Antigonish, Nova Scotia, Canada

The Story of Lillian Burke: StFX professor Dr. Edward Langille publishes book on compelling, almost forgotten part of Nova Scotia history

September 13th, 2019
Dr. Edward Langille

A compelling, and almost forgotten part of Nova Scotia history, the story of Lillian Burke, who was instrumental in the development of the Chéticamp hooked-rug cottage industry in the late 1920s and early 1930s, has been brought to life in a new book by Dr. Edward Langille, a professor of French language and literature at StFX.  

The Story of Lillian Burke, published by Boularderie Island Press, and released in June 2019, has been consistently listed on the 100-bestseller list in Atlantic Canada all summer. 

“It’s part of Nova Scotia history that people know very little about,” says Dr. Langille, who first became intrigued by the American artisan’s life story after a chance discovery in a New Glasgow antiques store, where he happened upon some of Ms. Burke’s original hooked rug designs and started researching her life and the events that helped establish the industry in Chéticamp in 1927. 

His research led to several published academic articles as well as public lectures on Ms. Burke, of Washington, DC, a friend of the Alexander Graham Bell family, whose multi-faceted career spanned five decades.

Ms. Burke came to Cape Breton after she started tutoring Bell’s grandchildren in drawing and watercolours, Dr. Langille says. She became a family friend and started spending summer holidays at the Bell estate in Baddeck. Supported by Bell’s daughters, Marian Fairchild and Elsie Grosvenor, she revived the defunct Cape Breton Home Industries founded 50 years earlier by Bell’s wife, Mabel Hubbard Bell, to generate economic development.

She visited the Acadian village of Chéticamp looking for women interested in producing hooked rugs for commissioned orders. She found not only an established rug hooking tradition, but women eager to learn new techniques. She taught them these new techniques and insisted on using only pale and soft colours and high quality wool. She designed and marketed the distinctive Chéticamp hooked rugs in New York City. 

Over the years of her career, she also became a pioneer in the field of occupational therapy, having worked overseas as a ‘reconstruction aide’ during WWI and in later years as a therapist at the New York State Psychiatric Institute. 

Dr. Langille, a well-respected editor, translator and literary historian, specializing in the works of Voltaire, and whose scholarship has been honoured by the French government, which awarded him the rank of Chevalier in the Ordre’ des Palmes académiques, says the idea for the book, his first with a commercial publisher, grew over a long period of time as he pieced her life together.  

He says the story he found was inspiring and important, and he wanted to make it as accessible as possible. 

“I want people to enjoy the story, to become wrapped up in the story of her life,” says Dr. Langille. 

BOOK LAUNCHES PLANNED

Book launches for The Story of Lillian Burke will be held in Cape Breton on September 19th in Chéticamp at the Trois Pignons Museum and on September 20th in Baddeck at the Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site. A third launch is planned for the StFX campus on September 27th in the McKenna Centre at 3 p.m. All are welcome to attend.  

Martin Grosvenor Myers, MD, Professor Emeritus of Pediatrics, and great-grandson of Alexander Graham Bell, wrote the forward for the book and will be a guest speaker at all three launches. 

“It was a great project. It never seemed like one minute of work,” says Dr. Langille.  

“I got interested because it was about Acadian culture more or less and I’m always interested in that.”

He also noticed some people had been very judgemental and had accused Ms. Burke of making money on the backs of the Acadian people. “This intrigued me,” he said, prompting him to investigate further. He said his research proved this wasn’t the case. She wasn’t rich, he said, and she died still working. He says it seems that some academic historians had tarnished her reputation unfairly.

Dr. Langille says through his research he discovered a wonderful person—she wasn’t perfect, he notes—but he came to the understanding from meeting several people who knew her as well as poring through a range of sources including news clippings, her WWI personnel file, education employment reports and a number of letters, that she was a generous and kind-hearted woman. 

“I thought it was an incredible story and I wanted to do justice to her.”

The Story of Lillian Burke is available at the Antigonish Five to A Dollar and on amazon.ca.

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