By Ed Staskus
The green house on Doyle’s Cove and the shore road on the Gulf of St. Lawrence have both been there for more than a century, except last century they changed places. The road used to be on the cliff side and the house on the hillside. The green house is on the cliff side today and the road has been moved away from the ocean. It is now the National Park road.
“It was on the property but maybe a few hundred yards away,” said Kelly Doyle, about what became the green house. When Kelly’s father, Tom, hauled it down to the water’s edge, it was because his new bride refused to stay in the white family house, the house that ended up within earshot.
“Dad in the back of his head thought his mother and wife would get along, but they were both very damned strong women,” Kelly said. “They just couldn’t live in the same house, both determined about that.”
When Doris and Tom Doyle married in 1947, both in their early 20s, Dottie from Boston and Tom native to the island, they moved into the big white house on the cove built in 1930 that Tom grew up in.
“The only place to live was living in the white house,” Kelly said.
The white house is on the ocean side of North Rustico, on the north side of Prince Edward Island, near the entrance to the harbor, a clapboard two-story house with a dozen windows, two dormers and three porches on the side facing the water. A broad lawn slopes down to the cliffs.
“The first house was bigger,” said Kelly.
It had been bigger, but it was gone.
Kelly’s grandparents, Mike and Loretta Doyle, were playing cards at a neighbor’s house one night in 1929. It was winter, cold and snowbound. Their friends lived about a mile away. At the end of the evening, going home in their horse-drawn sled, they crested a frozen hill. A red glow lit up the sky and flared across the ice in the cove below them.
The pitch-dark night was lit up. The house was on fire. They had left seven children behind in the care of the eldest. Tom was the youngest, four years old.
“It was a flue fire,” said Kelly. “It burnt down because of the stove.”
By the time the horses raced down to the house, the parents finding all their children safe and sound outside, there wasn’t much Mike and Loretta could do. There were no neighbors nearby to help and there was no fire department. Mike was able to drag some furniture from the first floor out the front door and saved as many fox furs as he could.
The house was rebuilt the next year and finished the following year.
“The foxes my grandfather saved from the fire built the new house.” Kelly’s grandfather was a fox farmer. What he sold the pelts for went to pay for the work of the nomadic immigrant tradesmen who built the house.
“Nobody knew them,” said Kelly. “They weren’t from around here.”
It took the Great Depression a year to get to Prince Edward Island, but when it did it disrupted farming, what the island did for a living. In 1930 PEI farmers had a large grain and potato harvest. They had never had problems selling to their markets, but by then their markets were going broke. For the next couple of years, no markets were buying. By 1933 average net farm income on PEI was twenty dollars a year, selling fruits, produce, vegetables, and cattle.
Although agriculture and the fisheries crashed, tourism and fox fur farming boomed during the 1930s. It was how many islanders kept their heads above water. One in ten PEI farmers were involved in keeping foxes, supporting their families. There were 600-some fox farms on the island in 1932. Five years later there were double that. By the end of the decade ten times the number of pelts went to market as had the previous decade.
“When my mother married my dad, she didn’t get along with my grandmother all that well,” said Kelly. They were all living together in the family house. “My mom and grandmother liked each other enough, but not enough to live in the same house. She finally said to my dad, you better build me a house.”
It put Tom Doyle on the spot. There wasn’t the money for a new house, even though they had the property. “Dad had a choice to make, either lose your wife, or build a house.” He couldn’t build a house, so he improvised.
“I don’t know what kind of a building it was,” Kelly said. “It was few hundred yards away. He hauled it down the hill to the cliffs and turned it into a house, even though he had his hands full farming at the time.”
Moving a building is no small amount of work. Fortunately, the building was on the small side, there was a short clear route, and there weren’t any utility wires that had to raised. There was no electricity or plumbing to disconnect, either. Still, wooden cribs had to be inserted to support the building inside and out, jacks had to raise it at the same exact rate and lower it the same way, and it had to be trailered slowly and carefully to its new foundation, between the barn and the white house.
“It was almost eighty years old when my dad moved it,” said Kelly. “It was two thirds the size of what it is now. When I grew up in it, it was pretty small. They built onto it in 1964 when I was eight years old. We spent that winter in my grandmother’s house while our house was being renovated.”
The Doyle kids, Cathy, Elaine, Kenny, John, Mike, and Kelly grew up in what became a two-story, gable-roofed, green-shingled house, even though it was never big enough for all of them, never enough bedrooms.
“It wasn’t bad, since there was a fifteen-year difference between the youngest and the oldest. We all left the house at different times.”
Mike Doyle died in 1948, soon after Tom and Dottie’s marriage, leaving Loretta a widow. She started taking in summer tourists, putting up a sign that said Surfside Inn. She harvested her own garden for the B & B’s breakfasts. “My grandmother filled all the rooms every summer. Some Canadians came, and more Europeans, and Americans because they had lots of money.”
She ran the inn for more than twenty years.
“She got a little bit ill around 1970, and lived alone for six, seven years until my dad moved her into the senior’s home in the village. After that nobody lived in the house for ten years.”
In the late 1980s Andy Doyle took it over, rechristening it Andy’s Surfside Inn.
“My uncle had been gone for more than twenty years, nobody ever heard from him, and then he came out of the woodwork and took it over,” Kelly said. Nobody could believe that a man in his late 60s wanted or could run a five-room inn. He ran the show for almost twenty-five years, outliving all his siblings until dying in his sleep two years ago.
It was the end of the Surfside Inn, but not the end of the white house. Erik Brown, the son of Elsie, Andy’s sister, moved in, keeping it in the family. The next summer he started renovating the house back to a home.
“It was a rambling old home with large rooms and a spectacular view,” said a woman who came from Montreal. “The best thing is having breakfast in the morning with all the guests around one table. One year ten years ago it was with mime artists from Quebec, an opera singer from Holland, and another lady from Switzerland. A dip in the cove outside the front door is a must before breakfast. There are lovely foxes gambling outside, in the evening, on the large lawn!”
“It was neat when I was growing up,” said Kelly. It was the 1960s. “There were ducks geese and sheep and white picket fences. She had lots of tourists from Europe. We were just kids, all these little blond heads running around. I started meeting those people from overseas.”
Up the hill from the bottom of the pitch where today there is forest land there was in the 1970s a summer camp for clansman kids.
“They called it Love it Scots. There wasn’t a tree up there then. A couple hundred kids from around the Maritimes would come and they would teach them Scottish music and their heritage. We could hear the bagpipes being played every night on our farm down here.”
Highland College staged the PEI Scottish Festival there.
“After that it was a campground, three four hundred families up there.”
When the campground closed, the trees began to grow back until today it looks like the trees have always been there, rimming out the horizon, alive with damp and shadow. Blue jays, weasels, red squirrels and red foxes live there. The foxes hunt mice and rabbits. The blue jay is the provincial bird and stays above the fray.
“I grew up with tourists,” said Kelly. “It was different back then. Now people come here and expect to be entertained.”
There is Anne of Green Gables for the kids. There is harness racing and nightlife. There are performing arts in Charlottetown, Summerside, and even North Rustico. There are ceilidhs every summer evening all over the island. There is a country music festival in Cavendish that draws tens of thousands of people. There is cultural tourism. There are bus tours. Cruise ships dock in Georgetown, Summerside, and Charlottetown, disgorging hundreds of passengers on shore excursions, looking for something to do.
The provincial authorities opened a buffalo park in the 1970s after getting a score of bison as a gift. Bison is not native to the island. Nevertheless, tourists lined up to see the car-sized animal like a large cow with horns curving upwards. Bison can run three times faster than people and jump fences five feet high. Fortunately, they were behind six-foot fences.
“Back then people came here with a different attitude. There was lots to do, too, because they found the local life interesting. They liked the humbleness of everybody, the way of life that was so honest and down to earth. PEI wasn’t like the rest of the world back then. The Maritimes were kind of cut off from the rest of the world once the Merchant Marine was taken away. We kind of fell behind there.”
The tourists of the 1950s and 60s were young couples travelling with children. Some were older couples from the American east coast. There were nature lovers. There were artists. Some of them were bohemians. Others came because PEI had become the “Cradle of Confederation.”
“Even though, it was a dump here when I was growing up, to be honest,” said Kelly. “Everyone had an outhouse and a pig in the backyard. There were rats everywhere. It wasn’t all that nice in Rustico, but a lot of artists, writers, photographers, people who liked nature came here. It took a long time to come back, in the 70s and 80s, before it became looking like a real village.”
In the 1970s the provincial government invested in tourism and has stayed invested ever since. It partnered in the Brudenell Resort near Georgetown and the Mill River Resort. Both include golf courses, which are seen as important tourist attractions.
Fifty years later, Prince Edward Island is a different place.
“It’s sterilized now,” said Kelly. “It’s a completely different PEI, and the people who come here are different, different attitude, different interests.”
Kelly grew up in the green house, on the cove. After storms the beach and red sandstone were often choked with seaweed, stinking for hundreds of yards. Back in the day some men collected it for fertilizer in their gardens and banked it against their house walls as insulation against the cold winter weather.
Everyone went to school in town. After school Kelly and his friends didn’t have to go far for fun.
“Between the pool hall and the rink, those were my social events, before I could drink. We grew up in the pool hall here.”
To this day John Doyle is an outstanding pool player and participates in tournaments. “John is a decent shot,” said Kelly. “Keep your money in your wallet.”
The pool hall was down and around the corner from Church Hill Road. A boatbuilder had several shops there and one of his sons converted one of them. The shop that became a pool hall was green like the green house. “There were a couple of pinball machines up front and eight tables in the back. it was the spot for boys and girls on weekends.”
By the time he was 16 years old and finished with 9th grade, he was finished with school. Many boys did the same, going to work with their fathers, or simply going to work. Kelly went west to Quebec and Ontario, but when he got back to Prince Edward Island and started going into the tourist trade, the green house was still there.
He built a cottage up the hill from it.
In the years since then Kenny Doyle built a brown house behind the barn. After Tom and Dottie passed away, the green house was rented to a young woman from the village for a few years, but John Doyle has taken it over. Bill and Michelle DuBlois, sprung from Elaine Doyle, have built a blue house across the street.
It is Doyle’s Land, from the edge of the ocean to the edge of the trees.
Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Ohio Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”