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How this mystery photo unlocked the story of a 160-year-old N.B. home

·6 min read
The Martello Road home Sinclair and her family purchased was built in the 1860s and is loaded with history and character. (Submitted by Kimberly Sinclair - image credit)
The Martello Road home Sinclair and her family purchased was built in the 1860s and is loaded with history and character. (Submitted by Kimberly Sinclair - image credit)

Kimberly Sinclair just bought her house, but it already feels like home. She knows its nooks and crannies, its secrets, its stories. Even its neighbours.

Which is remarkable, considering she's never set foot in it.

Thanks to a photo of a man she's never met, she's been given an unexpected crash course in the history of the 160-year-old Saint John home and its owners.

It all started when she took a virtual tour of the house.

Sinclair, who is from Kentucky but currently lives in Nova Scotia, is a music promoter and heavily involved with the East Coast music scene. Over the years, she'd made several business trips to Saint John and "fell in love with the vibe of the city."

She and her husband, Kevin Sinclair, started thinking about moving to the city, and when they spotted a listing for a Victorian-era clapboard beauty on the west side, they were intrigued.

Real estate agent Fran Scott gave Sinclair several in-depth virtual tours, taking her through the grand old home room by room, pointing out intricate details and zooming in on architectural features.

"We got a really good feel for it, this beautiful little gem," Sinclair said. "You could tell that this was a very loved house."

During the final virtual walk-through, Sinclair spied a photo in the basement. It was of a bespectacled gentleman, clad in a jaunty red tartan cap and jacket, and holding up a curling broom and a red ribbon.

'Part of this home's history'

To some, it might have seemed just an old photo of a stranger. Nice, but no connection, no reason to keep it.

Sinclair had a very different reaction.

She was enchanted by it. She wanted to know its story and what it could tell her about her new home.

"I'm an old-house person," Sinclair said. "Old homes have a personality, a history, and that photo was part of this home's history."

She decided to post the photo of the man, along with a photo of the Martello Road house, on Facebook, explaining that she was moving to the neighbourhood soon and asking if anyone had any information to share about the photos.

"PS: This picture is in the basement," she explained, "and we see no reason to ever remove it."

The replies started coming in immediately.

Some just wanted to say "Welcome to the neighbourhood," or to note that "Your lawn was mowed yesterday and looks lovely."

Others chimed in with their address and invitations: "I'm only one street over, drop by!"

And many, many others had stories about the man in the photo.

Submitted by Kimberly Sinclair
Submitted by Kimberly Sinclair

The memorable Mr. Maxwell

William Maxwell, it has to be said, could be a bit tetchy with the kids in his neighbourhood.

He was particular about his lawn, and if they cut across it on their way to school, they'd hear from him.

"He had a bit of a reputation for chasing kids out of his yard," conceded his granddaughter, Max Rumson, whose parents bought the house after her grandfather died in 1974.

And woe betide anyone who tried to pilfer apples from his prized trees. Neighbourhood legend has it that Maxwell would load a shotgun with rock salt and fire it in the thieves' direction.

Kids being kids, they found their own ways to deal with his "grouchiness."

Like the time in the mid-1960s when a group of them got hollered at after "taking a shortcut through his property on our way to Champlain St."

"This he wasn't fond of," Robert Arseneau recalled in a Facebook post.

"Knowing he went to bed early, one fall evening we filled his lovely front porch with freshly fallen maple leaves that he had meticulous raked in a handy pile near the front door. ... It sounds as if we should have been told he owned a shotgun!"

But the reminiscences are devoid of bitterness and seasoned with affectionate good humour. Besides, the now grown-up west siders agree, Mr. Maxwell had some very sweet qualities.

"Yes, 'Pop' Maxwell's reputation was well known. But he always allowed one of his granddaughters to pick a couple of roses to give to my mother on July 1," said one former west sider, who lived next door to Maxwell.

"She was so delighted with her birthday roses," Judith Clarke Kienzle told CBC News in a Facebook message.

Others recalled his beloved and beautifully maintained gardens, his love of curling and the pride he took in the home he bought from its original owner, a sea captain.

Submitted by Kimberly Sinclair
Submitted by Kimberly Sinclair

In one of Sinclair's favourite Facebook gestures, her future next-door neighbour, Donald Clark, posted an old map of the neighbourhood as it was in 1883.

"Your house is here," he told Sinclair.

Bit by bit, the hundreds of comments about Maxwell, his former home and the neighbourhood came together to give Sinclair a glimpse into the history she and her family will now become a part of.

"I was completely blown away," she said.

"I thought I'd get a couple of people who could give me a little bit of information. But now I've met all my neighbours, they've all said hello, they've all given me the history of the house. They've been so welcoming and so warm. It's incredible."

Submitted by Kimberly Sinclair
Submitted by Kimberly Sinclair

Big plans for her 'Victorian jewel box'

When you buy a historic home, you're buying its history. You are marrying yourself to its energy. For better or for worse.

Sinclair knows this and said she felt the pull of this home's spirit from the get-go.

"To me, the home really is where the heart is, and this house definitely has a heart and a story," she said. "All the people who lived there loved it, and everybody who lived there was happy."

Which is why she can't wait to "honour the legacy and the people who came before," building memories with her own family, including her two teenage sons, Keifer and Connor, her husband, Kevin, and their dog, Pepper.

"I'm so excited, I could cry," she said. "It's a perfect little Victorian jewel box, and I just want to get in there and make it look pretty, like a wedding cake."

The family plans to be there by July and stay "maybe forever," she said with a chuckle.

As for the mystery photo that launched her introductions to the community, that will always have pride of place in the home William Maxwell once lived in.

"That's just something I don't see how you could ever throw away," she said. "I mean, this was his house, and if he's been there this whole time, who am I to move him?"