Look into this 18th-century Nova Scotia home restored to its roots

Robert McGregor showed hundreds of houses in his career as a real estate agent, but no one likes the little old house in Belmont, NS

And it’s not for sale; it is almost never for sale.

The humble gray house surrounded by rolling farmland near Windsor dates back to Planters, New Englanders who immigrated to Nova Scotia in the 1750s and 1760s.

The old house on Belmont Road became the new home for the church family for a while in the 18th century, and it remained known as Church Farm and was occupied by a church until the 1970s.

It is built of birch and pine, probably carved by the same hands who first called it home. McGregor’s parents, James and Jane, bought the house on a whim in 1971. His father was also an immigrant when he moved from northern Scotland to Nova Scotia.

McGregor is sitting by the fire in the cottage his family has called their second home for 50 years. (Jon Tatrie / CBC)

James McGregor was on a business trip to a Windsor pharmacy when the elderly pharmacist surprised him by asking if he was interested in buying a farm.

“And it was not my father at that time,” says his son.

But something about the old man’s description of the house fascinated him, and he drove out to visit. It reminded him of a traditional Scottish house and he bought it. It came with an unusual closing condition: the last church, Dexter Church, could live in the house for the rest of its life.

The McGregor family agreed and began parking a camper on the property the first few summers.

McGregor says Dexter Church half-hoped the house would fall down on him, dismissing his parents’ renovation efforts as putting “rags on rags.”

Today, the cottage is a mix of the 1790s and 1970s. (Jon Tatrie / CBC)

McGregor says the words became a family mantra. In fact, his parents were more interested in removing some of the “cloths”.

“When my parents got the property, there were layers, layers, layers of wallpaper on here that they could remove by steaming and chemicals and eventually came down to what is called an ocher-colored paint where you can see the red, which is deepest seen the clay that is in the river, “he explains, holding part of some of the dozen layers they removed to get down to the original tree.

They dug through about 18 layers of linoleum and other artificial floors to get to the original wood. They modernized it a bit and added an indoor toilet.

McGregors removed generations of floors and wallpaper to reveal the original interior. (Jon Tatrie / CBC)

“When my father was working on the outhouse and took down a wall, he found this document between the boards,” McGregor says, showing a now-framed letter from former Prime Minister John Diefenbaker to Dexter Church thanking him for a poem.

When Church died, McGregor’s family made it their second eternal home, a place for school summers, a retreat from working life, and in later years a nursing home in the renovated barn.

MgGregor says the barn is actually the oldest building on the property, though the inside has been modernized. (Jon Tatrie / CBC)

McGregor’s parents both died in 2019. It made their cottage even more special to him, and in his own retirement, he is building a solid foundation for future generations on Church Farm.

One foundation wall started to collapse this year, but with a little help he had the stone wall rebuilt and a thick gravel floor added to keep the wet away. He says the basement is actually his favorite part of the house: As a boy, he spent hours down there digging into the ground for centuries with buried treasures.

Robert McGregor points out a detail in a historical photograph he gave his father James for Christmas while his mother Jane watches. (Posted by Robert McGregor)

His childhood bottle cap collection is still in his bedroom upstairs, like a handmade dragon created in the distant past.

His other favorite spot is the fireplace, and he puts another tree trunk on the fire to get a burning heat.

“This is where people back then would have cooked, warmed up, sat and discussed things. It would have been the heart of the house,” he says.

He points to the strange hinges on the cupboard door next to the fireplace.

“It’s what’s known as an HL hinge, which stands for Holy Lord, and it’s to keep the devil out of the closet.”

These strange hinges are rumored to keep the devil in check. (CBC)

Now he likes to sit by the fire and consider what life was like for generations of families at the Cemetery. Births, lives and deaths all lived out under the old roof. The farm took care of what was needed.

He wants to register the house as a historic property.

“But the next big ticket will be taken. I’m not going to go on asphalt shingles or metal roofs; I will go back with cedar shakes as that is what the home would have originally had.”

He has never seen another house like his in the more than 20 years he spent in real estate all over Nova Scotia. Most people are attracted to brand new homes, or “old” ones from the 1970s; few people are looking for an original home from the 18th century.

But even though he and his wife have a home in Halifax, there is no place like the home in Belmont. Even now that he spends more time here with memories than with people, he never feels alone.

“We never really noticed anything, but a number of people over the years, when they walked in the door, say they felt a presence. They felt like there was a spirit – a kind one – that came with the property.”

He keeps the kind spirit alive in the old house and hopes one day to turn it into a museum so that new generations can sit by the fire and consider what it means to call a place home.

The McGregor family found this old photo of the house. It did not have a date or any names written on it. (Posted by Robert McGregor)

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