Shaw’s Hotel in P.E.I. lays claim to being Canada’s oldest family-operated inn

Transcontinental Staff
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BRACKLEY BEACH, P.E.I.       A batch of boisterous boys bursts across the lawn at Shaw’s Hotel in Brackley Beach intent on some old-fashioned fun.

With toy guns ablazing with imaginary fire, they dart to and fro, hiding behind cottages, hay bales and any other inanimate object for their animated game.

“I surrender. I surrender!” six-year-old Felix Valiquette of Ottawa, Ont., shouts in mock defeat, his hands thrown high in the air and the group races off for the next phase of this afternoon play operation.

Surrendering to Shaw’s Hotel’s serene, laid-back style has been a vacationing way of life of Felix’s family for three generations. Their annual summer migration to Prince Edward Island began years ago, but in the past dozen years, his parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins have merged en masse at Shaw’s for some prime family time.

They’re not alone. In fact, this multi-generational repeat visitors’ trend is quite common. But then again, it’s the same generational lineage mirrored by the Shaws themselves who have operated this country inn in their friendly family manner for 150 years.

Designated a National Historic Site of Canada in 2005, Shaw’s Hotel lays claim to being Canada’s oldest family-operated inn and one of P.E.I.’s longest running, continuously operated family-owned businesses.

“A number of years ago we were recognized as one of three (P.E.I.) businesses that predated Confederation ... ,” says Rob Shaw, who is the Shaw at the hotel’s helm in the here and now.

The Shaws of the past arrived on P.E.I. on one of the first boats of Scottish settlers that landed in what is now Stanhope in June 1770. One son from the original settling family made his way across the bay in 1793 and cut his homestead out of virgin forest.

“This was a pioneer farm and the hotel is actually the third homestead that was built on this property. The other two burned down,” says Shaw, whose great-grandfather, John Shaw, started the tourism business ball rolling when he opened the doors to the first guests in 1860.

“So that was the beginning of Shaw’s (Hotel). And we haven’t missed a beat since that with two world wars and the Depression, whatever,” says Shaw, whose grandfather, Robert Shaw, and eventually his father, Gordon Shaw, continued the family hotel legacy.

In the beginning, the hotel had five rooms. It was expanded in the winter of 1878 and again in the 1890s.

“We did some renovation work 15 years ago and we found where my great-grandfather had written notes all through the walls (in 1878) — what the weather was like and what they were doing and the date it was,” Shaw says. “It was very neat. It just gave you a unique type of feeling to know the legacy of that. We have deep roots here.”

The first cottage was built in 1896 by the Gaines family of New York who wanted a permanent vacation spot on the property. “They would spend four months (a year) on P.E.I.,” says Shaw, whose grandfather made a provision in the agreement that he would purchase it once the family was done using it.

There are now 26 cottages on site.

Today, the hotel stands pretty much as it did when the expansions were completed in 1890. But inside things have changed as it was modernized.

The original 30 rooms have been consolidated into 14 larger rooms with private washrooms.

“We had a full farm operation here (in the early years). We were pretty self-sufficient,” Shaw says. “Back in those days ... we raised a lot of our own products that we put on the tables at night.”

The animals are now gone and the land is rented to a local farmer, who helps with one particular annual playtime tradition started by one of Shaw’s sons when he was a child: the creation of a circle of round bales next to the hotel. “That has more activity by kids than our play area,” he says, smiling. “They will run around and play at that for hours and hours. And it’s just a round circle of bales.”

Shaw’s now employs 70 people.

And of course one can’t forget the donated time by Sam, a laid-back golden retriever who is a hit with guests of all ages.

“Sam is head of PR.” Shaw laughs.“Within 24 hours I would say 90 per cent of the people who go through the doors here know Sam. He’s got the run of the place. He’ll go and say a quick hello. Or he’ll be lying right underneath the front door of the hotel and he’s so relaxed you practically have to step over him and he doesn’t mind you stepping over him.”

The lineage of guests to Shaw’s Hotel is a long and winding one.

In the guest books are the names of heads of Canadian business, politicians and more, including Pierre Berton, who is said to have written part of his book “The National Dream” while staying at the hotel in the late 1960s.

Thomas Symons of Peterborough, Ont., who is founding president and Vanier professor emeritus of Trent University, has left his mark in the Shaw’s Hotel registry book more than 50 times to date.

In 1953 he was a university student hitchhiking from Ontario to Halifax when he drifted down a different path that led him to P.E.I. and Shaw’s Hotel one evening at dusk.

“Robby’s father, who was a wonderful man, very kindly said I could sleep in the barn and I could have a meal in the kitchen. I stayed three days and I’ve been back every year since,” Symons recalls.

“When I got married I brought my wife here and she loved it as much as I did. And then in due course we brought our children and they grew up here in the summers and they loved it. And now they bring their children.”

Symons was actually chair of the national commission for Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada when the hotel was added to the list in 2005. “The fact that it’s been family run and has been for generations is absolutely its hallmark. It’s very special,” he says.

Scott Fraser of Montreal is grandfather to the boisterous batch of five boys racing about the property on this day and six more children who are vacationing with their parents on P.E.I.

Fraser arrived at the hotel more than 40 years ago with his new family and continued from there. One of his daughters worked at the hotel one summer as a teen.

Twelve years ago when their population grew to 21 living in various provinces and states, the family decided to forego cramped Christmas celebrations in Montreal for a joint summer gathering at Shaws.

“So this is sort of the family Christmas present,” Fraser says with a laugh.

His daughter, Mary Valiquette of Ottawa, says her children can’t wait for what has become their annual family reunion. “My kids were, like, when are we going to P.E.I.? When are we going to P.E.I.? They’re so excited to see their cousins because we’re so all over the place (on the North American map).”

The hotel is an ongoing family affair for Shaw, his wife Pam and their two sons, Isaac, 20, and Dustin, 17, who continue to open their doors to the world just as John Shaw did 150 years ago.

“One lady said to me, and it was probably one of the best compliments ever given to me, ’You’re small enough to feel like you’re staying in a private home, you get that personal approach, but big enough that you don’t feel that you’re intruding in someone’s home.”’

Organizations: National Historic Site, Trent University, Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada North American

Geographic location: Prince Edward Island, Canada, BRACKLEY BEACH Ottawa, Ont New York Montreal Peterborough Ontario Halifax

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