Seaside Shangri-La

Tired of it all? At Peggy’s Cove you’ll find beauty that stops the breath and a way of life that’s balm to the soul

IAN SCLANDERS August 1 1947

Seaside Shangri-La

Tired of it all? At Peggy’s Cove you’ll find beauty that stops the breath and a way of life that’s balm to the soul

IAN SCLANDERS August 1 1947

Seaside Shangri-La



Tired of it all? At Peggy’s Cove you’ll find beauty that stops the breath and a way of life that’s balm to the soul

THE ATLANTIC can be a vile-tempered old hellcat and often she pounds the rocky coast of Nova Scotia with waves that roar like thunder. One night at Peggy's Cove, 30 miles south of Halifax, she bounced a 60-ton boulder around the front yard of the lighthouse. Then she thrust an arm up through the village, tore the general store off its foundations and lifted it, crushed it, dragged it, dropped it. When dawn came up and the sea calmed down it was obvious that the poor wreck of a building would never again he fit for its original purpose. But Pe~v's men had been need me a place to

But Peggy’s men had been needing a place to meet and think and talk. .So they salvaged what was left of the structure and propped it up on stilts at the water’s edge and called it Parliament House. And Parliament House became the intellectual centre of one of the loveliest hamlets this side of Heaven.

There may be another spot in the wide world where visiting painters and poets frequently outnumber the inhabitants. I don’t know. But Peggy’s Cove has been the subject of more pictures

and lyric verse than any rival pin point on the map of Canada.

The philosophers who gather at Parliament House occasionally discuss Peggy’s personality and try to analyze the charm which draws so many artists to the settlement. Perhaps the conversation will be started by Lawson Innis, 80-year-old fisherman and sage who can quote the works of Shakespeare and John Milton by the hour.

“Peggy,” he’ll say with a twinkle in his bright eyes, “is a granite-faced witch.”

And long lean Rupert Manuel may be there sawing out soft melodies on his fiddle and watching the pipe smoke curl and twist against the oil lamp’s yellow rays.

“That,” Rupert Manuel will object, “is a very harsh way to describe a famous beauty.”

And the theme is good for a long while because Peggy’s magic spell is not easy to define. It’s

compounded of light and shadow and unchanging stone and ever-changing sea; of sun and fog and silence and booming surf; of small neat homes and small brave boats and lobster traps and nets; of weather-beaten faces and work-hardened hands and struggle and contentment.

And there are other things—white gulls wheeling in the blue sky and the sharp smell of fat mackerel pickling in tubs of brine and the green seaweed sprouting from the wet timbers of the jetties; the patient plodding of oxen and the quick artistry of women’s fingers hooking gay rugs; the legends and faith and humor and dignity of people who dwell by preference in a remote unhurried little world of their own and win their livelihood from the Atlantic.

Nobody at Peggy’s needs a psychiatrist or commits a crime or gets divorced; nobody cares very much about money as long as there is enough for bare necessities; life flows on smoothly and peacefully, as it has for 140 years.

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To get to Peggy’s you leave the Halifax - Yarmouth highway near French Village, and follow a winding back road for 20 miles along the shore of St. Margaret’s Bay. You pass places with names like Frostfish Cove, Seabright, Hackett’s Cove, Shut-in Island, Modesty Cove, Paddy’s Head, Indian Harbor and Middle Point. Then you turn off the road, through a gate in a rickety fence, and you’re there.

No Trees, Little Soil

Looking around, you wonder how the settlement first took root, and how it managed to survive.

You wonder, because Peggy’s Cove is at the end of a grooved tongue of rock that sticks out defiantly at the ocean, and not a single tree grows there, and the shrubs are gnarled and stunted and starved, and the wind always blows, flattening the pale tiny patches of grass.

The groove in the tongue is a microscopic harbor you could almost call Main Street—a Main Street paved with salt water—because the commerce of the village revolves around its wharves and fish sheds. Set back from it on a higher level are the dwellings, the church, the school with its nine pupils aged six to 16 and the community hall where there is a picture show each Thursday and a dance each Saturday.

There are fewer than 75 residents. Most of them tote their drinking water from a neighbor’s pump; wells are so difficult to drill in the solid rock that there are only 11 of them.

You notice that the church lacks the usual graveyard, and that, too, is explained by the rock. The dead are buried six miles away, at Hackett’s Cove, for nowhere nearer is there earth the gravedigger can turn with his spade.

At Parliament House once, Louis Crooks Siit in deep meditation. He’s the veteran postmaster, whose father before him sorted the mail for 70 years.

“What we should have here,” Louis Crooks announced finally, “is a market garden. I was reading a seed catalogue . . .”

“Seeds,” said Lawson Innis, “are supposed to be kind of hard to grow in granite.”

“True,” said the postmaster, “but I figure to plant soil on the granite, then plant the seeds in the soil.”

So by boat and oxcart he gathered rich black loam and filled in a saucershaped depression, and today if you are at Peggy’s and want fresh vegetables you see Mr. Crooks at the post, office.

As though it were not enough for the village to sit on a shelf of rock, there are gigantic boulders scattered all over, dropped by the great glacier as it plunged into the Atlantic at the close of the lee Age. These add an eerie touch to the scenery and provide a

modicum of shade for the artists who flock to immortalize Peggy’s in oils and water colors. They are thus both decorative and functional.

I’m not. sure just who, of all the summer fugitives from sweltering cities, originally discovered the charm of Peggy’s Cove. But it was probably the Rev. Dr. Robert Norwood, who won an international reputation as a preacher and poet. And if this is so he could only be termed the rediscoverer, for he knew the place as a boy, having been born at Hubbard’s Cove just across St. Margaret’s Bay.

Bob Norwood was too big a fish for a small cove, and when he grew up he went to New York and built the one million-dollar St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church on Park Avenue and wrote books that were acclaimed by the critics.

But in July and August, as long as he lived, he would return to renew himself on Nova Scotia’s wave beaten rocks, and the eloquent and fashionable Manhattan parson would often preach of a Sunday at the diminutive and unpretentious Church of St. John’s at Peggy’s.

He gave some of his best sermons there, putting so much into them that he would be drenched with sweat and have to change his shirt afterward, and the fisherfolk came from up and down the shore to hear him. When Bob Norwood was there St. John’s wouldn’t hold the flock, and the windows would he opened so those who couldn’t squeeze in could listen outside.

When the service was over he would wander down to the Parliament House with friends like Lawson Innis and Andrew Merkel, the Halifax newspaperman who writes such fine and stirring narative poems, and the late J. F. B. Livesay, the newspaperman and poet who was instrumental in founding Canada’s co-operative news gathering organization, The Canadian Press.

They would have grand sessions there talking about literature and philosophy and spinning yarns. Andrew Merkel enjoyed telling about the wideeyed girl reporter from a New York tabloid who arrived to interview Robert Norwood in his native habitat. Norwood had purchased the old rectory in which he was brought up at Hubbard’s and remodelled it for a summer home. He had installed indoor plumbing in what used to he his study.

After the interviewer plied him with questions about his youth she gushed: “Now, Dr. Norwood, I’d just love to see the place where you first began to write.” So he led her to the shiny new bathroom, took the only available seat, and said: “This, I believe, is the exact spot.”

Artists From Everywhere

Norwood, Merkel, Livesay and kindred spirits formed a sort of Peggy’s Cove cult and spread its fame in poems and articles.

Artists soon followed poets in taking up Peggy’s and found that the same quality which inspired poetry inspired painting. Year by year they turned up in growing numbers. You would have a hard time counting the boulders that litter the Cove, some of them the size of houses, but now on a fine day there will be an artist behind each of them.

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They come from all over the continent, and in the run of a season they must use enough canvas to put new sails on every Bluenose schooner. They are good, mediocre and bad, celebrated, well-known and unknown. They dress more like fishermen than the fishermen themselves, the standard uniform being blue cotton pants, flannel shirts and blue ring-necked sweaters.

George Swinimer is proprietor of Sunnvside Cottage, one of the three modest establishments which accommodate visitors at Peggy’s. Flipping through his register you can see names of people from every province of Canada and every state of the union.

Mr. Swinimer has had an odd career. A bachelor, he deserted fishing for innkeeping. Unlike most bachelors he never sweeps the dirt under the rugs and never forgets to dust the shelves. He has few equals in the kitchen. Most of those who stay with him are artists, as are most of those who stay with Mrs. Nellie Garrison and Mrs. Rupert Manuel, his friendly competitors in what is known at Peggy’s as the “boarding business.”

Swinimer, Mrs. Garrison and Mrs. Manuel don’t seem to have heard of inflation. When I was there recently they were charging $2.50 a day for room and meals. While the plumbing is not what you’re accustomed to in the city, this slight disadvantage is offset by hand-hewn ceiling beams and patchwork quilts and hooked rugs and fish dinners and homemade bread and salt air and the music of the waves. Then, too, there are the paintings on the walls —gifts from pleased patrons. It’s a bit like living in an art gallery.

Years ago an artist at the Cove would attract neck-craning spectators and gratuitous advice about where to dab which color on his canvas. But now artists are accepted as part of the scenery.

Rupert Manuel tends the lighthouse. 1 asked him how many times it had been painted. He said four times, that he could recall. I said I’d seen dozens of pictures of it.

“Oh,” said Rupert, “I thought you meant how many times had it had a coat of paint. Pictures—that’s different. It’s been painted hundreds of times. No, I guess it would be thousands of times.”

In fiction artists are long-haired harum-scarum individuals with loose morals and a fondness for alcoholic revelry. In real life Peggy’s residents find them as tame as a Sunday school class, although they grant that some of them spout strange social and economic theories in fancy words, and that a lot of them—judging from what they paint—suffer from an eye affliction which distorts the vision.

Who Was Peggy?

The details of when and why Peggy’s Cove was founded are vague. There is an old wives’ tale that a ship was wrecked there and that the survivors, after salvaging what they could, decided to remain where the Atlantic had tossed them ashore. A more likely explanation is that the spot was handy to good fishing grounds and offered shelter for small boats.

If you accept the legend, Peggy was a woman who weathered the wreck. If you reject it, Peggy’s probably gets the name from being one of the coves of St. Margaret’s Bay.

The land (or rock) was first granted around 1807 to the Kaisers and Troops, who were, presumably, two of the Hanoverian families who reached Nova Scotia in 1753 to establish Lunenburg, the first German community in Canada. The Kaisers and Troops were joined by hardy souls of Scottish, English and Irish origin, but, as Lawson Innis says, “Only the good Lord Himself knows why.” In most fishing villages in the Maritime provinces people farm as a sideline, or at least grow enough vegetables for their own root cellars. At Peggy’8 they can’t—even if it were possible for them to have root cellars.

Their attempts at farming (apart from Louis Crooks’ truck garden) have been pathetic. Some tried raising hogs, but the hogs didn’t do well, and were given up as a bad job. There are a few sorry-looking hens, pecking bewilderedly at granite, and there are four or five oxen and a small herd of dairy cattle. The fence that separates Peggy’s from the rest of Nova Scotia is not to keep the cows from getting out, but to keep them from getting in.

The animals don’t appreciate this barrier very much, but the children do. In the summer, 80 or 100 cars of sightseers may visit Peggy’s in a day, and opening the gate for a car is worth anywhere from a nickel to a quarter, depending on the driver.

Inland from Peggy’s back door is a strange stretch of desolation called the Barrens—boulders, rock ledges, moss, shallow pockets of earth, tangled bushes, stunted trees. It is dotted with fresh-water ponds and miniature bogs, and in these bogs grow pitcher plants which feed on flies and have hairy lips to trap them, and the rosecolored orchids named grass pinks, and swamp roses, and canary-colored bladderwort, and sheep laurel, and huckleberries. The cattle roam the Barrens, wishing, no doubt, for more grass and fewer flowers, and at the close of day they always return to Peggy’s fence.

Such hay as is cut in the Barrens is cut with hand scythes, raked with hand rakes, hauled by oxcart. Louis Crooks’ father, Wesley, once bought a horse, thinking it would be handy to have around for such occasions as the haying. His neighbors predicted he would soon rid himself of the newfangled beast and go back to the tried and trusted ox. He did.

They Sleep in Grandpa’s Bed

In Peggy’s the good healthy hardworking women scorn such innovations as washing machines, preferring the old-fashioned scrubbing board and tub. They also favor wood-burning stoves in their kitchens, copper kettles and white pine floors that look like snow when they are given a going over with a stiff brush and yellow soap.

The folks at the Cove have never had many possessions but they have always taken care of them. They cook with the pots their grandmothers cooked with, sleep in beds that successive generations have been born in and died in, sit at tables that should be in antique stores.

The youngest house was built about a century ago with hand-sawn lumber and hand-wrought nails, and all the homes have the graceful lines and proportions that you associate, in the Maritime provinces, with the days of wooden shipbuilding, when the artisans who shaped the schooners and squareriggers influenced the architecture. You’d expect the dwellings to be dilapidated and paintless, as are those in most fishing villages, but they aren’t. They are tidy, brightly painted, as gay as the wild flowers in the Barrens. They remind you of illustrations in books of fairy tales.

And so do the people who live in them. They don’t seem to belong to this day and age, these people. It’s typical that they call tuna fish “albacore,” which is what the Portuguese and French fishermen called them in the l?00’s, but which you hardly ever hear any more.

There was a time when they caught albacore and boiled them down for oil for leather tanners. Then that market disappeared. Now Peggy’s men go after these big fish again and sell them to New England fish dealers. All last summer they got 20 cents a pound for them—and an albacore or tuna weighs any where from 50 to 800 pounds.

Elsewhere on the coast of Nova Scotia deep-sea angling is exploited, with wealthy sportsmen from the United States hiring boats and guides at fancy prices. Such frivolity is frowned on at Peggy’s, If you want to go deep-sea angling there you get a fisherman to take you along on one of his regular trips, and pay him $3 or $4 for the ride. Your chances of landing a tuna are just as good as they are anywhere, and if the tuna are elusive you can jig for mackerel, which is a lot of fun. The jig is a series of hooks arranged around a bright metal weight which is lowered to the bottom. The mackerel are attracted to the shining metal, as moths are to a light, and when you give this a quick jerk they are impaled on the hooks.

The Cove Isn’t Spoiled

The people of Peggy’s Cove have no form of local government. At meetings of the Halifax County Council they are represented by Councillor Laurie Fraser, who lives eight miles away at Glen Margaret. If an urgent problem arises the villagers get together in Granite Hall and decide what is to be done.

Fortunately Peggy’s residents are a singularly healthy breed, for there isn’t a doctor within 15 miles.

Of late years the population has dropped a bit, with young folks leuving for bigger centres. But the trend hasn’t been very pronounced and probably nine out of 10 who are born at the Cove live and die there.

They seldom travel far afield. For example, Wesley Crooks’ longest trip, in the 99 years and 11 months of his life, was to Annapolis Royal, less than 100 miles away. He allowed tliat it was quite an experience to see the world, but made it known that he was mighty glad to be back home.

Back in 1935 the American writer, T. Morris Longstreth, turned out a book on Nova Scotia. In it he predicted a tragic end for Peggy’s Cove. The tourists would find the place, he said, and the inhabitants would learn to pose, and they would set up soft drink stands and lose their character. Mr. Longstreth underestimated them — didn’t realize that they have absorbed some of the changelessness of their native rocks.

Tourists have found Peggy’s, it is true. But there are no soft drink stands, no overnight cabins. If visitors want to flock in, well, it’s a free country. But the influx hasn’t touched the shrewd and simple outlook of the people, who remain as individualistic today as their forebears of more than a century ago. They are, and will always be, fishermen. They will never leave the sea to open service stations and restaurants.

Fishing, you see, is more than an occupation. It’s a calling that takes hold of a man’s heart and molds his philosophy and shapes his way of life. And there’s not enough money to bribe Peggy’s men away from their boats and nets and hooks and turn them to the drab safe pursuits of landlubbers, if