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Minnie White’s home becomes museum

Helen and Russell White are close to fulfilling their vision for the home of legendary musician Minnie White. – © Rosalyn Roy

Not far after the turn towards St. Andrews from the TransCanada Highway, a two storey white house sits quietly surrounded by hostas and trees. This was once the home of Minnie White, a legendary West Coast musician and accordion player who received numerous accolades, including the Order of Canada. She appeared on several television programs and performed regularly at The Starlight. Celebrities adored her, and Rick Mercer once visited her here.

Now Minnie’s house is being transformed into a museum that will honour not only her musical legacy, but the heritage and culture of the Codroy Valley where she made her home. The visionaries behind this private museum project are Russell and Helen White, her son and daughter-in-law.

“The house was built in 1937,” says Russell. “The floors are original. The ceilings are all original.”

The two started with the idea of a museum, but they weren’t sure at first what condition the house was in once all of Minnie’s modern renovations were removed.

“Russell gutted the house out from top to bottom,” says Helen.

The pair peeled back flowery wallpaper for months, eventually uncovering the solid wood underneath. The wide, brown painted planks on the floors and the rougher, clear-coated walls and ceilings are a testament to the carpentry skills of the original builders. Now they lend a classic, inviting charm to the museum and complement the treasures that will be put on display.

Helen is a former schoolteacher with a talent for history and antiques, particularly when it comes to Newfoundland and the Codroy area.

“I have a passion for this kind of thing,” says Helen, who has helped out with the heritage displays of past Come Home Year celebrations. “I had a vision for this. I could really see this happening.”

The vision the couple has is to pay tribute to Minnie and her musical legacy, and preserve the region’s heritage and way of life that has all but disappeared.

Now two and a half years after the Whites started, the My Dear Minnie Museum of Heritage and Culture is finally ready to receive its displays. The front entry room will be devoted to Minnie. Displays will include photos, numerous awards, personal letters and her instruments.

“There was a lot of music played in this room,” says Russell. “Well in the summertime, every Sunday afternoon there would be a crowd here – fiddlers, singers, you name it.”

“I think Minnie would love this,” says Helen.

The adjacent room will display the farming heritage of the Codroy Valley. The White homestead has been recognized as a century farm, meaning their family has farmed that land continuously for over a hundred years. Their land is still a functioning farm, just leased to another farmer.

Another room will feature displays centred around the rich commercial and sport fishing heritage of Codroy.

“Codroy is the only ocean going fishing community in the valley,” notes Helen. “So we have space reserved for anything to do with the fishery.”

Another upstairs room has already been transformed into a one-room schoolhouse, much like the one Helen first taught in. In fact, it’s her old teacher’s desk nestled beneath the window between the wood stove and the chalkboard that Russell built and she painted.

And there are plans in the works for the remaining rooms. Preserving their family legacy and the region’s heritage has a practical side too. Aside from offering a glimpse into the region’s past, it reduces waste.

“We saw the need,” says Helen. “There’s more and more of these artifacts ending up in the landfills because people don’t know what to do with them.”

The retired couple have put a lot of sweat equity into the museum, perhaps even more than the financial equity. Russell did most of the work aside from some minor assistance with electricity and plumbing, and of course Helen pitched in too. She’s done her fair share of painting.

That independence and do it yourself practicality has also extended to the financial side of starting up a museum.

They haven’t solicited any financial help towards costs from the government, nor from the Codroy Valley communities. Both are grateful to local musician Gordon Cormier, who intends to help out by raising funds for a donation by hosting a virtual jamboree.

Going it alone financially was a deliberate choice, so that the two could remain in control of their vision for the museum instead of having to deal with committees or oversight.

“It ended up being an expensive hobby,” chuckles Russell.

“But a very interesting hobby,” says Helen. “It’s absolutely a labour of love.”

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