“The House that Leadbetter Built”
Hillcrest Hall was built about 1910 as a home for the Leadbetter family in the southwest part of Port Hood. Ebenezer Leadbetter’s enormous three-storey house is a survivor from the age of coal, and proclaims the prosperity of immigrant miners with Danish and Bulgarian names among the Highland Scots. When the “big mine” was in operation, the buoyant economy affected the whole area. It is said that the population doubled, with miners attracted from Cumberland and Pictou counties on the mainland, as well as from Europe.
Ebenezer Oscar Leadbetter (1877-1955) was born in Port Hood where he grew to be financially successful. His parents, David Leadbetter and Mary MacKinnon of Northeast Margaree, left for the U.S. when he was only 14, but Ebenezer stayed behind. He taught school in 1898 at Glencoe Station and, when the big mine began operations about 1901, he foresaw a future as a merchant. He first purchased land and built a store and a barn on the lower side of the road at Little River, Port Hood, opposite Sam Smith’s farm. Both buildings are now gone; erosion by the sea has even altered the coast so that some of the land on which they stood has crumbled and disappeared.
Leadbetter’s store sold everything from clothing to groceries and feed. In the early days, he lived with his wife above the shop, where their first two children, Margaret and Gladys, were born. Gladys said that the house was built in 1909 or 1910, just before the mine closed. Sandy William MacDonald, one of the last men living who worked in the big mine (from 1908 to 1911) said that the house was built in 1910.
At that time, Port Hood was electrified by the mining company’s generator, which served some homes and supplied street lighting. When the sea flooded the mine, the company left and the electricity ceased. People had to revert to oil lamps. Mrs. Dan Collie MacDonald remembers the original electrical fittings, some usable, when her family rented the Leadbetter buildings in July 1938. Water was supplied by an artesian well behind the house, piped to a large tank in the basement. Pressure to supply water to the first and second floors was maintained by a hand pump. Years later, Dan Collie MacDonald replaced that system with a well and an electric pump.
There was speculation that Mr. Leadbetter built the big house to become a hotel. However, his daughter Gladys was unaware of such plans. As Mrs. Leadbetter (Sarah Ross of Whycocomagh) had six children, perhaps Ebenezer never envisioned the house as more than a large family home.
E.O. Leadbetter left the community and moved to Truro after the big mine flooded in 1923. His daughter said that he considered retirement then, aged 46, indicating that his ten years as a store owner in Port Hood had been profitable. But in Truro he became involved in the Orange Crush Company, taking control and renaming it Crystal Springs. He also ran a coal business there.
Mr. Leadbetter continued to own the house, store, and barn in Port Hood until the 1940s, after the mine shut down in 1939, ending the second mining phase. As if to emphasize the death of the industry, a fire in 1942 destroyed the post office, a bank, and ten other buildings, including four stores.
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Before 1938 when the MacDonalds of Port Hood rented the Leadbetter property (including the store they ran for four years from July 1938 to October 1942), the barn and the old house had been occupied for a year or two by a man named Stewart, manager of the mine. With the mine closure, the MacDonald’s plan to purchase the Leadbetter properties and to renovate the house were abandoned.
In all its years the house was largely unoccupied. Its chances of survival might have been better had the MacDonalds seen economic opportunity during the war years and stayed to make improvements. Hillcrest Hall was set on a concrete foundation surrounded by a large veranda. Inside, there were hardwood floors and plastered walls, and the ceilings in the front dining room were covered with sheets of ornamental pressed metal. All but the floors fell victim to the first attempts at renovation by Joe MacIsaac, started in the late 1940s or early 1950s. According to Sandy William MacDonald, he made two attempts to get the building up to scratch and put a good deal of money and effort into the project, gutting the interior, intending to use gyprock where plaster had been. He intended to convert the mansion into a hotel, but was unable to finish, partly due to ill health.
Charlie and Mary Claire MacDonald of Port Hood bought the property in 1980, and in 1996 started major renovations to convert the abandoned house into an upscale country inn and dining room. The entire structure was raised to accommodate a full-height basement level. They also added 2200 square feet to the three floors, keeping the interior spaces and exterior facade harmonious to the original style of the building. Original wooden mouldings, floors, trims and even doors resized to satisfy building codes, were restored and reinstalled. Where new fittings were necessary, care was shown to respect the building’s history.
There are now eleven tastefully decorated guest rooms and suites, each having its own 4-piece private bath, with reception and dining rooms on the main floor. Notably, where the large kitchen was once located in the “L” on the ground floor, now a handicapped-accessible room with a king-size bed accommodates guests. Above it, once the maids’ quarters, another oversize room offers comfort and water views. Two elegant suites located at the front of the house on the second and third floors have their own separate living room and commanding ocean views. All other rooms are well-appointed and offer partial harbour views.
After more than 50 years sitting vacant and derelict on a hill overlooking Port Hood Harbour, the lights have returned to the windows, people once again relax on the veranda to watch the magnificent sunsets and the property, now called Hillcrest Hall Country Inn, continues its legacy as an anchor in this pretty seaside village.