WEYMOUTH, N.S. – The entrepreneur who established the small village centred around a mill on the Silver River in the late nineteenth century, about 20 miles from the village of Weymouth, would no doubt be pleased that his efforts will soon be honoured in the third play in a series about his Electric City.
However, Emile Stehelin would probably be astonished to learn that many of the original artifacts from his village could soon be on permanent display with the establishment of a La Nouvelle France/Electric City interpretive centre – a new festival theatre that will tell his story and other local stories, and a new non-profit organization to oversee both, all pieces that eventually could be the economic development salvation of the village of Weymouth.
It was 1892 when the prestigious Emile Stehelin arrived in Nova Scotia from his homeland of France. He would soon found a lumber business outside Weymouth, and much to the amazement of locals, build his own railway and install his own electricity to create a small village that he called New France, but what many locals labelled Electric City.
Local playwright Hal Theriault first discovered the story of New France as a teen during summer fishing trips with his best friend and his best friend’s father near the original site.
“His father was an avid fisherman and they took me back there to fish, and told me the story of New France and I fell in love with it then,” Theriault says. “It was always in my mind that this story could somehow be capitalized on to somehow benefit the Weymouth area.”
When Theriault started writing plays, his childhood friend encouraged him to write about the fascinating story of the Stehelin family and their astonishing village in the forest. But Theriault says it wasn’t until that friend’s diagnosis with brain cancer that he put pen to paper.
“When he got sick, during that last year of his life, I decided it was time,” Theriault says. “So I would go and sit by his bed, so he could have something to focus on, when he could see me writing.”
That first play soon became too long as the family history was probed and explored, and Theriault and his early readers decided it needed to be broken into two sections.
The first play was performed in 2010; the second one, sharing the later parts of the family’s story in 2012. Now Theriault is putting the final touches on the third play, which has a working title of The Light Shines Beyond and will be performed the last weekend in April at Université Sainte-Anne. This final play explores the story of the local people who came to work at La Nouvelle France, and was the original story he really wanted to tell because he believes it has the power to bring the community together, just as it did a century before.
“The Stehelin family hired without discrimination, they treated everyone the same,” Theriault explains. “One of the innovations they insisted on was to pay everyone by cheque or with cash… so these folks had to open a bank account… and for the first time, they had control over their own destiny.”
But Theriault says it was the multicultural facets of the story that really piqued his interest.
“As these people worked together, the Mi'kmaq, the blacks, the Acadians, they began to learn about each other,” Theriault says. “That was the story, that multicultural aspect, that I really wanted to tell because that was so innovative for the time, and so exciting to me, and that’s the basis for this third play.”
Doing his research for the initial play brought Theriault into contact with a direct descendant of the New France family – Paul Stehelin, son of Paul H. Stehelin, who wrote the book Electric City, The Stehelins of New France that was published in 1983.
This Paul Stehelin was a chartered accountant, living in Saint John, New Brunswick, and after meeting Theriault and hearing his plan to write the initial play, he handed over a box of old family photographs. That was the beginning of their shared passion for the story and their ongoing association with this evolving project.
Initially Theriault brought the idea to the Weymouth Waterfront Committee and it was agreed a sub-committee would be established to oversee the Electric City plays and to look at other possibilities.
“I was part of the waterfront at the time, working on the idea of doing something with this idea, not a museum, I never thought of it as a museum,” Theriault says. “I made that clear at the time, but an interactive centre with exhibits that appealed to all different ages.”
Theriault says they received an initial grant to do a multi-year development plan and to do this they hired Donna Hatt, marketing and product development manager at White Point Beach Resort. Theriault explained that Hatt also ran her own consulting agency and said she did such a fantastic job with the plan that many government officials have declared it the best plan they’ve ever seen.
That was also around the time Theriault met up with Weymouth-based Stacey Doucette, another member of the waterfront committee, and Doucette continues to have a well-deserved, local reputation for being involved with “everything.”
“I met Stacey and saw his brilliance as an idea man and saw his energy and his enthusiasm for the village and I thought, ‘Gee, it’d be nice to work with this guy,’” Theriault says.
A COMMON PASSION
The pair found common ground in their passion for the village of Weymouth, their love of the story of Electric City and a shared future vision of bringing tourism back to Weymouth. In the last three years, they have thrown their hearts, time and passion into the development of La Nouvelle France/Electric City and now some of their ideas are coming home to roost. Like the Stehelin family navigated the woods to create a village, Theriault and Doucette are now navigating government funders to create a centre to honour that original village.
As of the last week of January, the Weymouth Waterfront Committee unanimously agreed the sub-committee La Nouvelle France/Electric City could leave to become its own non-profit entity. At their next meeting, Theriault says they would be starting their official separation, settle on a name, register with Joint Stocks Nova Scotia, formalize the committee into a board, then register as a non-profit.
“Everything is exciting,” says Theriault. “It’s going really well. Sometimes you have to pinch yourself. The hardest part is waiting, and I’m certain people are sitting around town thinking nothing is happening… but it’s negotiation with government that takes time.”
Theriault and Doucette have just received confirmation of funding from ACOA and Canadian Heritage, which each came up with 50 per cent of the $15,000 to do a feasibility study. That study will examine the viability of the project. However, Theriault adds, both agencies were excited about the idea and the quality of the initial plan.
“It’s taken some time. Canadian Heritage never wavered in the fact that they wanted to help us, but they kept coming back and adding more requirements,” Theriault says. “The last thing they asked for was to look at proper preservation of the artifacts. That’s where my experience as the former manager of the Bear River First Nations Heritage and Cultural Centre comes in and that’s a huge plus to this project. We had to preserve 4,000 years of artifacts there. I set that centre up and ran it for seven years, so that’s why this is working so well here. We bring that experience.”
Theriault also says both agencies have promised that if the feasibility study is positive, they’ll be with him for funding for the long haul.
“It almost feels like serendipity the way it’s coming together,” he says.
The way the pair describe their vision, and how it’s been shaped over the last few years, resembles the fascinating stories that surround the long-abandoned Nouvelle France site. With those New France stories tucked firmly in their pockets, the pair attended the 2017 Tourism Industry Association of Nova Scotia summit last fall and were again astounded by the positive responses to their ideas. But their story doesn’t end there. While in Halifax meeting with Heritage Canada representatives, they also attended a meeting with the Department of Communities, Culture and Heritage. Theriault says in that meeting was Marcel McKeough, executive director of Culture and Heritage Development.
“Marcel is a very forward-thinking man and they were very interested in our ideas. We took them some books and we had a DVD to present, but Marcel already knew the story very well,” he says. “A couple of months after that meeting, we received a phone call asking if Marcel and one of his colleagues could go back to the site.”
SEEING THE POTENTIAL
In due time, both Theriault and Doucette gave the pair a tour of the woods and the area around the ruins of the Electric City.
“Like everyone who goes back there and asks questions, they fell in love with the site and on the way out, he (McKeough) said something I’ve never heard a government official say before,” Theriault says. “He compared us to Parrsboro, compared me with Michael Fuller, the guy there who created the theatre and started telling local stories, and he said, ‘If you add a festival theatre to your program, I think it could be the salvation of Weymouth.’”
Theriault explains that Parrsboro then was like Weymouth today, empty storefronts, people not working, and Fuller came in and started a theatre that brought in the tourists and attracted artists and built up a strong culture industry.
“Parrsboro is now one of the most successful little towns in the province,” he says. “Marcel said he could see the same thing happening here. Then he said, ‘I’ve been putting money aside from my budgets for the last few years looking for the right project and if you are willing to add a theatre component, based on your New France plays and then add in other local stories, I would be willing to fund the start-up costs for the first few years.’”
They submitted their proposal to McKeough and Theriault says he’s just received verbal confirmation from him that the project is a go.
“Stacey had immediately identified that if we were going to do a festival theatre then the historical society building would be perfect,” says Theriault. “It starts us in a small place, a place the community is used to coming to.”
The pair have since joined the historical society, presented their idea and received approval from its board. They also recognized that they would need to install a new accessible washroom in the building, but they were uncertain if the province would be interested in funding that work.
About the same time, they were invited to apply for a local grant through Digby Care 25, a group of local women who meet quarterly, donate $25 to the funding pot and then accept applications from local groups.
“We did the presentation and they voted and we received the funds,” Theriault says. “It’s $2,890, the most they’ve given so far, so that just fit in perfectly with this plan, and the Weymouth Lions Club has agreed to fund whatever is lacking for that washroom renovation.”
Both Theriault and Doucette sound a bit shell-shocked as they share the project development story – the festival theatre must be up and running for this coming summer so they’ve just booked the historical society building for two weeks in July. Both men continue to work closely with the Stehelin family on the project, through Paul and his wife Ann, and the couple continues to act in an advisory and benefactor role.
With the third Nouvelle France/Electric City play set to be on stage the last weekend in April at Université Sainte-Anne, the non-profit starting, the feasibility study to complete, ongoing community presentations and a festival theatre to launch, both Theriault and Doucette feel their dream is literally off and running.
“This was offered to us and we now have to run with it,” Theriault says. “But I don’t think people in the community – or even on our own committee – fully understand the momentous capacity for development that this theatre piece has.”
Doucette chimes in.
“People keep asking us what we’re doing with the original site, but we’re not doing anything with the site right now,” Doucette said. “What we want is to bring tourism back to Weymouth. Let’s get the people back here again. They’re slowly coming, but these projects are going to be a really big step forward.”