Bill and Sharon Wreford have never had a ghost in their house as far as they know, but visions - well, that's an entirely different matter. Apparently there have been thousands of those.
That's because they live in the 1847 board and batten house that once belonged to Perth County's famous psychic, the late Vera McNichol, whose ability to "see" things is legendary.
During the 1970s and '80s, people would line up outside the house for hours on end hoping for a consultation with Ms. McNichol, and if they were lucky, a sneak preview of their futures. Over the years, it's estimated she counselled more than 250,000 people, among them police officers whose leads had gone cold.
Once Ms. McNichol helped solve a murder case by telling the investigating officers she could see the victim in a cold, dark, wet place. Police revisited the victim's property and discovered him at the bottom of an old well with a transmission chained to his waist. An arrest was soon made and Ms. McNichol's "gift" was heralded again.
The 1,800-square-foot, three-bedroom house the Wrefords bought in 1990 is rich with history. Not only did it once belong to the famous local psychic; it was also one of the first inns and stagecoach stops between Berlin (now Kitchener) and Stratford. It sits on the banks of the Nith River in Millbank (population 500), in the heart of Mennonite country, about 25 kilometres west of Waterloo and 28 kilometres north of Stratford.
The village is also home to quite a few Old Order Mennonites, who still travel by horse and buggy and shun such modern conveniences as electricity.
The Wrefords originally bought the place to use as a weekend retreat. They loved the surrounding farmland and found the old house fascinating - and charmingly different from their posh 2,400-square-foot, ultramodern, New York-style loft in downtown Stratford.
The old Greek revival house was in pretty rough shape when they bought it. In 1988, it had been moved from its original lot to a sloping, picturesque river-edge property across the street, incurring some damage in the process. The owner at the time had bought and moved it when he learned it was slated for demolition.
He happened to be a big fan of Ms. McNichol's, who at that point was living in a nursing home. (She died in 1995.)
"It was certainly in stark contrast to where we were living at the time," Mr. Wreford recalls. "Here was this little old crooked house that was much more quirky than glamorous, but we could see it had potential. It had great bones."
For four years, the Wrefords spent weekends at the Millbank house and weekdays in Stratford, where they ran their store, Bradshaws, which specialized in upscale home decor, dinnerware and kitchenware. In 1994, they decided to sell the downtown loft, pack up all their belongings and move into the Millbank house full-time.
"In retrospect, I think it was the lowest day of my life," Mr. Wreford says. "It was the shock of going from this 2,400-square-foot modern loft to early Canadian poverty style. We sat in the house surrounded by all this modern furniture and wondered what on earth we'd done."
But not for long.
They quickly began to exchange their modern furniture for primitive Canadiana, and their modern carpets for country rag rugs. They started collecting antiques, folk art and architectural salvage that better suited the old house. Everything started to come together. It was still incredibly crooked, but they liked that. They appreciated the fact that the previous owner, given the option of having the house straightened when he had it moved, decided against it. They also liked the fact that the new foundation kept the house high - and dry.
The Wrefords commissioned a local Mennonite carpenter to construct and fit new wooden windows throughout the house, which was quite a challenge considering the wonky angles and uneven frames. They also installed propane-powered central heating, and got to work fixing up the old wainscotting and sanding the pine floors, where some of the boards were as wide as 18 inches.
They also added two large balconies that spanned the full length of the back of the house. "We live out there in the summer," Mrs. Wreford says. "It's very relaxing and the view is beautiful."
While appreciating the unique character and history of the house, the Wrefords have never been obsessed with keeping things totally original. "We didn't want to be slaves to restoration," says Mr. Wreford. They did get excited, however, when they heard a rumour that the home's original wooden bar - dating back to the days when it was an inn - was sitting in a local barn. They tracked it down, bought it and restored it.
In 1999, the Wrefords put a 700-square-foot addition on the house. It included a new kitchen, dining area and main entrance. The original bar now serves as a kitchen counter, naturally doubling as a bar when the mood strikes, just as it did more than 100 years ago. The smaller, original kitchen was then divided in half to create a small office/library and a second bathroom.
The Wrefords also bought the empty wooded lot next door, making their property roughly two acres, which helped maintain their privacy and provided plenty of room for their two dogs to run.
Two years ago, just before the Wrefords hosted their son's wedding in the backyard, they decided to finish the basement. They wanted to create a "bridal suite" for their son and daughter-in-law (who have since taken over Bradshaws, allowing them to retire.)
Architectural salvage from Philadelphia was used to create a stunning headboard for the bed and blue glass windows were added to create a moody morning light. A gas fireplace and a private bathroom were also added to the room.
During the assorted stages of renovations and restorations, Mr. Wreford continually wondered if he might just come across some hidden money. Ms. McNichol never charged people for her psychic services, but she did accept donations. When she vacated the house and moved to a nursing home, more than $8,500 was discovered in an old shoebox in the shed. Local legend has it more than $100,000 in cash was found stashed in various places throughout the house. All he ever found, however, was an old magazine under a loose floorboard.
"We love it out here now," Mrs. Wreford says, acknowledging that their taste in homes has gone from one extreme to the other over the years. "I find it very warm and relaxing."
"Even if all our friends' houses are straight and true," laughs her husband. "Sometimes I do wonder what we're doing out here with this old pile of lumber. I always told people I would never buy a wooden house or a shaggy dog - and now we have both."
Special to The Globe and Mail