Annapolis Royal Fire Chief Malcolm Francis, right, was at the scene of the overnight fire that destroyed Milford House on Liverpool Head Lake. With him is an investigator from the fire marshal's office. Francis was at the fire 14 years ago this September that destroyed the original lodge building made famous in the book The Tent Dwellers.
By Lawrence Powell
Milford House is gone. It burned to the ground on this year’s opening weekend – in the wee hours of Sunday morning, May 18 as dozens of guests slept peacefully in their cabins nearby on Liverpool Head Lake.
But the iconic lodge on Highway 8 in South Milford may yet again rise from the ashes, said Randall Brooks of Windsor who is on the lodge’s board of directors.
“The fire that occurred early this morning is devastating to us, but of course the good thing is that no one was injured or worse,” said Brooks as he sat at a picnic table at the edge of the lake while firefighters were still dousing hotspots nearby. He was in one of the cabins when the fire started. “We’re picking up the pieces as quickly as we can and I’ve been in touch with the president of the corporation and we’re pretty positive we’ll be able to pick up and rebuild. We certainly will be carrying on with guests visiting this summer.”
Brooks said the challenge for staff will be food service for the guests but said there are options for that.
“Because of the involvement of the shareholders and the guests we expect that things will come together quite quickly,” Brooks said, “but we won’t be back to normal operations this summer.”
Annapolis Royal Fire Chief Malcolm Francis was awoken at exactly 4 a.m. for what he was told was an unknown fire at the Milford House location which is more than 20 kilometres away from the fire hall. Valley Communications got back to him before he’d reached the fire hall and confirmed it was a structure fire.
Francis had been a firefighter 14 years ago when the original Milford House burned down in an autumn blaze. He knew he had to call in additional fire departments.
“I immediately put mutual aid into play,” he said. “I brought in North Queens, Bear River, Lawrencetown, Bridgetown, Middleton, and Port Lorne.
“When we arrived on scene at approximately 4:30 the structure was fully engulfed and all we could do then was try to knock it down. There was very little we could save.”
At mid-morning Francis and a handful of other Annapolis Royal firefighters were still on the scene putting out hot spots with water and foam, getting the scene ready for an investigator from the fire marshal’s office.
“At this point in time we have no idea what may have caused it,” said Francis. “The fire marshal is on scene. We’ll be conducting an investigation here after he gets freed up.”
Francis, like Brooks, was thankful nobody was hurt.
“There are 28 cottages around the lake here,” said Francis. “23 of them were occupied. Nobody was injured and there was no threat to any of the visitors at all.”
The original Milford House burnt 14 years ago this coming September. “I was here for that fire as well,” Francis said.
Brooks and his wife have been guests of Milford House for 35 years, and he’s a member of the board of directors for Milford House Properties Limited. He and Charlie Richards described how writer and Milford House guest Mike Parker woke up in the middle of the night and heard the lodge’s windows popping. He was in one of the closest cabins and when he came outside to find the source of noise, he saw the flames. He woke people in other nearby cottages and somebody called 911.
“They did things in the right order,” said Brooks of the sequence of events.
He said it appears the fire started in the front right of the lodge – the south corner. Last year Milford House underwent an electrical inspection and passed. It was up to code.
Charlie Richards and wife Val are the managers of Milford House and both have vowed to soldier on despite such a massive setback. When the fire knocked out power, Charlie hooked up a generator to get the pumps working so guests in the cabins would have running water. Orders were given to move the office sign from the front of the destroyed building to a nearby outbuilding.
“The building, we’ve already started to think about what needs to be done to get things operational in a fairly reasonable way for guests,” said Brooks. “And guest safety is paramount for us. The challenege will be food service as I mentioned, but the chefs and the other kitchen staff and servers are all on site and they’ve been trained and they have experience and we’ll find a way to move forward through the summer.”
This weekend, as it turns out, was the resort’s opening weekend.
“So there were shareholders on site and we were doing work to prepare the cottages and facilities for the guests for the summer,” said Brooks. “We had probably 50 or 60 guests and some of the 28 cottages were occupied.”
Val Richards said about 20 staff were working the weekend and during the season Milford House employs about 30.
Despite such a major setback, spirits did not seem to be dampened – staff or guests.
“One of the things for the opening weekend that was a bit unusual was that we had a wedding here and it was held in the main lodge that was destroyed,” said Brooks. “And the bride and groom are still here on site overnight, and actually most of the guests that are here, and plan to be here overnight, will stay.”
Photographer Tim Wilson was at the resort Sunday morning. He said that even though there was devastation, he sensed hopefulness.
Simone Wilson, a guest with her boys at one of the cabins and minister at Grace United Church in Digby, gathered a small circle of staff and guests and offered a prayer on the lawn behind the charred remains of the lodge. It was inspirational.
Brooks was optimistic. “We had our best year ever last year,” he said. For the first time ever, the resort topped 7,000 guest nights.
He described the commitment of Milford House’s shareholders, staff, and guests as its strongest asset.
Brooks and Charlie Richards stood behind the burnt-out shell, the building that replaced the original lodge. Swallows were diving at the area near where the back door used to be. They had a nest there just a few hours before. They were looking for it.
In American Albert Bigelow Paine’s 1908 book The Tent Dwellers, Milford House is the starting point of a trout-fishing adventure through the heart of what is now known as Kejimkujik National Park and the Tobeatic Wildlife Management Area.
Payne travelled with Eddie Breck, and with guides Charles "the Strong" Charlton and Del "the Stout" Thomas, both of nearby Milford.
Wikipedia: Albert Bigelow Paine, (Mark Twain’s biographer), chronicled his first impression of the Milford House Lodge in his famous book, in the following way … "Then at last came a church, a scattering string of houses, a neat white hotel and the edge of the wilderness had been reached."