Why a P.E.I. woman is chronicling the renovation of this historic house online
'I thought, why not share this journey?'
Susan Walsh isn't a documentarian nor an experienced renovator of historic homes, but in the last few months she has become both — and if her Facebook posts are a testament, she's pretty darn good at them.
Walsh and her husband own and run a mixed farm of beef cattle, poultry and grains in Burnt Point, P.E.I., near Georgetown. She's also a part-time librarian. When their long-time neighbour's farm property became available for sale this summer, they decided to buy it, including the more than 120-year-old house.
"Originally, we didn't even know what we would do — keep the land and then resell the house? I took a walk through its extensive grounds and the house itself, just an old house, great bones and great atmosphere and I went, 'No, I think we need to keep this house,'" Walsh said.
It's called the Mair homestead, and was last owned by Colin (Collie) Mair, who died this past June at age 87. He'd grown up in the home with his six brothers and sisters. Many Mair descendants are still living, and Walsh has invited them and anyone else who is interested to watch and weigh in on renovations as she documents them on a Facebook page, Mair Homestead.
My cousins and I are very happy to see the house we spent so much time in as children being restored by loving hands.— Jayne Ings
"There was an older house on the farm that burned, this house was built around 1890," said descendant Jayne Ings, whose mother Connie grew up in the house.
"James and Margaret Allen Mair were the first Mairs on the farm. She was from Boughton Island. Their son George married my grandmother, Doris Hearn, who emigrated from England in 1925," Ings said. Their children were Connie, Allen, George Keith and Anna Rosemary (George and Anna were nicknamed Jack and Jill because they were twins), Charles (Tim), and Colin. Doris Mair died in 2003.
'A very personal thing'
Walsh is happy to have an ongoing conversation with the Mair descendants, she said.
"It's really awesome, it just really makes the house — it brings it back to life," Walsh said. "That was a big thing right from the beginning, when we decided to purchase the house and the land, was to speak to the extended family just to make sure that they were OK that we were going to do some work, out of simple respect ... it was a very personal thing for me."
Walsh grew up in neighbouring Nova Scotia and her parents only recently decided to sell the farm that had been in her family for 170 years, so she said she has a tender spot for historic family homes.
"It was almost like losing one special old home and gaining another," Walsh said. "We just saw the potential in it."
Walsh said it's important to her to respect and honour what the house stood for and the Mair family "who loved that house for over 100 years."
While updating things like wiring, plumbing and insulation, Walsh said they are trying to keep the renovation authentic in look and spirit, keeping "the heart and the spirit of the house intact."
'I think it's wonderful'
Ings has fond memories of visiting the Mair homestead and her grandparents George and Doris over the years.
"My cousins and I are very happy to see the house we spent so much time in as children being restored by loving hands. We can also go visit!" Ings said, adding the Walsh family has a long history of farming and friendship with the Mair family, as both spent several generations there.
I've had lots of people follow along and lots of people with really good ideas!— Susan Walsh
Ings follows the renovations on Facebook, commenting on Walsh's posts about people whose names turn up written on layers of old wallpaper or on handwritten letters found in the walls.
"I think it's wonderful," Ings said of the ability to see and comment on the renovations.
'I'm all about the sharing'
The sale to the Walshes went through in September, and they began renovations shortly thereafter.
With the help of a couple of hired hands and helpful friends along the way, Walsh has been actively tackling the renovation herself, including swinging a sledge hammer and putting on a proper mask for removing fibreglass insulation mixed with decades of dust. What else would you expect from a woman who climbed partway up Mt. Everest in Nepal a couple of years ago?
"I just had a maul and crowbar and started gutting it," she said. "We've just kind of been winging it."
Walsh decided to document the home's journey on Facebook, sharing with friends and strangers far and wide — New Zealand, the U.S. and Europe, as well as all over Canada — and also as a sort of personal journal of the work and the transformation, she said.
"I know a lot of people enjoy that kind of thing — I thought, why not share this journey?" she said. "I've had lots of people follow along and lots of people with really good ideas!
"It's just made it lots of fun, and I'm all about the sharing."
With people unable to travel due to the COVID-19 pandemic, connections like this are even more important, Walsh said.
Stripping 8 layers of wallpaper
Walsh said she also wants to show that saving an old house isn't that difficult.
One man from the U.S. who used to come to visit the area every summer and was friends with Collie Mair has joined in the page's discussion. He used to take Mair for drives, and said Mair was dismayed when he'd see old Island homesteads falling to ruin, and said he hoped that never happened to his house. Walsh said if she hadn't started the page, she wouldn't have known that.
So far, they've trimmed hundreds of trees on the property to enhance the sightline to the Northumberland Strait and hung an outdoor swing. The house's classic exterior white clapboard and black shutters will remain largely the same for now, Walsh said.
Inside the house, most rooms have been demolished to the studs, wallpaper stripped and plaster and lath (thin wood strips that held plaster in place) removed, then spray-foam insulated and drywalled. Ceilings and floors have been removed, and plywood sub-floor laid. A wall was removed in the kitchen to expand it, and upstairs three small bedrooms have become two larger ones, with ceilings removed to allow light from attractive original third-floor windows. Beams that once supported the attic are now exposed for a rustic touch in the upstairs bedrooms and bathroom.
The one piece of furniture that remained in the house, a vintage pump organ, has pride of place in the front formal parlour where the Mairs would have entertained the local minister or ladies' groups. With its wooden mantelpiece, the room will likely become a quiet library, Walsh said.
They are saving all of the hand-hewn beams that were removed from the house, as well as the laths — Walsh said they plan to repurpose them into furniture and other creations.
They've also saved bits of patterned linoleum flooring, and wallpaper — eight layers in one room — and plan to frame some of the pretty, historic pieces.
'Just to show respect'
During demolition, Walsh and her crew have discovered a treasure trove of P.E.I. history in the walls and hidden under floorboards.
She has documented the many finds, including coins dating back more than 100 years, silver spoons, handwritten letters, cigarette packages, pieces of furniture, magazines and many old glass bottles.
The biggest thing is just to be very present in the moment with a project like that — you can't look at the big picture.— Susan Walsh
There was even a book from 1916 that in its dedication spelled the name Miar rather than Mair, which a descendant commented on Facebook may have been the original spelling back then.
Walsh has placed some of the finds on the parlour mantel, along with offerings of fresh flowers and candy to honour the Mair ancestors.
"I know some people think that's a bunch of hogwash, but for me it was just a nice thing to be able to do," she said. "Just to show respect."
Walsh said she is not sure what exactly they plan to do with the house and grounds, which include many large shade trees, a view of the Northumberland Strait, and a large barn from the 1940s which they'd also love to restore someday.
They might rent it out as a venue for events like weddings, or keep it in their family— they have three children — for when guests come to visit. Walsh said she and her husband might move into it too.
They're planning for the renovations to be complete in the spring or summer, but she's not rushing anything.
"For me the biggest thing is just to be very present in the moment with a project like that — you can't look at the big picture, because it becomes super overwhelming," Walsh said.
She said she considers one project at a time, like painting a room, and tries to enjoy it.