The green, green gables of one former Prince Edward Island home have been a major draw for the P.E.I. National Park since its formation in 1937.
And the colourful history of Green Gables was the topic up for conversation in the P.E.I. National Park’s final lecture series instalment, which was presented locally this year in honour of the 75th anniversary of the park’s presence on the Island.
“For a lot of people it really is a pilgrimage. There are so many people who still read Anne of Green Gables. It’s fascinating. It’s still on the Canada Reads list. Wow! Over 100 years old and still really popular,” says Barbara MacDonald, external relation manager for Parks Canada, P.E.I. Field Unit, who has been involved with Green Gables Heritage Place, either directly or behind the scenes, for about 30 years.
What is now known as Green Gables was a farm first acquired by David Macneill senior who was a relative of Alexander and Lucy Macneill, the grandparents of Anne of Green Gables’ author Lucy Maud Montgomery.
It was later owned by David Macneill Jr., who lived there with his sister, Margaret, at the time Montgomery was growing up with her grandparents in Cavendish.
Their grandniece, Myrtle Macneill, came to live at Green Gables. In 1905, after marrying Ernest Webb, she returned with her new husband to look after the farm. They raised their five children there.
“When Anne of Green Gables was published in 1908, it was very soon after that people began coming to Cavendish to look for lover’s lane and Green Gables,” MacDonald says.
Being enterprising, the Webbs actually started a small tearoom and guesthouse in the 1920s and 1930s to make the best of the tourist traffic to their Cavendish home.
“When (the federal government) was looking for where to establish the new (national) park in the 1930s they choose Green Gables to be included in the park,” MacDonald says.
The Webbs stayed on after the park was opened in 1937 and stayed until 1946. Mr. Webb served as caretaker and the family operated a tea room in the house.
The first nine holes of the Green Gables Golf Course were established on the farmland in 1939 and the rest was ready to play on 1940.
The ninth hole, which was once just a stone’s throw away from the house, was relocated in 1983.
“It was a real safety hazard because people used to stand on the hill on the other side of the brook and try to get (to this) green. We’d have windows broken and there was one occasion when one staff member (was hit) and had a broken foot. It was very dangerous,” MacDonald says.
“So that was one of the first things we did was realign the golf course and it has since been realigned again. But we still don’t have the green in front of the house, which is good.”
An extensive redevelopment completed in 1998 addressed a number of key issues, such as providing more visitor safety elements to the house and to aid the dissemination of information to visitors.
“There were also a number of things that had been done to the exterior of the house and the way it was furnished that weren’t really accurate to the period and to the story. So a lot of visitors were coming and saying, for example, ‘Why do you have Matthew’s room upstairs. He had a heart condition and he slept downstairs.’ Details like that real fans knew,” MacDonald says.
“So we made an effort to do a more accurate depiction of the setting as described in the story.”
The idea was also to recreate the barn and outbuildings at the site when it had been a working farm.
However, they had modern day functionality. The woodshed houses the public washrooms, the granary is an office and storage area and the hen house is the Butter Churn Café.
The barn is partially set up to mimic that period in time but it is also home to an exhibit on Cavendish and a theatre where there are showings of a film on Montgomery’s life.
The parking lot was also revamped and a visitor’s centre and new gift shop were added.
Visitors now transition from modern day into the special world of Green Gables.
“That’s what we were hoping to get. It really has a different feel in there now. It’s more private. It’s peaceful. You can’t hear the bus engines running now. There are still lots of people around and it gets fairly busy but they’re more spread out and it seems to be less pressure on this little tiny house,” MacDonald says.
In 2004, Green Gables became part of the new L.M. Montgomery’s Cavendish National Historic Site, which also includes the site of her grandparents’ home where she grew up, now known as the Site of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Cavendish Home.
In the busiest years as many as 250,000 visitors have filed through Green Gables but more recently numbers have been around 150,000 annually.
“Now with the book being published in Chinese and being promoted in China I think that’s going to be another market because it’s already very popular in Japan . . . and Britain and Australia and Scandinavia, Poland, all kinds of different countries. So it’s quite an international (phenomenon),” MacDonald says.
“Anne of Green Gables was translated very early on too. It’s been published in more than 25 different languages that we know of and I’m sure there are others that we don’t know of. So it’s a universal story.”