When Mandy Rennehan was a child, the school bus that carried her and her siblings from her home in Cheggogin, Yarmouth County to school in Port Maitland, Nova Scotia, drove past a windmill high atop a hill. Built circa-1950, the structure was soon abandoned; it wasn’t safe to run the blades because the location was too windy. And so, the windmill with the unlikely problem of having too much wind fell into disrepair.
Rennehan’s fascination was less about the solid, old-world construction of the abandoned windmill and its unusual heptagon shape. For her the thrill was being a child exploring a forbidden space. And the view: a 360-degree vista that encompasses farmers’ fields, the historic Churchill mansion, Darlings Lake, and the Bay of Fundy.
Today, that’s the view she wakes up to in her bedroom on the top floor of the tower mill. Rennehan, who left Yarmouth at the age of 18, vowed she’d own that windmill one day. She bought it 12 years ago, along with an old house, horse barn, and surrounding acreage.
“People around here always said this property was one of the most beautiful but as a kid it really was about getting in and having a look around,” says Rennehan, 40, with a hearty laugh. “When I step over the threshold, I feel like a kid again, back to when we would sneak onto the property and tiptoe up the stairs.”
A born entrepreneur and self-taught in business, teenage Rennehan collected bait and sold it to her father’s lobster boat captain. By the age of 19, she was in business for herself in Halifax; at 23 she was ready for a bigger move and set off for Toronto to see what she could build for herself there. She built Freshco.
Based in Oakville, Ontario, with branches in Yarmouth and Rhode Island, Freshco is a retail construction company that outfits and maintains stores across North America for chains including Apple, Nike, Gap, and Lululemon.
Yarmouth has always lured Rennehan back. Purchasing and renovating the windmill allowed her to return and stay in her own place, whether for a few days or for weeks and months at a stretch. Shared with her partner Ashlee Wilson, a nutritionist and personal trainer, it’s a place to rest and recharge and keep an eye on Freshco’s Yarmouth operations and her new venture, RennDuPrat.
Restoring the windmill was a challenge, even for someone as skilled as Rennehan. For one thing, she says it was “full of seagull shit.” The first step involved covering the windows with chicken wire to keep the birds out, and allowing the original oak timbers to thoroughly dry. The process took years.
Renovating the windmill and constructing the adjoining garage and great room began in 2014 and took only eight months. The original structure is three storeys tall and Rennehan’s team preserved as many of the interior mechanisms as possible.
The kitchen is on the first floor, a spa-like bathroom with a copper soaker tub on the second floor, and the home’s only bedroom is at the top. (While she loves company, she doesn’t want them to stay overnight.)
From the kitchen, the space opens up to the great room—and for once the adjective isn’t an exaggeration. At 30-by-60 feet, it’s spacious and beautiful, open to the ceiling with exposed Nova Scotia-milled Douglas fir post and beam construction. A massive beach stone fireplace anchors the room. Rennehan hauled the driftwood used in the mantle off nearby Port Maitland Beach. Two sets of garden doors, framed by theatrical wine-colored velvet curtains, open onto the deck.
A massive U-shaped sectional sofa in soft yellow cowhide sits in front of the fireplace “like a hug,” says Rennehan. She designed it and had it built specially for the space. It fits a dozen people, maybe more, comfortably. A lobster bait bag that was repurposed to collect wine corks attests to the success of her laid-back entertaining style. The side tables add to the nautical theme as they too come from the local wharfs. They’re made from rope spools and fit perfectly in the rustic, relaxed space.
Of all of the projects Rennehan tackled in her 20-year career, she says this was the most fun. “The biggest challenge was figuring out how to make it functional and airtight,” she says. “The wind is pretty powerful.”
Her other challenges were finding local tradespeople and artisans to work with and sourcing Nova Scotia materials. Her brash, plain spoken approach was so refreshing that Dustin DuPrat recalls vividly his first meeting with her.
From Vermont and educated in interior design by way of Montreal, he moved to Yarmouth five years ago with his Nova Scotian bride, Kelly. He was working with a local cabinet company when Rennehan walked in the door looking for someone to design and build kitchen cabinetry.
“She explained what she wanted to do and everyone thought she was a bit crazy,” says DuPrat. “But for me, it was great to finally work with someone who shared my taste and ideas.”
DuPrat came onboard the project, creating built-ins in the great room and cabinetry in the kitchen. While working together, DuPrat and Rennehan decided to forge a partnership and created RennDuPrat, a Yarmouth-based design fabrication company.
The company’s first project was the Style Merchant, a development that included the restoration of historic buildings on Hawthorne Street for use as a day spa, hair salon, and clothing store. Now RennDuPrat and Freshco are collaborating on the facelift of a row of derelict merchant shops on Main Street, the restoration of a sea captain’s Victorian house, and the redevelopment of Yarmouth’s 19th-century granite jail.
Rennehan’s intention with the windmill is bigger than creating a weekend retreat. She’s a huge proponent of the untapped potential of the millennial generation who want to foster an entrepreneurial spirit and pride in workmanship in others. She wants to reach people from rural areas, like her, who seek reasons to stay and build their livelihoods in the Maritimes.
“If you’ve got a work ethic and want to learn a trade, I think the Maritimes, small towns like Yarmouth, are where you should be,” she says. “I feel like what I’m doing is restoring pride in the town.” She also wants to encourage people from Ontario, who drive for hours for a cottage property, to consider vacation properties in Nova Scotia.
She laughs to think of how far she’s come from the 18-year-old who was asked to take over a floor-refinishing project at a Halifax mansion when the rest of the crew was too hungover to show up for work. A quick learner who was able to recognize an opportunity when it knocked, she set to work refinishing 5,000-square-feet of Brazilian cherry floors.
Twenty years on, she’s got a film crew trailing her for a reality TV show, trying to keep up with her.