By Lawrence Powell
There's not a lot of call for roof thatchers in Annapolis Royal these days, but Jef Achenbach got to put one of his old-time skills to work Saturday at Historic Gardens high up on the Acadian House. From the roof peak the view of the Belliveau Marsh was spectacular looking across Allain's Creek. And Gardens manager Trish Fry said looking out the south door of the replica house would have been much like the vista seen by an Acadian family almost 400 years ago. The remnants of the Acadian dykes are still out there.
Seventeen years ago Achenbach thatched the north side of the Acadian House roof using elephant grass -- Norfolk reed -- leaving the other side sheathed in boards. Several years ago he harvested more of the elephant grass and in late April of this year he and a small crew pulled off the old rotting boards on the south roof, laid poles as battens across the rafters to hold the reed bundles, and have been tying down the thatch on weekends ever since.
The individual reeds are tied together with string to form bundles. String ties thatch to the battens, diagonally at the roof edges to begin with and then with vertical bundles on top of that. The thatch is almost a foot-and-a-half thick by the time the roof is done. The peak is made watertight with mud and straw. The hollow reeds provide a very high insulation factor, are resistant to little critters because there is no food value, and because they are so tightly bundled together keep out the weather. The reeds laid 17 years ago, as seen from the inside, look like they could have been placed there yesterday. Monday afternoon the crew was busy mixing the mud for the peak.
Achenbach headed up a team that included Chris Fowler and Alan Critchley. The trio have something in common besides thatching -- they are all employees of Acadian Seaplants, a global leader in seaweed fertilizer. Critchley is vice-president of research and development at Acadian Seaplants in Halifax and stayed in Annapolis Royal over the weekend to work on the project. Also taking part were Ern Dick a volunteer and co-ordinator, and Ian Davidson, Gardens board of directors vice-chair who also helped co-ordinate. In all, about a dozen volunteers have helped out.
The Acadians would have used either thatch or boards for their roofs, said Fry. Both were common practice in their native France. The Acadian House is a reconstruction of a 1671 dwelling, based on archaeological evidence gathered nearby at Belleisle and at the Melanson Settlement. It is a rare example of a pre-deportation Acadian dwelling, Fry said.
She also said it's not known if the elephant grass was brought by the early settlers or if the story is true that the reed, used as bedding, was swept from the elephant boxcar when a circus train stopped nearby many years ago.
Gardens chair Keith Crysler described the thatching as an exciting project and said it’s been great to see the Acadian House evolve over the years.
The Gardens has positioned a time-lapse camera, courtesy of Acadian Seaplants, close by and the entire thatching process can be seen on The Gardens' YouTube channel at http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL35703786ABEE2E5D
The 17th Annual Spring Dinner and Auction in support of The Gardens is scheduled for Sunday, May 27 from 4 to 8 p.m. at the Annapolis Royal Legion and Community Centre. Fry said this much-anticipated annual event is a highlight of spring for many Gardens supporters, promising an evening of great food, terrific fun, and a lot of laughs. There will be hundreds of items up for grabs, and most event patrons will be lucky enough to take home a treasure or two at the end of the night.
Tickets for the event are $40 and may be purchased until May 24 through the Gardens office (532-7018) or online at www.historicgardens.com.