Vankleek Hill area homeowner Dane Simon writes about his home and its particular allure for him. It’s a great read, but here’s the thing: you will have a chance to visit Dane’s home this year because it is one of the homes featured on the Vankleek Hill Christmas Home Tour, taking place on Saturday, November 4, 2017.
Perhaps it was the sort of folly that only the unknowing take on willingly. It was early fall of 1993 and I was a 23-year-old neophyte. I knew very little about old houses and absolutely nothing about construction when I agreed to buy a dilapidated and long since abandoned old farmhouse on 120 acres of land a few kilometres outside of the town of Vankleek Hill.
What I lacked in experience was offset by enthusiasm and a love of history. I saw a house – sad, lonely and forlorn, but rich in history. I saw gingerbread brackets and a wraparound verandah. I saw a siding of decorative pressed metal. I saw a house that seemed to belong on the landscape. It was in harmony with its surroundings, in harmony with nature. I imagined who might have lived there and the lives they might have led. My wildest imaginings could not have anticipated the long journey that lay ahead nor could I foresee how the decisions to come would enable me to reconnect with the history of the house in a most unexpected way. In the fall of ’93, I knew that I was in possession of an old house that was rich in history but had seen better days. I also knew that I wasn’t going to be the one to bring that history to an end.
This is a story about serendipity. It is the story of the journey as opposed to the process so I won’t dwell on the minutiae of the restoration. Rather, I will focus on choices. Choices we all make on a daily basis. Choices, both big and small, that serve to shape our lives in untold ways. Some of these choices being so seemingly insignificant at the time as to be considered utterly inconsequential but, when viewed collectively with the clarity that only hindsight can provide, they can create a narrative of happy coincidences that makes aspects of our lives seem preordained. That is my meaning of serendipity.
The restoration was far enough advanced that I moved into the house in the fall of 2001. I was working in an art gallery in Montreal at the time so I decided that I needed something to decorate the walls. As this was an old house, my decision would be to start a collection of vintage picture postcards of Vankleek Hill to frame as suitable wall decorations. I started to find a few cards either at postcard shows or on the internet. I came across one card that was sent to a member of the Curran family in Hawkesbury which caught my eye because I had done some research at the registry office and I knew that my property was owned by a Curran at that time. The card was written by “Hattie” to her cousin and the card mentioned the activities of the family, including names. Well, I conducted some genealogical research to find that this card was referencing the family which was living in my house at the time. This card was in fact, written and sent from my old house!
As I built the collection, I continued to find cards written by Hattie or others in the family and sent to different recipients but mainly sent to family in Hawkesbury. I now have more than 20 cards in my collection of several hundred that were written by the former inhabitants. They have, 100 years later, been repatriated to the very home from which they originated. The cards are unpretentious. They recall the simple, everyday lives of one eastern Ontario farm family in the early 20th century. They speak of bringing in the harvest, plowing the fields and anticipating Sunday visitors. They mention going to the fair, maple sugar time and one son’s conscription during the Great War. While unpretentious, they are also priceless because of the glimpse they provide into the history of the house and because, after all these years, they managed to find their way home.
I often think of all the factors that had to coalesce to enable this unlikely repatriation to take place. Why did I choose to buy this house? What did I see in a broken down wreck of a building that predominant opinion declared unsalvageable? Why did I think, with no experience whatsoever, that I could oversee its restoration? Why was I drawn to decorating the house with postcards? Why were the former inhabitants such prolific senders of postcards? How come the cards weren’t discarded by the recipients or their descendants over the ensuing 100 years? How did these cards end up in the inventories of so many different dealers spread all across North America? Why were they still available for sale when I began my collection as opposed to having been absorbed into another individual’s collection? And why had I been so interested in history to have done the research to recognize their significance?
When I do travel down this path of introspection I always come to rest at the word “serendipity”. This is a story of serendipity realized through the journey undertaken by my decision to restore an old house but, more importantly, it is a story of all that can be lost in a society that values expediency over permanency. It is the story of choosing to restore a structure when the majority of contractors and laypeople deemed it not worthy of repair. “Tear it down”, I was told. “Burn it down”. “It will always be cold and drafty”. “It’s not worth the effort”, “Build something new”. This is the story of coming full circle by choosing to make the uninhabitable a home again. And, in so doing, it is the story of managing to repatriate a house with its history.