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In Amherst, everything old is new again

Dayle’s Grand Market in the heart of the downtown is just one of the prominent examples of Amherst’s built heritage.
Dayle’s Grand Market in the heart of the downtown is just one of the prominent examples of Amherst’s built heritage. - Contributed

Community Editorial Panel with Leslie Childs

Amherst, the hub of the Maritimes, had 50 years of growth and prosperity (1872-1920) but things have slowed down over the last hundred years. The population remains just under 10,000, industries have disappeared, and, until recently many people have seen the future through a “glass darkly”. And why not, the grand buildings and mansions that line our streets have declined and survived largely as apartments: some gracious and well-kept, some sadly neglected by their landlords.

Lately though, things are looking up.

Front yards often feature dumpsters as their new owners, often CFAs (Come From Aways) rejuvenation, both inside and out. Gone are the knob and tube wiring, lead pipes, rotten window frames, and so much more. And it’s not just happening in the large imposing homes of past industrialists like the Hewsons, Barkers, and Rhodes families, but also the small and medium-sized homes, built originally for workers and managers where the same families have lived for years. In fact, these renovations are giving the whole town a face lift.

So let’s have a look.

This vast sandstone “castle” built by Harvey Lee Hewson in 1907 now has safe modern wiring and plumbing, a main floor almost ready to host guests, and brand new front steps handcrafted by hand by an accredited heritage stonemason who also works on Ottawa’s Parliament Buildings and the Cranewood mansion in Sackville, NB. The woodwork gleams and the massive stained glass windows sparkle. All thanks to new owners from Ontario who have chosen Amherst as their new home.

The Hewsons were descendants of a Loyalist widow, whose husband was killed in “the south” during the Revolutionary War. She and her son, James, arrived in Wallace area in 1784. They later moved to Fort Cumberland and their descendants have lived throughout Cumberland County, eventually owning highly successful woolen mills in Oxford and Amherst.

About a year ago, Rhodes Manor also began its new life, thanks to owners also from Ontario. Once the home of Nelson Admiral Rhodes (1845-1909), co-founder of Rhodes Curry, the nationally-recognized construction firm. The house, in its 130-year lifetime, has been a single family home, apartments and a B&B. Today, the roof sports new shingles, the railings and verandahs are safe to walk on, and the exterior has a new coat of paint. Inside, things look equally appealing. Soon, travellers and visiting artists will get a chance to experience its hand hewn woodwork, stained glass and elegant rooms.

Rhodes Curry’s work still graces all parts of the Maritimes, N.A. Rhodes began his career in Amherst as a carpenters apprentice and then, like some many others, moved to Boston, where he met his wife, Sarah Curry, and her brother, Nathaniel Curry. They returned to Amherst, formed a partnership in 1878, and built the Ladies Seminary at Acadia, Halifax City Hall, Graham Bell’s house near Baddeck and the telegraphy towers at Glace Bay for Guglielmo Marconi. By 1908, they’d grown even bigger, merging Rhodes Curry with the Canada Car and Dominion Care and Foundry Company into Canadian Car and Foundry.

Then, of course, there’s the 2 Barkers story. In 1903, the Barker brothers arrived in Amherst from Saint John. They had a new idea in retailing: sell lots of goods to lots of people and buy wholesale for less and so charge less. It worked … In 1907, they built a 3 three storey department store. The name, 2 Barkers, is still visible on the façade.

Five years later, A.A. Barker built himself a huge modernist mansion with oak-floored ballroom, huge main floor entertaining rooms and lots of bedrooms, and even a porte-cochere! Its history is similar to others; eventually apartments and then abandonned. In this case, the newest owner bought a shell, largely striped by a previous owner. He plans to restore it completely and everyone eagerly awaits its return to glory.

And what about the store? Shoppers used to travel from travel from Moncton, Truro, and even Halifax to buy quality goods in an old-fashioned atmosphere of tin ceilings and towering British Columbia Douglas Fir pillars. Then the owners retired and it sat empty for a year.

In 2017, an enterprising young woman with an innovative retail approach took over half the main floor and things started to bloom and grow. Dayle’s Grand Market is now a shopping destination again and best of all an iconic piece of Amherst’s built heritage is repurposed and once again a vibrant part of this community.

Built heritage matters and it can be a driving force toward economic growth! Here in Amherst, it feels like a breath of fresh air to see all the changes happening along our streets.

Leslie Childs is a member of the Amherst News Community Editorial Panel.

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