A Pierre Berton House that Time forgot

A dilapidated ruin. A complete wreck. A candidate for demolition. Alas, I speak of the home in which Pierre Berton lived for decades — the house in Kleinburg, north of Toronto, where he wrote so many important books.

Here is a short video that shows you what I am talking about.  I guess this and a few other videos have been floating around for awhile. But I hadn’t seen any of them until Jean Baird, who runs the Al Purdy A-Frame Association, sent this one my way.

In a 1980s clip within the video, Berton (1920-2004) mentions that he hoped to turn his home into a writers’ retreat. But as I understand it, that undertaking became over-the-top expensive and he instead worked that transformative magic on his childhood home in Dawson City.

In the early 2000s, I spent three months there as a writer-in-residence.  And in August 2007, when it came under threat, I wrote an opinion piece for the Globe and Mail. Headline: Don’t close the door on Berton House.

In Dawson City, Yukon, if you look out the window of the boyhood home of the late Pierre Berton, you see a one-room log cabin in which the poet Robert Service spent three years writing poems like The Cremation of Sam McGee. If you step out the front door and walk one block along the hard-packed dirt road, you arrive at the cabin in which author Jack London ( The Call of The Wild, Martin Eden) carved his name during the Klondike Gold Rush.

Almost 40 Canadian writers know these things from personal experience. We are among the lucky few who have spent two or three months, sometimes longer, living and writing in that modest, green-and-white bungalow on Eighth Street. We know what it means to knock back Yukon Gold at Bombay Peggy’s, to catch the can-can girls at Diamond Tooth Gertie’s, and to cross the Yukon River by ferry and drive the Top of the World Highway.

But now, judging from newspaper reports out of Dawson City and Whitehorse, Berton House faces possible closure. Executive director Elsa Franklin, who worked for decades as Mr. Berton’s manager, says: “We might have to shut it down. That’s a possibility. That’s a really big possibility.”

The crisis comes as a result of a change in funding arrangements.

In 1989, Pierre Berton himself, author of such blockbusters as Klondike, The National Dream and The Arctic Grail, ponied up $50,000 (worth roughly $80,000 today) to save the house and turn it into a writers’ retreat – a place where authors could work, free of any other commitments. Berton House opened its doors in 1996, and soon Ms. Franklin and her committee were receiving 70 or 80 applicants each year. They began raising funds at an annual dinner in Toronto’s Chinatown. And, lured by “the spell of the Yukon,” which might or might not include panning for gold, rafting on the Yukon River, and sampling a sourtoe cocktail, the writers did come.

Today, the motley three dozen includes Russell Smith, Andrew Pyper, Rachel Manley, George Fetherling, Steven Heighton, Sally Clark, Greg Cook, Phil Hall, Andrea and David Spalding, Carmine Starnino, Charlie Wilkins, Luanne Armstrong and Eric Wilson, to name a few. Nobody has done a count, but the retreat has contributed to the writing of several dozen books. Speaking for myself, in Dawson City I rough-drafted one and conceived another.

The program proved successful enough that in 2001, under a Liberal government, the Canada Council started kicking in $33,000 a year, to go toward airfare and a monthly $2,000 stipend for visiting writers. For six years, that money kept coming. Last year, however, the council terminated that lump-sum arrangement.  Writers chosen by people based mostly in Dawson City now had to be vetted by a Canada Council jury. . . .

The bottom line here is that, despite the miracle-working of Elsa Franklin and her team of volunteers, Berton House does not have the resources to remain viable in the face of continuing uncertainty. Some residents will be funded and others maybe won’t? No, that can’t work. But all is not lost. Ms. Franklin says the retreat could be run “headache-free” for $50,000 a year. And the Writers’ Trust of Canada, a non-profit organization that does fabulous work for Canadian writers, has indicated it might be willing to take over Berton House. Executive director Don Oravec calls it an affordable program, and one for which funds could readily be raised: “We’d like to ensure Berton House will live on.”

True, the Trust does make mistakes: It discontinued the distinctive Drainie-Taylor Award for Biography, for example. But such mis-steps are rare, and Mr. Oravec is clearly right when he says, “The Writers’ Trust is the natural place for Berton House.”

The board of directors will vote on the takeover later this month. They have the blessing of Elsa Franklin. And they should move forward with alacrity. The alternative, that Berton House will cease to exist, is unthinkable.

Happily, the Writers’ Trust did move with alacrity. And the Berton House in Dawson City is still thriving as a writers’ retreat.

Kleinburg did transform a United Church into an excellent Pierre Berton Heritage Centre. But let’s face it, that’s not the same thing.

Poking around on the internet, I gather that the Kleinburg house was designated a heritage site years ago. Pierre Berton died in 2004 and his wife, Janet, followed in 2015. At that point the Berton family sold the house . . . and the purchaser, having done nothing, later resold it. If the place continues to degrade — already it is probably beyond redemption– the heritage designation will be withdrawn. The owner can then demolish what remains and the land on which it stands will be worth many millions.

All this makes me sad because I can’t help imagining what the Kleinburg house might have become. Imagine it as the heart of an internationally renowned writers’ retreat . . .  a place like Yaddo, say . . . right next door to Toronto. Such was Berton’s vision. Instead, as the video makes clear, the old homestead is just another hot mess “forgotten in the woods.”



  1. Wayne Curtis on August 27, 2023 at 11:42 am

    Ken, I stayed in Berton House just after you were there, I worked on a novel and at Christmas wrote an essay entitled Northers Noel for the Globe and Mail. Meeting you there was an inspiration and seeing that countryside and the great rivers was for me a life long memory that never gets old. I hope that Yukon Arts and others can salvage this great retreat!
    Wayne Curtis,
    Fredericton, NB

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