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Back When it Was All Woods

I saw Jean Kellestein walking toward her neat, white house after getting the mail and had to break into a jog to catch up with her, even though she is one week shy of turning 90 years old. Living on her own, with frequent visits from her two grown sons, she walks daily to get the mail and greet neighbours along the way.

“I figure I’ve known over 100 people who have moved in and out of the Procter Subdivision,” says Jean, who has lived here for 65 years from the days when it was all bush to witnessing million dollar homes being built across the road.

My partner, Jason and I, purchased one of the cottages in the Proctor Subdivision in March and have been investing lots of money and time in fixing it up for a vacation rental. We’ve named it Little Bluestem Cottage and quite a few friendly neighbours have stopped by to check the progress on “Clare Pyke’s cottage”. The older ones, like Jean, remember it as “Irene’s cottage”. It’s the history of Little Bluestem and this wonderfully quiet neighbourhood tucked in the woods beside Lake Huron that I want to learn about it. As the first resident, there’s no one better to ask than Jean.

Sitting in her cozy kitchen, panelling on the walls and a puzzle in the works on the kitchen table, Jean settles in and tells me she was the oldest child of five born to Alvin and Elsie Proctor. Her parents were farmers here, when it was still called Carlow Central in Colborne Township (since amalgamated into Ashfield/Colborne/Wawanosh or ACW for short). When the Goderich airport was built, her parents sold part of their farm to the airport owners and kept 51 acres “this side of the ravine” which was all bush broken by a lane that had grass growing in the middle. Alvin’s plan was to create a housing settlement and he got municipal approval to start making 50 by 100 foot lots which were later required to be 50 by 150 foot lots. 

“I was living in London and my dad told Chuck and I we should build a cottage on one of the lots and move back home,” remembers Jean. It was the first building in the subdivision and Jean and Chuck were the first to live there full-time once their three-room cottage was built in 1995. They had to get water from the well, used an outdoor privy, and were without telephone or mail service. With no neighbours,  it was sometimes a lonely existence for the parents of three. However, it always felt like home to Jean who loved watching the animals come into the yard and raised her three children -- Don, Donna (now deceased) and Dan -- in the little house.

She used to send Don down the rough road dressed in his snowsuit to catch the bus on Highway 21, a substantial walk for a little fella. A year later, his cousin joined him as Jean’s brother also decided to build a home in the subdivision. Two years later, a handful of cousins tromped down the road to catch the bus and often lingered on the way home to play in the woods or the creek below the bridge where the road dips low through the ravine. However, Don wasn’t always the healthiest so Jean fought the township to provide bussing down Sunset Beach Road to pick up the kids and won! The bus still travels down the road to pick up students from new families who have moved into the Proctor Subdivision.

In 1964, Chuck and Jean lifted their house to put a foundation under it and added an addition to create a larger kitchen and two more bedrooms. That is how the house remains today, painted a crisp white with a red barn out back where horses used to be kept in the winter. Dan, who was visiting his mom during the interview, remembers horse-drawn sleigh rides around the horseshoe of Elm, Walnut and Pine streets. 

Jean can’t recall exactly when Little Bluestem cottage was built but she remembers the woman who built it well. That was Irene Orris, described as a strong, mannish, good-hearted woman. She was a manager of maintenance of Kelloggs in London, with many men in her employ. She worked hard and often wore work clothes like the men wore because it was practical and handy.

Irene built the cottage herself but what she used was an unsolved mystery for us. When we gutted the inside, Jason and I saw all these burgundy wooden walls held together with massive iron girders. What was this cottage used for in the past, we wondered. A horse barn? A hunter’s cabin? It was Dan who told us Irene used railway cars to frame the cottage and in the 60-odd years it has stood, it has not shaken from its foundation. It was built strong and solid, much like Irene herself, by all accounts.

“If you and I had been digging dirt out of the foundation, we would have tossed it under the wall but Irene, she threw it over the wall,” remembers Jean. She also remembers an event from the year Irene built a shed and was roofing it with shingles. Chuck and his brother Bob were helping and she recalls that Bob was climbing up the ladder with a bundle of shingles on his shoulders. “Well, Irene grabbed that bundle and Bob thought he was going to be lifted right off the ladder with it, she was so strong!” laughs Jean. 

Irene never married and she enjoyed the cottage for many years, leaving quite a few trees in the yard to provide shade in what is the largest lot in the subdivision. While most are 100 by 50, Little Bluestem’s lot ended up 200 by 100 and once boasted a section of bush as well. Now, it is completely surrounded by trees, creating a cozy haven just on the corner of Sunset Beach Road and Walnut Street.

Jean considered Irene a good friend and they visited back and forth. Irene is now deceased and Little Bluestem Cottage has seen a few owners since then. Families have been raised within it’s sturdy walls, along with a miserly hermit and a man who raised ducks on the property. It’s latest owner, Clare Pyke, lived there alone after her partner died. She was and is a hard-working woman who most likely would have impressed Irene. Clare worked full-time, took care of her family, and stacked and split wood to keep the fire burning in the cottage for a wood stove was its only source of heat. Clare also had a large 5th wheel trailer at the other end of the lot for she, too, planned to use it as a vacation rental. By 2021, Clare was ready for an easier life and purchased a brand new trailer to set up in a cottage community outside of Bayfield. Jason, who lives next door, asked if she would consider selling to us. We thought it was the cutest little cottage and would make a beautiful vacation home with its huge lot and the beach just a five minute ramble down the road.

Since purchasing the cottage, we have been busy with renovations. Irene’s workmanship created a sturdy cottage but time meant it needed quite a few repairs. New windows were installed (with more new ones to come), the electrical and plumbing was redone, a new bathroom and utility room were installed, a new kitchen put in, many walls gutted and insulated, plus the living room ceiling torn down to open into the upstairs loft. Tongue and groove pine covers the loft and is featured in each room of the cottage, with the remaining drywalls freshly painted. Outside, the shed Jean’s husband helped shingle had to be torn down. All the interior beams had rotten and while we’d hoped to save it, the costs of repairs were too prohibitive. Someday, a timber-framed gazebo will stand where Irene’s shed stood.

I share these plans with Jean at her kitchen table. I wish I could chat longer but I’m supposed to be sanding and painting at Little Bluestem. I invite her to pop up next time she gets the mail and I hope she will. It’s fun to show the progress and she will remember how the cottage looked when it was first built. Jean has lived a long time, surviving past her four siblings and most of her friends. In her 90 years, she’s watched families come and go in this quiet, friendly community but newcomers likely don't know she is the first resident! She admits to being lonely sometimes but keeps busy with puzzles and knitting. She donates hundreds of knitted caps to the Christmas bureau each year.

I was thrilled to chat with her and learn the history of the Proctor Subdivision and our own little cottage first hand. I hope this will be one visit of many in the years ahead for Jean fully intends to stay in her white house on Elm Street as long as possible. “This is home,” she says simply. 

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