In the summer of 2003, my husband and I found ourselves on a narrow, poorly paved road after dark shrouded in heavy fog, wondering whether we had made a wrong turn when we got off the ferry in Digby. Surely this could not be the road to Victoria Beach where we had booked one of the Casey cottages as our place to stay for the coming week? Having no other choice except to plow on through the ‘pea soup’ fog, we continued to climb the small hill. Suddenly there appeared on our left a large stately old house all lit up as though it was expecting visitors. We figured this had to be the place we were looking for.
As it turned out, we had reached our destination and so began our journey to discovery and eventual decision to make this remote place our future home which I wrote about in my last post “Finding Victoria Beach”.
To achieve a better understanding of a place, I find it helpful to get a sense of its history. Sometimes this can be difficult if the place is small and hasn’t done anything outstanding to warrant being mentioned in the history books. I’ve had to rely primarily on the good memories of some of those whose families have lived here for several generations. I also gleaned some facts from Will R. Bird’s “Off Trail in Nova Scotia” and Joe Casey’s “Wit and Wisdom” and “The Life and Times of Joe Casey”. Evelyn Eaton, an American author who made her home here in Victoria Beach in the 1940’s, also wrote about this area in her autobiography “The Wind and the Trees Went the Other Way”.
The descendants of the families still living here told me that the village probably got started in the late 1700’s or early 1800’s. No one really knows just when or who the first family was that settled here, but I would hazard a guess that what lured them here was the deep, but very cold waters of the Bay of Fundy which teemed with cod, herring, halibut, pollack, shad, lobster, and scallops. Fishing has never been easy here as the fisherman had to be smart and skillful to outmaneuver the tricky tides and eddies of the Annapolis Basin. It was a hard scrabble life for the people as their livelihood depended not only on the Fundy tides but also the rocky soil which made growing food a real challenge. However, they survived and are proud of it to this day.
Today, the few boats and fishermen who remain in the business, fish primarily for lobster and some haddock and scallops. While in season some clamming and dulsing are also carried out. Dulse, in case you haven’t heard of it, is a red seaweed high in mineral and protein content particularly iron and potassium. To the locals it’s a dietary necessity eaten and enjoyed like candy, but to those of us who have not acquired a taste for it, it’s better put into soups or casseroles rather than eaten straight from the bag because of its strong fish flavour.
Where is Victoria Beach you may ask and how did it come by its name? If you look at a fairly detailed map of southwestern Nova Scotia, you can locate it on a peninsula extending 25km. west of Annapolis Royal on the Bay of Fundy shore. It’s at the end of the oldest road in Canada dating back to the discovery of the region known as Port Royal by Samuel de Champlain. The drive along this road has to be one of the most scenic in the province for as you drive out to the Beach, you have the Annapolis Basin on your right and the North Mountain to the left. Victoria Beach is the last village at the very end of the road. Most of the houses cling to the base of the mountain and face the Digby Gut, the narrow entrance from the Bay of Fundy to the Annapolis Basin and separating two peninsulas. Every day, and twice a day in the summer season, the residents are treated to the passage of the Princess of Acadia on her route linking Saint John, NB with Digby, NS.
As for how this tiny village got its name, I have so far not come up with any satisfactory answer other than the original settlers who came here were mostly from Scotland and England and so named it after Queen Victoria. Before that of course, the area was inhabited by the Mi’kmaw. There is a beach here, albeit a cold and rocky one so not great for swimming unless you are a hardy soul, that according to the locals who still live here, is actually named Indian Beach after the Mi’kmaw who used it as their main fishing site.
Another noteworthy bit of history about Victoria Beach is the role it played in 1849 when a pony express route was set up to get overseas news as quickly as possible to New York city via Halifax, Victoria Beach, and Saint John. Over 146 miles were covered in anywhere from eight to eleven hours using fresh horses and riders along the way. In those days, this was a remarkable feat raising many eyebrows and spinning many stories as to just how long the journey actually took. Unfortunately, the service lasted for only nine months until the invention of the telegraph took over completely.
Family names such as Everett, Ellis, Haynes, McGrath, and Foley, to name a few, reach back to the early 1800’s with many of their descendants still living here today. One of the Beach’s most colourful residents was Joe Casey who was a fisherman, harbour pilot, longest reigning member of the Nova Scotian legislature, fish plant and hotel owner, and in his latter years a master story-teller. In fact, Joe made himself quite a reputation for public speaking getting invited to speak not only in his home province but many times in the United States at government functions in Washington, DC and for large corporations such as Ford. In his travels south, he managed to meet such big names as James Cagney and Fred Astaire and at one time traded stories with Robert Ripley of “Ripley’s Believe It or Not”. I can easily see how the two of them must have hit it off as the word about Joe’s stories was sometimes met with skepticism as to just how much was truth and how much was fiction. However, is that not the stuff of good story telling?
In my last post, I wrote on how influential Joe was to helping us make the big decision to buy a house here and make it our home. Along with his fellow Nova Scotians and those he met from around the world, he was known for his charm, warmth, and quick wit which made us all laugh. We also discovered he bore no malice towards anyone. He was always there to help out his neighbours and later on as his responsibilities to his constituents and fellow Nova Scotians in the legislature which dominated his varied career for more than twenty years. His wit and wisdom managed to keep all the provincial parties in stitches rather than shooting barbs at each other. No wonder they made him the Speaker of the House! Joe passed away in 2010 but his legacy will live on in our memories.
Today, the population of the Beach has decreased from well over 250 souls to about 80 or more at its peak in the summer when we have an influx of house owners who live here for a few months or so. In the winter, this number will fall back to about 40 hardy locals and a handful of brave CFA’s or ‘come from aways’ as the locals like to call people not born here. Even though I am a Nova Scotian, I am still included in the CFA category since I was born in Halifax and come from some place other than Victoria Beach. We CFA’s come from other parts of Canada and other countries, such as the United States, Germany, Wales, and Scotland, and we all share a similar story. We found this place mostly by accident or divine providence, or perhaps word of mouth, and very quickly fell in love with it. What is it that draws the new comers and keeps the older generation here? Ask any of us and we’ll quickly reply that we feel we have something quite special here that is getting increasingly harder to find in this chaotic world. We have unspoiled nature in the way of the sea, the forest, the mountain, and even some lakes which means lots of birds and wildlife. It’s a simpler way of life and a whole lot saner than the big city and its suburbs. Although most of the young people are moving on for job opportunities elsewhere, there are some who are opting to stay so they can bring their children up in this natural and clean environment.
Hopefully I might have perked an interest for some of you who are looking for an adventure and want to escape the rat race of the city. Land and house prices in and around Victoria Beach are extremely cheap for anyone who is dreaming of a change in their lifestyle. Large lots with more than a 100 acres of land (mostly undeveloped and extending up into the mountain behind us) can include lots of trees and an old homestead with a couple of barns all waiting for anyone willing to try their hand at farming. Properly managed woodlots are another way to make a living with some of this available land. Many of us are using wood to partially heat our homes so it’s in big demand. Lately there has been more talk about using some of our land for erecting windmills to help with our heating costs. This is a contentious issue between those for it and those against it, but one I hope can be resolved and be moved forward as we could have a real possibility here for our area. We have the land and we certainly have the wind. Now we just need the right kind of people who are willing to change their thinking on this and help get our government on board. Yes, there is potential here just waiting to be developed!