Profile by Jane Ledwell
With roots in Pleasant Valley that go back to 1780, Arnold Smith can stand on a hill and in one direction see where his father was born; in another, where his mother was born. He can point to the home places of four grandparents, all eight great-grandparents, “and a good part,” he says, of his 16 great-great-grandparents. “When this side married that side, then I was related to everyone,” he chuckles.
He’s powerfully connected to his heritage—even his home, where he helps care for his parents, is a renovated 1860 house that had been slated for demolition but that he had moved to the “home farm” and painstakingly restored with heritage style. But when Arnold comes down the hill, he is constantly working on projects to actively preserve history and historical objects, to make them available to all.
“I’m a person who likes to take a few bits of this and a few bits of that… and if you can be a bit clever or a bit creative with it, you can make something out of it,” says Arnold.
“I’m a terrible person if I go to a museum,” he says. “I always want to learn something. I always want to know, now, how do you make that?” Insatiable curiosity and an eye for detail have led him to learn woodworking, building, cooking, and sewing. “I wanted to be an architect, and I’m still thrilled exploring old buildings—I love that,” Arnold says, “but I don’t have that ability. I’m the one crawling into the corners with a tape measure.”
Whether he is working on the restoration of Doucet House and Farmers Bank in Rustico, where he helped architect Carter Jeffery go through buildings “with a magnifying glass to find the details,” locating notches in a beam to provide the exact location and width of the original staircase or the exact hole the chimney went through; making chicken fricot in the fireplace at Doucet house (“It had two key ingredients: woodsmoke and soot,” he laughs.), or recreating dresses from L.M. Montgomery’s wedding trousseau for the anniversary of her marriage, Arnold wants a hands-on role in heritage.
When he started to study history, Arnold says, “I found my roots in those stories.” The historical displacement of some ancestors—in Highland clearances, French Huguenots escaping discrimination in France or sent to Ireland, United Empire Loyalists dislodged by revolution—gives Arnold true appreciation of connection to place.
As co-owner of the Bay Vista Motel in Cavendish, he meets many visitors to the Island who are looking for connection, and many have come here as a result of L.M. Montgomery’s writing, which for Arnold is another “window into Island life” and heritage. “When you read Montgomery’s stories, you see your own ancestors in there too,” he says.
The books get visitors here, but Arnold tries to help them find their passions expressed in Island culture and heritage. “Experiential tourism,” he says, means “getting more than you originally thought you were going to get.”
Working in tourism in the summer and retail in the winter, with year-round caregiving responsibilities, and fulfilling volunteer roles with the Montgomery Theatre and the Heritage Review Board and more, Arnold says, “I’d have to live to 150 to do everything I want to do.” He hopes to take after forebears of whom it was said, “They’re too stubborn to die, and poison agrees with them.”
Arnold reflects on the need to preserve Island agricultural heritage and eat local food by saying, “There’s a connectedness to knowing where things come from. When I grew up on the farm, when it was time for supper I knew this was the red heifer or the brown steer or the spotted pig or something we had given a Christian name to.” But his search for connection relates to more than food—or clothing or buildings, for that matter.
“There’s always a way to connect,” he smiles, summing up an inclusive and hands-on vision of heritage that hand-crafts joy and appreciation in the present.