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A Swiss Villa

March 31, 2012

In the course of our Eastport kitchen renovation on Shackford Street, many misplaced relics from the home's first family spilled from the walls; a 1904 calendar, a photo of a dapper young man in a suit and a vaudeville ticket to name a few. A tiny child's teacup and some clay marbles suggested that children once lived in the home. The presence of a fully finished bead board basement, with its small wainscoted and mirror-mantled sitting room, posed intriguing questions about their early purpose.

Before our clients left for their journey back to Alaska, we asked them if they knew anything about their home's early history. They wrote "Walter and Myra Warnock" on a slip of paper. They knew little else save a note penciled on a basement beam that told us Walter was the home's builder. The realities of other projects put this 'slip' of history on the back burner.

Finally, in the dead of winter, while sorting through papers in preparation for tackling that annual joy - taxes - I came across that piece of paper. We'd been searching out some new leads on our own home's history and availed ourselves of the opportunity to take those names and do some detective work.

If you don't have first hand information or the opportunity to pour over records in local libraries or town repositories, the internet can come in quite handy. Census records, family trees, town records, town histories, genealogical books that can be read online and many other useful nuggets are available for research. It's surprising what one can infer by cobbling many bits and pieces together - there's always a story somewhere.

Myra Lewis was born in Eastport, in 1867, the first of seven children. She spent her early years in nearby Pembroke, a town known at that time for its massive iron works and seven shipyards. Her mother, Edna, tended to the household while her father, Charles, a former Corporal in the Civil War, supported his family as a "huckster." He likely plied his profession by peddling small useful items for the home, door to door.

A native of Nova Scotia, Charles immigrated with his family to Eastport when he was a very small boy. His father, Benjamin, earned his livelihood as a ships' carpenter and as a fisherman.

Sometime in the 1870s, Charles moved his family back to Eastport where his parents were still living; likely to take advantage of the opportunities provided by the emerging sardine industry. Myra would grow up in a part of town largely populated by fisherman. She lived with her brothers and sisters in a small, shingled cottage on Prime Street overlooking Prince's Cove near the homes of her grandfather and two uncles, James and George. Like them and a third brother, Lincoln, Charles became a fisherman, eventually captaining his own fishing boat.

Walter Warnock was born in 1863, north of the border, in Saint John, Canada, a major port and shipbuilding center. In 1880, at the age of 17, he left his parents and eight brothers and sisters and immigrated to the United States; settling in the rapidly growing "sardine" town. A carpenter by trade, he would establish a successful construction business in Eastport, building houses.

Myra and Walter wed in 1888 - an event that was followed by the arrival of four children; Madge, Leta, Gladys and Russell. It may have been a growing family that led the Warnocks to build a new home on Shackford Street in 1899. Walter was listed in many Eastport city directories from 1901 to 1935, conducting business as a contractor and builder from this home.

Today, with its Queen Ann styling, scalloped shingles, decorative spindles, a hint of gingerbread, stained glass windows and a faux balcony, the cottage stands alone - unique in the community. We were surprised to discover that in its day it was perceived in much the same way. We came across an item in the Bangor Daily Whig and Courier; Tuesday, November 28, 1899, under the column heading "Eastport News," that was quite a random fluke and a little bit exciting. It reads;

Walter Warnock has moved into his recently completed residence on Shackford Street. The building is of exclusive type as far as Eastport architecture is concerned, it being of such design which warrants its being called a Swiss Villa. It is certainly a new departure in the line of house building around here, and should by its neatness; furnish ideas for builders to work upon.

This sweet bit of promotion was totally unexpected information, as was evidence that might help answer that gnawing question; what was the purpose of that bead board basement?

The U.S. Census of June 8, 1900, provided us with clues to a plausible explanation. At the time, the Warnocks were living in their recently completed home with their three young daughters; ages 10, 8 and 3 - their son, Russell, would not be born until 1907. We wondered if the picture we found in the wall was not that of young Russell in his late teens. Whatever the case, we now had a sense of who may have been playing with that teacup and marbles.

Also residing in the home temporarily was Myra's mother Edna. The house is not huge by any standards. With 3 small bedrooms upstairs the girls likely had to triple up so that 'grandma' could have her own room in the back.

The clincher on the census was the presence of 4 boarders; Elliot and Ira Irquhart, John Mcpherson, and Frank Bothwick - single men ranging in age from 16 to 36. One was listed as a carpenter - all were recent immigrants from Canada much like Walter 20 years before. They may have crossed the border at Saint Stephen to Calais (27 miles away), or come directly from Saint John by steamer.

Even today immigrants are a source for 'inexpensive' labor. It would not be a stretch to surmise that Walter hired these men to work in his construction business - they may well have been brought down from Canada to help him build his "Swiss Villa."

While this may just be a working theory, one thing we can confirm - that fully finished basement (with home cooked meals provided), would have presented just the accommodations these young men, far from home and family, were looking for.

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