In search of heirlooms to call her own, Jeanne Beker gives new life to all things past.
Blame it on the romantic in me, but I’ve always had a penchant for precious old objects with their own stories to tell.
Perhaps it’s because, growing up, we never had any heirlooms in my family: as survivors of the Holocaust, which claimed both sets of my grandparents and most of my aunts and uncles, my parents immigrated to this country in 1948 with nothing more than a wooden chest packed with a couple of eiderdown quilts, some fine German china, a Czech crystal fruit bowl, and a silver Sabbath candelabra — all acquired while they were living in an Austrian displaced persons camp. While these treasures now rank among my most prized possessions, I yearned for a sense of material legacy when I first set up my own home. And so, when my husband and I bought our cottage — a charming, rustic place built in the ’30s — we were determined to fill it with interesting old items that harkened back to a more innocent time.
We became particularly obsessed with royal collectibles, for both their kitschiness and the way they exemplified tradition. With my husband’s British-Irish background, monarchy memorabilia felt appropriate, and when the kids were small, we turned the “thrill of the hunt” into a fun family pastime. Our Muskoka weekends were filled with trips to local antique stores and flea markets, with our two girls excited to explore the shops and stalls in the hope of finding a “royalty” treasure. From Queen Victoria mugs to Edward VII plates and Queen Elizabeth cups and saucers, our vintage china stash grew and grew, and once shelf space disappeared, we began hanging our treasures on the walls. Our collection soon expanded to include a plethora of coronation and royal visit ephemera, from flags and biscuit tins to buttons, matchbooks and other obscure paraphernalia. We’d never spend too much on any of these finds of course, always asking sellers for their “best price.” Most dealers are pretty negotiable anyway, and since haggling wasn’t ever something we subscribed to, if the price was too high, we’d just walk away. Eventually, we outgrew our passion for royalty fare, but the collection itself is still intact and serves as a loving testament to old family times, spent together, on a singular mission.
When my marriage broke up in the late ’90s, I was determined to get a country place of my own where the girls and I could start collecting new curios. Happily, I found the perfect 1842 stone house on a farm in Roseneath, Ont. One of my first furniture shopping sprees was a trip to nearby Port Hope in search of the perfect old pine harvest table. My friend Bruce Bailey, a seasoned art dealer who also resided in the area, told me that Smith’s Creek Antiques had some of the best Canadian antique furniture for miles. Sure enough, I found the Quebec harvest table of my dreams there, and now, 18 years later, it continues to grace the farmhouse dining room. That classic table has brought us great joy over the years, having shared countless meals around it with friends and family. I always think of all the other families that once sat at that gorgeous table — a kind of touchstone of togetherness and quality times.
These days, my eldest daughter and her husband call the farmhouse home, and my partner, Iain, and I spend about half our time at the 1850s country house we bought a couple of years ago in Warkworth, a tiny idyllic village nestled in the rolling hills of Northumberland County. We delight in our weekend outings, exploring neighbouring towns and villages and checking out the antique shops along the way. Iain, whose heritage is Scottish, shares my love of interesting old pieces, and we’ve already collected many for our Warkworth home. Our first trip to Smith’s Creek Antiques together resulted in a beautifully carved Nova Scotia pine vanity for our guest room. And subsequently, we found a delightful folk art hooked rug there in impeccable shape that hangs in our front hall. Though we can’t be sure of its exact vintage, we estimate it to be from the 1940s and, at $125, it was a steal.
Another great spot for furniture, especially Quebec pine, is Marions Antiques in nearby Brighton. Chatting with the shop’s engaging Irish proprietor, Jack, is worth the trip alone. When we were furnishing our dining room, we found the most fabulous Welsh cupboard there — perfect for displaying many of the vintage dishes I’ve collected over the years. Jack’s prices are good, but don’t be shy to ask him what his “best price” is. I can almost guarantee he’ll give you a deal. That’s the case with most dealers, especially if you’re paying with cash or a cheque.
There are some amazing bargains to be had at Collection Co, in Northumberland County’s Campbellford. Located in an 1850s stone house in the centre of town — which also serves as a wee hair salon — the stash here is extremely eclectic and always changing. Poke around the small rooms on two floors, as you’re sure to unearth some little gem at a very reasonable price. One of our most quirky finds came from Collection Co: an old copper zoetrope featuring a waterfall scene entitled “Nature’s Splendor” with a babbling brook that appears to move when lit up. Talk about a conversation piece!
We often drive to Peterborough, and along the way, on Hwy. 7, is a fantastic 6,000-square-foot multi-vendor antique mart that’s provided us with hours of entertainment. Strolling through the various “stalls” is a total trip down memory lane, with loads of vintage kitchen wares from the ’30s and ’40s, and enough old books, toys and board games from the ’50s and ’60s to take you right back to your childhood.
A lazy Saturday or Sunday often includes a visit to Meyersburg Flea Market and Antiques on Country Road 30. It’s another multi-vendor operation, situated in a huge barn, with a crazy mixed bag of stuff, always worth investigating. The Eastern European Deli on the ground floor is the pièce de résistance though: from homemade pepperoni sticks to baked poppy seed rolls, there’s nothing like a tasty treat when you’re on an intriguing treasure hunt.
Of course, there really is no place like home, and our sweet Warkworth features two gorgeous antique stores on Main Street named Winker’s Nook and The Nook Gallery, which we never tire of popping into. Owner Lana Taylor has an exquisite eye, and her stores are packed with a well-edited assortment of fine pieces. I bought a beautifully preserved basket-pattern quilt there last year, and this past Christmas, scored a rare 1867 hand-coloured Currier & Ives print entitled “The Pasture in Summer: The Drinking Trough.”
While many of us may be at an age where we’re trying to divest our lives of “stuff,” there’s still something to be said about the comfort of surrounding ourselves with those unique pieces that speak of simpler times, have an air of familiarity and don’t break the bank. The sheer fun of scouring these enchanting little emporiums, just waiting for something from our past to pop into view or discovering some fabulous find at a bargain price can be a most satisfying, even thrilling, country pastime. I don’t think Iain and I — or my daughters and I — will ever tire of it. But beyond the mere fun factor, the sport of antiquing also feels ecologically correct: recycling these romantic vintage pieces that so deserve to be appreciated and cherished anew is good for the planet and a definite sign of the times.
A version of this story “A Certain Vintage” appeared in the July/August 2018 issue, pg. 70.