The Dome Chronicles: If This House Could Speak
By Garry Leeson
Beginning at the outskirts of the town of Berwick, a road winds its way up the South Mountain past a small community hall that announces that you have entered Windermere. Across the road, almost hidden under a canopy of mature trees, stands a stately farmhouse. It once stood naked in the centre of a patchwork of cleared fields, but now a comforting green growth of forest surrounds and envelops it. It’s an old house, built in 1875 but remodelled and added to in 1908 when the Kinnie family moved in.
There were six of them then: J. Rupert Kinnie, his wife Laura, and three sons, Melvin, Floyd, and Clement, and their little sister, Laura, named for her mother. J.R., as the father was always known, had asthma that prompted him, on his doctor’s advice, to uproot his family from their New Brunswick home to seek the healing effects of the Annapolis Valley’s pure air. He was looking for a new lease on life and better opportunities for his children.
They all settled into their new home and as time went on, everything that they had hoped for seemed to be falling into place. Their neat little farm provided a comfortable home and the children seemed to be flourishing in their new environment. By 1914, Melvin, the oldest, had completed his studies at Acadia University and become certified as a civil engineer. Floyd, the second oldest, had graduated and was working as a bank clerk, on his way up the corporate ladder. Clement, the third son, had opted to be a farmer, and Laura, the only daughter, was proving to be a bright spot in the family. All old houses bear witness to the ups and downs of life and, in those early days after their arrival in Nova Scotia, the Kinnie home was no different. Times of concern over health problems interspersed with proud moments at the achievements of the children. It was a normal home with its normal share of tears and laughter.
In the summer of 1914 when Laura was ten years old, the talk around the kitchen table in the Kinnie home took on a somber tone. News of the declaration of war in Europe had made its way into their sanctuary. They had heard the call of the Mother Country for assistance and the discussion from the boys centred on what they were going to do. A recruitment program was in full swing. There was no obligation to sign up but they knew that Prime Minister Borden, a local man, was leaning heavily toward conscription and there was always the fear of the dreaded White Feather.
Strangely, although he was the least likely candidate, the youngest boy Clement, age 18, was the first to pass through the doorway of the old house proudly displaying his copy of his enlistment attestation paper dated March 30,1915. Not to be shamed or outdone, the two older boys, Melvin and Floyd, got clear of their employment obligations and followed suit the following year, enlisting together on February 11,1916.
After the boys’ departure the old house was not same. A cloud of worry hung over it. Laura and her parents waited anxiously every day for word from the boys. Laura would run to the mailbox and her father would head to Berwick for the current issues of the Register, still warm from the press. In the spring of 1917, when they read about a place called Vimy Ridge, it didn’t mean much to them. It was later that month that the name became emblazoned permanently on their memories. The family received notice that Melvin had died of wounds received during the three-day assault on the German lines at that far away place.
The old house was hung in black crepe and the family attempted to deal with their sorrow. Convinced that they had been dealt the most grief that a family could ever endure, a year later in 1918, they were proved wrong when a second officer from Camp Aldershot appeared at the door of the house with news that Floyd had been killed while on duty in England.
Laura’s grief moved from denial, past the last vestiges of hope that a mistake had been made, into a numb acceptance that her two brothers were gone forever. The letters from her one remaining brother were the only things keeping her and her parents from total despair. On November 17, 1918 when the community was abuzz with the news that the war had ended, the Kinnie family, still in mourning, did not feel like celebrating. They would hold any jubilation they could conjure up for the safe return of Clement.
A year later, when Clement stepped off the train in Berwick, it was immediately apparent that he was not the boy who had set off from the same spot three years earlier. He wasn’t just carrying his khaki rucksack, but also sinister, hidden baggage. Battle fatigue, as it was known, was often as fatal as the worst of physical wounds. Clement, the third son to fall victim to the war, died two years later in 1921.
Laura, age 17, the last of their branch of the Kinnie line, had been at her parents’ side through an ordeal of unimaginable grief and sorrow. She decided that the only way she could cope with the horror was to file those memories away and never speak of them again.
Laura Kinnie later married and became Laura Ritchie. Somehow she made her way out from under the cloud that hung over the old house and emerged a strong woman who became a nurse and made her way to the top of her profession. She was in the old house to look after her parents until they died, J.R. in 1945 and her mother, Laura, in 1948; and she and her husband, Murray Ritchie, were there to greet their daughter Pat’s new husband, Al Copeland, when they married and came to live with them.
Al, an obvious fan of his mother-in-law, never pressed her to talk about the sad days of the old house. Although hoping that she might finally find some closure and solace, he and Pat arranged to take her to visit two of her brothers’ graves, one in France and one in England, but some things are beyond consolation. Al, a retired career soldier himself, decided to set his own mind at ease by documenting the details of all that had occurred in those days of sacrifice in the hopes that the brothers would not be forgotten.
Since Pat passed away in 2001, Al has been sharing the house with his daughter, aptly named Kinnie, and her son, Reece. The extensively refurbished old dwelling has shrugged off the sadness of the past, as happy new generations have made their home there. Only some precious old photos, documents, and medals with disintegrating ribbons remain there to remind us. Lest We Forget.
Al Copeland and Garry Leeson continue to research the history of the Kinnie Family and others in Windermere and are working to further document their stories.