For Maclean’s writer John DeMont, his 1990 assignment to head the magazine’s Atlantic bureau in Halifax was a chance to return to his Nova Scotia roots after seven years of working as a journalist in other parts of Canada. As DeMont, now a member of Maclean’s Ottawa bureau, revisited parts of his native province, he gathered material for a series of vignettes evoking the character of Nova Scotia. His newly published The Last Best Place includes his observations on the high point on the social calendar each August—Race Week in the picturepostcard village of Chester, 70 km east of Halifax:
Manicured hedges line the narrow, quiet streets. Behind all the foliage, I glimpse grand homes with signs and brass plates bearing elevated names like Morning Tide, Pinecroft, Westerleigh, Sand Castle, Over the Way. It is only a short walk along the water to a comfortable wooden house called the Quarterdeck. Desmond Piers leads me inside. Piers has summered here every year since 1916, except during the Second World War, when as a rear admiral he commanded destroyers and won the Distinguished Service Cross during the Battle of the Atlantic. He had an even better life afterwards: chairman of the Canadian Joint Staff in Washington, Canada’s military representative to NATO and the principal military adviser to the Canadian ambassador in Washington. Piers, I learn, is 82.
He knows everything. How a boatload of New Englanders arrived in the mid-1700s to settle a tongue of land sheltered in Mahone Bay.
How a century later John Wister, a wealthy stove manufacturer from Philadelphia, arrived on a summer vacation and bought a property he made into a summer home christened Wisteria. How other wealthy Americans followed: the Starrs and the Pews (heirs to the Sun Oil fortune) from Philadelphia; the Trimbles, the Carrolls, the Finneys, from Baltimore; the Groves of St. Louis; Gen. Rutherford Bingham, a veteran of the Spanish-American War and the former police commissioner of New York City; the presidents of Princeton and Rutgers; the U.S. ambassador to Russia.
He tells me about the golf club, built by a Scottish lumber merchant just for the rich summer people. And how Colonel Something-or-other buried his wife and son along the third hole. He tells me about the war years and how the mix started to change here as more Upper Canadians and well-off Haligonians began to summer in Chester. He tells me how magazine writers are always coming around to do stories about the animosity between the summer folk and the yearrounders—and how they always leave empty-handed. “Oh, everyone gets along here quite nicely,” he says with a smile, his fingers laced contentedly behind his head. “It is really extraordinary.”
Reprinted with permission from The Last Best Place, copyright John DeMont, published by Doubleday Canada Ltd., Toronto.
Does he somehow know that when I leave here I’m heading back along the harbor and up the winding climb past the high hedges, the impenetrable gates and “No trespassing” signs to the very end of the peninsula? As I manoeuvre up the hill, I can almost hear them behind the gates, harrumphing about liberals, capital gains taxes and how Helms-Burton has thrown the market for Cubanos out of whack. The gals, I imagine, with Kate Hepburn tough-girl nicknames like Babs and Slim, with Jackie 0. hairstyles and memories of dancing with some long-ago beau to String of Pearls before he went off and bought it on the beaches of Normandy. The menfolk slumming it in their ascots and blazers, clutching a tall gin and tonic as they reminisce about how they could have bought IBM at three bucks a share.
All of which gives a refreshingly arriviste quality to the man who greets me at the top. Tim Moore wears a T-shirt, khakis, TopSiders and a Lillehammer ’94 ball cap, the midmorning sun glinting off the gold in his watch, chunky wrist bracelet and thin neck chain. “There was a lot of talk in town, perhaps because of the size of the house,” he explains when we sit down. “Crazy talk about me being part of the Mafia, stuff like that. Then Venture did a piece. I was on Gzowski. Frank started writing about us. It got to the point where I didn’t know anyone, but everyone knew me and what I did.” Moore is in the moving business; his company, A. M. J. Campbell Van Lines, does $65 million a year in sales; it is based in Toronto, but he keeps a fax, phone and computer humming on the third floor of his Chester home
and once a week drives into Halifax and flies to
head office. I’ve heard and read his name lots since moving back. The house was the main reason. More for what it symbolized to a certain slice of Chester gentry than anything else: the new, the slightly showy, the lack of respect for tradition. Sure, Moore had money, but what kind? When the peninsula crowd think of real Chester wealth, they think of old money, passed down like the fine houses themselves, from generation to generation.
“Life in Toronto used to be full of stresses,” he reflects when I ask what brought him here. “When I wasn’t in the office or on the 4011 was on an airplane. That is the danger in being financially successful: once you achieve a certain level of net worth, you feel you have to go out and get more and more and more.” But his wife is a Maritimer; they honeymooned in Chester 18 years ago. So when it came time to try to shift lifestyle gears, a real estate agent told them about this property. Moore laid down half a mil, subdivided the land, kept the best chunk for himself and recouped the costs by selling the rest. The people on the peninsula, he says, were a collective pain in the ass, particularly the group from Halifax: they didn’t want him to subdivide; they complained about the trucks going up and down the road.
Now we’re sitting in the backyard of his eight-year-old home on his 5!/2-acre property. It is a mansion, really, with 15-foot ceilings, gold-glinting bathroom fixtures, and an aqua swimming pool shimmering in the trees and groomed gardens. The view, much as I try, is what I cannot take my eyes off: 270 degrees of blue, sunburst water; a handful of candy-spinnakered sailboats; a Cape Islander steaming out to the open ocean—like stepping into a Leroy Neiman. Dead ahead, the bulk of Quaker Island. Swivel your head to the right and sprawling Cape Cods, pillared Georgian mansions shaded by the
pines and birches, their lawns unrolling like carpets to the ocean. To the left, the bay, leading to the emerald golf course, where a wicked slice could take out a German orthodontist in a powerboat.
Everybody said the view from Moore’s back lawn is the best anywhere on the basin, better than financier, author and adventurer Chris Ondaatje’s or that of Mariellen Black, Monty’s ex-wife, or former federal Tory cabinet minister Barbara McDougall’s, or Don Johnston’s (the head of the OECD, not the aging hunk-boy actor) or even from the huge property Brandon Stoddard, the Hollywood producer, is building on Rafuse Island.
It is noon now and the yacht club crowd is already getting it on. Over at the bar, some big guys with ruddy complexions are guzzling Coke with guvy—that’s Governor General’s rum for the uninitiated—with two hands. People who look like they have been ripped right from the pages of a J. Crew catalogue—khaki shorts, cable-knit sweaters, yellow rubber boots—hug each other and shake hands with big grins and a whoop here and there. “By God, you old bastard! Good to see you. Damn good, and I mean it.” Young peacocks, sunglasses hanging from little black strings around their necks, strut around sizing up the competition. Some good-looking women: groupies? local society belles? There are even serious sailors, eyeing the computer printouts on the wall that carry the day’s draw. Jimmy Buffett, the patron saint of all seagoing types, wafts from the sound system.
Regattas, according to the official race program, have been held in Chester since 1856, when thousands of people raced in everything from canoes to sailboats and the prizes were “flour, sugar, hats or money.” Now the winners of the Chester Race Week regatta get silver cups. But the whole thing still has an air of shabby gentility about it, from the 95-year-old yacht club, once somebody’s boathouse, to the heavy brass cannon, which 88-year-old Ben Heisler is struggling to ignite aboard the race boat to begin the day’s racing.
By 10 p.m., the social strata have settled. Most of the real money is at home, inside the elegant old homes. Up the hill at the Fo’c’sle Tavern, which is the real thing, not some nautical theme bar, the stockbrokers, management consultants, lawyers, doctors and trust-fund babies swarm the bar, pounding back endless glasses of draught and guvy and Coke. I get the impression this is their sacred place: that when they started coming here to crank a few during Race Week it was when things were good, when anything seemed possible. Before divorce, coipo rate downsizings, male pattern baldness, 12-step programs and easy-fit jeans. Before the wife’s high-school sweetheart started getting mentioned in the RoB and Gretzky headed stateside. Before light beer, Robert Bly and nice, sensible minivans.
So Chester is one thing to them and another to the townies in the corner, sticking to themselves, a bit overwhelmed, maybe a touch resentful of the invading preppy hordes with their designer labels and this band they’ve never seen before, in their bar, playing a tune by someone called Hootie and the Blowfish.
Wear a Grateful Dead T-shirt or one of those Rasta tea-cozy hats to a Chester cocktail party and people will probably think you’re somebody’s software genius son, or a movie producer scouting for a spot to stand in for Martha’s Vineyard in their new Hollywood romantic comedy. Wear a sportscoat to Tim Moore’s open house on the last day of Chester Race Week, on the other hand ...
“Lose the jacket and you’ll be fine,” whispers a sympathetic woman I know slightly, today sporting jeans and a faded denim shirt instead of the power suit and pumps she wears back in Halifax. Moore’s party really marks the end of Race Week and, in a way, the end of summer in the village. Soon the beautiful people will be gone and Chester will return to its normal, everyday self. Right now, though, cars clog the lane leading to the house; a gaggle of kids frolic in the pool; most of the adults stand out back drinking wine and beer, trying to fit their mouths around monster hamburgers while they ooh and aah at the 30 or 40 boats tacking out of the bay. It all seems so perfect, the colored sails billowing in the wind, the sun, the ocean, the healthy-looking, happy people taking their leisure. □
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