Memories lost when old buildings disappear

Michael Johansen
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A little rust-coloured squirrel sits a couple of metres away from me, chewing the husks off a spruce cone as I measure and mark a wooden plank for cutting.
The squirrel has grown bold and familiar in the almost two years since my old dog died. It once kept well away from the deck along the house whenever Ben was outside, but now it approaches at will and goes about its business without fear of a barking attack. It still retreats and chitters rudely from a big spruce nearby when visitors come calling, but it hardly pays any attention to me when I'm alone.
The squirrel, being a squirrel,
is always alert, but it only shows alarm when I surprise it, and the alarm doesn't last long. The rasp of the handsaw cutting through the plank makes it pause for a moment, but then it goes on with its eating.
The unplaned plank is a thick, six-inch-wide length of spruce, rough to the touch and bone dry. It had been cut some time in the late 1930s or early 1940s at a small mill about 30 kilometres away and built into the house that now stands on its second home by the beach in North West River. It had come from a wall during the early restoration work and now it was needed
to replace a broken board.
The house holds a wealth of memories, signs and stories of people long gone. All the parts of it were touched by history big and small.
The windows, for instance, are remnants of Labrador's military past. They're army surplus salvaged from an American station near Rigolet, a station of which few other traces remain.

Family resettled
Also, repaired cuts in the walls - revealed at the start of restoration a dozen years ago - tell of the Groves family resettling from their home ground on an island in the Goose River estuary in the 1960s. They sawed by hand down through two storeys to take the house apart and barge the five or six large sections up Lake Melville to the beach at North West.
Naturally, the house hasn't just recorded big historic, military and social events, but also shows the signs of more personal ones.
For example, the concrete pad laid as a foundation and later covered with linoleum and carpeting tells of one former resident, one of the last members of the family who once lived in the house when it was at Groves Point. That resident is famous for using a chainsaw for the first time to cut out the original, but rotting, wooden floor. He later disappeared on the lake one day while fishing, and one of his boats still moulders in the underbrush by the front yard.
Any building that has survived intact long enough to pass through the lives of several generations is like my house. Every board, stone and brick was touched by human hands that have long since turned to dust.
To restore a house like mine - not to renovate it, but to seek to preserve its decades-old essence - is not just a repair job, but one of the best ways to maintain a connection with past events and with people long dead.
When an antique family home is left to rot and fall down, when an old but still sturdy fishing shed is needlessly demolished, when original wooden siding is ripped off an 80-year-old store and replaced with vinyl - and when a steeple is spitefully torn off the top of a more-than-century-old church - the worst destruction is not to the building. The true loss is to our human heritage.
People will pass as surely as dogs and squirrels, but men and women who build can live forever through their work.
Their hopes and experiences can stand as lessons for their descendants and for the world in general - as long as those who destroy, those who see no worth in a venerable old structure, don't succeed in erasing it and all the memories it preserves.

Michael Johansen is a writer living in Labrador.

Geographic location: North West River, Labrador, Goose River Lake Melville

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Recent comments

  • Polly
    July 02, 2010 - 13:32

    Michael , I like to think that people like you and I are the fortunate ones. There is nothing inside of you that would make you want to destroy . What kind of soul lives inside someone who takes a chainsaw to a church steeple .

  • Polly
    July 01, 2010 - 20:21

    Michael , I like to think that people like you and I are the fortunate ones. There is nothing inside of you that would make you want to destroy . What kind of soul lives inside someone who takes a chainsaw to a church steeple .