The Lure of the Lower Saint Lawrence: Home of Villa Les Rochers
Video created by Karen Molson for The Canadian Heritage of Quebec.
Production Assistants: Jacques Archambault, Julie Rouette Hope, Elisabeth Skelly.
Informants: Gael Eakin, artist, and a granddaughter of Herbert Symington; Desmond Morton, PhD., retired professor, historian and author; Jeannine Ouellet, certified genealogist, historian and author; and Alexander Reford, historian, author, Executive Director of Les Jardins de Métis and President of Heritage Lower St. Lawrence.
Date: June and July, 2017
Location: Villa Les Rochers in St Patrick, Québec
Piano music by Vivianne LaRivière
Photo credits : McCord Museum, Library and Archives Canada, Musée du Bas St. Laurent, Societé d’histoire de Genealogie de Rivière-du-Loup, Mardjane Amin, Karen Molson, Winnifred Molson, Cynthia Coristine, Ian Coristine, Phil Carter, and Matthew Farfan.
Transcript for “The Lure of the Lower Saint Lawrence: Home of Villa Les Rochers”, a documentary with moving film, four interview subjects alternately speaking, and a montage of archival photos.
Piano music plays over colour moving film of the Saint Lawrence River, a view of the waves and distant shores, as seen from the deck of a ferry. As the music fades, the camera pans up to the blue sky, white clouds, and follows the gliding path of a herring gull as it flies away parallel to the shoreline. Then, a closer view of the shoreline, some rocks leading to the water, a sandy stretch of beach, lapping waves.
Alexander Reford is sitting at a small wooden table at the end of a glassed-in verandah, with lots of natural light.
[Alexander Reford] The lower Saint Lawrence is a region that today is essentially from around la Pocatière going east towards Les Méchins, it’s sort of an artificial title that can be used to describe the area below Quebec so the Saint Lawrence is of course widely open as you go down the Saint Lawrence, and here in this part of the world as you go east you’re encountering rolling hills, you’ve got the beautiful agricultural lands reaching out towards the Saint Lawrence, you’ve got the Saint Lawrence which is very tidal and full of nautical activities…
Black and white archival image of a map of the gulf of Saint Lawrence and its shores, camera zooms in towards the south shore near Rivière-du-Loup. Then a contemporary moving colour film of Rivière-du-Loup, seen from the perspective of the river.
[A.R.] It’s a region rich in agriculture, forestry, not very rich in tourism, but it’s always been a bit beyond, the end of the line to some extent, it was just far enough away that people found it a great place to take the air, relax, enjoy the summers on the Saint Lawrence.
Moving colour film images of harvested hay fields, and a distantly filmed view of a ferry on the river. A black and white photo of farmlands divided by fences. A black and white photo of a “north shore canoe” in the water with three women and two men sitting in it, all smartly dressed, looking at the camera, and a sailboat with its masts down, moored in the middle distance. Black and white photo of 20 people, children and adults dressed in long clothing and hats, some standing in shallow water, others in canoes behind them. Black and white photo of 11 young people and a dog sitting on a shoreline. Black and white photo of a long beach, with changing huts, a scattering of people, and children wearing wide-brimmed hats playing in the sand in the foreground.
Colour contemporary film of daisies growing in a rock outcropping overlooking the river, as the wind blows them.
Mme. Jeannine Ouellet is seated in a chair front of a fireplace with a yellow-painted wooden mantle.
[Jeannine Ouellet] It seems that certain doctors who advised to come to the river here, a river that’s large enough, close to 20 kilometres wide, they said that the air was pure, there were fewer people than in the cities.
Black and white image of a young woman standing and 5 young men sitting on a wharf, their backs to the camera, looking across a stretch of water.
[J.O.] I know that Monsieur Bate and John A. Macdonald loved to leave Ottawa in the summer because they knew that here the air was… it was easier to live, the heat was less, next to the water it’s always a bit fresher, the air is pure…
Black and white studio-photo of Bate. Black and white studio-photo of Macdonald. Sepia-toned photo of Bate family group posing with their house in the background. Black and white photo of shoreline, including trees, sandy beach, and river.
Colour moving film of wild rose bushes on a windy beach, with driftwood, grasses, and sand.
[A.R.] This area in particular is what really gives birth to the whole summer community.
Black and white photo of steam boat newspaper advertisement, Cacouna to Murray Bay service. Black and white photo of four ladies and a child, fully dressed including hats, standing or crouching in the water near the beach, summer houses visible in background. Sepia-toned photo of four smiling children standing in shallow water in bathing costumes.
[A.R.] It was to this area that they began to come, Cacouna, St. Patrick, Notre-Dame-de-Portage, and that was partly because of the proximity to the nearest urban Centre Quebec City, but also because this is where the train line ends.
Black and white photo of an approaching train, several converging and parallel tracks, and a station platform. Black and white photo of a freight train, seen from above, with train station and houses.
[A.R.] The Grand Trunk which was built from Montreal east stops in Rivière-du-Loup which was a big junction post for the railroad; it was literally the end of the line.
Black and white photo of at least 17 well-dressed people sitting at a table outdoors. Black and white photo of two boys dressed in “sailor suits” sitting on a rock. Black and white photo of a group of young people in tennis attire, standing behind a tennis net, a boy on a bicycle looking at the camera. Colour photo of open fields and river in the background. Colour photo of rocky shoreline.
[A.R.] So if you were looking to leave the city, if you had means and capacity you would send your family and kids to an air spa, which is what this was, you would take the air, you would do a little physical activity, but you would often frankly just be in this semi-pastoral environment and this is what attracted people to the south shore of the Saint Lawrence.
Black and white postcard of Rivière-du-Loup seen from river. Hand-coloured postcard of horse and cart and passengers ascending a dirt road.
[J.O.] The Macdonald family bought the house in 1882. That is to say Lady Agnes bought the house in 1882 but they had stayed here already at least one summer.
Black and white photo of a small white farmhouse house with an addition, and surrounding property, picket fence in foreground.
[J.O.] What was it like here? It was a country life. There wasn’t yet electricity, for running water, the Rivière-du-Loup aqueduct didn’t exist yet.
Colour photo of a small bedroom containing a painted-iron bed, a sink, and a window. Colour photo of an expanse of shoreline, trees, and blue sky. Colour photo of lit candles in a windowsill. Black and white photo of an old mill.
[J.O.] I don’t know if there would have been a well behind the house, in some way set up to have drinking water.
Black and white photo of large waterfalls. Black and white photo of houses on harbour waterfront. Black and white photo of Rivière-du-Loup harbour, with church steeple visible in distance.
Colour film of an evening view of the river seen over the tops of silhouetted trees.
[A.R.] St. Patrick would have been a community like many others, the summer people would have come here, often they would have followed their servants, or their employees who would often come to a house like this and taken the dust covers off, open it up, open the windows, remove the dust, get the humidity out.
Black and white photo of the two-storey Bate summer home, much-embellished with Victorian trim. Black and white photo of a large St. Patrick house and its surrounding fence. Black and white photo of Lochiel Cottage, windows boarded up. Black and white photo of Villa Les Rochers, seen from the road, past the cedar fence, through the trees.
[A.R.] And then the owners would come and they would establish themselves with a retinue of family, and they would be cared for by this fairly substantial mass of servants would would be doing the kitchen work and the scullery work and sometimes the gardening and those things, and life was a life of leisure.
Colour photo of a chair-lined deck. Colour moving film showing golf links at St. Patrick. Black and white photo of a group of young women all wearing white, gathered around a tennis net, each carrying a tennis racket.
You’d play cards on a beautiful verandah like this, you’d play other games, you would read, you would play one games which was often golf, or tennis, the adventurous ones would go out into the Saint Lawrence in a skiff, or a canoe.
Sepia photo of a Great North West Company telegram.
[A.R.] The telegraph of course was available because it followed the train line so you were out of contact but in contact and if you were a politician like Sir John A. Macdonald you would be kept up on the news on a regular basis.
Watercolour painting of Sir John A. Macdonald, dressed in tails and waistcoat, standing in his study, with chairs, desk and books. Painting by C.W. Jeffries.
Colour photo of formal living room with period furniture and fireplace, Villa Les Rochers. Colour photo of front verandah, with chairs, table, and flowers. Colour photo of view of front stairs and front of house.
Black and white studio-portrait or Lady Agnes Macdonald.
[J.O.] When John A. Macdonald arrived here with his wife, his daughter who was handicapped, he also had his brother-in-law, the brother of his wife, and evidently with one or several servants, because they needed help especially for their handicapped daughter.
Black and white photo of a toddler in a striped dress. Black and white studio-photo of a bearded gentleman sitting at a table.
[J.O.] John A. Macdonald had secretaries who I don’t know if they lived in the same house but, at a certain time, John A. Macdonald had two secretaries.
[J.O.] It wasn’t after all the life they lived in Ottawa, but at the same time, it was a working vacation. It was important that they were well assisted.
Colour moving film of a windy shoreline, rocks and sandy beach, seaweed, waves. Close-up moving colour film of a beach with large driftwood. Moving colour film of a gull perched on the edge of a pier, vocalizing while waves crest in the distance.
[A.R.] Summer houses on the shoreline communities typically were i guess you’d call them shabby chic— it’s pretty rustic living, it’s not camping, but it’s not a luxurious hotel.
Colour photo of a set of vintage kitchen storage cans, arranged on a painted wooden shelf. Colour photo of two straw hats hanging on a coat rack against a painted yellow wooden wall. Colour photo of a parasol, propped up in a corner.
[A.R.] And they chose this area for I think the air, they also chose it frankly because they could be with people they knew, and of course in the Victorian era this was important, you liked to holiday with people of your own class so you weren’t holidaying with the unknown, you were holidaying with the known, as it were, and they could be the known from your own business community, or from your own church, so there was a kind of familiar area.
Black and white photo of a group of people having tea together on a lofty verandah, with wicker furniture and wearing hats.
[A.R.] I think there was also those who came to this part of the world were also attracted to the proximity of the French Canadian milieu, the life that was around them, the kind of connection to, not living with, but they were available to communicate with these communities and I think it was part of the attraction because it did take a lot of impulse and energy to leave the cities and travel this distance.
Black and white photo of a dirt road lined with large trees and picket fences.
[J.O.] The road that is there now the 132, which is called today the 132, was a road near the end of the century where horses went by, not in great numbers…
Black and white photo of a dirt road with a farmhouse on the right, cedar fences lining the road.
[J.O.] One can imagine life in those days. It was long ago but at the same time one can imagine!
Black and white photo of a Victorian wooden carriage, with a glass door and windows on all sides.
Colour oil painting of Sir John A. Macdonald. Black and white image of newspaper illustration of Sir John A. Macdonald and other men sitting around a long table. Black and white newspaper cartoon depicting Sir John A. Macdonald. Colour illustration of Sir John A. Macdonald standing on a train balcony.
[A.R.] Anyone who’s studied Canadian history as I have knows that Sir John A. is an important figure, he’s controversial these days because of his stance on a number of issues, such as Canadian language rights, native schools and so on, but he is an important founder, not a perfect one, he’s not somebody we celebrate like Americans celebrate their founders, but he was an interesting politician, maybe more interesting than most who followed him in that office.
Black and white photo of Sir John A. and Lady Agnes Macdonald standing with others behind a stationary train on the edge of a bridge overlooking water.
[A.R.] He had faults and foibles and weaknesses, one which was all known, his weakness for drink, but he was a caring father, he had a very troubled family life, a son who did well but was estranged from him, a daughter who was severely handicapped, so I think commemorating a person of that importance is significant, he was the creator of our federation, our nation as a confederation, he was also a man of great vision who established Canada not as an insular pocket in the British Empire but a trans-continental nation.
Hand-coloured postcard overlooking Rivère-du-Loup from an aerial perspective. Black and white photo of two children standing amongst wildflowers behind a house.
[A.R.] And the fact that Macdonald came here from Ottawa, gives us an indication that he was a man who was also finding ways to bridge the difficult gaps that were already evident between English Canada and French Canada.
Black and white photo of a group of 4 barefoot children standing on a wooden sidewalk, looking at a fallen bicycle.
Over the distant sound of bagpipes we see a hand-coloured postcard of Villa Les Rochers. Colour moving film of waves breaking against local rocks. Watercolour painting of river, distant hillside and foreground pink rocks.
Ms. Gael Eakin is sitting at the end of a Victorian Sofa with one of her watercolour paintings hanging on the wall behind her.
[Gael Eakin] My name is Gael Eakin and I lived in that house because my grandparents owned that house.
Watercolour painting of Villa Les Rochers.
[G.E.] So I think I was the last occupant before it was given away to the Canadian Heritage of Quebec.
Black and white photograph of Les Rochers with flagpole in front and 1950s Cadillac nearby.
[G.E.] The Union Jack is flying on the flagpole… my grandfather parked his Cadillac right underneath that flagpole and every morning he put it up and every night he brought it down.
[G.E.] But I got to live with my parents one summer because my sisters were born. And there was no — they were twins — and there was no room in the house for me.
Black and white photograph of Henry Bate sitting in a chair outdoors with a flower garden behind him, c. 1945.
[G.E.] So I was put over with my grandparents, so in 1949 when I was just 8 years old, I stayed with my grandparents for that summer.
Black and white photo of the rocky outcrop at the front of Villa Les Rochers, c. 1945
[G.E.] We were all quite aware that it was Sir John A’s house, we were very aware of that.
Colour photo view of living room, Villa Les Rochers, 2015. Colour photo of front staircase, Villa Les Rochers, 2015. Colour photo of a wall through the staircase, showing framed photos of Sir John A. Macdonald on the wall. Colour moving film of view of the St. Lawrence from Villa Les Rochers.
[G.E.] Of course the view was the best thing of all, the wonderful view of the Saint Lawrence River.
Colour photo of a pair of 1950s binoculars resting on the handrail of the north-facing verandah at Villa Les Rochers, 2017.
[G.E.] You could watch the belugas playing, and right down below the house was my grandmother’s picking garden.
Colour photograph of a small hillside just below Villa Les Rochers featuring daisies and lupins, 2017. Black and white photo of the gardens below the front verandah at Villa Les Rochers, c. 1945. Colour image of phlox growing behind a stack of firewood behind the house, 2017.
[G.E.] She had her show gardens in front but down below she had the picking garden, and she picked flowers every day and arranged them around the house.
Colour photo of living room sofa, 2017. Colour photo of glassed-in verandah, breakfast nook, 2017. Black and white photo of Villa Les Rochers living room, c. 1945.
[G.E.] So the living room was the most favourite place I think. You could see the river, on a rainy day you could curl up on the sofa… it was a great room.
[G.E.] We went down in the basement I think it was after my grandparents had died and there was this bed, the top and bottom of a three-quarter bed, the way all the beds are in that house.
Colour photo of a wooden bed, painted blue. Black and white photo of Stadacona Hall, c. 1880.
[G.E.] It had Sir John A.’s name and address in Ottawa, on the leg of it! We didn’t fuss about it at all, we just let it there. I guess it had been taken from there and dropped down, and it had not been used for a long time; it was only when it became a Bed & Breakfast that it of course became very important.
Colour panning view over image of Villa Les Rochers “Summer Home of Sir John A. Macdonald” Bed and Breakfast sign, 2017. Black and white image of a 1981 newspaper clipping about the preservation of Villa Les Rochers by the Canadian Heritage of Quebec.
[G.E.] When we were children my parents always went over for dinner to my grandparents, every evening, but us children, we had our midday meal over at our grandparents, in the kitchen. We weren’t allowed in the rest of the house.
Colour photo of an old wood stove in the Villa Les Rochers kitchen.
[G.E.] But when I was living in the house with my four children and my sister-in-law was with me with her three children, it was a mob scene you can imagine, and the children had a wonderful time, they played in the dining room which we had never been allowed in to, and they did a play on top of the sideboard, which — we had the kitchen ladder and they could climb up— and they put on a play up there and if my mother had ever found out we would have been in deep trouble!
Sepia-toned photo of the dining room sideboard at Les Rochers, with the kitchen ladder next to it. Photo created 2017. Black and white photo of members of the Bate family posing on the front steps of their St. Patrick summer home. Black and white photo of Sir Henry Bate and his wife, daughter and granddaughter.
[G.E.] We had two places to swim. One was down Shady Lane which was up near Sir Henry Bate’s House, and that beach you could walk down and walk across the field, but the swimming wasn’t very good there because the beach was very rocky and those sea grasses that are very strong there.
Colour film of “shady lane” taken in 2017. Colour photo of a large rock outcrop on the beach below the houses, 2017. Colour photo of sea grasses nearby, 2017.
[G.E.] So we mostly walked the other way, down towards our cousins’ the Thompsons, and we went down the golf club road, and went to the beach there.
Colour photo of alternate path to the beach, 2017. Colour photo of a section of the beach showing large rocks, and some sand.
[G.E.] I think Lady Macdonald did most of her paintings down there, because there were views towards Rivière-Du-Loup and also views toward Notre-Dame-de-Portage, and the Pilgrim Islands, and Meredith Island was also down there too.
Two watercolour images of scenes of the Saint Lawrence River from St. Patrick, painted by Lady Macdonald in 1880.
Professor Desmond Morton is sitting in a winged chair next to a table on which are some archival reference books.
[Des Morton] Les Rochers is a substantial house for a person who played a substantial part in creating a country called Canada.
[J.O.] It’s an honour for me to be sitting in Sir John A. Macdonald’s living room for sure. Even after returning for many years, when you know the history of this man who did great things, it’s still so impressive to be here and to look back on his life. It’s interesting to remember him and share this with others.
[A.R.] He was an interesting man who led an interesting life and did amazing things and he spent much of his time here thinking about how to make Canada a better place.
[D.M.] Over the years much has changed, and it changes almost invisibly before your eyes. But I think the reconstruction of Les Rochers has left anybody with a pretty clear impression of what Sir John A Macdonald— not a rich man, but a satisfactorily supported man — could live that well in this space and with a marvellous view, preserved by generations of people, I don’t think it will ever be allowed to die…
[A.R.] In this case it has evolved in a way that makes it a very happy place, and a user friendly venue that Canadians of all ilks can come to — you don’t have to be rich to come here, you don’t have to be a member of his family, you don’t have to be connected to somebody in the conservative party, you can be none of those, and you can still come here and take time and learn a little bit about what life might have been like in the late 19th century.
[J.O.] In terms of nature, evidently if I look toward the river, I think the trees have grown since, I’m pretty certain they were cut. The view over the river, and well, the river is always there, the river.
Colour photo of Villa Les Rochers, seen from the river, zooming in.
[J.O.] Today, the view of the river, the sunsets here – the National Geographic said that in this region, there are the best sunsets outside of Hawaii.
Colour photo of sunset over the Saint Lawrence River, seen from Villa Les Rochers, 2015.
[J.O.] Also today, the birds are making their nests in the trees behind the house.
Colour photo of white-throated sparrow. Colour photo of nest with two eggs in it.
[D.M.] We’re grateful to the Canadian Heritage of Quebec for taking this monument to one of our great founding leaders and preserving it. So you can go there and feel the Macdonald reality if by some transposition. And for that you’ve got to be very grateful.
[A.R.] It’s remarkable for me to be surrounded by people for whom this region remains an attraction. These are families who are now living around the world but their home, with a capital H is the Lower Saint Lawrence. Their homes in Montreal have been sold, their furniture and paintings have been dispersed, and their children and grandchildren are living around the world, and yet when they come together it’s in the Lower Saint Lawrence. It does illustrate the pull of the place.
Colour moving film of countryside around the area. Colour moving film of cloudy sky.
[A.R.] These amazing landscapes that seem to change with every 15 minutes, it’s sunny and foggy and then you get a great sunset.
Moving film of foggy agricultural surroundings.
[A.R.] The people, the interplay between the English-speaking people and the Protestants and the Catholics and the French Canadians and the local community and the suppliers and the farmers I think that’s very much part of the attractiveness of these kinds of places because they’re rich in interplay, rich in levels of interaction, families have known families for a hundred years; they may not be close friends but they’re associates or affiliates and I think that’s why people feel comfortable here and choose to come back here, but those who come, come because they’re committed.
Moving film of a gull and a crow on a Rivière-du-Loup beach. Moving film of view over treetops of the river, from Villa Les Rochers. All taken in 2017.
[A.R.] They’ve been converted or committed from birth, and they come back to this place like the birds come in the spring and leave in the fall; it’s very much a migratory pattern, that I think is very vibrant and very alive.
Scrolling credits. Thank you to Gael Eakin, Desmond Morton, Jeannine Ouellet, Alexander Reford. McCord Museum, Library and Archives Canada, Musée du Bas St. Laurent, Societé d’histoire de Genealogie de Rivière-du-Loup. Mardjane Amin, Winnifred Molson, Cynthia Coristine, Ian Coristine, Phil Carter, Matthew Farfan.
Production Assistants: Jacques Archambault, Julie Rouette Hope, Elisabeth Skelly. Piano music by Vivianne LaRivière.
Researched, written, filmed and edited by Karen Molson for The Canadian Heritage of Quebec