By Bill Scheller
Photos by the author and Kay Scheller except as noted
Things like this don’t happen in the United States. You don’t visit the small-town summer home of a president and founding father and wind up sitting on the porch, shooting the breeze with the little town’s present-day chief elder.
Things like this happen in Canada, though. My wife Kay and I were meandering through just about the only part of Nova Scotia that we weren’t already familiar with — the part at the head of the Bay of Fundy, where the hammerhead bulk of the peninsula connects with the mainland — and we had arrived at Parrsboro. Parrsboro is an old shipbuilding and port-of-entry town on an estuary that flows into the Minas Basin, a Fundy arm where the bay’s famously variable tides reach preposterous extremes.
I’ve never cared for the term “sleepy” as applied to towns; in most such places, people get out of bed and put in as much of a day, or more, as in supposedly livelier burgs. But Parrsboro on a summer day, if not somnolent, is as far from lively as a village can get. If there was ever any bustle around the three-block downtown’s big brick custom house, now a town activity center, it has long ebbed out with the Fundy tides. A short walk from anywhere in Parrsboro will take you past estuarial marshes to beaches broad or narrow, depending on those tides and their time of day.
We headed a bit further from town, and found Ottawa House By-the-Sea, a rambling eighteenth-century structure, now a museum, that was the longtime summer home of Sir Charles Tupper, one of the architects of Canadian confederation and the shortest-serving prime minister in the nation’s history (45 days, in 1896). Ottawa House is one of those town attic kinds of museums, commemorating not only the life and times of Tupper, but of Parrsboro as well. We wandered through room after room of Victoriana and early twentieth-century artifacts, themed around the local shipbuilding and fishing industries, and the mementos of daily life in a town that has traded seafaring for a satisfyingly low-key brand of tourism. (Well, there was a digression into a different industry: In its post-Tupper years, Ottawa House was run as a hotel by a Prohibition rumrunner who stored his hooch in the basement.)
But it was after we finished the house tour and walked out onto the broad, flower-bedecked verandah that we met a deceptively eightyish fellow in a broad-brimmed straw hat, who introduced himself as William Wheaton. The name struck a chord, since one of the last things I’d noticed in one of Ottawa House’s warren of display rooms was a bill of fare, circa 1950s, from a local confectionery and ice cream shop named Wheaton’s, as vanished from the downtown Parrsboro scene as its dime-and-quarter offerings. Wheaton’s was vanished, that is. Not Wheaton, who it turned out had run the place, making countless tons of candy during the first two-thirds of his more than ninety years. It might have been his Old Fashioned Peppermint Lumps (“Net. Wt. 7 oz. or over, Price 29¢,” according to the replica labels he hands to Ottawa House visitors during his daily visits, and which museum docents refer to as his “calling cards,” or it may be the nine holes of golf he plays every day on the Parrsboro course he co-founded. Mr. Wheaton is ninety, and the nonagenarian we’d all like to become. He is also as hearty a booster of his hometown as any chamber of commerce could wish for.
We’d known about the Age of Sail Heritage Centre, and the Ship’s Company Theater (an outdoor summer venue actually built around a beached vessel), but what sounded particularly intriguing, in Mr. Wheaton’s telling, was the Fundy Geological Museum. Even before visiting this part of Nova Scotia, we had heard about the unusually rich provincial deposits of mineral samples – the “rock soup” that makes Nova Scotia one of the few places in the world with all the major rock types from all geological periods.
“All geological periods” is a tall order for a relatively small museum to tackle, but the Fundy does a worthy job. At once kid-friendly and comprehensive enough for adults, the museum centers on a time line that explicates the progression of geological eras and their characteristic rock formations, and the evidence of bygone life forms embedded within them. The displays of fossil specimens are enhanced by detailed models – the insects are fearsomely large – and a life-size dinosaur skeleton. Much of the museum’s fossil treasures are from the vast trove discovered at nearby Wasson’s Bluff, which has yielded some100,000 fossilized bones, along with preserved footprints such as those of the smallest dinosaur yet identified, uncovered as recently as 1984. Wasson’s Bluff is the only place on Earth that reveals the types of creatures that survived the mass extinction at the cusp of the Triassic and Jurassic periods, at the dawn of the age of dinosaurs.
Bit if the Geological Museum is a good introduction to deep time, the Joggins Fossil Centre is total immersion. Located atop a ruddy cliff overlooking the bay twenty-five miles north of Parrsboro, the centre stands on the site of a former coal mine, its sleek modern building, a green technology gem, seemingly the physical antithesis of the age of coal. But the age of coal – not the industrial revolution, but the distant millennia when coal was formed, is what the centre is all about.
“There’s no better place to learn about the plants and animals that lived during the Carboniferous Age, 300 million years ago,” we were told by a knowledgeable staff interpreter, Dana Brown, who gave us a tour. “Essentially, this is where we emerged from the water. The fossils of the first known reptiles were found here. They lived in a realm of tall trees – they’re preserved in rock, in their original positions – and giant insects, including ten-inch dragonflies and arthropleura, an ancestral millipede that could reach eight feet in length and was the largest invertebrate ever.”
That earliest reptile, we learned, was Hylonamus lyelli, now Nova Scotia’s official provincial fossil. Discovered here by William Dawson in 1859, it produced the first viable terrestrial egg. Its egg-laying ability, Dawson explained, was revealed by the bone structure of its hips. In the same year of Dawson’s discovery, Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species, in which Joggins was mentioned twice.
The preserved fossils and replicated flora and fauna in the centre’s exhibit room – especially the glassed-over section of floor revealing a re-creation of what the terrain and some of its resident creatures might have looked like in the days of reptilian dawn – would be worth a visit regardless of location. But the real excitement of a guided or self-guided tour here is the descent to the base of the cliffs themselves, where erosion constantly exposes more fossils of the Carboniferous Age as well as revealing traces of the coal seams that made this part of the province a vital mining district. It looked as good a place as any for our ancestors to have emerged from the water … and, if posted warnings were not heeded, for heedless visitors to return to it. “Be in sight of the stairs by 4:40 p.m.,” ordered a sign atop the steps that descended the cliff. The numbers on the sign were of course changeable, as the warning had to do with the famous Fundy tides.
We didn’t have to be told twice, having been to the beach at Parrsboro at both high and low tides. At the ebb, it was possible to walk out to a small island and its lighthouse, and to stand at keel level alongside beached fishing boats beneath the towering walls of a pier. At flood tide, the island was inaccessible (we were told of surf fishermen who had been stranded there for the night by the incoming rush of water), and we could walk the pier at eye level with the lifted vessels. In sight of the Joggins stairs we remained, though 4:40 p.m. was a good ways off, as we scanned the red cliffs for fossils.
We took the longer seaside route back to Parrsboro, turning at lunchtime down a narrow road that led to the shore at Spencer’s Island, an island no more even at high tide. Here we found the Beach House Café, a weathered snuggery set amidst a sea of lupines with the sea itself barely a few yards beyond. We ordered bowls of thick fish chowder, which we ate at a picnic table next to Spencer’s Island Lighthouse, a pointy, snow-white three-story pyramid with a walkway on top.
The next day was a Sunday, Band Concert Day on the Town Green. Parrsboro boasts the oldest town band in Canada, and they were in fine form. It looked as if the entire local population had turned out, surrounding the big multi-gabled band shell on benches and folding chairs. We recognized a big straw hat – there on one of the front benches sat Mr. William Wheaton, fresh from nine holes of morning golf. “I was good,” he told us. “Good game. Here, sit down. Have you eaten yet? That’s my son Bill over there, running the grill.”
Time, unlike the tides and the slow march of geological eras, was standing still in Parrsboro.
IF YOU GO:
Parrsboro is 113 miles (182 km) north and west of Halifax.
Nova Scotia Tourism (http://www.novascotia.com) publishes the excellent annual Doers and Dreamers guide, with several recommendations for lodgings in the Parrsboro and a list of local attractions. For further details, log onto www.town.parrsboro.ns.ca.
Ottawa House By the Sea Museum: www.ottawahousemuseum.ca.
Fundy Geological Museum: www.museum.gov.ns.ca/fgm
Joggins Fossil Centre: www.jogginsfossilcliffs.net
Dining: We enjoyed a great meal at owner-chef Glenn Wheaton’s Bare Bones Bistro, 121 Main Street, Parrsboro (902-254-2270; www.barebonesbistro.com). Glenn (no relation to William Wheaton, as far as he is aware) has a deft hand with local seafood and produce from nearby farms. Seating is indoors and outdoors, and there’s a good selection of Nova Scotia wines.