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Stanstead's Heritage at a Glance | Townships Heritage WebMagazine
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Stanstead's Heritage at a Glance

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small_colby_house.jpgAnyone interested in fine architecture and history will love Stanstead. Located on the American border just opposite Derby Line, Vermont, Stanstead was created in 1995 out of the former "Three Villages" of Stanstead Plain, Rock Island, and Beebe Plain.

Stanstead is one of the most interesting towns in the Eastern Townships. Settled by New Englanders in the 1790s, it grew in importance as the last Canadian stop on the Quebec-Boston stagecoach route. In time, the town became a centre of genteel society, and home to many well-to-do families. Banking, county government, education, the railroad, manufacturing, and the granite industry (still the major employer) have all contributed significantly to Stanstead's development.

Thanks to its colourful past, Stanstead boasts a wealth of historic homes and institutions. Dufferin Street in Stanstead Plain has been called an "open-air museum." Superb residences line this street, and testify to the New England roots of the town's founders. Carrollcroft (1859), the former home of Charles Colby, is now the Colby-Curtis Museum. Colby was a cabinet minister under Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada's first Prime Minister.

small_bank.jpgThe Butters house (1866), the Amsden house (1846), the Wilder Pierce Store (which later became the Customs house) (1813), and many other sites make for an interesting tour. Also lining Dufferin are several churches: Sacré-Coeur (1917), Christ Church (1858), and Centenary (1866). The Golden Rule Lodge (1860) is home to one of the oldest Masonic lodges in Quebec. Stanstead College (1873), the Collège des Ursulines (1881), and the old Stanstead Plain Post Office (1935), which is faced in granite and which is now a café, are other noteworthy landmarks.

In Rock Island, visitors should take the time to admire the Tomifobia River Falls. The falls are quite awesome during springtime. Downtown Rock Island retains much of its historic architecture, including the old Eastern Townships Bank (1904) with its superb granite columns and classical façade. Nearby, the old Customs (1929) is now a restaurant, and the former Southern Canada Power Company (1930) is now the liquor store.

small_ricustoms.jpgJust over the footbridge looms the clock tower of the old Rock Island Post Office (1912), now home to the Stanstead Development Office. Rock Island has two churches, the modern Notre-Dame, with its original bell tower from 1916, and the neo-Gothic Stanstead South United (1876). Lee Farm, on Notre-Dame Boulevard, dates to 1810, and was once the home of Lady Henrietta Banting, whose husband, Sir Frederick Banting, won the Nobel Prize in 1923 for discovering insulin. Rock Island has too many splendid homes to mention here. But because this is a border town, no visit would be complete without a peak at some of Stanstead's fascinating "line houses." Line houses were built directly astride the Canada-U.S. border. The most famous of all is the Haskell Free Library and Opera House.

small_haskell.stage_.jpgCompleted amid much fanfare in 1904, the Haskell is an internationally designated historic site, and draws visitors from around the world. Featured in "Ripley's Believe It Or Not," it is the only library and opera house built directly astride an international border. The entrance, main office, and most of the seats in the 400-seat opera house are in the U.S., but the library books and the opera house stage are in Canada. Each summer, the Haskell hosts a full schedule of concerts and plays. Visitors, who do not need to pass through customs, will notice the granite border marker on the corner.

Railroad Street winds its way through Rock Island towards Beebe, the third of the former "Three Villages" that make up Stanstead. Butterfields, the massive brick factory that hugs the road, was built directly on the border, just like the Haskell. Employees came from both Canada and the U.S. Not far away is the neighbourhood known curiously as "Little Tokyo." "Tokyo," as many locals still call it, was designed to provide housing for local factory workers. The houses here are tiny and built closely together just like in a big city.

small_canusa.jpgWhen Railroad Street becomes Canusa Street, visitors will know they are in Beebe. Canusa is another local oddity. The street is actually split in two by the border. The homes on one side are in the U.S., while those on the other are in Canada -- hence the name, C-A-N-U-S-A.

At the bottom of Canusa are the Canadian and American customs. Immediately facing them is a solid granite building, which is also cut in two by the border. This building (built as a store in the 1820s) was for a time the world's only international post office. It had one postmaster, but two doors and two postal counters, each serving customers from a different country. The red brick dwelling next door (also 1820s) was once the home of Horace Stewart, one of the wealthiest merchants in town.

small_double_post_office.jpgPrincipale (or Main) Street in Beebe is a picturesque street, which has retained its village charm. Like Stanstead Plain and Rock Island, Beebe has its share of heritage architecture. The Bank of Commerce, formerly the Eastern Townships Bank (1909), was once an academy. Next door, and built at an angle to the street, is a former station of the Massawippi Valley Railway (1870s). It is now a private home.

Other notable buildings are the churches: the Advent Christian (1866), Wesley United (1891), and Sainte-Thérèse-de-l'Enfant-Jésus Catholic Church (1929). The old Baptist Church (1882) is now a private residence. Also in Beebe is the Advent Christian Campground, a unique site which has hosted revival meetings and a bible camp since 1874. The little cabins here are quaint and many of them are original.