This being human is a guesthouse.
Every morning a new arrival.
Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
—Rumi, “The Guest House”
A Short History of Copper Beech House
We go back to 1914: a little house, which opened up into a surprising number of rooms once you entered the front door, was built by a Swedish carpenter for a cannery manager living at George Point in Naden Harbour, on the north coast of what had then come to be called the Queen Charlotte Islands.
The cannery closed in 1921 and the house was floated, on logs that had been strapped together, eastward and south through Dixon Entrance, and then down Masset Sound, until it came to rest on the shores of the Watun River.
Eleven years later, Arthur Robinson bought the house and it set sail again – back up Masset Inlet. Two oxen named Olaf and Buster and a stump puller (whose name has been lost, alas) winched the building off the beach and onto its present footings, by the government docks in Masset.
Robinson’s bride-to-be, Margery Fish, arrived from England in 1932, to reside in what had become a unique building in town, its interior redone with plywood (considered very chic at the time), a convenient in-house well, and a windmill for electricity.
The next family to own the house was Dr. Charlie Smith and his wife, Alice (née Harling), who moved to Masset after Dr. Smith retired from his position as lighthouse keeper at the Cape St. James Lighthouse, on the tip of south Moresby.
David Phillips arrived in 1971, after heading west to join the cultural revolution in China,
travelling with his tux and his grandmother’s place settings, and after a failed attempt as a stowaway in Prince Rupert. His boat was swamped in Dixon Entrance and he ended up in Masset where he found the Smiths’ gentle son, Sydney Harling Smith living alone and in need of care; David moved in, re-installed plumbing and electricity, strengthened the foundation, closed the well (which by that time “was just a hole in the floor”) replaced the roof, and added a floor at garden level. The structure and finish of the rest of the house, David carefully preserved circa the early ‘30s.
The house went through another incarnation as a “dollar-a-night flophouse,” and I stayed there myself a few times when I needed a time out from my life, on the outskirts of Port Clements. I would take the creaking staircase up to the Secret’s Room, “The Secret” being a mysterious woman whom Sydney Smith waited for, and, as far as we know, never arrived) right above “The Chadwick Room,” named after a 19th century socialite and con woman whose trunk full of personal possessions found its way to David when he ran an antique shop in Toronto in the 1960s.
Guests from All Walks of Life
David took full possession of the house in 1986 when Sydney died, and it became Copper Beech Guest House.
David housed, entertained and fed guests from all walks of life. One day you might find Pierre and Maggie Trudeau holding hands, sharing a glass of wine on the deck; the next day a young German traveller wandering through the garden wearing nothing but his yellow thong. He was an alchemist in the kitchen and the feasts he created, night after night, from the most fresh and local ingredients, are truly legendary. David produced a promotional flyer that described the guest house experience as “An historical enactment,” “Salt box simplicity,” and “Enhanced realism.” I was never sure what he meant by “enhanced realism,” but that was David.
In 2010, I bought the Copper Beech House from David. Writers can be gregarious loners: running a guest and having a writing career seemed thoroughly compatible. I could write during the days and have all the company I could ever dream of entertaining/being entertained by, in the evenings.
I put my own touch on the house, though David’s presence can still be felt. I have kept the Persian rugs, though some of heirloom quality furniture was too uncomfortable and has been replaced by the kind of furniture you can sink into, not through. The glass curio cabinet still remains, with, among other treasures, the soapstone geese, an ivory tusk, a rodent skull and a plastic smurf. The walls are covered with the works of local Haida artists; there’s an African penis gourd, antique fishing rods and a sardine can with a depiction of the Last Supper. And of course, there are books, with several shelves dedicated to the works by writers and artists who have stayed at Copper Beech House: David Suzuki, Margaret Atwood, Graeme Gibson, Bruce Cockburn, Douglas Coupland, William Gibson and many more.
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