“Like all famous sons, Pierre Berton sometimes gets a mixed reception in his home town, but you’d never have known it to hear the spontaneous applause that broke out from the crowd of some 200 people as the tall man in the dark blue blazer strode out onto the balcony of his boyhood home on the evening of August 14. As KVA manager Denny Kobayashi, put it, the crowd welcomed the Bertons, Pierre, his wife, Janet, and his sister Lucy Woodward, home.”
Such was the opening paragraph of the story I wrote in August of 1996 when Berton House opened as a writers’ retreat for the first time.
The story of how this successful program, now having seen 58 writers pass through its doors, seems to have gotten lost during a number of management transitions over the last few years.
This is partly because the current website, a lovely thing maintained by the Writers’ Trust of Canada, which now owns the program, did not retain any of the historical filings from the original website, which can still be found on the web if you know what to look for. Contact me if you want to know.
The south end (right), or Berton House, is the original building. This angle of photograph has fooled some applicants into thinking that the house is out in the woods, but it’s actually surrounded by homes, with Robert Service’s Cabin directly behind it across Eighth Avenue. – PHOTO: Dan Davidson
The development of the program actually began decades ago when PierreBerton’sboyhood chum, John Gould (who passed from us on last Boxing Day) and the Klondike Visitors Association’s Giovanni (Joe)Castellarin(also no longer with us) first approached Dawson’s most famous writer and television personality about doing something to recapture the house in which he had spent most of the first 12 years of his life.
They thought it would make a great tourist attraction, for in those days, as current writer-in-residence Lawrence Hill noted at his recent public reading, there was still hardly a home in the country that didn’t have at least one ofBerton’s several dozen books on its bookshelves.
Frank Berton had bought the house in 1920 for $500, and the original nine metre by 12 metre structure was home to the Berton family until 1932.
During that time, as Pierre noted, it was one of the few clapboard sided homes on Eighth Avenue, and it had no running water or bathroom facilities.
“The only convenience was a single holer in the basement which was reached, not by a stairwell, which didn’t exist, but by a ladder leading down from a trap door in the kitchen,” he wrote.
“I remember it well because the trapdoor was left open one day and I tumbled down it, without any perceptible injury.”
When the kids got too old for their cribs, Frank added the north end of the building, consisting of a second bedroom and a new kitchen.
Then Frank’s job as the mining recorder was eliminated in one of those cost-cutting exercises with which we are about to become familiar again, and the Bertons relocated to Victoria, BC.
Frank was later rehired to a post in Dawson, but the Berton family remained in Victoria, and Pierre didn’t see much of the place until he returned to work in the gold fields for the Yukon Consolidated Gold Corp. while he was putting himself through university.
It took John and Joe a number of years to convince Pierre to invest in the house, which he had seen declining under a series of different owners during the numerous visits he made to the town (including a river trip recorded in the book Drifting Home).
When he did decide to invest the $50,000 dollars it cost to buy the house and property in 1989, he did so through the agency of the Yukon Arts Council, with the proviso that the building not be turned into some sort of museum, because Dawson had “too many damn museums already”.
Shortly thereafter the YAC established a Berton House Committee, which had its first meetings in Whitehorse in 1990. Within a year the committee members realized that there needed to be some Dawsonites involved in the design process.
That’s where I came in.
To be continued…