By Tina Comeau
Standing outside of the old Yarmouth jail on Main Street, your gaze is drawn upwards to the windows.
Your eyes dart from one window to the next.
You’re not sure what it is you think you’ll see.
Movement? A shadow?
Of course there’s nothing to be seen.
Or is there?
It is outside of the old jail where a Seafest walking tour called Spirits by the Sea will begin on Wednesday, July 23 at 7 p.m. This is a free event.
“We’ve got lots of spirits,” says David Sollows, who will lead the walking tour. “We have the spirits of the restless and dear departed…sometimes the not so dear departed.”
The most infamous death to take place at the jail was that of Omar Roberts of Kemptville in 1922. Roberts, 68, was tried and convicted of killing his maid Flora Gray, 19, whom he was infatuated with. He didn’t take rejection well. He killed her by burning her. For this he was hanged at the courtyard of the jail.
But that’s not the only death to have occurred at the jail, notes Sollows. Nor is it the only interesting story to escape from these walls. Sollows will share some of these stories during the tour.
The walking tour will also visit Frost Park, which in the 1800s was a public burial ground, and the tour will touch on some of these burials. And the tour will include information about the two churches that used to be located across from Frost Park as Sollows delves into that spiritual aspect as Yarmouth’s past.
Indeed, it’s not just the spirit of the dearly – or not so dearly – departed that will be part of Sollows’ talk. In this tour the word ‘spirit’ conjures up many meanings – part of which will include the tales of people who drank too much, and those who tried to stop them from drinking at all.
“With the trade routes from Yarmouth and with the ships that were constantly going down to the Caribbean, Barbados, Jamaica, rum was here,” Sollows says. “There are cases of how that was impacting on our social fabric.” As a result the temperance movement – or the ‘you shouldn’t drink’ movement – took shape, he says.
And the list of spirits goes on.
“One of the other spirits I want to talk about was the spirit in Yarmouth County about community and hard work. We’ve got Frost Park who is named after just an ordinary kid who grew up in Sand Beach but rose through the ranks of the banking system to become President of the Bank of Nova Scotia,” he says, referring to Charles Sydney Frost.
Stops along the tour will also include the Lost to Sea Memorial, the cenotaph and the library grounds.
Sollows describes his interest in Yarmouth County’s history as a “forever thing.” He says he was fortunate to have grandparents who had an interest in stories of the past and were generous in sharing them. As a university student he also spent summers working at the Yarmouth County Museum.
“I also had the good fortune to grow up in a community where I had old people who shared stories,” he adds. “And for whatever reason a lot of those stuck with me and so it helped me to get a sense of the past.”
And sometimes – in fact more often than you think – our own lives can be traced back to an interesting historical twist of fate.
Such is the case for Sollows.
“I’m only here as a result of shipwreck,” he says, explaining his maternal great-grandfather was a sailor from Norway who was part of the crew of the Happy Home barque. The vessel was shipwrecked on Trinity Ledge during an 1881 January storm.
“They could see the lights from the shore but they couldn’t get vessels out because it was so rough,” he says. But the next day, with dead calm seas, people reached the ship. Many of those onboard had frozen to death – some encased in ice. But there were survivors, including his great-grandfather who settled in the area, eventually marrying a woman from Port Maitland.
“My grandmother was the result of that union,” Sollows says.
Meanwhile, in speaking about the starting point for the tour, Sollows reminisces about how a 1901 jail inspection proclaimed the old Yarmouth jailhouse to be finest jailhouse in the province. It’s not been used since the Southwest Nova Correctional Facility opened in 2004. In fact, it’s been for sale for quite some time although it has now reportedly been purchased by a former Yarmouth resident looking to breathe new life into the old building.
Will she have company?
It’s possible, if you ask Sollows, who, doesn’t hesitate with his response when he’s asked, “Is the jail haunted?”
“Definitely,” he says, and as he speaks your eyes dart back up to those windows on the upper floors. “I’m sure there are restless spirits in this place, but you know it might just be because they have unfinished stories they need to tell. We’ll be able to tell some of those on the night of our walk.”
You can click here to see a video of David Sollows talking about the walking tour. Note: the sound you hear in the video are not spirits, it's just the wind. Then again....
ALSO: David Sollows will be leading another walking tour on Friday, July 18 at 2 p.m. called Sails, Saltwater & Stories of the Sea. This waterfront walk, a free event, will focus on Yarmouth's seafaring past. How did Yarmouth become such a wealthy town in the mid 1800s? Where did the wealth go? The tour will include stories of some of Yarmouth's heroes and heartaches. Tour starts at the gazebo in Frost park.
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