Wednesday, August 15, 2012

In Conversation With...Jean Smith

First published in The Oxford Journal on Wednesday, August 1, 2012, by Sara Mattinson.

Ever wonder about the old house tucked away at the corner of the beach road and Norm Greene Trail? Or that spry 83-year-old woman who walks the beach twice a day, all summer long, in sunshine and in rain? Ever wonder why it’s called Heather Beach?
“As far as I can make out,” Jean Smith says, “my father’s family lived down the bay road and my mother lived up the shore. They all went to school together in Port Howe. They would meet back here at the beach.”
After Jean’s parents, John and Sarah Dunbar, married, they decided they wanted to buy the beach property. According to Jean, her grandfather had a share in the land and the newlyweds bought it in 1917.    
The piece was 135 acres of farmland along the Northumberland Strait, stretching, in modern terms, from the park to the end of the Norm Greene Trail. It was owned originally by a man named Henry Heather, whose house burned down around 1900. A few years after purchasing the home-less property, the Dunbars tore down a house in Carrington and rebuilt it at the beach. Jean’s oldest sister Margaret inherited it and her son John lives there now.  
“They farmed the land,” Jean says of her parents. “It was pretty well cleared as hay fields and grain fields. There was a barn over there. From far and wide, Linden, Shinimicas, all those areas, people would come by horse and buggy on Sunday. They’d tie their horses in the shade of the barn and put on their bathing suits then picnic on the beach. Around 1920, people from Oxford came and they wanted a piece of land from Pa to build cottages. They bought a strip of land from here down to what we call the gully and they subdivided it.”
Those first cottages are closest to the park and the road is the same farm road from 1917. Later, people from Springhill bought a lot of land “back this way,” says Jean.
Her directional gestures are referenced from her own cottage sitting on two acres at the corner of the beach road and Norm Greene Trail. 
“Pa sold the best lots to other people,” Jean says.
Born in 1929, Jean has only known cottages on the beach and she remembers how the cottagers would arrive for the summer. 
“They would come for two months. They would have a truck and they would take their stoves and fridges and mattresses and kitchen tables and chairs and bring everything from home to the cottages. When they were finished at the beach, they would tote them all back home,” she says.
The farm provided milk to the cottagers as well as ice, blocks taken from the river during the winter and preserved in hay to be cut into chunks for people’s ice chests throughout the summer.  
Her husband, Harold, says that about half the original Dunbar land is gone to cottages; what is left is far from the beach. Based on a meter reader’s total back in the 1970’s, which was 300, he guesses there are at least 450, maybe even 500 cottages at Heather Beach now. 
“We associated with the beach people,” Jean says of her childhood. “We would meet them on the beach and know them. In the wintertime, there was nobody here. It was vacant, the snow blew around. So we were isolated. In the summertime, everything opened up to a whole new way of living.”
She remembers lying in bed, listening to the music from Merlin’s Dance Hall but she was not allowed to go there. Yet it would be Jean, the youngest sister, who met and married one of those beach-goers. 
“I sort of strayed into her yard,” Harold grins, looking happy and still dashing at the age of 89.
As Harold remembers meeting his wife, another memory surfaces. 
“Jim Gogan from Springhill, he used to have some movies,” he says. “That was interesting and drew a lot of people. You brought a blanket and watched the screen. They played the same movie two or three times a week then they’d make a change. Partway through, they’d come around and collect 10 or 15 cents from each couple to help with expenses.”
After Jean completed her nurse’s training, they married in 1957, bought their 2-acre property from a brother-in-law in 1968 and built their bright, spacious cottage. Of the five Dunbar sisters, only two are still living and Sybil also has a cottage near the old farmhouse. 
“It’s quieter now than it ever has been,” Jean observes about the beach these days. “There’s not as many children coming to the beach. Years past, on a day like this, you could hear children laughing and playing on the beach, screaming, crying, dogs barking. Now, it’s almost like a resort.”
At 83, Jean relishes her two months at the beach she has known all her life and walks on the sand twice a day. 
“Since John retired, he tends his two old aunties,” Jean says of her nephew with a laugh. “He walks with me morning and night, just so the old girl won’t fall but I’m okay. We always walk the beach and that’s the part I like the best. In all kinds of weather. I love the storms.” 

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