I have been writing America’s Outback for more than 10 years, with the majority of the stories coming out of the Western United States. Nothing in our country can compare with the famous Outback of Australia, of course, but we still have places remote — rural and rustic — and the West is where most of them are. But I get jumped on, and rightfully so. I get e-mails telling me to take a look at the rest of the country. “Enjoy the changes in weather and terrain … come sample the rhythms of our countryside,” wrote a lady from back East. I have been in the Midwest recently. That’s where my roots are, so the territory has been familiar and I see it through a glass smudged with nostalgia — you may have noticed. But the place I am now is totally new.
I am so far east that I am out of the country, and in a time zone that I didn’t know existed in North America, Atlantic Time. This is New Brunswick — the province of Atlantic Canada that butts against the face of Maine, our easternmost state. In square miles, it’s a little bigger than West Virginia, and a little smaller than Maryland. A good 90 percent of it is trees. Of the 730,000 people who live here, 60 percent are at least partially British and 45 percent are at least partially French. It’s Canada’s only province that is officially bilingual. There is a French school system and an English school system. Road signs are in both languages. Everyone I ran into spoke English; many were bilingual. But in the northern third of the province, about 13 percent of the people speak only French.
I am in Fredericton, the province capital, a riverfront city of stately elms and 48,000 people. The river is the St. John, which begins in the northern extremes of Maine and flows south through New Brunswick before exiting into the Bay of Fundy. The river’s importance to the area is obvious, but I discovered that the role it played in New Brunswick’s history is like that of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers in the United States. Driving up from Bangor, Maine, Interstate 95 ends at the border. From there, it’s an hour-long drive along the river to Fredericton. Although the town goes back to the early 1700s, when it was a French colony, it was incorporated by the British provincial legislature in 1848. In the council chamber of the city hall, the walls are hung with 27 wool tapestries that tell the story of Fredericton. Craftsmen, using a loom and techniques that were centuries old, worked 200 hours on each one.
On a good day, a weaver could advance six inches on a tapestry. The project lasted almost three years. Fredericton’s mayor is Brad Woodside. At 55, Brad has had the job off and on for 20 years — the town’s longest serving mayor, he says. His “day-job” is that of tour-boat skipper, but that’s seasonal. His boat, the 50-foot Carleton 2, is up on blocks during the winter as the river is frozen. But this autumn day was ideal to cruise the river with Brad and some tourists. “At the end of the American Revolution, about 34,000 Americans who were loyal to the British Crown fled the 13 colonies for Nova Scotia. A few thousand of them came up the St. John and settled here,” Brad told us. “Soon after that, 1784 actually, the southern half of Nova Scotia became New Brunswick. “Because of our close proximity to the American border, an Army contingent was stationed here.
We use the old guard barracks downtown now as a crafts market in the summer, and the officer’s quarters building is a museum. Interestingly, not far from town is now the largest military base in the British Commonwealth.” Up the river a ways is the Kings Landing Historical Settlement — a 300-acre, outdoor living-history museum. Re-creating rural New Brunswick of the 1800s, it has the feel, and definitely the look, of authenticity. I have seen nothing quite like it. What created it was a need for electric power on one hand, and the compassion of many to save their ancestral way of life on the other. It began in the 1960s with a plan to build a hydroelectric project and a dam on the St. John. Obviously, any trace of communities and farms on the banks of the river would be wiped out by the flooding that would result.
So a new settlement was created — stone by stone in some cases — by moving historically and architecturally significant buildings to what is now Kings Landing. In the years since, they have been meticulously restored and furnished. Wandering around Kings Landing, I ate muffins hot from a Dutch oven in one house and drank freshly pressed apple cider being served in another. The sawmill, powered by a water wheel, was operating on a board-by-board basis. A couple guys working there cut up the better part of a log while six school kids and I watched. Out in a field with a hoe, Charles Holt was digging potatoes. He works here from early June through Thanksgiving — in Canada, observed the second Monday in October. “You are lucky,” he said, “this [season] is the best time of year up here.”
Bill’s e-mail: [email protected]