Deep into the woods of Nova Scotia’s Digby County, way back along a bumpy track where there is no cell service, there is a wooden lodge on a pristine lake.
Carved out of the wilderness with the help of a team of oxen more than a century ago, it was home to a murderer and many monks.
It was also a secret getaway for movie stars, and even someone considered one of the greatest baseball players of all time.
Now the 78-year-old American who has been preserving the property and its stories is trying to figure out what’s next.
The property is now listed for $980,000, but Helen Matthews says she’s looking for a buyer who will respect the site’s colourful history.
Matthews thought she’d found a retirement spot 18 years ago when she first saw images of the 23.4-hectare former hunting and fishing lodge.
“I fell in love with the isolation, the beauty, the water, old cabins, the logs. And I essentially bought it on the phone. I’ve never seen it in person.”
She had hoped Birchdale would never be boring — her “last great adventure” — and she wasn’t wrong. But the former sociologist didn’t expect to be so drawn into its story.
When she discovered the history, and the people who have brought it to life, everything changed.
“This a place in the woods, and a lake and a few buildings,” she says. “That’s not what it is. You feel it when you’ve stayed here for a few days. People tell me you feel different. You come out different because you must look into yourself and others or nature. You can’t be hooked up to anything because there’s no reception and there’s no TV.”
Birchdale first hosted guests more than a century ago.
A woodsman named Omar Roberts built the main lodge in 1911. He later sold it — possibly while in prison — after he was convicted of the grisly killing of a 19-year-old woman who had refused his advances.
In 1922, Roberts was the last man hanged in Yarmouth County.
Matthews doesn’t like to dwell on that. But she’s spent much of the past 18 years piecing together the property’s past. She cherishes a worn handwritten ledger that lists five decades of guests, starting in 1926.
Greta Garbo signed it in 1954. Matthews keeps a sketch by another guest, Disney illustrator Milton Neil, in a binder alongside newspaper clippings.
Baseball great Babe Ruth and Teddy Roosevelt, the 26th U.S. president, are rumoured to have been among the outdoorsmen or “sports,” mostly from New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, who came to this corner of Nova Scotia in the spring and fall to hunt and fish.
Early on, they travelled by train or boat from New England. Later, there were direct flights to Yarmouth — now a town of 6,500 — and frequent buses from Halifax.
Alec Jeffery, who still lives in nearby Kemptville, N.S., worked as a fishing and hunting guide starting in 1954.
“This was a regular sportsman’s paradise back in the ’50s, the early ’60s. The lakes and rivers were full of trout, the woods were full of deer. And no local people in here at all, never seen a local,” he recalls. “All money people, they were real money people.”
Jeffery and the other staff would be up at 5 a.m. to make sure fires were lit in cabins and the massive hearth in the main lodge. Often they wouldn’t go to bed until nearly midnight, following a day in the woods.
At first, he earned $6 a day as a guide, $5 if he was working around the property.
“We were young, you didn’t think anything of it…. If they’d had to pay minimum wage then, they would’ve been in trouble,” says his wife, Olive, with a laugh.
Olive Jeffery moved to Birchdale when Alec was still “courting” her the summer before they married. That was 63 years ago.
She spent her days cleaning, cooking and serving the guests.
In the evening, there was an elaborate five-course homestyle meal: soup, homemade rolls, a steak or lobster dinner topped with strawberry shortcake. Olive baked the biscuits. On rare nights, there would be wine.
“The guides, they were always carrying on. I can still smell that bread baking,” she recalls. “There’s been a good many stories told here by this fireplace.”
The couple connected with Matthews after she bought the property, and she loves quizzing the Jefferys about their memories — soaking up stories of the days guides travelled through Yarmouth County with the sports, building fires and cooking lunch where they ended up.
Matthews is quick to produce a photo of the Jefferys from her stack of papers, and another of a deer named Smokey that hung around the camp one summer. The Jefferys remember finding the doe curled up on the bed in a cabin.
It’s visits like the afternoon with the Jefferys that Matthews treasures.
“This place has brought the people here, and those people are what have filled me with stories in their lives, or just moments in their lives,” says Matthews.
For many years after the Jefferys left Birchdale, longtime guests would visit them in Kemptville and they’d exchange Christmas cards. Some even bought properties in Nova Scotia.
Though the Jefferys have always lived nearby, they and other locals didn’t visit the lodge often as the years went on.
The days of sport hunting and fishing waned in the late 20th century, and a group of Carmelite monks eventually bought the property, renaming it Nova Nada in the early ’70s.
The monks built a chapel and modernized some of the cabins scattered around the property.
During those years, similar to when it was a private lodge, the property was rarely open to the public. The religious order lived in the quiet of the wilderness until the roar of chainsaws from nearby Irving logging camps drove them away in 1998.
Matthews has chosen a different approach.
The only people she turns away are those on four-wheelers. Like the monks, she doesn’t appreciate disruptions to the quiet of the woods.
Sandra Phinney, a writer who lives in Tusket, heard about the new owner’s open invitation early on.
It had been a decade since she had been to the property she loved. She remembers Matthews encouraging her to bring people out — to paddle, write or get away.
“It was like just somebody opened the door and said, ‘Come on through.’ I was so happy. And so happy to meet her,” she says.
They have since become close friends.
Phinney first came to Birchdale during the summers as a child with her family. Her father was a surgeon in Yarmouth.
One memory stands out as it shaped the course of Phinney’s life. At age six, a guide offered to teach her to canoe. She was so small, she couldn’t use a paddle, so the next day, he came back with one made for her.
“By the time we left Birchdale, I could paddle a canoe across the cove and back on my own, and I could make that canoe do what I wanted it to do,” she recalls.
The following summer, she wagered her father that she could swim across Somes Lake in Yarmouth County. He followed alongside in a canoe. When she completed the swim, he had to give her that canoe.
“My Birchdale experience really has shaped me, in terms of my primary interest is paddling. I’m just crazy madly in love with paddling,” Phinney says.
Each year, Phinney brings women to Birchdale for a paddling retreat. A few times, she’s travelled the interconnected lakes all the way to the Atlantic Ocean, and she says she looks forward to every visit.
“I live in the wilderness, but when I go to Birchdale, I just get a little closer to myself,” she says. “It is absolutely stunning.”
In addition to the paddlers she looks forward to seeing each summer, Matthews has hosted family reunions, weddings, and yoga and writing groups.
Olive Jeffery spent a week visiting for a painting retreat. Many friends come year after year.
Frequently, strangers stop by and share their connection to her home. Often they return.
“I’ve been given a gift here by the people. People have been wonderful,” Matthews says. “I’ve seen the kids grow up now in 18 years, and they give me emotion, good things in life. They fill me with meaning, substance.”
Keeping Birchdale running has been a one-woman show for a long time. Matthews has no problem picking up a chainsaw and doing what needs to be done around the property.
She has been keeping the cabins standing, but they need plenty of work. Two heart attacks in two years were a “wake-up call.”
When the storm Dorian hit, 50 trees fell — reinforcing her decision.
Matthews knows it’s time to sell, but isn’t entirely ready to let go, either. Not just any buyer with deep pockets will do.
She turned down one offer because it didn’t fit her vision. She’s holding out for someone ready to pour time and money into the cabins and lodge — but not just keep it as a vacation home.
Phinney says she and others in Yarmouth would buy the property if they could. She’d love to see a local person with guiding skills who knows the area help out the new owner.
Matthews says she’s willing to wait years for someone who sees the potential and understands the value here has more to do with heart than money.
“This is a property that should belong to a Canadian and should belong to someone who cares about it, and its history and will keep it open,” she says.
The other condition is that the next owner keep the property open to the public, so the people who love Birchdale can still return.
“They’ve created the history here. Those people, they should be able to come back and enjoy what they created. I didn’t create it … it means something to people. And we need more meaningful things in our lives.”
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