Working on my own A-frame we pounded nails
and sawed boards, cussing and seating a little
without money for electricity or plumbing
three lamps together and you might read a book
chopping thru winter ice for water
—Al Purdy, “In Search of Owen Roblin”
In 1957 the Purdys bought the property on “the south shore of Roblin Lake, a mile or so from the village of Ameliasburgh, in Prince Edward County… (the) lot bordered the lake shoreline, a teacup of water nearly two miles long. Dimensions of the lot were 100 feet wide by 265 long.”
With a pile of “used lumber, concrete blocks, studdings, beaverboard and the like” Al, Eurithe and Jim Parkhurst (Eurithe’s father) began construction on the now famous A-frame. Al tells the story in Reaching for the Beaufort Sea.
Things happened in that house. Alfred W. Purdy the “failure” of a man and poet (as Al looked backed on that time) started publishing as Al Purdy. Just as Al and Eurithe composed the A-frame from available materials, Al began to compose poems about Roblin Lake, Ameliasburgh and Prince Edward County. In 1962, Poems for All the Annettes was published. Al considered this book a “watershed” in his development. The following year he submitted the manuscript of The Cariboo Horses to McClelland and Stewart. It won the first of Al’s Governor General’s Awards.
Eurithe says Al was always his most productive at the A-frame. “Despite the caviar receptions and gold accolades, he always returned to this jury-rigged little A-frame tacked to a low-slung, leaning bungalow. The whole edifice, he observed, ‘bent a little in the wind and dreamt of the trees it came from.’ Here, he could observe all his poetry’s recurring themes: love, death, ego, ‘the glories of copulation.’”
The Open Door
Even while the A-frame was being built, it became a meeting place—for poets, for poetry lovers, for those aspiring to be poets. Michael Ondaatje writes about Al and Eurithe’s famous hospitality, “We were in our twenties (and I speak for my friends Tom Marshall and David Helwig, who were there with me) and we didn’t have a single book to our names; we were studying or teaching at the university in Kingston . . . And Al and Eurithe simply invited us in. And why? Because we were poets! Not well-known writers or newspaper celebrities. Did Kipling ever do that?
“Did D. H. Lawrence? Malcolm Lowry had done that for ‘Al-something or other’ in Dollarton, years earlier.
“These visits became central to our lives. We weren’t there for gossip, certainly not to discuss royalties and publishers. We were there to talk about poetry. Read poems aloud. Argue over them. Complain about prosody. We were there to listen to a recording he had of ‘The Bonnie Earl of Murray.’ And sometimes we saw Al’s growing collection of signed books by other Canadian poets (My favourite dedication among them was ‘To Awful Al from Perfect Peggy.’)
“All this changed our lives. It allowed us to take poetry seriously. This happened with and to numerous other young poets all over the country, right until the last days of Al Purdy’s life. He wasn’t just a ‘sensitive’ man, he was a generous man.”
The list of people who travelled to the A-frame (if it would be possible to compile a comprehensive list) reads like a who’s who of Canadian letters—Margaret Atwood, Earle Birney, George Bowering, Lynn Crosbie, Dennis Lee, Steven Heighton, Patrick Lane, Margaret Laurence, Jack McClelland, John Newlove, Anna Porter, Elizabeth Smart, and the list goes on and on.
And it wasn’t just those aspiring to be poets who were welcomed. Poets, publishers, booksellers, academics, pool players, students, radio broadcasters, journalists, photographers, painters, and readers made their way to Ameliasburgh. Linda Crosfield reports the following story: “Over dinner the other night, I mentioned to my husband that I was writing a letter to support the initiative to preserve Al’s house. ‘I went there once,’ he mused, ‘it was 1972, the summer Judie and I drove across Canada with the kids. She grew up around there so we were able to find the place. Al wasn’t home, but his wife was, and she opened her house to us as I explained how I’d taken courses from Al at Simon Fraser and was a big fan of his poetry.” This is how Al’s house has always been, according to those who have found their way there.
The house draws people in. It’s a pilgrimage to see the country, search out the places Al mentions in the poems, find the church spire and the site of Roblin’s Mill, visit the Purdy Library in Ameliasburgh, cross the street to stroll down Purdy Lane to the graveyard where Owen Roblin and Al Purdy are buried along with the other pioneers of Prince Edward County—Al’s book-shaped gravestone bearing the inscription “This is where I came to / when my body left its body / and my spirit stayed / in its spirit home.”
Continuing the Tradition—Writer-in-Residence Program
The residency program for the A-frame was designed by poets David Helwig, Steven Heighton, Karen Solie and Rob Budde. The poets were selected to include a broad poetic sensibility, geographical reach, breadth of experience with residency programs, knowledge of Purdy’s work and personal experience of the property. Both David and Steven were long time friends of the Purdys and spent many decades visiting Roblin Lake.
To begin, the residency will operate for 8 months, from April 1 to November 30. Later the winter months may be added. The A-frame will provide time and a place to work that is attractive and of historic significance. Writers can apply for a term of one to three months. The residency will be open to all writers, but preference will be given to poetry and poetry projects. The jury will also consider proposals for a one month project in critical writing about Canadian poetry each year and will be open to unusual and creative ideas for residencies.
Travel to Ameliasburgh will be paid. Those awarded the residency will be given a stipend of $2500 dollars a month while living in the A-frame, and will be free to spend their time on their writing. Residents will be expected to give one public reading or lecture for each month of their stay—presumably in one of the larger communities nearby, Picton, Belleville, Kingston—and to consider other reasonable requests. All this will be organized in collaboration with the Prince Edward County and Quinte Arts councils. The house is somewhat isolated, but the local liaison will be able to help with occasional rides for those who don’t have a car. Residents will be offered a temporary library card for the excellent library at Queen’s University in Kingston, where many of Al Purdy’s papers are held. Those awarded a residency will be asked to donate at least one copy of one of their books to the Residency Library. Writers in residence will also be encouraged to make themselves known at the Purdy Library in Ameliasburgh and to donate a book. They may also wish to discuss with the local liaison the possibility of working with local schools.
Upgrades and Preservation
Over the years there have been many changes and transformations. Barnboard was retrieved from a demolition site and added as siding. A patio was added at the front, overlooking the lake. Al built a writing studio. Later a deck replaced the patio, then that deck was extended. Plantings on the grounds matured. The kitchen had upgrades. The garage burned down. The house was always an ongoing project.
Under the guidance and direction of Eurithe Purdy the property will be upgraded to make sure that everything meets current building codes. Some improvements will be made to ensure that the property will be user-friendly for writers (for example, the addition of a washer and dryer). Some minor damage that has occurred while the building has not been occupied will be repaired (ah, those Prince Edward County squirrels), some things that need attention because of age will be repaired or replaced (the original deck at the back of the house is dangerous for use and needs to be completely replaced) and some things that might create insurance issues will be removed or replaced (removal of oil tank and stove, replaced by energy efficient electric heat). All work will be done, in keeping with the Purdy’s legacy, to make the property as low-maintenance as possible.
Long-term Protection—Heritage Designation
Al was fascinated by the history of the county, and the country. He was a chronicler of local and national history. It is fitting that the house become a permanent part of Canadian history.
Once all upgrading work is completed The Al Purdy A-frame Association will apply for Heritage Designation under the Ontario Heritage Trust and the Prince Edward County Heritage Advisory Committee. Designation in perpetuity will help protect the building and its site for future generations.