Story by Carol Stigger
Photos courtesy Carol Stigger and Val-Jalbert
Slip back into the 1920s in Val-Jalbert, Quebec
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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