With its bright blue front door and vibrant Acadian flag adorning the roof, La Vieille Maison in Meteghan is hard to miss.
Volunteers working to save it hope they don’t miss the chance to win a contest that would ensure its preservation.
La Vieille Maison (‘the old house,’ but some uses spell it ‘Vielle’) is one of 10 finalists in the National Trust for Canada’s ‘Next Great Save’ online competition, which offers $50,000 to the winner who garners the most online votes.
Daily voting opened Jan. 20 and runs until Feb, 22. The house currently stands in second place.
Considered the best-preserved example of a post-exile Acadian dwelling in Canada, La Vieille Maison dates to 1796.
‘Major story in the history of Nova Scotia and Canada’
In a recent media release, the Heritage Trust of Nova Scotia called La Vieille Maison “a fine example of the homes built by Acadians upon their return to Nova Scotia after the Expulsion/Le Grand Dérangment.”
In addition to being the only Nova Scotia entry to reach the finals, it’s the oldest building and the only Acadian-related site in the running.
“Its preservation for public access will support the telling of a major story in the history of Nova Scotia and Canada,” Heritage Trust of Nova Scotia executive director Emma Lang wrote, encouraging Nova Scotians to vote for the house.
Members of the non-profit society dedicated to the house’s conservation and future operation are also drumming up support. La Société Vieille Maison is urging fellow Nova Scotians, the Acadian diaspora, and others interested in Acadian history to help put them in the lead.
In an interview that frequently shifted between English and French, the society’s secretary encouraged people to take 30 seconds to log in once a day to cast a vote in their favour.
“Right now in Clare, we’re going to lose two of our biggest structures. One of them’s even the biggest in North America,” Dan Robichaud said.
Robichaud was referring to the 2022 closure of the historic stone church of St. Bernard, and a recent decision that will likely result in the demolition of Église Sainte-Marie in Church Point. That building is the largest wooden church in North America.
“Part of the reason we’re losing those is because they cost tens of millions of dollars to save and tens of millions of dollars moving forward for the subsequent generations to save,” Robichaud said.
“This house costs about $25,000 to save, and by lord if we can’t raise that then I just don’t know.”
Where the community brought its antiquities
The timing for a $50,000 windfall couldn’t be better for La Vieille Maison.
Next year, tens of thousands of people are expected to gather in Nova Scotia as the province hosts the Congrès mondial acadien, an international Acadian gathering that occurs every five years.
Although closed for 22 years, the most historically important pieces in the house — some of which came back with the Acadians returning to the region from exile — are undamaged.
With the exception of a few pieces, most of the collection is stored offsite. Robichaud said their goal would be to have the house repaired and the museum up and running ahead of next year’s festivities.
“There are lots of objects in the collection whose history predates the museum,” Robichaud said. “The whole point was it was the place where the community could bring its antiquities.”
The cost to fix La Vieille Maison is estimated at between $22,000 and $25,000 for the required cedar shingles. The organization also needs to repair a few windows and replace some of the window sashes.
‘Biggest chapter in Acadian history that nobody’s heard of’
The house has a fascinating and rich history that goes beyond its age and construction.
In 1958, world-renowned Boston dancer and choreographer Adolphe Robicheau and his partner Arthur Vaillancourt turned it into a museum of early Acadian re-settlers.
In a blurb about the house on its website, the National Trust for Canada notes:
The museum was the passion project of Adolphe Robicheau (1906-1978), a Canadian-born, famed Boston-based ballet teacher and member of the LGBTQIA+ community. While his flamboyance could have gotten him shunned in many places, he spent his summers here producing plays and working on his museum, which he curated with partner Arthur Vaillancourt.
“They spent their summers in Clare. And it was Adolphe and Arthur. And everybody knew. It was the open secret in the village and nobody cared and they were accepted,” Robichaud said.
“Adolphe Robicheau is this kid from Meteghan. Early 1900s he moves to Boston. Becomes a famous ballet dancer. But he always kept ties with Nova Scotia…He bought that property, he bought the house, he created the museum. He even created the historic society that still exists today.”
Noting that Adolphe and Arthur’s story is part of the house’s history, Robichaud described it as the “biggest chapter in Acadian history that nobody’s heard of before: the story of these two flamboyant men.”
The society’s members regularly post new content about the house and its history on its Facebook page. This week, the competition’s theme is inclusivity.
“Some of the content we’re putting out (this) week is the story of Arthur and the more queer history part of it, which is not at all the museum’s narrative. The museum is a narrative of early Acadian settlers,” Robichaud said.
“It just has a hell of a rich history that goes with it. Even just the story of it being moved 20 miles in 1958 by two gay men.”
Needle in a haystack
As a queer Acadian, Robichaud said Adolphe and Arthur’s story is one of the many reasons he was drawn to volunteer with the society.
“Part of it is saving the house and part of it is about (what happened with) Adolphe’s partner, Arthur, after Adolphe died. Arthur was supposed to be interred in the same crypt as Adolphe,” he explained.
“That had been their lifetime plan. His family protested and even refused to publish his obituary. To me, the most tragic part of the entire story is that the partner was put in an unmarked grave and is still there today.”
La Vieille Maison was actually one of four properties restored by Robicheau. Among the others was the childhood home of the wife of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, author of the Acadian epic poem ‘Evangeline, A Tale of Acadie.’
La Vieille Maison has been closed since 2000 because legal requirements on the property meant no one could do repairs without permission from Robicheau’s heirs.
“The house was owned by a consortium of respective heirs and issues of Adolphe Robicheau of which there were about 20 all over the United States,” Robichaud said.
“So 40 years ago maybe they knew each other, but 40 years down the road these are the kids of the kids of the kids, and no single owner actually knew how to contact the rest of the group.”
It was a needle in a haystack situation, and in the end it was Robicheau’s descendants who finally found them.
‘They’re like our children’
The house’s current owners are two cousins, one living in Boston and the other in Washington State. The children of the previous generation of owners, the pair now own a clear title between the two of them.
That means La Société Vieille Maison has permission to proceed with repairing the house.
“There’s been this Acadian revival in the US around these two cousins just all of a sudden realizing they’re part of a culture they ignored their whole life,” Robichaud said.
“And yet there’s this community in Clare that just embraces them. They’re like our children.”
The cousins, who identify themselves online as Katherine and Chrisanne, haven’t yet seen the house. They’re chronicling their own journey on a website titled Unlocking the Blue Door.
They’ve been actively working with the non-profit and contributing to its renewal. In a post last winter, they highlighted a quote painted on the fireplace mantel inside the house.
Intended to honour the resilience of the expelled Acadians, the words (translated from French) state “Just as the swallow rebuilt its nest after the storm, so has the Acadian rebuilt his home after banishment.”
The cousins continued:
Over two centuries later, the symbol of the steadfast swallow takes on new relevance, as we begin our journey of restoring La Vieille Maison.
We grew up hearing stories of Meteghan, Adolphe and La Vieille Maison from our parents, and could never have imagined that, so many years later, we would have the opportunity to play a role in the revival of the property. We are so grateful that you’ve chosen to join us on our journey!
‘Still very early on’
As of Sunday, La Vieille Maison and the Duncan Train Station in British Columbia were far ahead of the other eight shortlisted competitors.
The train station had 21,776 votes and La Vieille Maison had 17,338. The next closest competitor was sitting at 6,813 votes.
“It’s still very early on with three weeks left but I think it’s safe to say that positions one and two will remain positions one and two. Who will get to the post first, that is yet to be determined,” Robichaud said.
He believes their project has an advantage being the only Nova Scotia entry in the competition and the only Acadian one. His hope is that it leads to more votes for their project.
“Voting is a pretty novel way that we can have a little bit of citizen action and end up saving some historic built heritage,” he said.