Authentic Outport Experience – A Restored 1914 Biscuit Box Home in Bonavista

More than 100 years ago, Thomas Mouland returned to his home in Bonavista after a harrowing sealing trip during which 84 of his fellow sealers died after spending two nights on the ice without shelter.

Sitting on an old wooden chair at the kitchen table, the home’s current owner, Ken Sooley, asks if I’ve read “Death on the Ice”, the story of the 1914 sealing trip during which 132 men were left on the ice for two nights and two days. Thomas Mouland was one of the survivors of that ill-fated journey. This is his house. This is the story of his house.

Today the house remains largely unchanged from the way it was a century ago, with the exception of indoor plumbing and electricity being added and a front porch being lost. Ken wanted the home to feel authentic, leaving visitors with a sense of what outport living was like years ago. Since buying the property in 2007, he has been looking for items to furnish the house. While he’d like to bring the entire house back to its early days, finding period correct furniture in good shape is difficult, he said.

Instead, he has opted to go for a general vintage vibe that maintains the character of the home. It’s the reason the house doesn’t have a microwave or television. The goal of authenticity is also why the floor has been stripped down to the original floorboards, and why the walls are still the original thin board; scars of past repairs can still be seen. The trim is also original, each dent and nick left in place. Coats of brightly coloured paint give the home a summer feel. The work was done by carpenter Jerry Burton. As well as repairing doors and trim and pulling up flooring, he also worked to remove the decades of wallpaper built up on the wall.

As a visual reminder of the many looks of the home, he left scraps of wallpaper on one section of wall, framing it with a picture frame while the rest of the wall received a coat of paint. The result is what looks like an abstract work of art, but is really just the original wall.

The layers of linoleum that covered the kitchen floor also remain in the home, now acting as floor coverings on the stairs; each stair has a different linoleum pattern.

This home, like its original owner, has character and stories. Carpenter Lloyd Russell was involved with the Bonavista Historic Townscapes Foundation and knows many of those stories. He joined us at the kitchen table to share a few of them.

The exact age of the house isn’t known, although Lloyd and Ken both agree, after talking with old-timers and researching the home, that it’s definitely over 100 years old. For much of its life, it sat about 100 metres away. Back then, says Lloyd, the people of Bonavista built their homes close together. There were no cars, so there were no wide roads to accommodate them. Thomas Mouland, followed by his son, lived in the house for years, well into the latter part of the previous century. But then they left and the home changed hands, the keys now belonging to the neighbour.

The house sat vacant for years, falling into disrepair until it was, in the mind of its new owner, only good for tearing down. He lived in the adjacent house, and wanted to turn his home into a bed and breakfast. The Mouland’s old house was cramping his vision.

The Bonavista Historical Townscape Society, recognizing the historical importance of the home, deemed it worthy of preserving. The owner sold it to the society on the condition it be moved.

Mouland’s old home was moved across the street, onto a plot of land that Lloyd notes is boggy. To prevent the house from sinking into the soft ground, the society dug a large hole, filled it with blast rock, then smaller rock, before pouring a cement foundation for the home. Then one rainy day they lifted the house off the spot where it was built, placed it on greased poles and eased, coaxed and rolled it the 100 or so metres to its new location.

The original owners didn’t really move out – they just left. Beds, dishes, furniture, clothes, letters, the remains of lives lived, were all still inside as the house was moved. They remained there as a crew of former fish plant workers turned carpenters put new cladding on the home’s exterior and rebuilt the windows that needed repair. Those new windows are built in the same style as the original ones, reusing the glass. Historically accurate reproductions is one of both Lloyd and Jerry’s specialties, and looking at the home it’s very difficult to tell which windows are new and which are original.

The house exterior’s new cladding was given a coat of yellow paint and then it was again left. The inside hadn’t been touched, but from the outside the house had been transformed into one of those postcard images that wordlessly extoll the virtues of outport Newfoundland life. It was around this time that Ken arrived in Bonavista, looking for a traditional outport home to purchase. He liked the story behind this house, and its link to the province’s fishery.

Hanging from the now unused chimney is a wooden club, painted in stripes. Ken lifts it, feeling its weight in his hand.

“This is a real sealing club,” he says. A neighbour gave it to him after he bought the house. It’s now a prop, a visual link to the home’s intangible past.

A framed document, the paper brown with age and water stained, hangs on the wall. It recognizes membership in a fisherman’s union, and is dated 1869. It’s not in perfect condition, but it’s authentic. That framed piece of paper is much like the house in which it hangs. Not perfect, but authentic.