100 years ago: strange fires at Caledonia Mills

MacDonald home

Jan. 16, 2022 One hundred years ago today, tales of ghostly fires at a tiny community south of Antigonish reached the ears of the local Halifax Herald reporter.

“Do you want a story?” Harold Whidden, a First World War veteran and business man, queried of his editor.

The first headline. The MacDonalds did not live in the town of Antigonish, but in the Guysborough County electoral district that includes the community of Roman Valley, though the property straddled the county line. Mary Ellen attended school at Caledonia Mills, in Antigonish county.

And so, the story of a fire-setting spook on a remote Nova Scotia hilltop became fodder for the international press – not to mention the subject of gossip, speculation, and outright lies. The subsistence farm that was home to Alex and Janet MacDonald and their daughter Mary Ellen actually became an attraction for sightseers from near and far.

The fires – at least 38 of them – actually took place on the night of Jan. 11, 1922 – a Wednesday. They appeared to light themselves, appearing on walls, bedclothes, towels, paper and even in the puddles of water that were sloshed over the weird blue flames in the attempt to extinguish them. Friends and neighbours helped with firefighting and the MacDonalds’ subsequent relocation to a rented house nearby, in the same village of Caledonia Mills.

To a war-weary world, a province traumatized a few years earlier by an explosion that destroyed a large part of its capital city of Halifax, and a population ravaged by the so-called “Spanish flu,” the possibility of spiritual interference in ordinary lives attracted an almost ghoulish fascination.

Theories revolved around exactly which ghost set the fires – a poltergeist in possession of Mary Ellen, bochdans (the Gaelic word for ghosts) that included that of Janet’s late mother taking revenge for something or other, or vampires, or the undead. Alternately, they were the work of pranksters, an insurance scammer, or the result of a natural phenomena such as swamp gas. A Nova Scotia detective, an American psychical researcher, photographers and reporters, and hordes of the curious made their way to the otherwise quiet hamlet to investigate.

The overgrown cellar where the MacDonald farmhouse once stood.

To this day, the cause of the fires remains a mystery. The “spook farm” (if one can find it, the buildings are long-gone, and it is private property) is still a destination for thrill-seekers and psychic researchers. Merely visiting the site, passing by on the road, or taking away something as small as a pebble is still said to cause one bad luck.

I wrote a book about it all, called Fire Spook, The Mysterious Nova Scotia Haunting (Nimbus 2013 – there may be still some available. Contact me via this webpage, as I have a few on hand).

Don’t ask me what happened back in 1922, though I theorize that the fires and attention that followed were a confluence of many factors, not least being a public yearning for distraction.

It’s too bad it was at the expense of the MacDonalds, a rural family just trying to get along in a world that was as difficult for them as it was for everyone else.  I think of them every winter, when a January thaw is followed by a snowstorm like the blizzard that just socked Nova Scotia hard.


  1. So happy you got the book finished. Sorry I wasn’t much help to you when I worked at the Glebe at St Andrews. Kind regards, Pat MacLean

  2. Would love to purchase your book. The McDonald’s are ancestors of mine, would love to hear more of it all. I did hear bits and pieces from my aunt and uncle whom both have passed away now

  3. I have heard many stories of this Spook Farm drove by it daily on my way to work for years. I never encountered anything but always told my husband I’d drive on a flat tire if need be but I will not stop at the Spook Farm. I woul love a copy of your book.

  4. We grew up a couple of miles from the Spook Farm and spent a lot time hunting , fishing and picking blueberries in that area . One of our Uncle’s was a fantastic story teller and he used to scare us Kids half to death with his Mary Ellen Spook story’s . Seems like yesterday .

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