WOODS HARBOUR, SHELBURNE COUNTY, N.S. – A historic Woods Harbour landmark that was known as the Minto Hotel is being brought back to life one floor at a time by Ontario native Laura Smith.
The property had sat vacant for a number of years when Smith purchased it five years ago.
“I found it online,” she says. “I came down and looked at it.”
And after making two offers the deal was made.
For the first few years after buying the property Smith would spend time in the summers doing a little bit of work down this way.
“Then last September I decided to make the final move and come out here permanently and get it going,” she says. “I had lived in New Brunswick for a few years and really loved the east coast so wanted to get back out here.”
The three-storey structure has 29 rooms, including 17 bedrooms on the second and third storeys. Tin ceilings and original mouldings and staircases are intact throughout the building, including the stairway to the widow’s walk in the attic, which is really is a fourth storey.
The building’s location, with a view of the Lower Woods Harbour wharf and the Woods Harbour lighthouse in the centre of a working fishing village, is what attracted Smith to the property.
“When you go up to the second floor and look out over Cockawit Bay, it’s just very peaceful,” she says. “It just felt comfortable. It felt like it wanted me to own it and fix it up.”
With a plan to develop the building in phases, Smith has things stripped down to the bare bones on the first floor, where the plan is to build a commercial kitchen and open a coffee shop.
The coffee shop will be called Puggy’s Kitchen, named after Rodney Puggy Goreham, a Second World War pilot whose grandfather was Alexander Goreham, who built the Minto Hotel. After the war, Puggy opened a restaurant called the Thunderbird Café in the hotel, in honour of his flying squadron during the war.
“Everybody has such good memories of him,” says Smith. “He’s a war hero, a piece of history from the hotel, it just felt that was an appropriate name.”
Smith is aiming to have the first floor completed and the coffee shop up and running by the summer.
“And from there I keep working up,” she says.
Plans for the second floor are for a bed and breakfast. Smith expects to have five rooms for that. She will make the third floor her home.
Smith has done much of the renovation work herself. She’s stripped out plaster and lathes from the walls and added insulation. She’s stripped all the hardwood trimmings, floors and tin ceilings for refinishing and framing in new walls. Her research indicates the building was built around 1900.
“I think it’s pretty much built like a ship. it’s pretty sturdy,” she says.
Smith is also repurposing architectural salvage, using old doors as tabletops, and century-old planking as shelving.
“I’m keeping it eclectic and comfortable,” she says. “I want people to come and enjoy themselves here.”
Friends in the community have also pitched in to help when needed, including supporting an online Kickstarter Campaign to raise funds to upgrade the wiring from 60 amps to a 400-amp service that will eventually service the whole building.
“I’ve got the ball started rolling on that,” says Smith, who is thankful for the support.
The building also requires all new plumbing and a host of other work. Smith did apply for funding from the CBDC for the project but was turned down.
“Their opinion was that people would prefer to drive to Barrington than to stop here,” she says. “They felt it was an economically depressed area for that and were not willing to fund it.”
But Smith is undaunted.
“There is interest in the community in the coffee shop opening,” she says. “I’m already getting messages from people saying they are waiting for me to be open because they want to be taking roads trips and stopping in here on the way through, so it’s going to serve both the local people and tourism as well.”
Smith also plans to offer a catering service.
“My passion is cooking, baking and making preserves,” she says. Once a paralegal, Smith changed careers and started working in kitchens as a cook “with the intention of helping me do this, learning how to run a kitchen properly.”
By next spring she hopes to have the bed and breakfast up and running. Eventually Smith wants to rebuild the exterior decking that once adorned the building.
“I want to do a deck and build it up somewhat looking the same as what it did,” she says.
During her renovation work, Smith has made a few finds, including a couple of newspaper articles and a wooden boat rudder in the basement estimated to be 100 years old.
‘Is the old hotel haunted?’ is a question Smith says she gets asked all the time. She says there have been a couple of little instances where it felt like someone was holding her elbow when painting and tugging on her sweater when working.
“All I feel is it is friendly ghosts, happy to have someone back in here,” she says. “I have had stories told to me by people who have had experiences in here so we’ll see what happens.”