Nova Scotia·Photos

The life and death of Nova Scotia's tiniest fishing village

The tiny fishing village was Charlie Norris's love letter to the seaside community where he grew up. But in Nova Scotia, where folk artists achieve star status, his contribution is a mere footnote.

Folk artist Charlie Norris built a miniature version of Lower Prospect in his front yard

Charlie Norris's life's work was this tiny fishing village. For decades, this is what the village looked like. (Monica McArdle/Facebook)

Take a left off a winding highway 30 minutes south of Halifax and before long you'll reach Lower Prospect, where the houses spring from the rocky shore.

Keep driving past a small school and church and, until recently, you couldn't miss a collection of colourful houses just off the narrow gravel road.  

The dozen or so buildings, complete with windowpanes, chimneys and wharves, were made by a patient craftsman. It's almost hard to believe they stand only a few inches tall. 

The tiny fishing village was Charlie Norris's love letter to the seaside community where he grew up. But in Nova Scotia, where folk artists achieve star status and where Maud Lewis paintings rake in more than $100,000, the late artist's contribution is a mere footnote.

In March, Norris's family took the miniature village down for good, storing it in a nearby backyard. Now, they're grappling with how best to remember his legacy.

The village was complete with Lower Prospect landmarks like Norris's brother's house and the church. (Emma Smith/CBC)
The fishing village has been a fixture of Lower Prospect since the 1980s but is starting to deteriorate. (Emma Smith/CBC)

"He had people from all over the world come see his little village," said his daughter Sherlene Higgins, who lives next door to her parents' house. 

The village wasn't for sale, but through word of mouth, curious visitors from as far away as the U.S. and Australia would show up at Norris's door to see for themselves. 

When Norris died five years ago, Higgins and her siblings were left with the task of maintaining the wooden structures. After decades of exposure to harsh sea air and unpredictable storms, they had started to deteriorate.

"It was hard for me because I just loved whatever dad did, so it was hard for me to do that, but I thought, I can't leave it out there and have it so run down and people are looking for it to be like it used to be," said Higgins, who relocated the village to her backyard. 

The smaller pieces — like fishermen, carriages and cows — have moved indoors and take up nearly every available space in Higgins's kitchen.

This is what the red barn used to look like. (Monica McArdle/Facebook)

Growing up in Lower Prospect in the 1930s was hard. Norris's family was poor and from an early age, he was out on the water catching fish. 

Higgins said her dad began building the village in 1987, and before long it took up most of his time. Every morning he set up dozens of pieces and every night he took them back to his workshop. 

"I think he probably thought it would mean more if people saw like a miniature size of our village. It's a way to bring some attention to down here and have more tourists come down this way," said Higgins.

Sherlene Higgins and her husband Paul moved all the buildings off the front lawn in March after strong windstorms caused further destruction to the village. (Emma Smith/CBC)

Norris's older brother, Joe Norris, was a well-known folk artist who sold his paintings around the globe with the help of The Houston North Gallery.

The gallery's owner and director, John Houston, remembers driving by the village for the first time and marvelling at its detail. It was the younger Norris's "great calling card," he said.

"You couldn't miss it. It was such a landmark," Houston said. "It wasn't just a little diorama or something. It almost seemed like a whole little world."

Unlike folk artists who displayed their work so they could sell it, Houston said Norris wasn't particularly interested in making money. There was a "purity" to what Norris did, he said.

Houston said he understands why the family has taken the village down. Still, he wants to see some part of it restored and preserved in a museum similar to what the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia did with Maud Lewis's house.

In an email, a spokesperson for the gallery said the acquisitions committee is aware of Norris's works but no decision has been made. 

Norris died in 2013 at the age of 84. (Submitted by Sherlene Higgins)

Norris's granddaughter doesn't want the village to be forgotten. 

"I kind of wish my grandfather had a bit more of, you know, recognition that there was something more out there for him. [If] his stuff was put in a museum, I think he'd cry. I'd cry if I saw it in a museum," said Monica McArdle, who now lives in Oregon. 

She can't remember a time when the village wasn't there. It was like a friendly neighbour you looked forward to seeing, she said.

"Oddly, you kind of start noticing that even the fishing village is kind of going away," McArdle said. "There's not really many people down there that are fishermen anymore."

The village is more than a collection of wooden houses. For McArdle, it's the memory of a loving and patient grandfather, and a testament to his generation, who took time to make and fix what they loved.

Higgins has brought some of her father's work indoors. Now, carriages, horses, cows and tiny people line a shelf in her kitchen. (Emma Smith/CBC)

"It does hurt my heart to know that we couldn't keep it up, that we couldn't restore it. If I was there maybe on a weekend I would try and fix some things but I know that I don't have the carpentry abilities that he did, and honestly, the time," she said. 

Norris suffered from heart disease and in his later years, it was difficult for him to reassemble the village each day. Shortly after he died, his family got together to do the work for him. 

McArdle remembers it was raining over Halifax, but above them it was sunny as they carried all the pieces back out into the yard. She realized in that moment just how much work her grandfather committed to the community he loved. 

She hopes there's something preserved for tourists to marvel at, but even if there isn't, McArdle knows her grandfather made a difference.  

"Some people got to know him and talk to him and know his name," she said. "There are those people out there that, who knows where they travelled from, that did come down to that little corner that wasn't Peggys Cove, that found this little village that he made."