ISLE AUX MORTS, N.L. -
For tourists wandering the Granite Coast, Route 470 from Port aux Basques to Rose Blanche offers more than beautiful scenery and seafood delights.
One such offering is Walters House Museum in Isle aux Morts, but to find it one must either be directed by a friendly local or chance upon it while driving around.
Built in 1860 as a chapel and schoolhouse, the A frame structure is the last of its kind in the town, which once boasted around six. By the 1880s James Walters had converted it into a small home, and it remained within his family until his great-grandson inherited it in 1998, and sought to sell it. That’s when Percy Billard stepped in.
“When I heard that I said I can’t let that house be destroyed because there’s so much history there,” recalls Percy Billard, who bought the building in 1999. “Come Home Year 2000 I set it up as a museum.”
Visitors from around the world have been finding it ever since. Europeans who sail over for the summer on their boats wander in. Recently a couple from Germany visited after docking nearby. One of the newest entries was left by a couple from Newcastle, England.
“Lately we’ve been seeing a few,” says Gloria Osmond, who dresses in a vintage costume to guide visitors through the tiny museum. She’s been doing that since 2009. “They wanted somebody who could knit and who could hook rugs.”
When she’s not kept busy with tourists or caring for the exhibits, Gloria knits mittens to sell in the local craft shop. She also likes to hook rugs, but doesn’t mind if a visitor wants to give it a try.
“I got one here in case they want to try it,” says Gloria, who can’t knit fast enough for the shop’s demand. Even though it’s only August, she already booked up for her knitted Christmas socks.
There are plenty of regional guests too who find the museum, and they like to pour through articles and old newspaper clippings about the town.
“Most people who come in here are looking to see if they’re related to the Harvey family,” says Gloria. She tends to direct those questions to her brother, Chesley Frampton, who is on the Heritage Committee and has done a lot of research into local heroine Ann Harvey.
There’s no admission, although donations to its upkeep are always appreciated, and unlike most other museums guests are able to handle or stroke the exhibits. Percy enjoys doing that a lot.
On Saturday, Aug. 25 he celebrated his 80th birthday surrounded by family and friends, but Percy sounds more like a schoolboy as he touches each object before sharing its history. His excitement and enthusiasm are all but contagious.
From somewhere he produces a chalk slate.
“I remember that first year when I was going to school we had it,” he says.
He leads the way to what was the master bedroom on the ground floor. By today’s standards it’s about the size of a small bathroom, and it’s filled to the brim with memorabilia, including some of Percy’s favourites.
“I remember them,” says Percy of the huge, vintage radio with a gramophone perched on top. “You didn’t get stations from Newfoundland. You got them from Nova Scotia. Saturday night was Wheeling, West Virginia. You got country music.”
There are plenty of memories to accompany each piece. Isle aux Morts is a small community and along with the donations that fill the museum came the stories.
Percy has stories of his own.
The son of a fisherman, at 17 he left home to start teaching in even smaller communities like Push Through. Those were the days of one room schoolhouses, when he was not only teacher but also principal and lay reader, leading church services if the minister was away.
During the summer months Percy would attend school to continue his own education in university.
“It took me about eight or 10 years before I got my degree,” says Percy. “On the last of it I went back (to school) for a couple of years. That’s when Joey Smallwood gave out the grants.”
In 1975 he returned home to Isle aux Morts for good, retiring from teaching in 1991.
Percy has been volunteering on different committees and with the vestry for decades, usually serving as a treasurer. He served as such on this year’s annual Ann Harvey Days committee.
“The last three Come Home Years I served as treasurer,” says Percy. That was in 2016. If he’s around in 2021 he says he’ll try to do it again. “I’m not ready to quit yet.”
He would like to see more volunteers step forward, a common refrain among all the southwest coast communities with an aging population. During the first 2018 Ann Harvey committee meeting in May only four people showed up. A plea to the rest of the community eventually prompted another six to step forward.
“We didn’t know what to do,” admits Percy, who hopes the younger generation will continue to step forward. “There’s more or less a need than anything else.”
When he’s not volunteering or reading, Percy likes to putter around outside the museum too. That’s led to more discoveries to put on display.
“Got that out of the ground when I was digging it up years ago,” he says, carefully cradling a small pair of battered clay pipes missing their stems.
To the left of the museum Percy keeps a small greenhouse and a few vegetable patches. He likes to grow strawberries, rhubarb and somehow got potatoes growing in his carrot bed. His house, which is next door to the museum, is surrounded by colourful, fragrant flowers.
“I spent more time down here than enough,” says Percy’s niece, Thelma Dominey.
With her uncle’s blessing she swipes some ripe strawberries from his garden.
Directly behind the house is an old well that the Walters used for washing clothes and other cleaning. Drinking water came from a nearby creek and was hauled by bucket. A small shed houses antique tools like scythes, fishing gear and cast-iron boot jacks.
When she was a kid growing up next door to the Walters house, Thelma used to haul the buckets full of drinking water too. Like most locals, she admits she sometimes takes the little museum for granted, even though she has directed her own guests to it in the past.
“Sometimes I forget about this place.”