WEYMOUTH, N.S. – By their nature, fires are cruel and unforgiving. And a recent fire in Weymouth is no exception.
It took only a matter of hours for the fire to not only destroy two historic buildings, but to claim with it artifacts, photographs, stories and paperwork dating back to the 1800s that told and documented the story of New France’s famed Electric City.
These items were to be the heart of an interpretive centre. Their destruction has led to heartache instead.
But it hasn’t led to complete defeat. Those who have been working for years to bring their Electric City vision to fruition still plan to forge ahead. Admittedly, though, they are having to regroup.
“The loss is major, for sure,” says Hal Theriault. “There are things that obviously can never be replaced.”
Much of what was lost had been entrusted by Stehelin family members, who were pleased to see the story and history of Electric City shared and preserved. The Stehelin family founded New France and established an innovative lumber mill complete with a train, running water and electricity. Because there was running water and electricity here long before anywhere else in Weymouth it was dubbed Electric City.
Theriault, a playwright, has written stage plays about Electric City, calling it a story that was begging to be told. Two plays were about the Stehelin family, a third was about the multicultural workforce.
Theriault and Stacey Doucette are the co-chairs of a committee to bring the Electric City past back to life through an interpretive research centre. They mapped out a multi-year development plan and a feasibility study was recently completed for potential federal funding agencies. Theriault and Doucette see tapping into Electric City as a way to revitalize the Weymouth economy. The committee recently received its non-profit status.
Things were all coming together nicely.
And then came the Aug. 29 fire.
SO MUCH GONE
“We had all of the family archives plus a number of other donations in the building that we were using,” says Theriault, which was one of the buildings destroyed by the fire – a blaze so ferocious it even damaged properties located across the street.
“We had all of our electronic records, and all of the paper work I’ve been doing to apply for funding, plus all of the hard artifacts and the thousands of written pages by Paul Stehelin’s father and also all of the pictures,” Theriault says.
There are some things that can still be accessed electronically and Theriault and Doucette also hope there’s a way to retrieve some artifacts that may be in people’s homes.
“When the family left the Electric City site they left it pretty much intact and over the years people began to camp in the buildings and use the buildings as hunting lodges, so a number of things disappeared and became part of private collections,” Theriault says, not casting any blame. “People wanted souveniers of the place. So we know there are many things out there and actually since the fire we’ve been offered some things.”
Theriault says when he spoke with Paul Stehelin the morning after the fire, his reaction was quite wonderful.
“He said no one was hurt and everything else is just material,” Theriault says. Still, everyone is heartsick by the loss. “It’s his family history and I’m sure that he’s devastated. We certainly are.”
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Theriault says they’ve been offered a place for a new office and people have offered their assistance.
“So we are determined. The centre can still be because we still have the story to tell,” he says, adding he and Doucette have spent days sifting through the charred rubble following the fire. Remarkably, given how intense the fire was, there were a few things found – some paper work and “bits and pieces” of things they may be able to salvage.
Still, Theriault keeps thinking about all of the things that are gone forever.
“Something will pop into my head and I’ll realize that we don’t have that anymore. There were so many things that were poignant and very important to the story,” he says.
“One of my favourite things is there’s a picture in the Electric City book of the father during the First World War. He was living in Weymouth at the time and he would walk from his house to the Western Union office to look at the latest list of casualties to see if any of his five sons who were serving overseas were listed as casualties,” says Theriault. “And he has a cane in his hand. We had that cane.”
He says they also had uniforms from the war from the family and important military badges. There was an old pump organ. A chess set and domino set that were made handcrafted by Acadians for the family. And hundreds and hundreds of photographs, most of which had never been seen by the public. And the list goes on and on.
“So in order to regroup we have to decide how we can best present the story in a totally different way from what we had planned,” Theriault says, adding they’ll be turning to the community for help.
“It’s a major setback but it’s not going to defeat us.”
“It’s still a popular story in the area. People still have grand memories and they can talk about their grandfathers who worked there and the way they were treated and the innovations and the marvelous equality and fairness in everything that happened,” he says. “We had so many concrete connections through the artifacts. To have those gone is a real loss.”
He says if people have their own artifacts from Electric City and they would be willing to donate them or at least loan them so they can be photographed and catalogued that would be a big help. There will also have to be fundraising to replace lost office equipment.
“We sat down the other day and said no matter what we need to keep going,” says Doucette. “We need the public’s help, we’re hoping they’re going to step forward.”
Theriault says the support and response so far by email and on social media has been wonderful.
“Sometimes you don’t realize how much the community is behind you until something like this happens,” he says. “It’s a major setback but it’s not going to defeat us.”