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Home at the Wreckhouse

Doreen and Jim MacDougall with their dog, Star.

Like his famous father, Lauchie, Jim MacDougall is pretty good at predicting the weather, or at least when a storm is brewing. It stands to reason. Jim grew up in the Wreckhouse too.

“I was about 18 when I left there I guess,” recalls Jim. “I went to work when I was 14. Working on the highways, construction work. I lied and said I was 17.”

It took him two years to get on the pay roll so he could declare income tax.

“You wouldn’t get away with that now,” says a soft-spoken Jim.

The third youngest child of Lauchie and Emily MacDougall, Jim remembers clapping his hands over his ears and feeling scared when the wind was roaring through, down from the mountains and over the iconic green family homestead. He says the worst kind of wind was when it would die out and then suddenly snap back.

His father was born in 1898 and died in 1965. Lauchie fought a hard battle against stomach cancer before he went.

“Back then we didn’t know much here about stuff like that,” says Jim.

At times his father’s pain was so great that Jim couldn’t bear to listen to it and would have to leave the house. In the end, Jim remembers that his father ‘came back to himself’ and passed away at home peacefully. His wife, Emily (née Moore), passed in 1992 at age 81.

The MacDougalls had 12 children, and Jim says six of his siblings are left. The family has suffered its share of tragedies. Jim’s youngest brother died at 21, killed by a crusher. Another died of cancer at only 27. But there were triumphs also. Another who contracted polio in childhood wasn’t supposed to make it past age 5. He lived into his 70s.

Jim jokes that the house had cupboards to fit all the children into before revealing that it actually had 11 bedrooms.

“They had a hallway. They had beds on both sides. That house was big – it only looked small in pictures,” says Jim.

The youngest of the children would double up in the bedrooms, and with so many children there was enough of an age gap that the older ones were on the cusp of moving out or had already done so while Jim was still a wee lad.

Jim’s wife, Doreen (née Peyton), says that the MacDougalls were always rescuing motorists after they got blown off at the Wreckhouse.

“They used to take in people stranded on the highway almost every night in the winter,” she says. “People they didn’t even know and they were lifelong friends after that.”

The MacDougall’s house itself never surrendered to the raging winds. Beneath the green painted shakes and felt waterproofing were heavy logs and thick beams. Lauchie had been born at the Wreckhouse and knew how to build something that would stand solid and firm. It was burned down some time around 1994.

“Before they had a house there, my grandparents used to have a house out across the railway tracks,” remembers Jim.

The MacDougalls kept animals and grew their own vegetables. There wasn’t much other choice back then. They’d churn their own butter and salt that too, along with the meat that would see them through the winter.

There were hens and pigs and sheep and cattle to care for, and in the winter they were kept inside. Then there was Lauchie’s pet moose. Jim has a photo of that moose, not yet a yearling, with its head turned from the camera. His brothers, Ches and Kevin, are in the photo next to the moose, a black and white print with all three next standing against the green house.

Jim remembers that the moose didn’t like the wind but doesn’t remember what the family had named it.

“They had a name on him though,” says Jim. “When the wind would get from the southeast to northeast, the change in wind would make him crazy. We had to put him in. We had him all one summer. He went into the park in St. John’s.”

His brother, Vince, keeps a cabin down around there now, where Jim likes to spend a lot of his time. He still loves the Wreckhouse.

“He wanted to go down there to live when we were rearing our children,” chuckles Doreen. “He was at it for years, and he was at it before the kids even went to school.”

The couple’s home is filled with artwork, photos and paintings of the Wreckhouse. One shows the train toppling over and another shows Emily out on the line, hanging clothes while Lauchie and one of his boys are on the other side of the house examining the mist rolling down from the mountains.

Eventually they settled in O’Regan’s where they currently spoil their small dog, Star. Doreen insists that Jim would still move back to the Wreckhouse if she agreed.

“If I said let’s go tomorrow we’d be gone,” says Doreen. “He wants to go down there to die he says.”

Jim retired when he was just 55. During the hunting season he will go get his moose and help his buddies haul out theirs. He and Doreen also keep a vegetable garden with staples like beets, carrots and potatoes. To keep busy Doreen likes to sew. She worked in homecare for over 30 years, and in addition to their own two boys the couple fostered.

“Thirty years and I had fifty-three children,” says Doreen.

These days there are grandchildren to fuss over, although spoiling them is made more difficult because of COVID-19. Thankfully there is Facetime at night to help keep in touch, but it’s just not the same as sitting around for Sunday dinners. Like all families, the couple look forward to a time when they can all get together once more for hugs and kisses.

In the meantime, Jim will keep answering the phone every time it rings, which is apparently quite often. Doreen says it doesn’t stop from the first of the season right up until the last day.

“There’s always somebody calling me to go moose hunting,” says Jim.

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