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This Cottage On Grand Manan Builds On The History of A Lost Industry

Brian and Brenda McLaughlin's smokeshed cottages. Image: Inda Intiar

GRAND MANAN – A quirky cottage on Grand Manan Island that tourists can rent holds a piece of history from the smoked herring industry, a traditional fishery trade that put the island on the map in the 19th century but faltered in more recent years.

The Seal Cove Beach Smokeshed Cottages, owned by Ontario businessman Brian McLaughlin and his wife Brenda, have been operating for at least three years. Visitors can stay in the two-bedroom cottage in the fishing community of Seal Cove, a national historic site, for $950 a week.

Brian McLaughlin digging for clam on Grand Manan. Image: Submitted

The couple came across the property nearly 20 years ago, after a trip around the Maritimes led them to Brian’s long-lost cousins Brenda McLaughlin and her husband, Buddy McLaughlin. Brian, whose father was born and raised in Tracadie, came from a long line of McLaughlins, who were among the first settlers on Grand Manan. But having been born and raised in Ontario, Brian never met his relatives.

“My dad always told us about these cousins we had on Grand Manan, but you know, he never really bothered with them because [dad’s family was] up in the Tracadie area. Back then it was a big deal to go a couple of hundred miles, you know what I mean?” he says.

The island’s McLaughlins owned several properties built in the late 1800s that were used to smoke herrings in Seal Cove. In the heyday of the smoked herring industry, those buildings were used to hang herrings that were smoked as bloaters, cured or turned into fillets as a way to preserve them. Around 54 of these wooden buildings with red roofs located on a cove bounded by breakwaters on one side, and a creek on the other, made Seal Cove a designated national historic site in 1995.

The couple had fallen in love with Grand Manan and wanted to keep the historic properties in the family.

“[Being on Grand Manan] was like going back in time, like 100 years, the lost land of Shangri-La, you know? It’s beautiful. I’ve never seen anything like it in the whole east coast. It’s like the whole east coast wrapped in a little island,” says Brian, who owns an antiques and home restoration company StripAll in Ontario.

He and Brenda took over three smokesheds, each built in the 1840s, 1860s and 1880s, when Buddy was about to tear them down. Brian installed new roofs and plumbing, and added new poles to strengthen the sheds, among other things. Over the years, residents on the island have stopped by to lend a hand in their renovation process.

But Brian re-used all of the original wood, too. Visitors can still see blackened wood that was used to hang smoked herring in some parts of the cottage. A closer inspection will reveal remnants of the smell as well.

One building is now a cottage for rent with two bedrooms, one bathroom, a deck on the creek, and a residence for Brenda and Brian. Another is being used for storage, and the other one is undergoing renovations to become an apartment with rooms for rent.

Brian plans to turn all three buildings into lodging facilities to fit nearly 20 people in total. Any available rooms are already nearly booked for all of next year.

“That’s why I’m hurrying up to get that apartment finished, I’ll have it ready for next spring,” he says.

The Industry That Boomed and Busted

Smoked herring was likely the oldest traditional fishery in Grand Manan, coming in with the area’s first settlers in the 1700s, according to a document from the Grand Manan Tourism and Chamber of Commerce.

Dr. Jerry Pocius, now a visiting research professor at Cape Breton University, was commissioned by the Canadian government to make a report to back Seal Cove’s nomination as a historic site 25 years ago. He said back in the 19th century, the smoked herring industry in Grand Manan was exporting to places as far as Europe and the Caribbean. And Seal Cove was in the thick of it. It’s also only one of two village enclaves left that still have a concentrated area of smokesheds.

“Seal Cove was really the world leader at the time in smoked herring in the late 19th, early 20th century. It was a world capital of smoked herring, so it was very important in its day,” he says. “A lot of the smoked herring was being exported to New England largely to be sold in bars and liquor establishments.”

But that’s just a memory now.

“I would say, it’s got to be 30 to 40 years [that the smokeshed in Seal Cove have been empty]. At one time, you’d go through there and the wind was just right, and it was hard to see, you know. And it certainly smelled nice,” says Rob MacPherson, the Chief Administrative Officer of the Village of Grand Manan. 

According to the document, the rise of better refrigeration and preservation methods pushed out the traditional method of smoking herring. Though some local residents still use the method in smaller sheds behind their homes.

Greg Pidduck, the president of the Grand Manan Tourism and Chamber of Commerce, says the smokesheds were mostly run by families similar to the McLaughlins or companies. But with time, the labour went away and the industry moved to Europe and other parts of New Brunswick.

Meanwhile, MacPherson says it was likely the international standards at that time that led to the fall of the smoked herring industry.

“They had to put in different salt bins and use stainless steel and I think the biggest market was in the Caribbean. I think that slowly faded away some,” he says.

Now, lobsters are “what keeps [Grand Manan] going,” MacPherson says, though the herring catch has also been exceptional this year. Connors Brothers still operates a canning facility for sardines in Seal Cove, with the main plant in Blacks Harbour, where visitors can take the ferry to Grand Manan from mainland New Brunswick. A lot of the herring today are sold fresh.

Today, if you walk into Seal Cove as the fog settles in, the smokesheds would look like abandoned houses with uniform colours of gray and red, giving off an eery vibe. But they’re not all inactive. They’re privately owned and many are left empty or serve other purposes, says Ava Sturgeon, Grand Manan’s archivist.

“Because they’re privately owned, funding was not available for individuals to be able to access funds to turn them into a living museum or that kind of thing, unless they wanted to do that privately. And no one designated the buildings to be owned by a non-profit organization so that we could get federal funding and promote it as the national historic site. The designation was done and then it kind of fizzled after that,” she says.

“But the [lobster] fishermen use the shed. They have them for warehouses and for working out of. And a number of summer residents have purchased them and made summer places and live in them as well. So, it’s still a very active worksite.”

Here’s a look at the McLaughlins’ cottage and Seal Cove today:

Brian and Brenda might be the only ones turning their smokesheds into rental properties. But with tourism growing on Grand Manan, Brian might be on the right track. Data from the province’s Transportation and Infrastructure Department shows the number of passengers of the Grand Manan Ferry Service grew an average of 4.8 per cent annually since 2014.

Pidduck says people are attracted by the quiet island life and they’re becoming more aware of Grand Manan because of Airbnb.

“I think Airbnb is growing everywhere and yes, it’s growing here,” he says. “[Grand Manan] is an experiential place where you’re going to experience something you’ll never experience anywhere else in the world. We don’t have traffic lights. There are five stop signs on the island. There’s no hustle and bustle.”

Although Pidduck says Grand Manan residents do want to attract more tourists, they don’t want to move away from the island’s traditional way of life.

We don’t need Tim Hortons and all sorts of places, we have the Grand Manan bakery. We don’t need Pizza Hut, we have the old Postoffice pizza. We don’t need Red Lobster, we have Sunrise Seafood. We’ve got hiking trails here that are world class and it doesn’t cost them anything,” he says. “But people have to come and see it. They have to feel the spirit of the Bay of Fundy and the spirit of Grand Manan.”

Dr. Pocius says in Atlantic Canada many historic buildings that were used for fishing in the past end up getting torn down. So, it’s good that some of the properties in Seal Cove are being turned into other things.

“In these ways, the buildings get reused for new purposes and at least they’re still there. There’s still that legacy to that earlier industry,” he says.

For Brian, being able to preserve the property is a “dream come true.”

“My dad passed away almost two years ago now. And before he passed away, he got a chance to come down and see actually what I was doing and he was so proud,” he says.

That was the first time his father came back to New Brunswick after moving to Ontario. And now New Brunswick is home to Brian, too.

“I knew all about [New Brunswick] from dad talking, but when I see it, it’s like, ‘oh my God! I belong here,’ ” he says. “I put my rubber boots on and I’m clam digging, going lobster fishing, I just love it. It’s all stuff I never did before. And I don’t get seasick on the boats.”