’Becoming Green Gables:’ Western prof explores farm that inspired Canadian classic

History  Alan MacEachern with his new book, Becoming Green Gables, in front of t
History Alan MacEachern with his new book, Becoming Green Gables, in front of the iconic Canadian farmhouse. (Submitted)
Myrtle Webb kept a meticulous personal journal from her family farm in Prince Edward Island (P.E.I.) for more than 30 years, detailing a life not unlike the one told by her famous cousin and long-time house guest Lucy Maud Montgomery in the iconic Canadian novel, Anne of Green Gables.

The daily diary - shared directly by Webb’s descendants with award-winning Western history professor Alan MacEachern for analysis and public discourse - is now the basis of a new book, Becoming Green Gables , and a companion interactive exhibit with the entirety of the journal’s contents posted online.

While it’s not a case of life imitating art (or vice versa), there are obvious connections to Montgomery’s titular character Anne Shirley and Montgomery, who lived a near-parallel existence to the famously awkward orphan "with very thick, decidedly red hair."

"Besides what it offers to women’s history and rural history, Myrtle’s diary provides new understanding about the life of Lucy Maud Montgomery, the rise of Green Gables’ cultural significance and the history of national parks in Canada," said MacEachern, an expert in Canadian environmental and climate history.

Since its publication, Anne of Green Gables has been translated into more than 36 languages and has sold more than 50 million copies, making it one of the best-selling books worldwide.

Imaginations come true

Myrtle Macneill moved to an ordinary farmhouse on Cavendish, P.E.I. in 1896, to help care for an elderly brother and sister. Her story resembles the plot of Anne of Green Gables, in which a young orphan girl arrives mistakenly at the Cuthbert family farm to live with elderly siblings Matthew and Marilla.

In 1905, Macneill married farmer Ernest Webb. They bought the farm outright in 1909, where they lived and raised their five children for the next 40 years. Meanwhile, in 1908, Macneill’s cousin Montgomery published Anne of Green Gables, which was an immediate international bestseller. By 1909, visitors from around the world were flocking to Cavendish to find the place where Anne with an ’e’ lived, loved and learned.

"A couple of settings in the book, in particular Lover’s Lane, were known to have been inspired by the Webb farm, so the farmhouse and the entire property became known as Green Gables," said MacEachern.

Alan MacEachern reviews The Green Gables Diary, a new online exhibit he curated using all 1,000 pages of the 30-year diary. (Steven Anderson/Western Communications)

Over the years, Green Gables and Cavendish grew exponentially as popular summer destinations, so the Webbs eventually started offering room and board to tourists at the family farm in 1924.

At the same time, Myrtle started keeping a diary and she did so faithfully, every day until she left Green Gables in 1945 and sporadically afterwards until 1954.

For nearly 70 years, the diary and its contents were never made public or even made available to historians for research. That all changed in 2020. After having read an article by MacEachern, the family reached out to the Western researcher and asked if he would like to use the diary as the basis for a book about the Webbs and Green Gables.

As a historian, MacEachern jumped at the chance. And as a native himself of P.E.I., he was doubly chuffed.

"Myrtle’s diary is an amazing document, both a rich portrait of a rural way of life that no longer exists and a historical record of a home in the process of becoming what it is today, the most famous house in Canada with more than 200,000 visitors per year," said MacEachern.

Tranquil uniformity of disposition

From 1924 to 1936, the Webbs’ tourist opportunity thrived so much that when Parks Canada came looking for a site for a new national park in P.E.I., they chose Green Gables as its crown jewel. Facing certain expropriation, the Webbs sold Green Gables to the Canadian government on the promise that they could keep living there.

"Ernest served as a park warden and Myrtle ran a tearoom for the next 10 years. The family lived at Green Gables - in the middle of an increasingly popular tourist destination and in the middle of a national park - until 1945, when Parks Canada told them to leave on two weeks’ notice," said MacEachern.

Fast forward - a very non-Avonlea way to travel - to 2024, a century after the Webbs started allowing visitors into their home and Myrtle’s life is again opening itself to the public in the pages of a new book and online exhibit.

Becoming Green Gables: The Diary of Myrtle Webb & Her Famous Farmhouse is the story of Myrtle Webb and her life at Green Gables, told first through her own words in 225 diary entries, all reproduced in full. These personal passages serve as starting points for MacEachern to share short essays on topics ranging from crime and local scandal to hosting World War II soldiers at Green Gables and visits from "Aunt Maud" herself.

Writing the book was a COVID-19 lockdown project for the MacEachern family.

"My wife Genevieve and I took turns reading Myrtle’s handwritten diary out loud to each other while the other typed out a transcript. Then my daughter Sadie coded the transcript with hashtags like #foodgath and #GG to help in the writing. Then I wrote the book," said MacEachern.

The transcript was also instrumental in developing The Green Gables Diary interactive website. All 1,000 pages of Myrtle’s 30-year diary are now available: scanned, transcribed and keyword searchable. The website also contains maps, family photos, postcards and other memorabilia. MacEachern provides the introductory text.

"The diary really adds reality to this whole ’Anne’ extended universe," said MacEachern. "It is a grittier version of Anne of Green Gables. Myrtle and Ernest Webb led a very bucolic existence in many ways, but they also had a real life with a real existence."

Both Becoming Green Gables and the website officially launch June 18 at the University of Prince Edward Island for the kickoff event of the 16th biennial L.M. Montgomery Institute international conference (June 19-23, 2024).

Half a century of dedication: Western Technology Services employee marks 50-year milestone 125 views