“All my life it has been my aim to write a book… I have always kept a notebook in which I jotted down… ideas for plots, incidents, characters, and descriptions. Two years ago, in the spring of 1905 I was looking over this notebook in search of some suitable idea … and I found a faded entry, written ten years before: ‘Elderly couple apply to orphan asylum for a boy. By mistake a girl is sent them.’”
~ Lucy Maud Montgomery
The result was Anne of Green Gables.1 This best-selling novel was published in June 1908 and achieved instant acclaim, with seven impressions printed before the year’s end. Much of the appeal was the creation of Anne Shirley—a spunky, independent, and intelligent heroine with a fertile imagination. As Mark Twain noted, Anne was “the dearest and most loveable child in fiction since the immortal Alice” of Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland.2
Lucy Maud Montgomery had created a charming portrait of Cavendish, Prince Edward Island (PEI)—a typical rural island community with a church, cemetery, school, and post office—which she transformed into the fictitious village of Avonlea. This place would come to hold special meaning for many the world over. The popular reception of Anne of Green Gables “churned up so much attention that her home province … soon had a flood of visitors, all wanting to see the landscapes she painted so vividly.”3 Indeed, no fictional character has ever contributed so dominantly to a province’s tourism as red-haired, pig-tailed Anne.
Those who came were intent on seeking out the sacred sites: the buildings and pastoral locales surrounding Montgomery’s ancestral home on the Island’s North Shore. In the summer of 1909, Montgomery noted, “I owe much to that dear lane [Lovers’ Lane, one of her Cavendish haunts]. And in return I have given it love—and fame. I painted it in my book: and as a result, the name of this little remote woodland lane is known all over the world. Visitors to Cavendish ask for it and seek it out. Photographs of its scenery have appeared in the magazines. The old lane is famous.”4
Locals, including family, did not always appreciate the influx of visitors to pilgrimage sites. For example, in 1920, Montgomery learned that her uncle John F. MacNeill was tearing down the house where she had been raised.
Sightseers regularly trespassed all over the property, “peering into the windows of the empty house and trampling all over his planted fields.”5 While Montgomery did not get along with her uncle, she was “content that it should be torn down. It would not please me to think of it being overrun by hordes of curious tourists and carried off piecemeal. The Bentley party had their car full of some old junk they had retrieved from the cellar!”6
The character of the Island changed dramatically in the post-war years because of tourism, much of which was inspired by Montgomery’s novel. Cavendish residents noted the surge of visitors, and a handful began catering to the summer trade. In 1921, Jeremiah and Christianna Simpson were the first to accommodate tourists as a sideline to their farm operation. The following year, Ernest and Myrtle Webb (elderly cousins of Montgomery), who lived in a neighboring farmhouse that had inspired the novel’s setting—and would soon become “Green Gables,” Canada’s most famous literary landmark—opened a tearoom and began taking guests. In short order, they would add cabins, provide tours of the area, and sell souvenirs, such as picture postcards. Others followed, such as Katherine Wyand, who offered accommodation and opened the Avonlea Restaurant, a lunch counter right at the beach.7
Visiting the Island in 1929, Montgomery noted: “It was dark when we got to Hunter River [the closest train station to Cavendish] and there was a light in the waiting room…. On the opposite wall thro’ the door I saw a big poster—“Avonlea Restaurant, Cavendish Beach.” Mrs. Allan Wyand … has been turning an honest penny this summer by catering to the summer crowds that come to the sand shore…. One day this summer I understand there were all of two thousand people there.”8
While Montgomery was initially proud of the attention she had given to the Island’s North Shore, by the late 1920s, she was appalled by it: “You ask in your letter if ‘Cavendish has become a place of pilgrimage for my admirers?’ Alas, yes. And the chagrin expressed in that alas is not affectation at all but genuine regret and annoyance. Cavendish is being over-run and exploited and spoiled by mobs of tourists and my harmless old friends and neighbors have their lives simply worried out of them by carloads of “foreigners” who want to see some of Anne’s haunts. I was down home a month this summer and there was hardly a day that was not spoiled for me by some irruption.”9
In the mid-1930s, a movement began to create a national park in PEI; until then, there was no national park east of Ontario. Dalvay-by-the-Sea, an oceanfront mansion in Grand Tracadie, 20 miles east of Cavendish, was considered a logical choice for inclusion to attract affluent tourists. Built in 1896 as the summer home of American millionaire Alexander McDonald, a one-time president of Standard Oil, its acquisition would fit perfectly into the tradition of majestic park hotels like those in Banff and Jasper.10 Senior Parks Canada staffer Frank H.H. Williamson envisioned creating a classic seaside resort without the typical “obnoxious amusements.”11
Of course, it was soon apparent that it would be impossible to ignore the mass appeal of Cavendish in any national park development plan for the Island. A newspaper report in the late 1920s emphasized the significance of the area, noting, “More tourists have visited the scenes of L.M. Montgomery’s novels this year than ever before and the prospects are that there will be an ever-increasing number of visitors.” It went on to state that signs to the sites were needed. Moreover, the sites themselves required protection from “people who do not appreciate the value of literary associations as a commercial asset.”12
Parks Canada was won over by Cavendish, mainly because of its connection to the Anne books. Williamson offered suggestions on developing the area, many of which were obnoxious amusements—the very thing to be avoided at Dalvay. His ideas included a children’s village; Green Gables as a children’s rest house with a museum; aquarium; buildings for dancing and roller skating; a carnival arena; concessions for bungalow camps, hotels, restaurants, soft drinks, and ice cream; beach donkeys and ponies; moving picture theatres, and other shows.13
By July 1936, Prince Edward Island National Park had been finalized: 25 miles of oceanfront land that took in the prime beaches along the North Shore. Green Gables would be the centerpiece. On learning in September 1936 of three Cavendish farms that would be expropriated for inclusion in the park, Montgomery wrote: “I feel dreadfully. Where will the Webbs go? Another home I have loved blotted out. Everything changed. I understand these farms were chosen because of Anne of Green Gables. It’s a compliment I well could spare.”14
As it turned out, the Webbs, who had expanded their accommodation business by adding cottages in the early 1930s, sold Green Gables with the promise of a $50 per month job for Ernest to serve as caretaker in the new park. They were also permitted to remain living at the farmhouse until 1945. As for Katherine Wyand, things did not go so smoothly. By the late-1920s, Wyand had built Avonlea Cottages, renting out cabins by the day or week. Initially permitted by Parks Canada to continue her business, they rescinded the offer as her cottages did not meet park standards. Nevertheless, Wyand refused to move and mounted a formidable public relations campaign through the press before being expropriated.15
Parks Canada was rather short-sighted in its planning of the national park, for, in its creation, it had eliminated most of the cottages and rooms available for rent. Pressured to accommodate an anticipated surge of tourists (visitation to the park would jump from 2,500 in 1937, its inaugural year, to 37,000 in 1939), Parks Canada awkwardly approached tourism operators they had just expropriated. Katherine Wyand took the offer “to reopen her cottages in the park once they were moved further off the beach, cleaned up, and painted.”16
Oddly enough, while Parks Canada recognized the growing iconic value of Green Gables, the site initially took a subordinate role in the development of the new park. Instead, taking priority was creating a golf course, which, during the era, was seen as crucial in making the park credible as a cultured destination.17 As a result, the outbuildings and agricultural landscape of Green Gables were destroyed, sparing only the famous farmhouse—and it only narrowly escaped becoming the clubhouse for the golf course. The fairways were laid out perilously close to the house, the gables of which were painted green for the very first time with shutters added.18
Parks Canada can be somewhat forgiven for its negligent planning of the site. After all, the reality of Green Gables is befuddling. As Brenda R. Weber perceptively articulated: “let’s be clear what we’re talking about here: fans flocking to a site they believe to be the ‘real’ home of a fictional girl they’ve grown to love, an author’s imaginary becoming so strong and seemingly real that a national park is established on the site of where events never took place but were said to have.”19
It was not until 1950 that Green Gables was formally opened to the public, initially as a museum with a tearoom and gift shop furnished to re-create “the home” of Anne Shirley. The farmhouse had been built in 1831, with additions in the 1870s and 1914, but its interior was decorated to represent the 1890s, the era of the novel. Parks Canada’s interpretive policy at Green Gables recognized that historical authenticity must sometimes be compromised by literary accuracy.20 As such, site redevelopment has been guided over the years by details from Montgomery’s Anne novels to create and sustain the myth of place—in short, to satisfy reader expectations.
Meanwhile, tourism development was taking place outside the national park in Cavendish and area. By the mid-1950s, the number of cottage and cabin operators had grown to around 20, many adopting names that drew inspiration from Montgomery’s literary heritage. To name a few: Anne Shirley Cabins, Green Gables Bungalow Court, Shining Waters Lodge, and Avonlea Lodge (at this point operated by Katherine Wyand’s daughter). In addition, many restaurants and other businesses took names with the same inspiration as their drawing card for tourists.
With over one million visitors a year crowding into the national park by the early 1960s, it is no surprise that entrepreneurs were robust in developing attractions in the area to tap the tourist dollar. An early entry was Woodleigh Replicas, a collection of large-scale concrete and granite recreations of famous British landmarks created by Lt.- Col. Ernest Johnstone and opened to the public in 1957. An abundance of attractions would follow: Royal Atlantic Wax Museum (“Josephine Tussaud’s Wonderful World of Wax”); Pinehills Playland (with its haunted cave and gallery); King Tut’s Tomb and Treasures (where you could “Save yourself the cost of a trip to Egypt”); The Enchanted Castle (“To see your favourite storybook characters in action”); Atlantic Land (“An introduction to the Island’s way of life”); Marineland Aquarium; Rainbow Valley; Ripley’s Believe It or Not! and many more.
In the early 1970s, there were grumblings about what was perceived as the desecration of the purity and rural beauty of PEI. In a 1971 article titled: “Tourist Traps, Billboards, and a Plaster Kangaroo: How our Prettiest Province Could Become a Bargain Basement Disneyland,” author David Cobb cataloged a litany of attractions that were marring Canada’s “Garden of the Gulf,” establishments that were described as tasteless and out of place on the Island.21
By this time, the crossroads of Cavendish, immediately outside the national park, had become a busy intersection. As one visitor noted in 1972: “wax museum on one corner, modernized gas station on another, and stores, restaurants, and motels in all directions. I wish they had been in good taste, but nothing about their facades impressed me so much as their lack of taste and their dedication to dollars above all.”22
That same year, an article in the Boston Globe was accurate in noting, “Many visitors first heard of the beauties of Prince Edward Island through Miss Montgomery, and her spirit is often invoked by those concerned about protecting them—from tourists among other menaces.” To paraphrase the rest of the article: Montgomery would be incensed with what parts of the island had become.23 Fifteen years later, a letter to the Charlottetown Guardian reiterated the concern more poignantly: “It is surprising Miss Montgomery’s headstone [situated in a cemetery at the main intersection in Cavendish] hasn’t become a whirling dervish from her turning over in her grave.”24 And on the commercialization would go—an evolving tourist imprint, seasonal in nature, impinging upon Montgomery’s Cavendish landscape.
Visiting Green Gables nowadays is a curious proposition. After navigating a capacious parking lot, you enter a visitor center that houses interpretative exhibits along with an extensive gift shop and café. Proceeding outside to the Green Gables site, recreated period farm buildings frame the farmhouse (the golf fairways have been pushed back and concealed behind a forest buffer). It is here where the boundary between fact and fiction, between real and imagined spaces, dissolves. So, while many visitors to the site have a deep appreciation for Montgomery’s life and work, as Alexander MacLeod points out, “the vast majority of people who come to Cavendish are attempting to visit the imaginary Avonlea and to put themselves, temporarily at least, into the same shared place where Anne once ‘lived’ in the real world.”25
In a sense, the experience of visiting Green Gables can be likened to a curated amusement, much akin to what can be found beyond the park boundaries in the sprawl of wax museums, amusement parks, castles, water parks, and the like. Commercialization co-exists outside and within the national park.
In 1936, shortly after the national park’s creation was announced (but before Green Gables was opened to the public), Montgomery wrote, “when I first penned Anne of Green Gables so many years ago, I had no idea what would spring from it all.” After initially being upset about the implications of a national park, she reconciled herself to it: “The premier [Thane A. Campbell] assured me that the woods and paths and dykes would be kept just as they were…. So, I began to feel that it was all for the best because those places will never be desecrated now. Still, there will be a good deal of change and I felt very, very sad my last night there.”26 Change, indeed—Montgomery had no idea.
Peter Glaser has contributed “Northern Roadsides,” a Canadian perspectives column, to the SCA Journal since 2008. This is his fourth feature.
There’s more! To read the rest of this article, members are invited to log in. Not a member? We invite you to join. This article originally appeared in the SCA Journal, Spring 2023, Vol. 41, No. 1. The SCA Journal is a semi-annual publication and a member benefit of the Society for Commercial Archeology.
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