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Combining history and home

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Campobello Island cottage. Photo: WeDrone NB

Campobello cottage reno celebrates island’s past

Two flags fly proudly on Dennis and Margaret Haire’s cottage property. One is Canadian, the other American. They symbolize both the story of their summer home on New Brunswick’s Campobello Island, and the couple themselves.

When the Haire’s, who are from Evansville, Indiana, first visited the Canadian island back in 1988, they had no idea the impact it would have on their lives. 

Canadian and American flags on Dennis and Margaret Haire’s cottage property.

Known for its breathtaking views, whale watching and unique Roosevelt Campobello International Park, the couple promotes their small piece of paradise whenever they can.

It was a stroke of luck that first brought the Haires to Campobello.

In the mid 1980s, Margaret and Dennis began renting a cottage on Nantucket Island in Massachusetts and fell in love with the Atlantic coast. They began looking for an affordable oceanfront cottage that would give them a place to spend their summers with their young children. While on their way home from vacation one year, a fellow traveller left a Boston Globe on their seat at the airport and Dennis picked it up. Under the Maine real estate classifieds, the Campobello Company was advertising oceanfront lots. He called the toll-free number and was offered a free night’s stay.

Photo: WeDrone NB

“We spent a couple days going all over the island looking at magnificent pieces of land perched on cliffs with these unbelievable, bold ocean views,” says Dennis.

“If it were easier to get to, it wouldn’t be as good.”

The idea of building was overwhelming, so they bought a small cottage. It was about 500 square feet and could sleep six. It had a breathtaking view of the bay, small islands, and off in the distance the far hills of mainland New Brunswick. And a bonus: its own private beach.

They named it Sea Urchin Cottage, and 34 years later, they still return every summer.

Sea Urchin Cottage 

Well-known Campobello boat builders Varn and Morris Fletcher built the cottage in 1959 for a retired FBI agent. 

“Because they were boat builders, it’s built like a boat with very high windows,” says Dennis.

In 2015, they completed their first major renovation with the addition of a master bedroom, office, screened-in porch and open decks. In 2019, they began a second reno, this time adding a mud room, expanded their living room, including a nautical-themed loft, plus more open decks and a new kitchen.

The original kitchen, which was at the back of the cottage, became a spare bedroom, and they built a new kitchen on the side. With a marble topped island (with marble from Nova Scotia), white walls and backsplash complementing lots of natural light, the space is bright and modern, but contains many hints of the past throughout.

The wooden countertops were made from 1780s attic board from Maine and a panel of antique ceiling tile for the backsplash above the stovetop is from St. Andrews, N.B.

Hanging high on the far wall is a giant sign with gold leaf lettering, and a hand-painted fish, for H. Jackson Fish Market, which burned in the winter of 2021. The sign dates back to 1880. “It was a big, two-sided company sign,” says Dennis. “It was meant to be seen from the sea.”

Dennis and Margaret Haire at Sea Urchin Cottage on Campobello Island, N.B.

Until the early 1900s, it hung on an iron pole for all to see. Then, after countless years in someone’s attic, it was going to be sold to a Boston antique dealer.

“I thought it should stay on the island,” says Dennis. So he bought it.

There are many other nods to local history throughout the cottage. Even the kitchen island has a story. 

“It’s an old store counter,” says Margaret. “It still has a place for the cash register, and we added drawers where the chair would have sat.”

Dennis is forever on the hunt for local artifacts. “When I see something interesting that I know is no longer being used, I ask ‘Before you throw this out, can I have it?’” he says.

The set of ship’s lights that hang in their porch originally used whale oil and kerosene, but he converted them to electricity. The porch columns are from the old Jackson home, which was next to the fish market. Many of the doors are from other old houses on the island. They bought a mantel at a yard sale for $50. (They even have a picture of where it hung in its original home). A dresser came from one of the original luxury hotels on the island. And the living room clock is from an old Campobello ship. 

The door to the ensuite bathroom was a particularly interesting find. Margaret was looking in the shed that stored the local church’s annual rummage sale items and looked down to see everything stacked on an arched shaped door. She asked if she could have the door if she made a donation. They said yes and she promptly took it home and had the contractor install it during the remodel. 

The door to the couple’s ensuite bathroom is from a local church.

The great outdoors

The bay in front of the Haire’s cottage is part of the Bay of Fundy and is as deep as 76 metres in parts — deep enough for cargo ships to pass by. The private beach — only accessible from their property by 54 very steep steps down — is known as Bulldog Beach, because when the tide is low, there’s a rock formation that resembles a bulldog. Over the centuries, several ships sunk nearby, which likely adds to the abundance of unique finds that wash up.

Throughout the cottage, you’ll find table surfaces, shelves and window ledges lined with 34 years of beachcombing treasures: a seemingly endless collection of colourful beach glass, pottery pieces, teacup handles, starfish, crab shells, sand dollars and even whale bones.

“This was a beautiful place to introduce our kids to marine life,” he says. “Finback and minke whales, and the very rare right whale, can be seen right in front of the cottage. Plus, the seals and sea birds.”

Dennis and Margaret now get to share this experience with their seven grandchildren, ages three to 10, when they visit in the summers. 

In addition to the interior updates to the cottage, the latest reno also included a few changes outside.

“We rebuilt our kids’ treehouse from 1992,” says Dennis. “We made it larger with five beds and added windows, instead of just screens, as well as a small deck.”

They also built a new barn/garage, with an attic for sleeping and a play area for the grandkids, who they welcomed back this summer after two years of COVID-19 restrictions.     

The pandemic was a difficult time for everyone when it came to travel. Luckily, the Haires’ were able to return to Canada in the summer of 2020 to complete their cottage renovations, as the couple also own tourist rental properties on the island and housing is considered an essential service.

Before the pandemic, about 85-to-90 per cent of the renters were American tourists, but that all changed with COVID.

“The first year of the pandemic we were 100-per-cent Canadian,” says Margaret. “Last year was probably 50-50. This year we’re back up to 60-per-cent Americans.”

Permanent residency on the island is around 860, but that number increases in the summer with its many seasonal residents. 

“The people of the island are extremely self-sufficient,” says Margaret. 

And they have to be. There are only two small grocery stores, a pharmacy with limited hours, a few mechanics and a marine supply store. There’s no bank or gas station.

The Canada/U.S. connection

A bridge connects Campobello to Lubec, Maine, but to get there from Canada you have to take two ferries. One from LeTete, N.B. to Deer Island, and then a second to Campobello.

The island’s history is rife with stories of wealthy American families spending summers on the island. In the 1880s, a group of U.S. businessmen built three luxury hotels that offered resort-style living to escape the hot city life. It was a highly popular destination for a few decades. Former president Franklin D. Roosevelt’s family liked the island so much, they built a home there. Notably the island’s most famous resident, Roosevelt summered there from 1881 to 1921 and visited three more times after that, and twice as president of the U.S.

Today, his former family home is part of the Roosevelt Campobello International Park, which is run by both Canada and U.S. staff. The 32-room cottage, plus hiking and carriage trails, are open as a museum on the island, as well as a few other homes owned by wealthy Americans. 

Given its proximity to the U.S., and its close American ties, you might wonder why it’s a Canadian island at all. The legend Margaret knows claims that when the boundary was being drawn between the two countries, the sailors on the ship got the U.S. and Canadian agents drunk, making it easier to convince them to go between Maine and Campobello because a storm was brewing off Campobello’s eastern coast. Then, they just gave everything on the other side of Maine to Canada to avoid the storm.

Preserving history

Dennis and Margaret are collectors by nature and the cottage is filled with 34 years of artifacts they gathered to preserve the local history of Campobello Island and its people.

“Visitors to our cottage say it takes them back in time,” says Dennis. 

The walls of his office, for example, are filled with paintings of ships, old post cards and newspaper clippings, including one entire issue of the Evansville Courier from 1945 — preserved in plastic — with the headline “Roosevelt Dies at 63.”

Dennis still has the classified ad that first brought him to the island in 1988, among many others. One advertisement for Campobello reads, “this part of the Maine and Atlantic Canadian coast is hard to reach-beyond the interstates, beyond the chain restaurants and chain hotels. If it were easier to get to it, wouldn’t be as good.” Another claims, “This place is too beautiful for its own good.”

The Haires agree. “Campobello Island is a very special place,” says Dennis. 

How to get there

To reach Campobello Island from Canada, take the ferry from LeTete, N.B. to Deer Island and then a second ferry to Campobello. The islands are close to the mainland and each other, so the crossings are short. You can also drive through the U.S. and take the bridge from Lubec, Maine. 

Lori McKay

East Coast Living