Hugh Muller’s white whiskers and kindly face immediately link him to his illustrious great grandfather, Alexander Graham Bell. The family resemblance is uncanny, though his English—despite a Swiss heritage—is North American-accented rather than the Scottish burr his ancestor would have sported.
He and his wife, Jeannie, kindly joined us at lunch across the road from the Parks Canada Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site. Recent Canadian citizens, the Mullers now live full-time on the Beinn Bhreagh (“Beautiful Mountain” in Gaelic) that was the summer home for the Bell family. Alexander Bell hated the summer heat of Washington, and anticipating Donald Trump’s noteworthy advice, vacated the American capital for the rustic scenery of the island of Cape Breton every summer.
The 400 acre estate still remains in the Bell family… and though grandchildren and great grandchildren are scattered the world over, most are acquainted with one another through idyllic summers spent here with cousins.
Jeannie and Hugh liked it so much that they decided to become Canadian citizens and take up residence in the “Kite House” on the estate. Alexander Bell used to love to build kites of many different styles and designs, and this was where they used to be stored. The contents were donated to the Bell Museum, and Hugh and Jeannie have made the building into a cozy home.
The structure of Bell’s kites anticipated the hydrofoil of his famous HD-4, a vessel that set the world speed record on water in 1919, being clocked at 70 mph. It held this record for decades and its remains can still be seen at the Bell Museum in Baddeck.
Bell also sponsored the first powered aviation in the British Empire in 1909, and an exact copy of the “AEA Silver Dart” hangs from the ceiling of the museum. Summer visitors can enjoy a musical dealing with this amazing accomplishment while the replica hangs over their heads.
Bell also invented a type of respirator that successfully resuscitated a drowned sheep on his estate. Unfortunately, he scared off some of his superstitious employees by seemingly raising the dead. Another feat was the first medical x-ray in Canada, when he assisted two local physicians in finding a needle embedded in a patient’s foot.
On a more personal note, Hugh’s mother was Bell’s granddaughter. She recalls stories of Bell, a notorious insomniac, playing his piano at one in the morning. He would often sleep very late and would be difficult to wake. Muller recounts one story of how his great grandfather had the remains of Smithsonian Institution founder, the late James Smithson, repatriated from England to the US Capitol. He left strict instructions that he be woken when they arrived so he could greet them at dockside. When shaken awake and told that Smithson had arrived, Bell said to his servant: “Nonsense man! Smithson has been dead for fifty years.”
The lunch culminated with me presenting Hugh and Jeannie with a copy of my book Amazing Medical Stories (Goose Lane Editions, 2003). Chapter 10 deals with Alec Bell’s medical research in Nova Scotia.
Travelers to Baddeck won’t want to miss the intriguing Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site and the treasures it contains. Be sure to do the “White Glove Tour”, which allows you to handle artifacts and notebooks that belonged to Bell.
Perched on the shores of the largest island lake in North America, this is a must-see for all visitors to the island of Cape Breton.
Co-authored by George Burden and Stella van der Lugt
Photos by Stella Van Der Lugt – All Rights Reserved