The Way We Were

The following article first appeared in "The Low Down to Hull and Back News" in the March 23, 2011 issue. Reprinted with permission.

Distinction fights extinction in Old Chelsea

by Louise Schwartz

The village of Old Chelsea could be deemed an endangered species, as one of only two historic villages left in the Municipality of Chelsea. Two sister hamlets (never quite large enough to qualify as villages), Kirk's Ferry and Cascades, are already extinct. They were thriving waterfront tourist and cottage destinations in the early 20th century.

However, when a major hydroelectric project in the mid-1920s raised the level of the river, many of their core businesses, homes, and acres of fertile farmland disappeared. The other historic village in the municipality is "New" Chelsea, located 1.5 kilometres to the east of Old Chelsea, along Hwy 105, around the junction of the Old Chelsea Road.

The Way We Were
Jenny Crawley owns the the Brigham-Chamberlin House, the oldest house In Old Chelsea. Photo courtesy Louise Schwartz.

In the late 1800s, Old Chelsea was a bustling community with a variety of services, including a post office, school, and cemetery, as well as a blacksmith, tannery and sawmill. It was an important stopping place for those passing through. Travellers could choose from four hotels, some with stables for their horses. These establishments are all long gone, although some of the buildings remain. A unique offering of businesses has taken their place. Today's visitor can shop at a general store, bakery, ice cream parlour or tour an art gallery, to name a few.

A stroll along some streets of Old Chelsea confirms its claim to some of the oldest structures in the area. In the short block around Scott, Padden and Old Chelsea Roads, there are several buildings built before 1875, the date the municipality was incorporated. The best known may be the Chamberlin Big House, formerly Gerry and Isobel's and now La Cigale, although any heritage claim is unlikely given its extensive renovations over the years. To its north is the Chamberlin Little House, built in the same period, and still a private residence. To its south is the historic Hanratty-Reynolds House, home since 1990 to the cooperative art gallery, La Galerie Chelsea.

The oldest house in the village is the Brigham-Chamberlin House at 9 Padden Road. Built some 190 years ago, it was moved to its present site in 1962, after first sitting on farmland next to Chelsea Creek across Scott Road. When Charles Chamberlin married Lennox Brigham's widow, he came into ownership of the farm. Chamberlin lived in the house for more than 75 years, until his death in 1931 at the age of 103. Jenny Crawley now owns this home, which she claims is haunted, since buying it from Lill Dunn in 1976.

Another historic building is the O'Meara House at 22 Scott Road, a squared log structure built sometime in the mid-1800s. First inhabited by John O'Meara, after a succession of owners it became a post office in 1928, doubling as a tea room with meals by reservation. Jeanne Dessureault and her late husband, Michel Veillard, owners of the former L'Agaric Restaurant moved in as tenants in 1978, and purchased it in 1984. The interior still displays some of its historic origins, with beam ceilings and wood-panelled walls.

Crawley and Dessureault are both passionate advocates for the retention of Old Chelsea's historic look and feel. Indeed, a recent citizen-led planning process, called Vision Centre-village, highlighted the importance of preserving Chelsea's historic roots. Its key recommendation is that village's built heritage be preserved and promoted.

Other Chelsea residents have taken this goal to heart. Local historian Carol Martin is collaborating with former Chelsea mayor Andre Renaud and history buff David Yuill on a related Gatineau Valley Historical Society project. They are hoping to document Chelsea's historic buildings (mainly but not exclusively houses) by assisting homeowners who want to compile their house histories. The Society can contribute archival material such as historic photos, with homeowners providing the details of their home's long and often colourful background.

Postscript: For more information on how to document your historic home's history, contact info@gvhs.ca or call 819827-6224, or go to www.gvhs.ca where a bilingual form will be posted shortly.

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