Kings Landing – Where Past is Present
Long before George R.R. Martin dreamed up King’s Landing as the principal city in Game of Thrones, there existed a real Kings Landing on the Saint John River just north of Fredericton, New Brunswick. Despite visiting New Brunswick on dozens of occasions over the years, Alison and I actually got to the site of the fictional King’s Landing, aka Dubrovnik, Croatia, before we got to the real deal on our most recent trip there. After completing an early round of golf at Kingswood Golf Course we headed north on the Trans-Canada and arrived at King’s Landing at about 1:00 on a wonderfully sunny afternoon where the fall colours were just reaching their peak. We spent three hours there and could easily have spent much more if we had had time to visit every site in this living history museum. Here’s why you should not wait as long as we did to visit one of the top attractions in Atlantic Canada.
History of Kings Landing
It is somewhat ironic that what is essentially a paean to the past, when life is traditionally, if wrongly, thought to have been much simpler than today, only came into existence because of what was considered at the time to be modern progress. The Mactaquac Dam was built across the Saint John River in the 1960’s to provide hydro electric power to a great number of New Brunswick homes and businesses It required the creation of a large reservoir that raised the level of the river by up to 40 metres (131 feet) which in turn displaced several thousand people who lived along the stretch of river from the dam site almost all the way up to the town of Woodstock. The reservoir would not only displace the people who lived on its footprint, but wipe out one of the most important historical areas of settlement in New Brunswick.
Long before over 15,000 United Empire Loyalists arrived in New Brunswick in 1783-85 following the American Revolution to found Fredericton and other settlements, the land surrounding both sides of the Saint John River was prized for the quality of its soil and the Acadian forest that covered the nearby hills. The river was a vast fisheries resource teeming with salmon, sturgeon, eels and other species. The Maliseet had been living here for thousands of years when Europeans started trickling in during the early 1700’s. By the time the Loyalists arrived in the area there were already Acadians, New Englanders, Scotch, English and Irish settled in the area now covered by the waters of the reservoir. The Loyalists somewhat overwhelmed them with their numbers, effectively taking control of the colony. Most of the buildings that would inundated by the rising waters dated from the post Loyalist era, but many were well over 150 years old when the dam began operation in 1968 and represented a significant portion of the province’s colonial architecture – losing all of them would be an unforgivable assault on the past.
Fortunately there was a precedent for dealing with a situation like this. During the construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway in the 1950’s many villages along the river were scheduled to be drowned by the dams being built. However, instead of just leaving them to their fate, many of the most important buildings were moved to what became Upper Canada Village in Morrisburg, Ontario, one of the first ‘living museums’ in North America. New Brunswick decided to emulate what the Upper Canadians had done and chose a site on the banks of the river up river from Fredericton. Over a dozen buildings were moved to create an entirely ‘new’ village that would be peopled with interpreters dressed as they would have been in the 1800’s and conversant with the trades and pastimes that New Brunswicker’s would have been familiar with back then, but are virtually unknown today. The newly christened Kings Landing opened its doors in 1974 and has been going strong ever since.
Visiting During the Pandemic
During the actual time that Kings Landing is meant to represent, disease and early death were a fact of life, so Covid 19 has not affected this place as much as many other tourist attractions. I write this only partly in jest, but other than the interpreters wearing masks inside the buildings and the requirement that visitors do so as well when inside, I think the experience would vary little from what it would have been pre-Covid. However, I am referring to what would be considered parts of ‘The Village’ which are the historical buildings and where the interpreters are found. There is another set of modern buildings that make up what are referred to as the Exhibit Experience which we did not visit other than the MacBeath Gallery that is located in the Welcome Centre. What follows is a tour through the village which is about a 2.5 km. stroll with many stops along the way. While we spent about three hours at Kings Landing you could easily spend an entire day.
The parking lot was not nearly full, but I was glad to see that there were still a fair number of people visiting on the afternoon we visited. It was such a beautiful fall day that you really couldn’t find a much better way to spend it than here on the banks of the Saint John River where, with just a little imagination you could teleport yourself back a couple of centuries and forget about the many worries that have made 2020 a true annus horribilis.
Just outside the entrance to the Welcome Centre is this monument to the British Home Children, a chapter of Canadian history that very few people are aware of. I’m not sure why it’s here, but no doubt many of the 100,000 + children from the British Isles who were sent to Canada ended up on farms in New Brunswick. While the monument uses the word ’emmigrated’ (it should be emigrated), which suggests these were voluntary choices, the reality is that these children from lower class families were literally shipped to Canada to work as indentured servants on Canadian farms. A number of organizations including the Salvation Army were involved and while I have no doubt that at the time they thought they were doing the right thing by getting them out of the poverty of industrial age slums, the fact is that many were badly mistreated in Canada. Some were treated as virtual slaves. And contrary to what was portrayed at the time, very few were orphans with nowhere else to go. Most had families from which they were removed and most of these never saw their parents or siblings again.
I’m glad to see that they have provided with some recognition at Kings Landing.
This is the Welcome Centre where you purchase your tickets, get a map and a wrist band, after which you depart though a side door and begin your exploration of the King’s Landing village.
Right off the bat you feel like you are back in time looking down over the field to the Joslin Farm which is one of the major attractions at Kings Landing.
However, the first stop on most people’s exploration of Kings Landing will be at the Hagerman House which was built by the Loyalist great-grandfather of George and Alfred Hagerman. The house is ‘interpreted’ as it was furnished in 1880 when it was already almost a century old. Many of the furnishings are from Saint John furniture maker John Warren Moore.
Many of the Loyalists came from the upper echelons of New York society and were by no means poor as attested to by the Hagerman dining room.
The bedrooms feature rugs, baskets and quilts, all of which would have been hand made in the community. Walmart, Costco and Made in China were something the Hagerman’s could never have imagined.
While strolling through the village and seeing what is inside is fine by itself, the real strength of Kings Landing are its interpreters. Each represents a specific individual with an alter ego that sees and interprets the world as it would have been in the year they represent, in this case 1880. They engage the visitors in conversation and answer questions, not as a reflection back in time, but rather as if this was 1880. On an autumn day in that year the baking of pies would have been not just a hobby, but a time honoured custom. If you look closely at the stove you can see the word New Brunswick embossed on it. The stove was indeed cast in Saint John. In the 1880s there were still many small iron works throughout the Maritimes. In another house at Kings Landing I found one from the Windsor Iron and Brass Foundry from my father’s home town of Windsor, Nova Scotia.
Foot power is not the only way to get around Kings Landing. Horse drawn carts make regular trips around the perimeter and are particularly popular with the kids and people who might have mobility issues. There’s just something about witnessing a scene like this that brings back nostalgia to Alison and me as we both spent time on farms in our youth and were often transported around by our uncles or the hired hand in carts not much different than this one. I conveniently forget that the reason for it was to pick up hay bales, pick apples or dig potatoes and not just for the joy of the ride.
The most interesting character we met at Kings Landing was undoubtedly this lady working in an open air shed attached to the Joslin farm house. She told us she was making a skep which went right over my head.
It took a few questions to ascertain that it was an old-fashioned bee hive of the conical type I used to see on the label of Bee Hive Corn Syrup, which is a bit weird because bees have nothing to do with corn syrup.
I had no idea that anyone still made these things or better yet that anyone knew how to make them. She explained the process and it is complicated indeed. I queried as to how many people still knew about what I assumed is almost a lost art and she replied, “very few’. I then suggested that maybe they should make a video of the process and put it up on the King’s Landing web site to which she responded, “What’s a video?”, reminding me that she was viewing the world from more than a century ago.
It turns out that she has mastered an amazing forty-two different techniques for making everything from baskets to brooms to intricate stitch work. She is literally a living encyclopedia and we spent a fair amount of time talking with her and could have spent a lot more if we had arrived earlier. It is experiences like this that make Kings Landing and other living museums so special.
This is the sawmill at Kings Landing which is described on the map as ‘One of Canada’s Most Photographed Buildings” and it’s easy to see why, especially at this time of year.
At one time almost every community in New Brunswick had either a sawmill or a grist mill or both. Today I’m not sure if there are any left other than the one at Kings Landing. They are really amazing feats of engineering that turn the power of running water into a force that drives huge saws through logs like a hot knife through butter. The starting point is to build a dam from logs over a stream and build up a head pond which can then be released as required to turn the water wheel such as you see in this photo.
Inside we talked at length with the sawyer who took great pains and pride in showing us exactly how the saws worked and how many board feet of lumber this mill could produce in a year.
This mill had special significance for Alison for two reasons. First, there once was a grist mill on her mother’s family farm very close to the house she grew up in. The mill is long gone, but her brother still has one of the grindstones. Secondly, her father, Ralph Scott was from nearby Canterbury, New Brunswick and spent his career as a lumberman. He had his own mill, albeit a modern one, in Pictou County, Nova Scotia.
Of all the buildings at Kings Landing I think the sawmill is the most interesting and a very important link to understanding New Brunswick’s lumbering heritage.
I had no trouble believing that the other buildings at Kings Landing had been transported here from elsewhere, but the fact that this remarkable house was taken apart stone by stone and reassembled here was amazing to me because it absolutely looked like it had been here for hundreds of years. It is the former house of prominent Loyalist Thomas Jones who was a magistrate in Prince William. It is unusual in being a rare 19th century house that had a well inside the building and that has actually been recreated in this version.
After crossing over the small stream that feeds the mill, you take this country lane to the other part of the village where most of the buildings at Kings Landing are located. If the entire complex had been composed of just what we had seen so far I would have been more than pleased, but there is much more to see and do on this side of the village which is why you could easily spend a full day here or come back for multiple visits.
We only had time to stroll by most of the buildings on this side, but it was a most enjoyable stroll with bucolic scenes like this at every turn.
The zig zag shape of a split rail fence is perhaps one of the most iconic forms from colonial America and was very popular with the Loyalist farmers in New Brunswick. Although they require a lot of lumber, they are easy to make and their unique structure can be built without aid of nails. To me it is one of the most pleasing sites at Kings Landing and although the fence in this photo is using whole logs and not split ones, the principle remains the same
It was apple picking season at Kings Landing and there were many apple trees laden with fruit which this fellow was picking for visitors with an implement I had never seen before – essentially a ball just bigger than an apple that could be opened and placed around an apple for picking at the end of a long pole. He told us it had been made at the Kings Landing forge and was typical of the innovative tools that blacksmiths could make to fit a very specific purpose.
He was happy to oblige and picked a number for us which were excellent – made me regret not getting a piece of the pie we had seen earlier.
The most impressive building at Kings Landing is undoubtedly the King’s Head Tavern where you can get a meal and libations at a reasonable cost. The menu has some items that would have been staples two hundred years ago such as corn or salmon chowder or the proverbial ploughman’s lunch, but you can also get more modern foods for which New Brunswick is justly famous, especially french fries. We had eaten at Sam Snead’s before leaving for Kings Landing so we didn’t stop in, but in retrospect I dearly would have loved to try Mrs. Long’s Rhubarb Tonic.
Even in the midst of a pandemic we expect to see food delivered to our grocery stores from around the world and easily forget that for the people of New Brunswick in the late 18th and most of the 19th century, imported food was a rarity and unaffordable for most. If you wanted to have a food supply to get you through the harsh Maritime winters you had to grow it and store it yourself. As a gardener, I really enjoyed inspecting the various gardens throughout Kings Landing including this one behind Ingraham House which is using marigolds as a companion plant to the other herbs planted here. Even back then the Farmer’s Almanac espoused the use of marigolds as an insect repellent plant that defends the plants around it from aphids, nematodes and other pests. They even repel mosquitoes!
While food items may not have been widely imported in early New Brunswick, many other items were. In fact, the entire British Empire was built around the idea of extracting raw resources from the colonies and shipping them to Britain where they would be turned into merchantable goods that would be sold back to the colonists. A good example would have been the china pictured on the dining table at the Hagerman House.
Those goods and just about everything else a household needed that it couldn’t grow or extract from nature would be purchased by either barter, credit or hard currency at places like the H.C.Grant general store, pictured above.
I’m old enough to remember the thrill of being a kid going into a general store just like this (my uncle Ed Allen ran one for years in Gaspereau, Nova Scotia and later in Centreville) and seeing the jars of candy where you could get four pieces for just one penny. There are still a few general stores around today, the Frieze and Roy store in Maitland, Nova Scotia being a good example, but mostly they are gone and the closest thing to them, the ubiquitous dollar stores are a pale imitation. Just stopping in here, however briefly, brought back waves of nostalgia.
Sadly our time at Kings Landing was coming to an end as closing time was approaching so we made our final stop at the Beacon Print Shop which also brought back fond memories from decades ago.
Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in 1440 and revolutionized the world. Incredibly, as late as the mid 1800’s, printers were using largely the same methods that Gutenberg had 400 hundred years earlier – typesetting by hand with each letter, number or figure a separate little metal piece that once in place imprinted the paper by applying ink and pressure. You can witness this process here and it brought back memories of helping my friend Carman McBride type set at The Pas Herald, which his father owned. It was housed in a building not much bigger than this one and turned out the weekly paper for our little town in northern Manitoba.
Alison and I are a bit different than most Canadian couples in that we did grow up in largely rural environments and are old enough to remember a very different Canada than what most urban raised Canadians experience today. Kings Landing spoke directly to us in ways it might not for others, but I think that it is vital for everyone, whether you live in a major Canadian city, a small town or even on a farm, to experience a place like this to understand the society where many of our fellow Canadians came from. Just as importantly, those who share this type of heritage like Alison and me, need to realize and accept with open arms and minds the myriad of other places and backgrounds that other Canadians look back on with the same fond feelings that were generated today at Kings Landing.
The quotation I use on my Travel Media Association of Canada bio page is from Mark Twain, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness…”. Travel does not always have to be from place to place, sometimes it can be into the past and you can do that at Kings Landing. Put it on your bucket list for 2021.