a functional loom at which a member of the Heritage Foundation staff in Charlottetown would come and spend hours weaving traditional designs from time to time.

The site had the original Presbyterian church, with its cemetery, and it had kept most of its 1861 characteristics. The area had been settled in the Nineteenth Century by Scottish settlers brought over by the Earl of Selkirk, who owned a vast amount of land in that part of the Island. Many of the guides who worked at the site were descendants of those original settlers.

Nearby was a beautifully restored schoolhouse that reproduced the spirit of those hundreds of one-room schoolhouses that once dotted the whole province. When I visited that site, many people were still alive who had received their primary education in such schools.

There were barns and sheds to house animals and a very impressive collection of late 19th Century farm machinery, some of it Island-made. There was even a hearse! The staff maintained a vegetable garden and male guides would work with the horses and even offer farm wagon rides to visitors. The pastures were filled with cattle and horses such as had been kept there a hundred years before. A sweet rustic fragrance permeated the air.

A fully-functional blacksmith shop gave visitors the best idea possible of the many functions the local blacksmith fulfilled in the countryside. There were actual demonstrations of turning red-hot iron into useful implements as well as horse shoes.

The machinery necessary to run a shingle mill had been acquired and installed in a suitable shed, “down the road” so that the noise of the engine would not disturb visitors to the site. The shingles produced were of the highest quality and could have been used in building restoration projects, but I was told this money-making opportunity was discouraged by the Foundation.

A reproduction of a village hall had been built and here throughout the summer, ceilidhs were held on a weekly basis. Although it was new construction, the hall very successfully had the “feel” of an earlier building with its interior of narrow varnished spruce boards. On the stage of the hall was draped a huge Union Jack flag that made a powerful impact on visitors and reminded them of the world of Empire in which this village had grown. In the back was a modern kitchen and facilities to permit a range of activities involving food. The Director of the site at that time was a fine singer in the folk tradition and ensured the ceilidhs, where local artists performed, were great successes. This tradition has carried on to this day.

There was one thing obviously lost that took away from the appreciation that this was really a former rural crossroads: the roads, originally dirt, had grown over so that visitors moved about a beautifully-kept space that might have been a village green. But the memory visitors took away was very much that of a tiny village, typical of so many others on the Island, that grew where people had reason to congregate.

 

 

BASIN HEAD FISHERIES MUSEUM

Basin Head is one of a series of lakes in the eastern tip of King’s County left by retreating glaciers thousands of years ago. Although the French were active in this area before the 1758 Expulsion, it does not seem to appear as a place on any map until the Lake Map of 1863. It is after that time that it became a functioning harbour with a canning factory, typical of many such endeavours in the late 19th-early 20th Centuries.

Basin Head harbour drains into Northumberland Strait through a picturesque narrow channel which must, at various times, have silted up, making access to the interior lagoon difficult. That would explain why buildings associated with the fisheries were erected at the very mouth of the run. (The term “run” found in various parts of the Island seems to refer to the “run of the waters” in narrow spaces.)

The beaches at Basin Head are famous for their pure white sand which locals call the “singing sands” because of the peculiar noise one hears when walking through it. These sands are a geological phenomenon, and, in the nature of sands, relatively recent in formation. It appears that the quartz sand grains are white because they were not in a hematite-rich environment to be coated with the red mineral (ferric oxide), as is seen in other Island beaches. The roughness of the sand can be accounted for by the fact that it is a comparatively “new” sand, eroded out of the Island itself, which has not had the opportunity to be polished by the action of the sea.

On my journey to Basin Head I arrived too late in the day to visit the site and so stayed the night in a local motel. While I was having my supper a woman approached me and began to ask me questions about what I was doing in the area. I replied that I wanted to visit the Basin Head Fisheries Museum the next day. In no time she had it out of me that I was there because of prospective employment with the Heritage Foundation. News, even about museums, can travel fast on the Island. I then received a tongue-lashing that I will never forget – months away from my first day on the job! It seemed the Basin Head Board of Directors were at war with the Heritage Foundation, which she said, was destroying the economics of the site and whose policies on opening times were causing sharp reductions in visitor numbers. She also went on, visibly distraught, about the uncontrolled partying that went on, sometimes all night, on the beautiful beach, and how the museum buildings and outdoor artefacts were being constantly vandalised.

I didn’t know what to say.

I went on the next morning to visit the site where I spent much of the day. It was an astonishing place, so different from the leafy rural comfort of Green Park and Orwell Corner. Here everything was stark, and hard, and bright. It was a fishing settlement. There was a large car park where the rambunctious locals parked on their way to the beach. There was a very large interpretative centre with not very much in it. I looked in vain for an interpretative display on the history of the Island fisheries. When I asked about it I was told that such a thing was not needed because all the guides came from fisher homes and so knew the answer to every question.

(Photo courtesy of R. Garnett- Airscapes)

The Director of Basin Head was a very skilled man who could turn his hand to anything from art to constructing displays to building structures like a very beautiful boathouse to show some of the collections more special small vessels.

Location of a large prehistoric site below the Fisheries Museum.  (Photo courtesy Google Maps.)

There was a very significant display of prehistoric tools and weapons that had been discovered by the Director in the fields below the museum. The ground was so filled with lithic waste from the flaking process employed by the Aboriginals, that he believed this had been a major prehistoric settlement after the retreat of the glaciers 12,000 years ago. At the time I visited there was no agency on the Island that could analyse his collection  to see how the artefacts fitted into the known prehistoric chronology. (This potentially massive prehistoric site has yet to be thoroughly explored.)

Down on the wharf there was a large building, a former fish factory and cannery, where a small marine aquarium had been set up. It was very interesting and successful and the Director wanted to enlarge it, but said that funds for this were not available. Gradually, as I asked more and more questions, he became so uncommunicative that I left.

 

 

ELMIRA RAILWAY MUSEUM

I made my way to what had been the Eastern Terminal of the Canadian National Railway – Elmira. Its location could not have been more obscure.

Elmira is located on an old French 18th Century portage road between North Lake and South Lake. It was actually called Portage. It only received its present name – and I don’t know exactly what was being celebrated in that spot at that time – in 1872, when a school teacher named George B. McEachern chose “Elmira” because it sounded euphonious. The name came from a gazetteer of place names of New York State. It has no connection at all with the history and culture of the land that surrounds it.

When the Prince Edward Island Railway was built, it only went as far as Souris where boats sailed to the Magdalene Islands and Newfoundland. The Government of Canada inherited the near-bankrupt PEI Railway in 1874. In 1885 the new Intercolonial Railway built a number of short or spur lines to various communities on the Island and Vernon Bridge, Montague and Elmira were among those chosen.

The Canadian National Railway line closed officially on 31 December 1989. The rails were removed between 1990 and 1992. By that time the Elmira Railway Museum was well-established and a length of line, and two railway cars, were left to the museum to be used as exhibits.

When I arrived there in 1981 the place looked desolate, not the tart elegant appearance that we see in this recent photo.

It was administered by the Director of Basin Head, whose position was full-time. Being the last Provincial historic site to be cobbled together, no time was spent developing a story line. What I saw that afternoon was a lot of original documents attached to the walls without any protection. There were a lot of artefacts that one used to see in small railway stations and the guide was prepared to explain their function.

When I asked whether it would be nice to have a wall with a storyline with words, illustrations and artefacts that told the history of the development of the railways in PEI, the guide made it very clear that the only reason she was at Elmira was to earn stamps to collect unemployment insurance in the winter.

I went outside and climbed around the railway cars, one a beautifully appointed mail car, that had been utterly vandalised. I left depressed and discouraged, wondering how I could ever go back to this region to perform my museum duties, whatever they might be, in the face of such unhappiness and hostility.

 

 

BEACONSFIELD HOUSE – THE CENTRE OF POWER

Beaconsfield House, once owned by the hubristic James Peake, then by the modest Henry Cundall, and in time by the nurses as a residence for their trainees, was built in 1877 by the 23-year-old aspiring architect W. C. Harris, who “borrowed” the design from Samuel Sloan’s 1859 City and Suburban Architecture, a very famous book on the new styles of architecture taking over the continent.

The house was designed as a most elegant town house just at the beginning of the new era in popular architecture when the classical Georgian-derived styles were being replaced by Italian Palazzi and French Mansard Chateaux. Its hall and vestibule were paved with quite beautiful encaustic tiles, inspired by the Arts and Crafts Movement, and the plaster cornices piled intricate ornament upon ornament until it was almost overwhelming. It was in these surroundings that the Heritage Foundation operated on a day to day basis. The house was not yet restored, except for all the woodwork and doors, which were all superbly re-grained by a skilled Island artisan, and the elaborate cast bronze door hardware- hinges, knobs and escutcheons which had been sent away to be polished. It was lovely.

Here the Executive Director had her office in one of the second-floor front bedrooms. The Genealogy Department, a hugely successful Island-wide facility that catered mostly to anglophone clients, occupied the other bedroom on the façade of the house. The Genealogist was a highly-skilled individual who, with volunteers, built up a first-class genealogical service for the Province. In between was a small hall room where the secretary worked. A long narrow room between two large bedrooms, perhaps originally intended as a bathroom, as in the Sloan plan, was the office of the Publishing Co-ordinator, who managed all book sales and saw to the distribution of the Island Magazine when it came out twice a year. On the third floor – the servants’ quarters – at the top of the vertiginous stairs, there was a microscopic room where the Editor of the Island Magazine had his office.

The other larger rooms were junk rooms except for a bedroom used to store the cartons containing the complete library that had been acquired from the Holman House in Summerside. Here was an opportunity to record the intellectual development and literary taste of a middle class island family over several generations. (It was never catalogued and the books  eventually dispersed by public sale.)

The ground floor had a huge double parlour separated by an arch in which receptions were held, and from time to time, small exhibitions of various themes were produced with artefacts from the ever-growing collection and materials borrowed from other organisations. By nature, the space, with four huge west-facing windows and massive chimneypieces, was very difficult to work with. The architecture overwhelmed and dominated the exhibitions.

The entrance hall contained a desk and chair for the receptionist, who was present during opening hours. It was where books or the Island Magazine could be purchased. There was no book display. You had to ask for something specifically and it was fetched from storage.

(I will speak of this in later posts, but the crowning glory of the Heritage Foundation has been its publishing programme, with its issuing in facsimile the great 1880 Meacham Atlas of the Province of Prince Edward Island (1977) and Irene Rogers’ Charlottetown: The Life in its Buildings (1983), as well as a number of other valuable and essential books by other authors. The Island Magazine, now about to publish its 85th number in over forty years of unbroken activity, is a high-quality resource, unique in Canada.)

In the beautiful dining room, with its bay window, there was some fine mid-Victorian furniture on display. Off the dining room was a narrow kitchenette for catering to receptions and as a place for the staff to have their tea break. In the real kitchen quarters in the back wing was the flat set up for the live-in custodians.

And finally, outside Beaconsfield was the original carriage house which had been rebuilt into a gymnasium for the nurses when this was their residence. It had a fine varnished narrow board interior and had once had a fine wood gym floor. When I first saw it the whole building was packed and piled up to capacity with artefacts that ranged from the massive machinery of a tinsmith shop to a large number of mostly-destroyed pictures that had not quite survived a major fire.

A building that I did not see at this time was the collections storage depot on the outskirts of town that had just been named The Artifactory! The announcement was made in the May 1981 issue of the Heritage Foundation’s Newsletter. Here is the first paragraph of the article.

Imagine, forever labelling the home of a provincial collection of historic artefacts as a factory where you manufacture them. I remember my shock and embarrassment when I received my copy of the Newsletter that month.

When I returned home to New Brunswick after my exploratory trip to view the Heritage Foundation sites on the Island, I had much to think about. I had seen such beautiful historical landscapes, marvelled at historic architecture and contemporary purpose-built museum architecture, and met nearly all the players in the Island heritage game. The landscape and architecture thrilled me; the unhappy and dysfunctional employees caused me much anxiety.

 

REFERENCE MATERIAL

Greenhill, Basil and Giffard, Ann, Westcountrymen in Prince Edward’s Isle: A Fragment of the Great Migration, David & Charles and University of Toronto Press, Plymouth UK, 1967.

Hennessey, Catherine G., Information Manual of the the [sic] Prince Edward Island Heritage Foundation, manuscript, Summer 1979, revised Summer 1982.

______________ Prince Edward Island Heritage Foundation Newsletter, Vol. VI (1977) to Vol. XIII (1983)

 

 

Note:

I have two more posts to write on the Heritage Foundation. One will describe the situation in which I found myself when I went to work on January 4, 1982, and the other will describe the very fine exhibitions, in collaboration with the Confederation Centre Art Gallery, that were mounted during the time I remained there, as well as other significant and happy heritage activities in  which I took part.