PICTOU – The large, stone Georgian building that until a week ago stood on Norway Point in Pictou was a house of rich history.
In its 200 years, it was officially called many names: Mortimer House; Norway House; Maritime Odd Fellows Home and The Edward Mortimer Inn.
In its last days however, it unofficially had other names: a missed opportunity; a wasted investment; an eyesore; a shame.
Whatever they called it, for those familiar with the building, it was one with stories.
THE PROMINENT PRIVATE OWNERS
Edward Mortimer, born in Scotland, came to Pictou about a decade after the ship Hector landed with Scottish settlers. He started working in the lumber business, but quickly came to own and operate a number of successful natural resource firms.
He became a leader in the community as a member of the Pictou militia and a member of the house of assembly.
Mortimer’s influence earned him the nicknames ‘King of Pictou’ and ‘our Oat Meal Emperor from the East.’
According to historian Susan Buggey, Mortimer began Norway House in 1810, a “massive stone residence for which he brought out skilled Scottish carpenters and masons.” It was completed in 1814.
Though he was once one of the richest men in Nova Scotia he was deep in debt and died penniless in 1819. His widow continued to live in the residence until 1834, at which time it was sold to Edward Smith.
Smith was a well-to-do employer for the Hudson’s Bay Company. The Griffin, a newsletter published by the Heritage Trust of Nova Scotia, says Smith named the residence Norway House, after the Hudson Bay Company post in northern Manitoba.
After Smith died, the house soon found its way to Donald Smith, another successful HBC employee who later became the company’s principal shareholder. He later was dubbed Lord Strathcona. In his storied career, he helped found the province of Manitoba, was a member of parliament and co-founded the Canadian Pacific Railway.
His place in history was secured when he drove the last spike into the first railway to span the country.
Lord Strathcona had homes all over Canada and tried to convince family members to live in the house full time, to no avail.
His stepson inherited the house when Lord Strathcona died in 1914.
The building was converted from a private residence into a home for the aged in 1922. It was purchased by the Odd Fellows and Rebekahs of Atlantic Canada.
THE ODD FELLOWS AND REBEKAHS
It had the distinction of being the first ‘Home’ of its kind in Atlantic Canada.
Frank Huelin, 92, was a resident of Mortimer House when it was owned and operated as the Maritime Odd Fellows home.
“My father died when I was young,” he said. “But because he was an Odd Fellow, our family took up residence in Mortimer House.”
His mother and two sisters stayed there for three years from 1924 until 1927. The Odd Fellows had acquired the building from the family of Lord Strathcona only two years earlier.
In 1975, the building opened its doors to the general public. Previously, the home had only been available to individuals involved with the Odd Fellow and Rebekah Order.
Muriel Stroud, 92, was president of the building committee that undertook major renovations to the home in the 1980s.
“I was a longtime member of the Rebekahs and involved with the home for many years.”
While the building itself was large and grand, she says it wasn’t really adequate for the caring of elderly persons. The halls were too narrow for wheelchairs and ambulance arrivals and departures were a nightmare.
“The renovations to the home in 1985 were badly needed, but we knew an altogether new building would have to happen soon.”
The Odd Fellows Home sought to leave the aging Mortimer House and its patchwork of expansions and wings for a new $5.5 million facility on the property.
In a letter dated Dec. 11, 1996, to Minister of Health Bernard Boudreau, the home noted its advancement in addressing patients with Alzheimer’s and dementia, providing “Meals on Wheels” and other outreach services.
Eventually, the funding was secured and a new facility was built and opened on May 20, 1999.
THE EDWARD MORTIMER INN AND DEMOLITION
Barry Sinclair bought the building from the Maritime Odd Fellows and operated the building as an inn and restaurant before leasing it to new owners for another few years.
It closed in 2003 and has been a target of vandals for the past three years with youths and adults partying inside the building and damaging the outside of it.
Minutes from a Pictou town council meeting on Mar. 16, 2009, noted that Sinclair was bound by a previous agreement to maintain Mortimer House as a country inn.
“Mr. Sinclair is requesting this agreement be dismissed so he will be able to rezone the property for residential use,” the minutes read.
This motion was moved, seconded and passed.
By July 2010, it was Sinclair’s intention to remove the building from the property, citing the extensive damage from vandals, general maintenance and the age of the building.
Wayne Harris then acquired the building, by now in disrepair. Mortimer House had numerous windows broken, no heat or power and water damage and mould.
He said the Town of Pictou helped to board up broken windows and the RCMP patrolled to keep vandals out, but the damage was done.
“It was just too far gone to be saved,” he said. “[The building] was wide open and kids and vandals took advantage of it.”
Stroud felt sick to her stomach when she saw the picture of the half demolished structure in The News.
“I never thought I’d live to see the day the building was torn down,” she said. “I knew that building from the basement to the attic.”
Mayor Joe Hawes of Pictou is disappointed, but accepts the building’s fate as inevitable.
“It’s a shame,” said Hawes. “But the building was so far gone it would have been millions of dollars to fix it up.”
Even still, no one had approached the town for financial support or anything to do with proposing heritage status for Mortimer House, he said.
“There’s no doubt about it, it’s a big loss to Pictou County.”
Beth Henderson of the Pictou Historical Photograph Society said the best we can hope to do is save and cherish the photos of the building as a link to history.
“Retention of historic properties and the circumstances involved are decided by the property owners,” she said.
The house is perhaps best remembered as an icon of a bygone era, a symbol of Pictou’s connection with one of Canada’s distinguished men, whose life not only reflects the 19th century, but, as Donna McDonald says in her biography of Lord Strathcona, “closely mirrors Canada’s passage to nationhood.”
“It is sad to come across the causeway and see the icon of Pictou's past gone,” says Henderson. “But perhaps it will be replaced with the beginning of the next chapter.”