Clyde River Lecture: Renovating the Shaw Family Homestead in St. Catherine’s
After spending summers with her grandparents in St. Catherine’s, Judy Shaw always wanted to live in Prince Edward Island. Upon her recent retirement, she finally had the chance. This past year, she moved to the home that was built for Walter and Margaret Shaw in 1922-23 where she undertook a larger-than-expected job of renovating a place full of family memories. The design of the house is based on a home her grandmother Margaret fell in love with while working as a nurse in Boston.
A little history of the Shaw family…
Judy offered us a brief genealogy of the Shaw family since their arrival in Prince Edward Island. It was Malcolm Shaw and Catherine Livingstone who originally emigrated from the Isle of Mull, Scotland, somewhere around 1806. Malcolm soon started the Shaw Cemetery that later became the St. Catherine’s Cemetery and is now maintained by the community. The original house was 300 yards above the cemetery overlooking the Elliot River, now the West River. She believes it stood within the clump of trees that you now see by the cemetery. Malcolm’s son, Donald Shaw, came over to PEI after he finished school in Scotland. Donald was Walter Shaw’s grandfather. Donald and his wife had 13 children. Their youngest son Alex inherited the farm, as his five older brothers went to the US to fight in the American Civil War. One brother died at Gettysburg, another was wounded at Gettysburg and later died in prisoner-of-war camp, another became a famous heavyweight boxer and lived in Florida, and another brother went to California for the Gold Rush. One of the brothers returned to PEI and lived in a cabin near the homestead.
Alex Shaw and his wife had six children. Alex worked in the courthouse and assisted people in drawing up wills, working out of an office in Bonshaw. The irony of his chosen profession was that he then died without a will. Alex was responsible for where Dunedin Bridge is located. After his death, the farm was left with his wife and six children. They included William (Guy) and Walter who both remained in PEI. Their four sisters went to the Boston area as was popular with young girls in those days. One sister was killed in a train accident, another sister was killed in a car accident, one became successful in Florida, and another sister, Aunt Jean, lived in Plymouth. After Jean died, much of her furniture came back to the farm. The farm property was split in half between Guy and W.R. (Walter). Guy lived in the green house at the top of the hill that the family was born in, and Walter and his wife Margaret built their new house on their portion of land. The two properties were each sold in the early 1930s and moved through various owners, but Walter Shaw bought them both back in the later 30s and they have been in Shaw family ever since.
Renovating the family homestead…
Judy thought her renovation might take a month or so. When the moving company called her to say her furniture had arrived in PEI, she panicked. At that time, the home was almost completely torn apart in the midst of renovation. It was more work than she had anticipated. She was keen to have family input and to respect the original house and its memories. Judy had always considered this home a community place and wanted the blessing of the St. Catherine’s community. She didn’t want to make any changes that the residents would see as taking away the character of the place. She felt lucky that many of the people who worked on the house were local people, and each of them had a story about her grandfather.
Judy set out some design priorities as she approached the renovation. She wanted to keep the warmth of the place and was highly protective of the threshold in the kitchen to the point that each of workers clearly understood, “don’t touch the threshold.” She wanted to refinish the original staircase, douglas fir trim and wooden floors. Her grandmother always had a wood stove in the kitchen. She could not keep the original one, as it did not meet fire regulations, so she purchased a new wood stove for the same spot. She had hoped to maintain the original wood box in the back porch, but as the area was updated, she felt that a new wood box was in order. She also wanted to refurbish the original kitchen door and restore her grandmother’s gardens.
In terms of what Judy wanted to change, she wished for more modern conveniences like a brighter kitchen, windows that opened, a few more closets, a laundry and bathroom area off the back porch and a more open-style living room.
All new electrical wiring was required. As for heating, the house had an old furnace needing replacement and one huge vent that went up through the center of the house which meant that while the furnace was going, walking across the vent could render one airborne. There had to be a whole new vent system installed, so appropriate head space in the basement was sacrificed in favour of comfortable warmth in each room. When they cut the hole for the vent in the living room, they discovered four ceilings. They removed the lower ceilings, opened up the room and added support beams that are stained to look like they had always been there.
Judy confessed the tearing apart phase was difficult. Her instruction to all workers was “think before you cut”. She jokes now that there was some finger-pointing by the workers as to whom actually was responsible for cutting holes. She said that sometimes she had to leave the house while the was work was being carried out.
The home had different varieties of wood flooring throughout that were refinished. The bathrooms had to be updated. The fireplace and mantle featuring black walnut from a tree on the property was sympathetically restored. The kitchen door was refinished after painstakingly removal of multiple layers of paint and stain. It had been the original outside door before the back porch was added.
The front of the house was in the most disrepair and she didn’t want to lose its basic style. She has simplified the design and is very pleased with the result. There are huge windows on what was the outdoor front porch that is now winterized.
She feels all the effort has been worth it. Local St. Catherine’s native Reigh MacNevin, who attended her presentation, was the contractor on the job. Judy said that he was great to work with and remained calm throughout the project. Judy did all the painting and when she ran out of steam, Sheila, Ray’s wife, would drop over to help, which renewed her fortitude.
The home is now bright and the wonderful warmth that she so desired to maintain is there. She enjoys spectacular views from the kitchen bay window and is happy with the rooms throughout the home, although there is still a bit more work to be achieved. The back porch that features a cathedral ceiling will be painted the colour of Island mud which Judy thinks is appropriate for a mudroom in PEI.
“Memories are what make the renovation of a family home difficult,” Judy says. When her parents came down this past Christmas, to Judy’s relief, her father, who was born in the home, said, “I just think this is great” and spent many hours sitting in the now winterized front room fondly looking out toward the country road and across the fields toward the West and Clyde Rivers.
Interesting things found in the house during renovations included a bottle of lineament and a 1921 issue of Grain News in perfect condition.
Walter’s 1966 Chrysler car…
Judy has received calls every year about buying her grandfather’s old car. Her cousin in Nova Scotia owns the 1966 Chrysler that was stored on the property for 34 years. He came to retrieve the heritage auto this past summer with the plan to restore it and drive it back to his son’s wedding in Keppoch this summer.
The gardens will be Judy’s 2014 project. She has loved gardening all her life, so she looks forward to this Spring. The first job will be sowing grass seed to eliminate the mud further to construction work. She wants an old-fashioned cottage garden that will respect the essence of her grandmother’s gardens. Someone in the audience asked about the goldfish pond. She said the old goldfish pond was falling in and has already been filled with soil. The area will become an outdoor seating spot. People recalled the beautiful pond that was covered over in the winter while her grandparents stayed in the city, and how it was interesting to find out in Spring how the goldfish had weathered the cold months.
The men in the audience were keen to know what the plans were for the barn. Judy said it is a beautiful barn with a root cellar underneath. One half of barn is in good shape but where the cattle were is in worse condition. Lawson Drake mentioned that Walter’s barn was the envy of many farmers in the area. Judy’s motivation in renovating the barn is to get some sheep. She owns a border collie, so she thinks it would further enrich their lives on the homestead to tend to a small flock. Judy is a graduate of agriculture who thinks the time has come to embark on a practical experience of farming.
A community treasure…
Many people in the audience had wonderful, humorous stories and expressed their grand affection for her grandparents and spoke about entertaining visits to their home. Others remembered how trips through St. Catherine’s meant slowing down by the Shaw property to enjoy the beautiful home and gardens.
Judy, we wish you many happy years in your home and we appreciate your achievements in restoring this homestead and your contribution to preserving your family’s history and the rich history of the area. As one audience member stated, “We look forward to you returning to tell us about the renovations to the barn and gardens another year.”
Author’s note: It is my plan to tour the Shaw family homestead and gardens when this tireless winter has passed and capture the historical beauty of this family and community place.