A cherished High River landmark reemerges

Written by: Fraser Shaw, Heritage Conservation Advisor

Recently, I visited the Maccoy Homestead in High River after seven long years of flood repairs and conservation. Nestled in Sheppard Family Park near the south edge of High River, this was the farm and home of well-known local resident Ruth Maccoy for over 70 years. Upon her passing in 1995 and at her bequest, the farm became Sheppard Family Park with the homestead as its nucleus.

The home is a charming 1883 whitewashed log building, the earliest structure on the site, with a frame addition and porch built by her parents in the 1920s and surrounded by a garden and picket fence lovingly tended by Ruth Maccoy over the years. Behind the house are a garden shed, a small guesthouse, and a root cellar set into an embankment, while the garage is located nearby. A path leads west through the trees to a footbridge over the Little Bow River, usually a shallow creek, to the historic water source in a natural spring.

One of High River’s first municipal designations, the Sheppard/Maccoy House was designated as a Municipal Historic Resource in 2009 by the Town of High River for its association with Ruth Maccoy and early settlement in the area. An exceptional example of an early farm, the site also exemplifies the contribution of women’s labour to homesteading and agriculture in rural Alberta and was designated a Provincial Historic Resource in 2015. The site is a good example of how complementary municipal and provincial heritage values tell a richer story and was the subject of a RETROactive post earlier this summer.

Sheppard Family Park was unfortunately in the crosshairs in June 2013 when the Highwood River surged through town and across the drainage divide into the Little Bow River, submerging the Maccoy Homestead and Sheppard Family Park in over a metre of water. This post won’t revisit those difficult days and months; instead, this is a short photographic retrospective of a seven-year journey that began with assessment of the damage and initial recovery work, and continued with securing of funds from many sources, work plan development, and many hours of coordinating and carrying out the actual conservation work. The restoration is now complete thanks to the perseverance and dedication of many individuals with the Town of High River, Sheppard Family Park Society, Museum of the Highwood, contractors, consultants and volunteers. Their hard work makes it possible for us all to celebrate this milestone in the site’s ongoing history!

An undated historic photograph of the Sheppard/Maccoy House shows the log kitchen and larger 1920s frame addition with porch at left. The gabled front of the roof cellar is visible against the embankment at the far right background. Source: Museum of the Highwood.

A glimpse through mud-streaked windows on July 3, 2013 revealed a chaotic scene of soaked furniture and heirlooms strewn throughout the interior by the flood. In the kitchen at right, tidelines of silt on the whitewashed log walls attest to the depth of flooding, July 23, 2013. Source: Historic Resources Management Branch.

While some flood trauma is immediate and obvious, other impacts may emerge over weeks or months. Cupping of the front hall floor in August 2013 (upper left) resulted from the floor varnish that inhibited gradual, uniform drying of the saturated wood. In the kitchen (right), moisture in the logs pushes a thick shell of whitewash and paint from the walls. Condensation in the damp interior causes latex paint on the living room ceiling to peel from underlying oil-based paint until heat and other services are restored (lower left). Source: Historic Resources Management Branch.

With funding in place, flood rehabilitation gets underway in earnest in 2016 with lifting of the house onto a new concrete foundation and a dry, well-drained and ventilated crawl space in 2016. Like many early log structures, the kitchen rested directly on the ground, where damp soil is susceptible to frost heave and leads to rot, subsidence and distress of the structures above. Wet, silty flood deposits aggravated these problems. Though costly, a new foundation safeguards the historic buildings for generations to come. Even with this major structural upgrade, important historic features like the worn wood kitchen door threshold were preserved (bottom). Source: Historic Resources Management Branch.

Views of the 1920s tongue-and-groove interior in July and December 2013 show drastic post-flood interventions needed for thorough cleaning and drying of the structure. The historic living room was stripped to clean and disinfect the wall cavities after contractors carefully numbered and removed the interior trim and individual wall boards for drying and reinstallation. Finish flooring was also removed to aid drying and hopefully relieve cupping of the finish floor. The interior was unrecognizable from its pre-flood state and restoration seemed a daunting, even impossible, undertaking. Source: Historic Resources Management Branch.

The exteriors were less severely impacted by the flood but benefitted as well from conservation. Varied exterior materials include painted clapboard at the house, garage, shed and guest house; whitewashed logs of the original cabin (kitchen); and limewashed plaster at the root cellar. Traditional whitewash was reapplied to the log cabin using a mixture of high-calcium lime, water and natural additives like milk powder or glue flakes. This both protects the logs and actively draws moisture from the wood due to lime’s intrinsic capillary properties. Linseed oil paint was applied to the clapboard exteriors, a traditional treatment that is highly flexible, breathable and ideal for protecting weathered wood like the guest house exterior. The oil penetrates and reconditions the wood and prevents the cyclical shrinkage and swelling that leads to cracking and premature paint failure. Source: Historic Resources Management Branch.

Historic paint colours were documented before the interior was repainted. A simple, practical method uses fine sandpaper to expose previous paint layers that are matched to a current colour standard – in this case, to swatches of a major paint manufacturer. The living room walls revealed varnished fir boards that were later painted pale blue, yellow, pale green and most recently, white. Colour records were added to the project conservation report. The full range of colours is historic but pale green was chosen to reflect the living room as last painted by Ruth Maccoy. The repainted interior retains the underlying older colours as part of the building’s history. However, drying of the wood structure continued even into 2018 and ongoing shrinkage and movement of the tongue-and-groove interior meant that the final coat of paint had to wait until the woodwork was finally stable. Source: Historic Resources Management Branch.

A dream come true, the log kitchen and living room look once again as they did historically in September 2020 with Ruth Maccoy’s stove, furniture and other artifacts painstakingly restored by the Sheppard Family Park Society (compare with the second and fifth photos above). Source: Historic Resources Management Branch.

The restored Maccoy Homestead faces south over the garden, with the shed and root cellar visible behind the house and the guest house at far right. Source: Historic Resources Management Branch.

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