Paula Simons, “Charlie’s Place”, Edmonton Journal, July 26, 2009


Charlie’s place

Mystery man’s grand old home set for million-dollar restoration

Paula Simons, Edmonton Journal

Published: Sunday, July 26 2009

Bremner House rises, incongruously, from the midst of farmers’ fields near Clover Bar, midway between Fort Saskatchewan and Sherwood Park. Built in 1903, the gracious 5,400-square-foot, two-and-a-half-storey home was the residence of rancher, oilman, and bon vivant James Charles Chatterton Bremner, and his wife Edith.

Designed in the clean, elegant arts and crafts style, and finished inside in fir with oak accents, the house was the showpiece of the district.

At a time when most rural Albertans were living in wood-heated homes with outhouses, the Bremners lived in style, with central heating, flush toilets and electric lights, powered by their own generator–not to mention a separate staircase for the servants.

The childless couple filled their home with notable house guests and lavish parties. According to lore, the third floor housed two pool tables and a piano.

Bremner was a local showpiece, too. Standing about six-foot-five, with a luxuriant walrus moustache, he bred prize-winning Clydesdales and pulled pranks like riding his horse right into hotel bars and clubs.

For years, the local legend said he was a Scottish lord, a remittance man whose aristocratic family paid him an allowance to stay put in Canada. The truth, according to the Bremner family history, was less romantic, though no less intriguing.

Far from being a lord, Bremner’s father David began life as an apprentice herring-curer in a Scottish fishing town. He moved to Cork, Ireland, and became a successful butter merchant. Later, he and his wife moved to Glasgow, where they had seven children, and were well-enough off to race with the Royal Clyde Yacht Club.

Charlie’s mother died when he was only nine, and his father when Charlie was 18. He wasn’t exactly a penniless orphan, but he had his own way to make in the world. So when a family friend who was ranching near Edmonton suggested that young Bremner come west, he jumped at the chance. Over the years, he made himself a comfortable fortune as a rancher and horse breeder, before branching into coal mining and oil drilling. Who started the rumours he was an aristocrat?Perhaps it was Bremner himself.

But in 1928, when Bremner was 60, he committed suicide, for reasons that remain murky. Depending which story you believe, he shot himself either in the barn, the bedroom, or the cast-iron tub.

“Charlie Bremner was one of the picturesque personalities of the west, being best-known by the big Stetson hat, which he wore winter and summer, while he disdained the use of an overcoat,” wrote the Edmonton Journal at the time. “To meet him was to receive a tonic, for his optimism, cheerfulness, and open friendship made his acquaintance treasured by all.”

In recent years, Charlie Bremner’s grand house has lost much of its original lustre. Its successive owners covered its glossy fir floors with green and blue shag carpet, its outside with vinyl siding, its interior with fake knotty pine panelling and wallpaper featuring husky dogs.

But that’s about to change. In 2004, the County of Strathcona bought the house, with 80 acres of land, for just under $800,000. Last month, county council designated the home as Strathcona’s municipal historic resource. Now, the county has embarked on the first phase of a10-year, $1-million makeover, to restore the house to its original appearance. This summer, workers are painstakingly rebuilding the home’s original grand veranda, at a cost of $100,000. When the restoration is complete, the county hopes to use Bremner House as an interpretive centre; a place to hold weddings and conferences, where tourists and school kids can learn about the region’s agrarian history.

“It’s a gem,” says Cathy Olesen, the county mayor. “It’s something we didn’t want to lose.”

“It’s just a great location, on top of the hill, with commanding views all around,” says Edmonton architect David Murray, who’s in charge of the restoration project.

Murray has been unable to discover the name of the original architect. But he says the house is solid and well-built, with scarcely a crack.

“This is a very fine bit of design, here. The proportion and scale are very good,” he says.

Restoring a 106-year-old house like this won’t be quick or easy. But the project couldn’t come at a better time. Strathcona County is in the middle of a remarkable transition, as it changes from a primarily agrarian community to a suburban centre with an industrial base. If it doesn’t invest now in preserving its rural history, that history could soon be lost forever. How fitting it would be if the Bremners’ hospitable spirit once again filled these rooms, and if their house could once again be treasured by all.