MacDonald House Museum

by Mary Anne Ducharme

MacDonald House MuseumThis little house, built in 1839, is on top of a hill overlooking Lake Ainslie. This is the largest fresh water lake in Nova Scotia and it is clear and lovely, popular with artists and photographers as well as for camping, water sports, and fishing. The MacDonald House Museum has a focus on the rural life in Cape Breton in the last century and to the 1940's.

The MacDonald House Museum commands a sweeping view of farms and the brilliant blue of Lake Ainslie. This lake is the largest natural body of freshwater in Nova Scotia and it is a great place to spot eagles and their nests, to fish, camp, or look for Cape Breton version of The Loch Ness Monster. The Lake was named for one of the governors of Cape Breton.

On Route 395, the museum complex of four buildings includes a considerable collection of farm implements and other artifacts of rural Cape Breton life up to the 1940's. Early settlers relied on farming for their livelihood and people made their own food, clothing, soap, whatever they needed. Barite mining started in 1895 and had quite an effect on farming. Many thought mining was the way to go and they left their farms for the barite mines in Scotsville, Trout River and on Bald Mountain in East Lake Ainslie.

Alexander MacDonald, whose arrival from the Isle of Mull in 1823 provided the patronym for MacDonald House, was a weaver. He took possession of a land grant of 518 acres at East Lake Ainslie, and married Mary MacLean. Alexander and Mary had four girls and two boys, and the younger of the sons, Charles built this house in the 1850's. By 1876, it housed the first Post Office in the area, with Charles himself as the first postmaster. When he died in 1897, his son Daniel continued as postmaster until closure in 1956 because of the introduction of the rural delivery system.

Weaving remains a major activity in this community and the Lake Ainslie Weavers and Craft Guild continues to promote both old and new patterns, and beautifully woven blankets and other items can be purchased in the area. The weavers have even designed a special tartan for Lake Ainslie with a blend of colors that speak of water, clouds, sun, grasses, and mountain spruce.

Charles MacDonald established the first mercantile business in that area. While there are no known photographs of this business, it was located at the bottom of the hill near the MacDonald House lane. At this time, the house and its environs became important as a natural gathering place in the local region and many enjoyed visiting or doing business there.

The Museum displays copies of interesting ledgers for the Charles MacDonald store, dated from 1853-1856, and showing lively trade ( in English shillings and pence). The staff of the Museum "know" these people listed in the ledger - or know precisely who they are in relation to their descendants still living in the area. In fact, Pauline MacLean and Peter MacMillan are often called upon as resources for those seeking information about East Lake Ainslie genealogies.

MacDonald House is typical of the Gothic Revival style, characterized by a steeply pitched roof with gingerbread trim above the front entrance. The site also features woodland walking trails, the one-room Glenmore School on the grounds which hosts school reunions, and a restored barn which is the scene for family-oriented barn dances and milling frolics during the Lake Ainslie Heritage Festival in July. In November there is an annual St.Andrew°s Day celebration, complete with the serving of haggis.

The Lake Ainslie Historical Society was formed in 1978 and incorporated a year later. It now has a Board of Directors chaired by D.J. MacLean, with about 30 members. Previous to the donation of the house to the Society, valuable artifacts in private homes had been disappearing from the area because they were sold, given away or discarded. There was no place for items to be properly identified and safeguarded for the future. Charles N. MacDonald, who donated the house, is a fourth generation descendant of the original pioneer Alexander. He is satisfied to see his family home thus preserved as a focal point of the area, and to see a growing collection of donated artifacts.

Museum Hours

Open Daily: June through September - 10:00am to 5:00pm

For more information call: 902-258-3317 at the Museum, or 902-258-2850 for the president of the Historical Society.