PHOTOS BY STEVE SMITH, VISIONFIRE STUDIOS
The Melmerby Beach cottage that never loses its charm
It was a serendipitous return to Nova Scotia for Carolyn Beatty and her husband Barrie Saxton. They walked back over the threshold of their summer cottage at Melmerby Beach, Pictou County in mid-April just two days before the province locked down with heightened pandemic restrictions tighter than a lid on a tin of lobster. If they hadn’t made a break from their long, isolated winter in their Toronto condo when they did, they would still be there.
“I thought if we were going to continue to Zoom with the kids and grandkids we might as well do it from Nova Scotia than from our condo. So, we packed up the car and got on the road,” says Carolyn almost a month after getting “settled” back into their summer home perched high on a bank looking over the long stretch of sand that is Melmerby Beach.
Forty-five years have passed since Carolyn first laid eyes on the cottage that would become one of the great love affairs of her life. The first glimpse of the yellow cottage trimmed with blue shutters on each seasonal return has never lost its lustre.
“I fell in love with this house the moment I saw it,” remembers Carolyn of her first trip to the tight-knit little cottage community at “the Merb.”
“My husband at the time and I were interested in a cottage in Nova Scotia and when I saw this property, I was desperate to buy it,” she explains.
And in 1976 she did.
Carolyn and her family became the fifth owners of a property with an interesting pedigree dating back to its first life as a hotel built by Donald Keith. His family farmed the original land grant issued by the British government in 1783.
“It’s hard to imagine today that someone would be given, free of charge Big Island or a large part of Merigomish Harbour,” says Barrie Saxton, Carolyn’s husband who was as intrigued by the history as Carolyn was infatuated with the historic summer home known by many in the area as the Big Yellow House.
Barrie, who came into Carolyn’s life 36 years ago says that he was instantly charmed by the house just as anyone else who had ever spent any time there; including Carolyn’s three, now-adult sons, Timothy, Colin, and Adam.
Picking up bits and pieces of its storied past during his summers at the beach Barrie started to dig a little deeper into the history of the cottage and has curated a collection of photographs, first-hand accounts from guests that had been passed down through the generations, and newspaper clippings that tell the tale.
In his history, Barrie tells the story of The Seaside Hotel built before the idea of a summer cottage became aspirational.
“In those days there were virtually no privately owned cottages along the shore. “However, there were many people in New Glasgow and neighbouring communities who could afford to take a vacation at the beach,” writes Barrie in his account of the early days of the hotel.
The hotel opened on July 1st, 1895, smack in the middle of the era known as the Gay Nineties, when people were starting to release themselves from some of the rigid attitudes of the Victorian era. In the quest for a little more frivolity and fun, the hotel that boasted to have their own giant waterslide became an instant attraction to people living in the nearby towns who would travel to the beach by steamer and horse and carriage.
Barrie found newspaper reports confirming the existence of the 21-metre wooden slide that launched guests from a second-storey balcony down the bank and into the ocean.
According to the reports sharing the news of the novel hotel amenities, “It was a marine toboggan slide ending in the water which creates all kinds of amusements.”
There is nothing left of the slide today and many of the stories about what took place at The Seaside Hotel have gone to the grave with the people who once donned their bathing costumes to slide into the sea and danced the night way in what is now Carolyn and Barrie’s living room.
As people got the bug to spend more time at the beach, the first cottages around what is now Kings Head and Melmerby started to dot the shoreline, and business at The Seaside Hotel started to ebb away. The hotel was then purchased as a private summer home passing through several hands until it found Carolyn.
In the summer of 2020, Carolyn and Barrie walked me through the rooms and hallways of the Big Yellow House. It didn’t take a lot of imagination to conjure the days when their home was a bustling hotel. The hardwood floors worn and warped in places from the wear and tear of the people who loved the place as much as Carolyn and Barrie have for the last several decades.
It sits differently on the landscape today from its original build. When it was purchased as a private home in the early 1900s the owners had picked up the structure and turned it 90 degrees. The second-storey balcony that was once the launching pad for the slide no longer faces the ocean and looks east. The door to that same balcony was replaced with a window in the late 1990s when Carolyn decided it was time for some major renovations.
More than two decades later Carolyn’s design choices are still standing up. Despite the passage of time, the ordeal of the renovation is fresh in her mind, perhaps due to the fastidious organization it took to manage the reno from across the ocean in a time before email and text messages.
Not long after Carolyn and Barrie married, Barrie’s work took them overseas to India. He was an educational consultant with the Association of Canadian Community Colleges. Carolyn, also an educator, accompanied Barrie on his travels and eventually picked up work of her own. It was during this time that Carolyn developed another love affair — with the culture of South Asia. She became enamoured with textiles, in particular Kilim rugs when she was doing work in Pakistan, and the cotton Shyam Ahuja fabrics of India known for their fine hand-loomed qualities, colours, and patterns.
On her trips home to Canada, Carolyn would fill her suitcases with rugs and fabrics. The summer before the reno began, Carolyn returned from India and spent months at the Big Yellow House immersed in décor magazines, developing her vision for updates that would stay true to the architectural elements and writing copious notes for her contractor to follow in her absence. She also measured every nook and cranny, and piece of furniture, taking those details back to India. While she was there, she had cushion covers made from the fine fabrics that she found on her weekly trips to the markets. It was both a cost-effective way to source fabrics for the renovation happening back in Nova Scotia with a little nostalgia woven in with the idea of bringing a little bit of their life in India back to the beach.
“I even had duplicates of many of the covers made knowing that someday they would wear out and I would want replacements,” says Carolyn when she shows me the coverings on the swinging couch that hangs in the cheerful sunroom and plentiful cushions placed on various chairs and lounges.
I took 25 Kilims home to Canada with me,” says Carolyn laughing as she thinks about her tower of suitcases and bags at the airport stuffed with the heavy wool rugs.
While some were gifts and found a home in their Toronto condo, many of the intricately woven textiles with bold patterns that reflected the different geographic regions of where they were produced now scatter the hardwood floors throughout the cottage. They barely show the wear of the 20-plus years since the couple returned from their travels abroad.
Carolyn says that if she was doing the renovation today it would likely be a little different from her plan in 1997 but she is still very content with the redesign of the kitchen and the installation of a large window that gives her a great view of the beach. She also opened the space between for flow. The sitting room has become one of Carolyn’s favourite places to sit for a chat with friends.
Walking back to the sunroom with paned glass windows that stretch across the entire length of the cottage, Barrie takes a seat in front of a table where a small easel, canvases, and paints wait for him.
“Welcome to my studio,” says Barrie as he opens his arms out in the direction of the beach. Several partially painted canvases lean against the window.
“When you live in Pictou County you paint a lot of water and trees. I am still trying to get the water to ripple on the canvas,” he says with a chuckle.
Continuing with the tour Barrie shared that he had always hoped to find a hidden secret of a bordello or secret gambling joint but it seems that despite the shenanigans with the slide he is certain that Victorian mores prevailed at the Seaside Hotel, and black stockings and black bathing suits were haute couture.
“One historical item I did find in a back storage room was a large brass porthole which I subsequently confirmed was from the sailing ship Melmerby after which the beach was named. I now have it mounted on a wall,” says Barrie.
Stepping outside to a large deck that they had constructed during the renovation in the place where an old shower house used to stand, Carolyn and Barrie pose for a photograph. They ask to set the photo up so a favoured tree will be in the picture. The tree looks like it has seen better days. Ravaged by the wind and surviving several hurricanes in the years that Carolyn owned the property the tree has become a bit of a bellwether of how well their property is holding its own against the elements and erosion.
Barrie leans in to kiss his wife on the cheek. It’s obvious that besides the Big Yellow House there has been another great love in Carolyn’s life.
Like the grand days at The Seaside Hotel, it doesn’t take much imagination to conjure the fun that Carolyn and Barrie have shared during their years at Melmerby Beach. From their days chasing three little boys with wet sandy feet to today anxiously awaiting the time when they can welcome their grandchildren back to the beach and the recent addition of a very busy but adorable King Charles Spaniel puppy named Cooper, they continue to write their own story that has become another colourful chapter in the story of the Big Yellow House. Now if they would just consider building another waterslide.