Bringing back the past

Robert Burgess is restoring his family’s buildings and a community’s history.

Robert Burgess started to restore the buildings after he inherited them from his mother. Among the buildings are his family’s original home and sawmill.  Patrick Newhook/Kicker

Patrick Newhook
Kicker News

As many Newfoundland communities are trying to move forward, one man is trying to remind people of their roots.

History is something many Newfoundlanders and Labradorians hold close to their hearts.

For someone like Robert Burgess, knowing his history is important.

Burgess is a resident of the town of Whiteway, a small community of about 400 people located in Trinity Bay south. He lives in and owns the Burgess property, a Heritage NL registered historic structure.

The history of Burgess’ family dates back to the mid-1800s with his family being the community’s first permanent residents, according to Heritage NL.

Burgess, who is a retired telecommunications project manager, inherited the property from his mother Margaret and began working on the structures in 2009.

“Without knowing your personal history you can lose your connection to your roots and where you are from,” said Burgess. “Many don’t have it and are searching for it. What we [the Burgess family] have is right here. We have a connection.”

The Burgess property consists of a house and five outbuildings – a stable, a sawmill, a fishing store, a cellar and a fishing stage on the beach. All were built in the late 1800s to the early 1900s.

It’s a collection of wooden-frame buildings with interiors neatly filled with antiques and remnants of the building’s former lives.

Preservation of history and a desire to know his roots was Burgess’ motivation to start the project.

“We’ve been here for a long time and personally I wanted to make sure that our engagement in the community and our personal connection with the past was kept,” Burgess said.

Besides restoring the buildings, this year Burgess had them recognized as registered heritage structures by Heritage NL.

“It was important for me, for the future and longevity of this property, to have it recognized by Heritage NL so now it’s not just my opinion, but a collective opinion, that this is indeed a heritage property,” said Burgess.

Erica Jackson is the town manager for Whiteway. The town has begun to create signs to highlight its history.  Patrick Newhook/Kicker

Heritage NL designates properties across Newfoundland and Labrador as heritage sites. The organization does, in some cases, offer some financial support for the restoration of these structures. Currently, there are 350 registered heritage structures in the province.

Jerry Dick is the executive director of Heritage NL. The organization is a provincial Crown agency that is dedicated to the preservation and education of Newfoundland’s historic places, including structures.

The historical significance of the Burgess premises was the collection of buildings. It tells of another time and how people lived and survived during those times.

“It was the assembly of buildings and the story behind it that was interesting and so that story becomes about the outport household economy,” said Dick.

For Dick, the history and heritage of a town is what makes it authentic and is what should be preserved.

“As the older generation pass, it’s important for the younger generation to know what happened here and what was involved.”

“A community’s heritage is one of the most significant assets that it has in terms of a tool for a community’s well-being and possible community economic development. It’s what that place is about,” said Dick.

The town of Whiteway has not had a lot of involvement in the Burgess property. The town currently has nothing in place to support heritage structures. However, the town council does see the value of such a project.

Erica Jackson is the town manager for Whiteway.

“As the older generation pass, it’s important for the younger generation to know what happened here and what was involved. This is an excellent way to keep that going,” Jackson said.

Burgess has shared information about the property with the town. Now they are beginning to develop storyboards to place around the town to highlight its past.

“Robert Burgess is doing a great job in keeping history alive. The town fully supports him and what he’s done,” said Jackson.

Burgess plans to further develop the properties and to maintain and promote them within the community.

As for other possibilities, Burgess is undecided.

“I’ll leave that door open, who knows?” said Burgess.

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