Story by Carol Stigger
Photos courtesy Carol Stigger and Val-Jalbert

Val-Jalbert Mill

Slip back into the 1920s in Val-Jalbert, Québec

The 1920s roared for flappers, dandies, and tycoons in the U.S. and Canada, but one little mill town in Quebec quietly went about its pulp-milling  business. Val-Jalbert mill workers were happy to be housed in modest  homes with indoor plumbing, and the school run by nuns graduated  literate youth. Stores, a small hotel, a post office, and attractive  houses lined Main Street and the curving road up to the mill, a brisk  walk away. The scenery is spectacular with the 74-meter Quiatchouan  Falls, higher than Niagara. Daily life was organized around the siren that blew when the mill opened and again when it closed.

On August 13, 1927, the siren wailed for the last time. The mill closed  forever. Two hundred workers and their families were out of work and  forced to relocate. The village of Val-Jalbert died, and nature began  its reclamation work on man-made structures. It was not until the 1980s  that preservation began. Enough buildings remained intact to inspire  restoration so today’s travelers can experience the 1920s in the most  authentic way possible. Houses on the main street that could be saved  were re-roofed, painted their original white, and restored inside.

Val-Jalbert Maison d'époque

When we arrived at the visitors’ center and inquired about a room, we were  given the choice of a guest room in a restored house or a room at the  original inn above the general store. We opted for the house and parked  in a lot camouflaged by trees and shrubbery. Once out of the lot, we  did not glimpse a single car during our two-day stay, although our car was less than a stone’s throw away from our room.

Our room was one of four guest rooms in an original family house on Main  Street. Looking at the house, I felt as if I had time traveled. White  painted houses and small lawns with shrubbery and flowers looked like I  imagined houses looked in the decade my parents were born. Work boot planters were a nostalgic touch. The feeling remained inside our room.  It was spacious, and all modern amenities such as the TV, coffee  service, and i-Pod docking station were behind cupboards now prized by antique dealers. Watching TV in Val-Jalbert would have spoiled the  mood, but coffee appreciation is timeless, at least in my family.

Opening the bathroom door, we were jolted out of the 1920s and into today’s  five-star bathroom with all the expected amenities including a deep soaking tub. The bathroom window framed a green, little yard as one  would expect in a 1920s village minus sheets flapping on laundry lines.  The bathroom was the only visible modern touch. We certainly appreciated that the restoration team realized that today’s travelers will journey just so far into the past before posting a snarly review on TripAdvisor.

Val-Jalbert Trolley Bus

Exploring the village is made easy by a trolley with a jovial driver that makes  continuous rounds of the major attractions. We decided to go to school  first. The two-story, four room convent school is one of the best  preserved buildings in the village. Three interpretive actors, a nun and two school girls who misbehaved behind the nun’s back - and where  caught - brought the room to life. The smell of chalk dust brought  personal memories of whispered secrets and that restless feeling before  recess. The nun scolded us severely in French - probably for violating  the dress code by wearing shorts and tank tops.

Val-Jalbert Schoolhouse Interior

Back on Main Street, we visited the post office and got an earful from the  postmistress about the cost of the mayor’s top hat “all the way from  Montreal”. And when we met the mayor as he strode down the street  expressing hearty greetings, we noticed he wore his hat a bit  arrogantly. The general store’s display window is filled with 1920s  merchandise, but inside are interesting items for tourists. Packets of  blueberry tea made nice, packable gifts for the folks back home. We  purchased blueberry chocolate for the grandkids, but the tasty bars did  not make it to the airport.

Val-Jalbert Local Products

We were told that the interpretive actors must remain in character of the  townsfolk they portray. Former residents were researched so the  re-enactments are as authentic as possible. We heard no mention of  e-mail or cell phones. The only “webs” were those spun by spiders, and  the new-fangled telephones look like props from a black and white film starring Greta Garbo.

The focal point of Val-Jalbert is the mill. The crumbling turbines are  draped in greenery, but the mill still stands. A working mini  hydroelectric plant shows how the original mill operated, and you can  experience the operations hands-on using interactive models. Most  impressive is the 20-minute immersive, multimedia show with photos of  former residents speaking about their lives and some appearing as  holograms while the weather changes and snow falls from the ceiling.  (Headphones with English translation are available.)

The mill also houses du Moulin restaurant. We talked to Chef Carl Murray  and learned that he uses ingredients local to the area such as Perron cheddar cheese, Boreal Saint-Prime pork, and produce from local farms.  Fish and seafood are from nearby waters. Every dish we sampled was fresh and delicious and had flavors we had not experienced anywhere else.

Chef Murray gives his global culinary knowledge a unique, local twist. He  uses only herbs and spices from the boreal forest. No curry, paprika, or coriander in his restaurant. He uses herbs packaged by d’Origina that  add the special flavors of the boreal forest. You can order these herbs  through their website, www.dorigina.com  that also provides recipes. Or you can pick up some jars at the general store or at the Montreal airport.

If you came for the food, stay for the view. The falls are illuminated at  night, and you can climb halfway up to a glass-floor observation  platform. In daylight, you can take the cable car to the top of the  falls and see all the way to Lac Saint Jean. Wooden stairs with rails  and wooden trails make navigating the summit safe and easy.

Along the dirt path back to the village center, original houses are naturally collapsing, giving the town it’s “ghost town”€ reputation. Every guest  room contains a flashlight and a map, so those who dare can walk around  after dark and search for ghosts along the deserted streets. We focused  on the ambiance of the 1920 village, the flavors, and the fantastic  views. If ghosts lurked in the shadows, they did not give us goose  bumps.

Val-Jalbert

Of course the grandchildren were disappointed that we did not bring home  any ghost stories. The blueberry tea did not compensate for our  thoughtlessness. We felt guilty about eating all those blueberry  chocolate bars, so we took them to a spooky movie.

While Val-Jalbert is a great place to take well-behaved children, we were  pleased to have had such an agreeable adult experience. Freed from the  need to be good role models, we did not feel compelled to behave in the  classroom or to go easy on the chocolate.

Thanks to the town of Val-Jalbert for their gracious hospitality.

For more information, please visit www.valjalbert.com

 

 

 

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