Lunan Estate

🕔May 28, 2007

Sita Then is the first to admit that the quirky Smithers home she shares with her husband Gavin and two kids, Bryn and Olivia, is a “sprawling behemoth” and a nightmare to clean and heat—but they just can’t tear themselves away.

Situated on a 59-hectare property along the Bulkley River, the Then home is known as Lunan Estate. It bears the undeniable stamp of a few generations of creative, adventurous inhabitants.

No one’s really sure when the property was initially cleared for farming, or when the original buildings—a house, barn and a couple of outbuildings—were constructed from spruce and pine logs harvested on the property. But this much is known: at least as early as the 1920s, the Gygers, a family of Swiss immigrants, cleared it to establish a mixed farm. Ancient, rusted farm implements scattered about the property still hint at their years here—including a wagon made from the frame of a very early-model car, modified to be pulled by horses.

The charred timbers used in a barn that still stands confirm that fire touched at least some of the property, possibly more than once. It’s also known that around 1939, the Gygers, including their six kids, lived, after a house fire, in an impossibly small log structure (which today serves as a shed), while they hastily rebuilt the log house which today constitutes the core of the Thens’ home. Sita believes the family threw up their hands after their Canadian farm experiment, sold the property in 1947 and returned to their native Switzerland.

The property’s new owners were an adventurous European couple. Tadek Then had been an officer in the Polish light infantry, and he’d been instantly captivated by Marjorie, a headstrong young Brit who’d confounded her parents by signing up to join the women’s auxiliary air force. They’d met and married in Britain, and for a while worked as property managers of large estates. One of these was a Scottish property called Lunan Estate—after which the Thens named their Smithers property. They went on to raise six kids, including Gavin, and ran a mixed farm there well into the 1960s.

Although Tadek succumbed to the effects of a stroke in 1984, Lunan Estate still retains his personality and presence. Gavin remembers his father as charismatic and idealistic, with his eye firmly on the big picture. Sita describes him as a “man of many projects.”

One of these projects is just behind the house, on the sunniest area of the property. Two sets of steps lead down into a rectangular grassy area, 25 metres long and six metres deep. Today it resembles a sunken garden, but 25 years ago it looked quite different.

Tadek had excavated it, lined it with cement and painted the surface pale blue. By placing it below the water table, he had ensured the swimming pool would fill up naturally every spring, after which the channels could be plugged, and the water chlorinated and circulated by an old pump. This innovative luxury was well-used for many years, until creeping cracks in the cement bottom and concerns around safety for young children led to a decision to fill it in. But this verdant space still offers a comfortable summer hangout, with chairs, a table, flowers and a small pond in what used to be the deep end of the pool.

Now, kids splash safely in the legacy of another of Tadek’s water-related projects: a convex, above-ground cement pool that is about 20 metres across and about one metre at its deepest point. But it wasn’t originally built for swimming—at least, not by humans.

With the help of Gavin and his brothers, Tadek constructed the pool for his own personal salmon hatchery.

“Even in the late 70s and early 80s, people recognized the problem of declining salmon stocks,” explains Sita.

Using a method that included hatching salmon eggs on wet paper towels, careful record keeping, and the pool to over-winter them, Tadek reared millions of salmon fry. When ready, they were transferred by bucket brigade into the Bulkley River. Undertaken entirely at Tadek’s expense, this highly successful salmon enhancement project won him an award for environmental stewardship.

Tadek’s environmental sensibilities were expressed in another “retirement project.” With the help of Ducks Unlimited, an organization that restores wetlands for waterfowl habitat, he constructed a couple of 50-metre-wide ponds and adjacent nesting islands on the upper reaches of the property. “It hosted the farthest-north population of yellow-headed blackbird,” remembers Gavin. “After he died, they gradually stopped coming.”

The vibrant, creative personality of Tadek’s wife Marjorie, who today lives in the Lower Mainland, is also evident at Lunan Farm. She is known as a gardener, a friend of all artists, a collector of antiques, objets d’art and memorabilia, and a woman of letters. For more than 30 years, Marjorie penned Downtown with Marjorie Then, a newspaper column about arts and music. She helped found the Bulkley Valley Concert Society. In a sun porch attached to the house, she cultivated a rare sight in the Bulkley Valley: a lemon tree.

In the early 90s, Gavin and Sita assumed care of Lunan Estate. Under their stewardship, the house has continued to bloom. They’ve brightened it by adding sunny dormers upstairs, renovated almost all of the rooms, replaced the single-pane windows and much of the formerly inadequate insulation, and reluctantly replaced the by-then huge lemon tree with a large, bright kitchen.

Their taste for whimsical curiosities, antiques and art seems to build on the legacy of Marjorie and Tadek. Their home’s work-in-progress strongly reflects their creative skills: Besides being a land surveyor, Gavin is a skilled carpenter, with a rich background in live theatre. Sita is a visual artist, whose deep respect for history and passion for artful display brought Bulkley Valley Museum collections to life for visitors for years.

They’re well aware that numerous additions have created a house with a somewhat awkward layout, with no readily apparent center. Certainly, there is no pretentious or unifying decorative theme here. But authentic enchantment, and hints of richly lived lives, inhabit every nook.

A painting of a mysterious woman with a disarming gaze dominates the former kitchen. A playful kitchen lamp, constructed by Gavin from overturned steel collanders suspended from wooden spoons, warms their generously proportioned kitchen table. Stained glass and original folk art illuminate a small reading room, which is tucked into an upstairs dormer. An old piano presides over the parlour, inviting Gavin and Bryn to tickle its ivories. Fading, richly hued carpets and unassuming antiques charm every room—such as a saloon table from the abandoned town that was known as Aldermere, and a large ceramic water jug found at the old Driftwood school.

Cuckoo- and grandfather clocks, salvaged from auctions and garage sales, peer silently from unexpected places. A collection of goat bells dangles from a ceiling timber, while sunlight transforms coloured glass bottles on windowsills into luminous blue jewels. Suspended, handcrafted masks, including one set into a vent in the ceiling, recall past parties and productions. Glass-topped, artifact-laden memory boxes and carefully framed old photographs recall pre-Lunan lives and family migrations from places as diverse as Scotland, Poland, Armenia and Egypt.

Discreet shelves house disparate collections of antique toys, military artifacts, and animal skulls. Visitors are intrigued by sculptures, such as one fashioned from a colourful cast made by Sita of her own pregnant curves, and outside, a creation of crumbling wagon wheels.

On the back deck, piles of fossils collected from the property surround pails of sun-bleached seashells which recall seaside explorations with the kids. And from its place tacked to a shed door, an old Ouija board begs more questions about the future of Lunan Estate.

For all of its character, Sita admits that she and Gavin fantasize about building a more earth-friendly strawbale house on a higher part of the property. But Lunan Farm, imbued as it is with meaning, character and personality of its current and former inhabitants, and deeply invested with their contributions, makes it hard to tear themselves away.

“We’re keepers of the history,” says Sita.

© Larissa Ardis 2007