Conor Murphy’s house on Murphy’s Cove and the shore road running past it had both been there a long time, except as the 20th century unrolled, they changed places. The road used to be on the cliff side and the house at the base of the fields. Nearing the end of the century it was now on the cliff side, and the road had been moved away from the ocean.
“What became our house was on the property but maybe a few hundred yards away,” said Brody Murphy, Conor’s father, said. “It wasn’t even a house, but we made it into that after we hauled it down to the water.” It was because his new wife refused to live in the family home that the green house ended up where it was, just barely within earshot of its counterpart. “I had it in the back of my head that my mother and wife would get along, but they were both strong women,” Brody said. “Too damn strong. They just couldn’t live in the same house. They were both determined about that.”
When Brody Murphy and Eimear Walsh married in 1947, both in their early 20s, he native to the island and she from Boston, they moved into the big white family house on the cove. It was built in 1930. It was the family house Brody grew up in. “The only place to live was living in the white house,” he said. “It was for us.”
The house is on the ocean side of North Rustico, on the north side of Prince Edward Island, near the entrance to the harbor, two-story clapboard with a dozen windows, two dormers, and three porches on the side facing the water. A broad lawn slopes down to the cliffs. “The first house was bigger,” Brody said. It had been bigger, but it was nearly sixty years gone. It went gone in a half-hour. It happened shortly before midnight on a winter’s night.
Brody’s parents, Tom and Freya, were having dinner and playing cards at a neighbor’s house one night in 1929. It was wintertime, cold and snowbound. Their friends lived about a mile away. At the end of the evening, going home in their horse-drawn sled, they came over the crest of an icy hill. A red glow lit up the sky and flared over the ocean below them.
The dark sky was lit up like it was on fire. Their house was on fire. They had left seven children behind in the care of the eldest. Brody was the youngest, four years old. “It was a flue fire,” he said. “Our house burnt down because of the stove.” By the time the horses raced down to the house, the parents finding all their children safe and sound, there wasn’t much Tom and Freya could do. There were no neighbors nearby to help and there was no fire department. Tom was able to drag some furniture from the first floor of the house out the front door and saved as many fox furs as he could.
The house was rebuilt the next year and finished the following year. “The furs my grandfather saved from the fire built the new house.” Conor’s grandfather was a fox farmer. He sold the pelts he saved from the fire, and they went to pay for the work of the nomadic tradesmen who built the new house. “Nobody knew them,” Conor said. “They were immigrants. They weren’t from around here. They did good work, though.”
It took the Great Depression a year to get to Prince Edward Island, but when it did it disrupted farming, which was what the island did for a living. In 1930 island farmers had a bumper grain and potato harvest. They never had problems selling to their markets, but by then their markets were disappearing. For the next couple of years, no markets were buying. By 1933 average net farm income on PEI fell to twenty dollars a year, selling fruits, produce, vegetables, and cattle.
Although agriculture and the fisheries crashed, tourism and fox farming boomed during those years. It was how many natives kept their heads above water. One in ten island farmers were involved in keeping foxes, so supporting their families. There were 600-some fox farms on the island in 1932. Five years later there were double that. By the end of the decade ten times the number of pelts went to market as had the previous decade.
“When my mother married my dad, she didn’t get along with my grandmother all that well,” Conor said. The extended family was living all together in the family house. “My mom and grandmother liked each well other enough, but not enough, not by far, to live in the same house. She finally said to my dad, ‘Brody my good man, you better build me a house, or I’ll be seeing myself back to New England.’”
It put Brody on the spot. There wasn’t the money for a new house, even though they had the property. “Dad had a choice to make, either lose your wife, or build a house,” Conor said. “He couldn’t build a house, so he improvised. I don’t know what kind of a building it was originally. It was probably a barn, so I hear. It was few hundred yards away. He hauled it down the hill to the cliffs and turned it into a house, even though he had his hands full farming at the time.”
Moving a building is no small effort. Fortunately, the building was on the small side, there was a short clear path, and there weren’t any utility wires that had to raised. There was no electricity or plumbing to disconnect, either. Still, wooden cribs had to be inserted to support the building inside and out, jacks had to raise it at the corners and lower it the same way, and it had to be pampered to its new foundation, between the barn and the family home.
“The house, or whatever it was, was going on eighty years old when my dad moved it,” Conor said. “It was half the size of what it is now. When I grew up in it, it was darn small. They built onto it in 1964 when I was eight years old. We spent that winter in my grandmother’s house while our house was being renovated. It was a long winter.”
The Murphy kids, Danny, Hugo, Conor, Flynn, and Fiona grew up in what became a two-story, gable-roofed, green-shingled house, even though it was never big enough for all of them. There were never enough bedrooms. “It wasn’t bad, since there was a fifteen-year difference between the youngest and the oldest. We all left the house at different times.” The doors were made for walking.
Tom Murphy died in 1948, soon after Brody and Eimear’s marriage, leaving Conor’s grandmother Freya a widow. She started taking in tourists, putting up a sign that said Surfside Inn. She planted and harvested a garden for the B & B’s breakfasts. “My grandmother filled all the rooms every summer. Some Canadians came, and some Europeans, and there were lots of Americans because they had lots of money.”
She ran the inn for more than twenty years. “She got a little bit ill around 1970 and lived alone for six or seven years until my dad moved her into the senior’s home in the village. After that nobody lived in the house for some years.” In the mid-1980s Sandy Murphy, Conor’s uncle, took it over, rechristening it Sandy’s Surfside Inn. “It was a rambling old house with large rooms and a spectacular view,” said a woman who came from Montreal. “The best thing was having breakfast in the morning with all the guests around one table. One summer it was with mime artists from Quebec, an opera singer from Holland, and another lady from Switzerland. A dip in the cove outside the front door was a must before breakfast. There were lovely foxes gamboling outside in the evening.”
“It was neat when I was growing up,” Conor said. It was the 1960s. “There were ducks, geese, and sheep, and a white picket fence. Freya had plenty of tourists from Europe, speaking all kinds of languages. We were just kids, all these little blond heads running around. I started meeting people from overseas. I found out there was more to the world than what I could see in front of my nose.”
Up the hill from the bottom of the pitch in the 1970s there was a Scottish summer camp for clansmen kids. “They called it ‘Love It Scots.’ There wasn’t a tree up there then. A couple hundred kids from around the Maritimes would come and they would teach them music and their heritage. We could hear bagpipes being played every night on our farm down here. After that it was a campground, two or three hundred families up there.”
Nobody knows who invented bagpipes. Some say they were inspired by a man carrying an indignant, asthmatic pig under his arm and squeezing every few steps. Some say they were inspired by a man choking a goose. Others simply say they are a public nuisance.
When the campground closed for good, trees started to grow back until it looked like the trees had always been there, rimming out the horizon, alive with damp and shadow. Weasels, red squirrels, and red foxes lived there. The foxes hunted mice and rabbits. The blue jay, the provincial bird, stayed above the fray.
Provincial poobahs opened a Buffalo Park in the 1970s after getting a herd of bison as a gift. “They look like bigger, uglier cows with a beard,” one of them said. Bison is not native to the island, but nobody wanted to look a gift horse in the mouth. Tourists lined up to gape at the car-sized animal with horns curving upwards. Bison can run three times faster than people and jump fences five feet high. Fortunately, they were behind six-foot fences, and nobody had to run for their lives.
“Back then tourists came here with a different attitude. They liked the humbleness of everybody, the way of life that was honest and down to earth. Prince Edward Island wasn’t like the rest of the world. The Maritimes were kind of cut off from the rest of the world once the Merchant Marine was taken away. We kind of fell behind.”
The tourists of the 1960s into the 1980s were mostly young couples travelling with children. Some were older couples from the American east coast. There were nature lovers. There were artists. Some of them were bohemians. Others came because Prince Edward Island was the “Cradle of Confederation.” They carried history books in their backpacks.
“It wasn’t no cradle here. It was a dump when I was growing up, to be honest,” Conor said. “Everybody had an outhouse and a pig in the backyard. There were rats everywhere. It wasn’t all that nice in Rustico, but a lot of artists, writers, photographers, people who liked nature came here. It took a long time to come back, in the 70s and up to now, before it became looking like a real village.”
In the 1970s the provincial government invested in tourism and stayed invested. It partnered in a resort near Georgetown and another one near Mill River. Both included golf courses. “Everything started to get sterilized,” Conor said. He grew up on a saltwater cove, though. It didn’t get on the sterilization bandwagon. After storms the beach and slabs of sandstone were usually choked with seaweed, stinking for a quarter mile. Some old-school men collected it as fertilizer for their gardens while others banked it against their house walls as insulation for when the cold winter weather settled in.
Everybody in North Rustico went to the school in town. After school Conor and his friends didn’t have to go far for fun. “Between the pool hall and the rink, those were my social events, before I could drink. We grew up in the pool hall here.” The pool hall was down and around the corner from Church Hill Road. A boatbuilder had some shops there and one of his sons converted one of them. The shop that became a pool hall was blue and yellow. “There were a couple of pinball machines up front and eight tables in the back. it was the spot for boys and girls on weekends.”
By the time he was 16 years old and finished with 9th grade, Conor was finished with school. Many boys did the same thing, going to work with their fathers, or simply going to work. Conor went to Quebec the first chance he got, but when he came back to Prince Edward Island, the green house he had grown up in was still there. It was still Murphy Land, from the edge of the ocean to the edge of the trees.