Cathy LeBlanc refers to them, politely, as “tire kickers.” People from “away,” often in possession of a home in Toronto or Vancouver, who are craving a simpler, more soul-nourishing life than whatever rat race they are caught up in. It is a desire that can often lead to the Canada-wide real estate listings and, if the tire kickers dig around a little, to Amherst, a town in Nova Scotia, a stone’s throw (or two) from the Bay of Fundy.
“The tire kickers are all looking for the same thing — peace and quiet,” LeBlanc says. “It is old fashioned here, people don’t lock their doors, and if you moved to Amherst tomorrow every neighbour in the area would show up at your door with something to eat.”
The small-town idyll is further enhanced by the math. Should one, say, cash out of an $800,000 semi-detached anchor-around-the-neck in Toronto, one could purchase any number of reddish-brown sandstone Victorian-era mansions in Amherst with, of course, Cathy LeBlanc’s help. The veteran realtor has an office on Victoria Street, the town’s main drag, not far from 188 Victoria St., one of the mansions she is selling. Originally built as a wedding gift in 1905, it features a turret, stained-glass windows, wainscoting, a grand main staircase and a name — Beau Séjour — although locals simply refer to it as the “Beautiful House.”
For a come from away, it has a beautiful price ($579,000), which is about $21,000 cheaper than the average condominium in Toronto. If a good bargain isn’t enough of a hook, Amherst offers more sophisticated enticements. Once upon less sleepy times, the town was famous for being home to four fathers of Confederation, (Edward Chandler, R.B. Dickey, Jonathan McCully, Sir Charles Tupper), one of whom (Sir Charles), was also a Canadian prime minister.
Actor Dwayne (The Rock) Johnson’s father, Rocky, was an Amherst man, as was the artist Alex Colville — as was Leon Trotsky, albeit only briefly, and only because the Russian revolutionary was temporarily imprisoned at the makeshift jail at the town’s iron foundry in 1917.
A century later, most townfolk don’t lock their doors, and they are open to sharing what many there believe to be true: Amherst is the country’s best-kept small-town real-estate secret.
“Amherst is a Victorian gem,” says Don Miller, minister at the First Baptist Church, another historic sandstone beauty on, yes, Victoria Street. Miller came to Amherst from Halifax 30 years ago. He made a commitment to stay for three years. He has never left.
“My mother always refers to Amherst as the make-believe town — because it is so beautiful,” he says.
Miller lives in Bent Cottage, a home built in 1770. It is the oldest dwelling in town, older than Canada itself. He organizes an annual Christmas house tour, and over the past 25 years tour goers have traipsed through more than 125 homes. Some are grand, others more modest, and all have a story to tell.
“I am sitting in my kitchen,” Miller says. “People used to buy their vegetables out back. Alex Colville’s father used to park here. There is a sense of history all around you.”
Part of that history involves a story of better days. Amherst was once known as the “Busy City.” The Amherst Boot and Shoe Company, Amherst Piano Company and Hewson Woolen Mills — and more — kept the place humming. But the factories have long since shuttered. As a town, Amherst isn’t dying — the population has been remarkably stable at around 9,500 since 1911 — but it isn’t getting any younger. A quarter of the population is over 65. Working-age people often commute elsewhere for work. Businesses on the picturesque main street struggle to stay afloat.
Even more alarming, perhaps, for city slickers looking for a change of pace, is that for all its heritage charm, Amherst is challenged by what it isn’t, chiefly: on the ocean. Nova Scotia dream living, for non-Nova Scotians, evokes not just the smell of saltwater but an ocean view. It’s a vista, alas, that Amherst, as an old railway hub, lacks. The town was built for moving goods, and for moving people east to west. Via Rail passenger trains still stop in town, though Via no longer staffs its historic station, while the Trans-Canada Highway skirts just to the south, pushing on to Truro and Halifax beyond. (For those headed in the opposite direction, Moncton, N.B., a city with a historic main street — and an abundance of big box stores — is a half-hour drive away.)
LeBlanc isn’t troubled by her hometown’s awkward geography. Tire kickers, she says, need to be thinking big picture, and in the scheme of property transactions, the couple cashing out on a million-dollar home in Ontario can buy a four bedroom Victorian rebuild for $350,000 in Amherst, instead of that sandstone mansion, and a beach house, and still put several hundred thousand dollars in the bank. In other words: the best of all worlds’ beckons, for those willing to take the leap. Besides, adds LeBlanc, the not-so-secret secret among locals is that everybody lives at their ocean-view cottages for the summer months anyway, just a 15-minute drive from downtown.
“I might pass five cars on my way to the beach — and that’s considered busy,” LeBlanc says, laughing. “You should really consider moving here.”