Two Centuries of Hospitality: At the Sign of the Bell

The comment is often made that history is all around us. This is especially true when studying architecture. From the simplest cottage to the most ornate public building, all have stories to tell. Sometimes it is comparatively easy to research such structures, as was the case with the Ford Block, featured in this column several weeks ago. Although George E. Ford & Co., reached back more than a century, a study of old newspapers, public documents and interviews with people who recalled the store as it once was, helped to unravel its past.

For some 190 years, and possibly longer, a building constructed in part of local stone, has been a landmark where the crossroads meet at Dorchesters Town Square. In the early days it was an inn and tavern, catering to stagecoaches from Halifax enroute to Saint John and the Miramichi. In 1850, the building was purchased by William Hickman (1823–1903), a prominent shipbuilder and merchant of Dorchester. After a further brief period as a hotel, it became the Hickman residence and office, remaining in the family until 1948. Today it is still extending hospitality, as The Bell Inn Restaurant, operated by David McAllister and Wayne Jones.

When did the sign, featuring a large black bell, first welcome travellers to Dorchester? Regrettably, there is no clear-cut answer. For many years, New Brunswick tourist literature has made the claim that the Bell Inn is the oldest building of stone construction in the province. This is possibly true.

It is known that there was a pre 1755 Acadian settlement in the Dorchester area. Writing in 1932 W.C. Milner stated that French dykes could, a few years ago, have been traced on the marshes adjoining the uplands. Following the capture of Fort Beausjour, the settlement was raided, burned and destroyed by New England troops. While 18th century population figures are often unreliable, historical geographer Andrew Hill Clark provides evidence that not all Acadian settlers in this area were deported.

One theory suggests that the building was erected following the Expulsion by New Englanders pursuing the fur trade with the Mikmaqs. There are some problems with this conclusion. Traditionally, the Mikmaq were staunch allies of the French. The strong bond forged between these two groups would suggest that serious trade between New Englanders and Mikmaq was unlikely.

Dorchester native Percy Palmer (1888–1978) writing about 1969 put forward some fascinating suggestions concerning the approximate age of the building. A direct descendant of Gideon Palmer, one of the early Dorchester settlers, he had in his possession a chart depicting the first land grants. In his words: Had [Bell Inn been standing in 1755] it would have been the first target for plunder and burning. Had it been a viable house in 1786, the Keillor family would have occupied it, rather than living in a log home until [the present Keillor House] was completed in 1813.

Further, Palmer did not accept the suggestion that the Bell Inn was built by New England traders. If there was such a trading post it would have been at Dorchester Island. he concluded. Furthermore There is a possibility that the stone walls of the house may have withstood the burning [in 1755] and were still standing after 1783 to encourage some imaginative settler to restore it. He might have had, from the Memramcook Acadians, assistance [in the rebuilding].

As further evidence of this point, Palmer noted that there were land grants beyond Dorchester to persons with the surname White. Even in my boyhood, he remembered, some Acadians used the name White and LeBlanc interchangeably. It is therefore clear that there were Acadian artisans in the immediate area around the beginning of the 19th century.

At first glance, the building recalls the Norman style of architecture still to be found on le d’Orleans near Québec City. This might explain the stone construction with chimneys in the end gables and offset dormer windows, all of which reflect a French influence. However, it should not be overlooked that the first Yorkshire settlers were thoroughly familiar with stone construction. One of these, Thomas Keillor, was a stone mason from Skelton in Yorkshire.

Early documentary evidence concerning the parcel of land on which the Bell Inn stands is sparse. In 1786 a grant of some 200 acres was made to Thomas Keillor. Later another Yorkshireman,Thomas Carter, acquired an adjacent lot. Together, these included much of the present day village of Dorchester. In October 1787, a section of the Thomas Keillor grant was transferred to his son John. In 1803 John Keillor sold a lot of four acres so that the County of Westmorland could build a court house and jail in the new shiretown.

Despite these fragments of information, a precise date for the construction or reconstruction of the building, first named At The Sign Of The Bell, eludes us. In the absence of concrete evidence, it is may be safe to suggest c.1800 as an approximate building date. Since finding documentary confirmation is unlikely, the only way to obtain a more satisfactory answer would be to enlist the support of modern science. An archaeological dig, the carbon dating of artifacts and a study of the stone walls and the older interior wood beams might be revealing. In the case of the latter, it is now possible to date a building by examining growth rings in timber. The mystery of a construction date for The Sign of The Bell may yet be solved.

No record of the Bell Inn would be complete without mention of the role of the Westmorland Historical Society in the preservation of this architectural treasure. In the early 1970s the New Brunswick government obtained ownership of the building. Later, it was purchased by the Society under the leadership of a former president, Mrs. Sylvia Yeoman. Mrs. Yeoman then lived in nearby Rocklyn House, once the home of Edward Barron Chandler (1800–1880), a Father of Confederation. The Bell Inn Coffee Shop was subsequently opened by Mrs. Yeoman assisted by her daughter Katie Yeoman. In May 1986 the present Bell Inn Restaurant was launched on the premises. As it did in the stagecoach days of the 19th century The Sign Of The Bell was, once again, extending a welcome to travelers and local residents alike.

Many readers will already know the appeal of this restaurant. Briefly stated, It’s the food based on traditional recipes, prepared from scratch on the premises and served promptly. For fifteen years this straightforward formula has spelled success for David McAllister and Wayne Jones. To this, must be added the ambience of a two century old building, ornate fireplaces and weathered plank floors. Vintage prints of royalty from the Victorian era to the present add a unique touch.

Such is the reputation of the Bell Inn Restaurant that reservations are always wise. Who knows, you might be dining with a prime minister, a provincial premier or a lieutenant governor. Even a direct descendant of Dorchester’s Thomas Keillor, Garrison Keillor, the well-known American author and broadcaster, has been known to dine at The Sign Of The Bell.