Story and photography by Darcy Rhyno
Sylvianne Landry is carding wool, seated at a drop-leaf wooden table marked with decades of use. Dressed in her pinstriped apron, starched white shawl, flower-print cap tied under her chin and a plain wooden cross pendant, she could have stepped out of an 18th century painting. Landry shows me the carding method by pulling two wide, flat paddles across a piece of clean, raw wool. She takes this batt of wool to a spinning wheel where she spins it into yarn.
From the spinning wheel, the yarn is immersed in baths of natural dyes. Although she isn’t dyeing today, she shows me a rainbow of yarn hung on a rack by the wall. The colours progress from light grey to onion skin brown and denim blue to rich burgundy—I count 15 colours in all. At the loom, Landry demonstrates the technique for weaving these gorgeous yarns into cloth.
Landry is an interpreter who plays a character here at the Historic Acadian Village near Caraquet, New Brunswick. More than 40 buildings have been moved or rebuilt here to create a time-lapse experience that tells the story of the Acadians in New Brunswick between the years 1770 and 1949. This one, where Landry performs her woollen artistry, is the Pierrot Robichaud Farm House, circa 1840s. The house is an original, moved here from the village of Inkerman.
Phillipe Basque, historian and curator at the Acadian Village, is touring me around the site, moving from oldest like the 1770 Martin House to more recent buildings like the 1824 Dugas House where traditional Acadian food like râpée—a starchy potato pie—is on the menu at La table des ancêtres. There’s also a mill, a covered bridge and even a 1936 Irving service station with antique gas pumps and cars.
The finest building in the Village is the Hôtel Château Albert, a reconstruction of the grand edifice as it stood in 1907 Caraquet. An antique car delivers guests from the parking lot to the door. As then, there are no telephones or TVs in the rooms rented to those seeking the most restful of sleeps.
“It takes a certain clientele to appreciate the hotel,” says Basque. About his own experience, sleeping at the Albert, he says, “It was the silence that woke me.”
This is just one of many historic villages in Atlantic Canada for travelers who enjoy stepping into the past. The Historic Acadian Village of Nova Scotia also interprets Acadian history in the early 20th century through immersion in a small village setting. Visitors to the 17-acre site in Lower West Pubnico on the southern tip of the province can learn how to build a lobster trap, send a postcard from the historic post office, visit the lighthouse and the salt marsh haystacks, watch blacksmiths at work, visit the animals and sit down to a picnic lunch prepared by the cooks at the Café de Crique.
On Nova Scotia’s Eastern Shore, two other historic villages transport visitors to different eras. The first is Memory Lane Heritage Village that recreates rural coastal life during the 1940s. Entry is through the Hosking General Store. It opens onto a busy village with a schoolhouse and two-seater outhouse, church, icehouse, shingle mill, wood and metal workshop, prospector’s cabin and gold mine ball mill—this area was once home to a small gold rush—a cookhouse that serves hearty meals, the village garage and the Webber House. Chickens peck about the grounds and sheep graze around the barn. Annual events like the Antique Car Show, Dominion Day Old Time Vintage Fair and the Cold Waters Seafood Festival further animate the village.
Sherbrooke Village Museum is unique in that the 25 original buildings with costumed interpreters from the 19th century meld seamlessly with the modern day village of Sherbrooke. The boom years when the village thrived on lumbering, shipbuilding and gold mining attracted all manner of trades people—potters, weavers, printers, blacksmiths and wood turners. Kids and adults alike can dress in period costume to become apprentices in some of these trades. Workshops, weekly concerts and demonstrations like chainsaw carving add to the experience.
Like Memory Lane, life in the Raleigh Historic Fishing Village on Newfoundland’s Northern Peninsula is set in the 1940s. Visitors can book the rustic bunkhouse accommodations heated by a woodstove and spend a day or two, living the quiet, simple life of a villager when the Newfoundland fishery thrived. On a boat tour, learn about historic fishing techniques like cod trapping and squid jigging, then motor into the Big Oven Cave. Some 240 people still live in Raleigh—formerly known as Ha Ha Bay—so part of the experience is making friends with the locals.
At Orwell Corner Historic Village on Prince Edward Island, I stoke the blacksmith’s fire with coal and crank the handle of the bellows to feed it air. The blacksmith hammers away at a white hot piece of iron, fashioning a square-headed nail. As in Pubnico and many other historic villages, the blacksmith shop is central to life here. The interpreters and buildings recreate the life of an 1890s island agricultural crossroads. Throughout the day, I attend a school class, visit the farm animals, shop for supplies at the store, dip candles and sit down to tea and ginger cookies.
For more hands-on history, I don a wool apron and bonnet at Kings Landing Historical Settlement north of Fredericton, New Brunswick. The interpreters playing women of the 19th century have a good laugh. Their characters have never seen a man in such a get up before, let alone one let loose in the kitchen to whip up some authentic gingerbread over the open fire in the hearth. This is an extensive 300-acre site, created when 70 buildings and 70,000 artefacts were moved here or reconstructed when the Mactaquac Dam flooded previously settled areas along the Saint John River. Many more hands-on activities like making rope, milking cows and attending school teach visitors about rural New Brunswick life from 1820 to 1920.
Open air museums like Kings Landing and its cousins across Atlantic Canada have created countless ways for visitors to literally dig their hands into history. These living history villages immerse visitors in the bustling past of East Coast Canada when local economies thrived and all manner of trades were skillfully plied. There’s no better way to learn about former ways of life than to get your hands dirty, trying them out.
Recipe from Memory Lane
Gingerbread with Rhubarb Sauce
Preheat oven to 350°F (220°C)
Grease a 9x14 or 11x13 glass or non-stick baking pan
Measure into 1 or 2 quart heatproof bowl:
2 cups (500 mL) boiling water
2 cups (500 mL) fancy molasses
In a large bowl, cream together:
1 cup (250 mL) white sugar
1 cup (250 mL) softened butter
4 beaten eggs
Mix dry ingredients:
3 tsp (15 mL) baking soda
2 tsp (10 mL) ground cinnamon
½ tsp (2.5 mL) ground cloves
2 tsp (10 mL) ground ginger
½ tsp (2.5 mL) salt
5 cups 1.25 L all purpose flour
To the creamed mixture, alternately add wet and dry mixtures, beginning and ending with dry ingredients. Beat well until all are incorporated uniformly and pour into greased pan. Bake for 20 minutes, carefully rotate pan, then bake for another 20 minutes. Turn off the heat and leave in oven for 20 minutes. (Leaving pan in oven with heat off makes a moist gingerbread without dry edges.) Test the centre before you remove the pan from the oven.
Chop 6 cups (1.5 L) of rhubarb stalks into 1 inch pieces. Rinse under cold water, and drain but do not leave to dry.
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Intro caption: One room school, Historic Acadian Village, NB