What’s a maritime town without a tale or two? On the south shore of Nova Scotia there is no shortage of tales, from traditional wild fish tales of the ‘ones that got away’, to the expulsion of the Acadians, to the human tragedy of lives lost at sea. Yarmouth, a small town on the southwestern shore, has more than a few of these stories, and there’s no better way to hear some of them than on the Yarmouth Walking Tour, led by Candice Phibbs, a storyteller who knows and loves the town. But Candice is not what or who you might expect.
One would think that the keeper of Yarmouth’s past might be a craggy old salt, a weathered fisherman whose lineage dates back generations in this small town of 7300 souls. Candice is the exact opposite of that. Young, enthusiastic and a research-obsessed transplant ‘from away’, this woman uses all the knowledge she has painstakingly unearthed to weave tales that make her walking tour of Yarmouth a truly engaging experience. Whether she’s talking about the Victorian architecture or the horrifying tale of a love story gone very, very wrong, Candice brings the past to life with the pictures she paints with her stories. I can’t think of a better way to explore a town!
Yarmouth Walking Tour: Architecture, of Course
A walking tour of Yarmouth must include some of its more impressive buildings, and there are several standout examples of Victorian architecture that are part of the Yarmouth Walking Tour. Many of the most prominent homes were built for members of the Lovitt family, a big name here in this small town. John Lovitt was a ship captain, shipbuilder, entrepreneur and politician in the late 1800s when Yarmouth was a thriving economic port, and the homes he built for himself and his children reflect the family’s status and success.
The Tower House was built for his son, John Lovitt Jr., and is noteworthy for the glass tower that was added in 1891 as a sort of two-story conservatory. The ‘eyes’ at the top resemble portholes from a ship and are a nod to the family’s history on the sea.
John Lovitt Sr. obviously liked to keep his children close (both to him and each other), as right next door to the Tower House is the home that Lovitt built for his daughter, today known as Guest Lovitt House that operates as a B&B.
Walking the pretty residential streets, Candice points out other homes with noteworthy or unusual features, including one that stands out for its brick construction that was actually once owned by King George V.
But even the less storied homes in Yarmouth are worth admiring for their Victorian charm, colours, and even whimsical touches.
Yarmouth County Museum & Archives
It’s always interesting to visit museums in small towns like Yarmouth, because you never know what treasures these places will hold, or what stories those treasures tell. The Yarmouth County Museum & Archives is exactly what you would expect from this type of museum: a slightly musty-smelling hodge-podge of everything from maritime mementos to local family heirlooms.
One of the museum”s centrepieces is a ‘Fresnel Lens‘, which came from Yarmouth’s original lighthouse after it was torn down in 1962 and replaced with the modern Cape Forchu Lighthouse. This lens had been in place since 1908 and was considered state-of-the-art at the time it was installed. Built in Paris at a cost of $38,000, this light weighs 3300 pounds, has 360 prisms for reflecting light, and would have been mounted in a vat of mercury when it was in use.
SINISTER FACT: The mercury in Fresnel lenses was used to reduce friction on the lens as it rotated in its track, but may have been responsible for poisoning some lightkeepers: when impurities collected in the mercury, lightkeepers needed to filter the mercury through a fine cloth, exposing them to the substance and its fumes. One of the symptoms of mercury poisoning is the onset of madness, which may have led to the suicide of some lightkeepers. This tragic end may have been mistakenly attributed to the solitude of their lifestyle, when in fact it could have been the result of exposure to this toxic chemical.
While I would have expected to see a lighthouse artifact in a seaside town’s museum, I was surprised to discover a collection of organs and musical instruments.
But perhaps the most curious item was a ‘runic stone’ that some believe was carved by early Viking explorers. (For fans of The Curse of Oak Island, this stone bears a striking resemblance to the infamous but missing-for-decades ’90 foot stone’…could it BE….that this runic stone somehow influenced that element in the Oak Island mystery?)
Frost Park: “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Yarmouth”
Frost Park is a pretty little green space right off of the main street that runs through Yarmouth. But look a little closer and you’ll see something you wouldn’t expect in a park: gravestones. What we learned on our Yarmouth Walking Tour was that this was the original burial ground for the town, and although many of the bodies had been removed and relocated as the town got bigger and encroached on the space, some remains still– well –remain here.
If that story is a bit creepy for you, perhaps this one will make you smile: some Yarmouthians, including another town historian, Ken Langille, believe that their town may have been the inspiration for a famous Christmas song: “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas” by Meredith Wilson. Staff at the original Grand Hotel (directly opposite Frost park) recall a songwriter coming to the hotel in the late 1940s looking for solitude to do some writing. Then in 1951, when this song was released, there were quite a few references that fit Yarmouth’s streetscape, including a ‘five and dime store’, candy cane decorations, and of course, Frost Park.
Of course, it may never be 100% confirmed whether Yarmouth is the town that inspired this Christmas song, but it makes for a nice story, so I’m going with it.
FUN FACT: Another interesting feature in Frost Park that Candice pointed out on our Yarmouth Walking Tour: the unexpected ‘sound stage’. Stand at the centre of this little terrace, and speak in a normal voice. What you will hear is an amplified version of your voice that sounds as if you are speaking through a microphone.
The One That Didn’t Get Away
Walking down to Yarmouth’s wharf, aside from the Instagram-worthy mini-lighthouse and lobster traps, there’s also a more unusual display that you may not be expecting in a Nova Scotian seaside town: a life-sized replica of a 1083-pound Mako Shark.
This shark was just installed in 2022 and represents the 11-foot-plus specimen caught here in 2004 during the town’s annual Shark Scramble fishing tournament. Who knew there were sharks that big off the southern shore of Nova Scotia? Certainly not this landlubber. (And now that I do know, I’m even less inclined to go for a swim!)
Sparkle the Horse and the Travelling Circus That Didn’t
While we were at the wharf, Candice regaled us with another quirky story, this one involving grandiose plans for a travelling circus that would use a boat as the way to move the circus up and down the east coast of North America, versus using the typical train routes. In the summer of 1963, the Al G. Kelly and Miller Brothers Circus floated into Yarmouth harbour on their ship, the Fleurus, which they had modified to transpor big cats, zebras, elephants and show horses, along with their tents, equipment and crew.
But the ship had already been plagued with a series of mechanical misfortunes before even docking in Yarmouth, and these continued in Nova Scotia. After loading the animals and crew following two successful shows in town, a fire broke out in the engine room of the Fleurus, causing a panic on the ship and the wharf.
The local fire department responded, and were able to remove almost all of the animals safely, with the exception of a near-disastrous incident when the cage carrying the big cats fell from the crane as it was being lifted off the ship. Fortunately no cats were harmed (or escaped), but one show horse named Sparkle was so spooked that it jumped ship and was trapped under the pier. Luckily, one of the circus crew was brave enough to approach the panicked, thrashing animal, and guided it to the boat launch and out of the water.
IRONIC FACT: The sponsor of the circus was actually the Yarmouth Fire Department! You can actually see photos of the ‘Circus Ship Fire’ like the one above in the Firefighters Museum in town.
A Yarmouth Walking Tour True Crime Tale – Not For the Faint of Heart
The last tale Candice told us was a sampling from her ‘Eerie and Ominous’ Yarmouth Walking Tour, and for dramatic effect, she told it on the steps of the town’s original jail. This horrific true crime tale told the story of a love gone horribly wrong – or at least a one-sided infatuation that took a gruesome, fatal turn. It involved a wealthy older widower, 63-year old Omar Roberts, and a young house maid named Flora, with whom he developed a dangerous infatuation.
It’s the classic tale of boy wants girl, girl spurns boy, boy burns house with girl in it, girl survives long enough to incriminate boy, and both eventually die, one because of her fatal burns, and one hanging from a noose in the aforementioned jail’s top floor gallows.
Okay, so maybe it’s not so classic a tale, and the ‘boy’ was definitely more of a stalker, but it is a story that will raise the hair on your arms and make the squeamish turn a little green. Without giving away all the details and stealing Candice’s thunder, (you’ll have to book a tour yourself for that!) credit here must go to this enthusiastic storyteller who left all of us listeners spell-bound.
FAR-REACHING FACT: The story of Omar Roberts even made it into the New York Times on September 7, 1922, after Roberts (then in custody) confessed his crime to his cell mate. He was hanged two months later on November 24th.
It’s Not Just the Walk, its the Talk
Our Yarmouth walking tour turned out to be more than just a laundry list of local facts and attractions or an opportunity for pretty photographs. Candice’s stories helped offer a glimpse into the character of this small town, by sharing colourful anecdotes and historical events centred on the people, homes and locations we visited. Her love for all things Yarmouth shows in her obsessive research, enthusiastic telling – and retelling – of the town lore, and we were surprised more than once by the tales she told.
After all, when it comes to these kinds of tours, it’s the talk, not the walk that makes them interesting, and Candice Phibbs understands this. So if you do find yourself in Yarmouth and want to get a real sense of place for this small Nova Scotia town, I would definitely recommend walking a mile in her shoes.
Special thanks to Yarmouth Walking Tours and Candice for providing our complimentary tour. For more details and descriptions of her tours, check out the website.
OTHER THINGS TO SEE AND DO IN YARMOUTH
‘LOBSTER CARS’ ALONG MAIN STREET
These stylized shelters are part public art installation, part gathering place. Inspired by the hut-like storage units where live lobsters are kept until sold or shipped to market, these colourful facades represent a ‘piece’ of a lobster car, and line the main street in Yarmouth. Enjoy them for sitting and chatting with a friend on traditional ‘kitchen party’ chairs, while waiting for a bus, or for taking a photo for your fabulous Instagram feed!
LOST TO THE SEA MEMORIAL
Tragedies at sea are a part of maritime life, sadly, and Yarmouth has a thoughtful, elegant memorial to those who have lost their lives on the ocean. Take a moment and appreciate just how powerful Mother Nature can be and how fragile we all are. It will make you appreciate that lobster dinner even more.
There are a few one-of-a-kind places in Yarmouth that are worth checking out if you are a shopaholic. Seahags and Scallywags is one of them. The artists featured here are all local, and use upcycled and recycled materials to create their unusual art and crafts.
Don’t miss the ‘secret door’ that leads you through a quirky passageway lit with Christmas lights and decorated with odds and sods that make for fun photos.
The passageway connects to the neighbouring Antique shop, the Warehouse 87 Antiques Emporium. Here you’ll find all kinds of old, vintage and antique ‘stuff’ in a space that is jam-packed to the rafters; in other words, a treasure-hunter’s dream.
Every Bloomin’ Thing on the main drag has pretty much what the sign says, everything you might want from decor items to unique clothing. They even have the maritime version of a snowflake ornament, called ‘Seaflakes’.
It may not be Toronto’s Graffiti Alley, but there are several murals in Yarmouth that are worth your time to find. (And the good news is, you don’t have to travel far to find them.) Some have been created by local schools, others by shop owners or local artists.
Jane Canapini is a member of the Travel Media Association of Canada and the North American Travel Journalists Association. She established GrownupTravels.com in 2014 to share information and tips based on personal experience so her readers could get the most out of their travels.