Ancestral Roofs

"In Praise of Older Buildings"

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Survival Instinct

 We just spent a week at Bon Echo Provincial Park, camped in a cathedral of white pines, on a hill overlooking Mazinaw Lake, watching the sun in its travels change the face of Bon Echo rock. That rocky presence emanates energy, geological time made manifest, aboriginal passages recorded in enduring ochre on the flat planes of the cliff.  All around, traces of the Dennison's early c20 literary coterie in the outdoors.

We visited an outstanding small museum in nearby Cloyne, "town" for the duration of our stay. There the enthusiastic  summer staff helped me with research on summer lodges like the Dennison's Bon Echo Lodge - more on that later.

 What struck us both were the displays on the logging era (1850 to late 1890s.) I'll check that in The Mazinaw Experience by John Campbell (Natural Heritage Books, 2000)  - there's always a book, yes?

Someone said the pines above our heads were 150 years old. That makes sense. The logging era in the Mazinaw area peaked between 1870 and 1890. What the mind cannot quite grasp is that all the land around us was once entirely denuded of trees, stripped by loggers making profits for people who viewed the vast forests as a limitless resource to plunder. The hills above the lake were called the Bald Hills.

The majestic pines were thought to have been about 400 years old, according to Campbell, stood 38 metres high with a diameter of about a metre (imagine that?), growing 250 to 400 per acre.

The men in the logging camps lived and worked in appalling conditions,  doing dangerous often deadly work. What they did to the countryside around them, in the interests of economic growth and trade, and in the firm conviction that nature was there for the taking, was equally appalling.

The majestic pines were converted to square timbers of enormous length (up to 100 feet in length) and size (nothing kept smaller than 12" square.) Imagine what was left behind. Slash it was called, littering the landscape, and tinder-dry, putting any community in the area at enormous risk of fire. Lots and lots of fires.

That's what happened in 1903, in Vennachar, just north of Mazinaw Lake. Fire destroyed the complete village, leaving just this little church. It was an immediate eyecatcher for its location on a wooded hill, its home-made steeple and Gothic windows, and its humble insulbrick siding - and the artificial flower bed out front.

But it was the message on the sign which brought such powerful images - of people struggling to establish communities in a hostile land, then seeing everything disappear in minutes in an inferno. The sign explains that  Vennachar Community Memorial Church (1875) was the only survivor of the 1903 fire.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Sisters in the Viewfinder

Charlotte Gray's Sisters in the Wilderness brilliantly captures the literary lives of two sisters, transplanted from genteel Sussex country life, into the wilderness of the Lakefield area in the early 1800s. Their husbands, retired military officers on half-pay, were as unsuited to the rustic life of pioneers as were the ladies.

Those ladies, however, managed to make a literary name for themselves, with works that resonate even today. These lady pioneers were Catherine Parr Traill and Susanna Moodie.

Most memorable amid Catherine's formidable literary output was The Backwoods of Canada, (the full title adds Being Letters from the Wife of an Emigrant Officer, Illustrative of the Domestic Economy of British America) a how-to guide for roughing it in the bush, published in 1836.

Her viewpoint has been described as "perennially optimistic." Certainly she put a brave cheerful face on a very difficult life. Her saving grace may have been her love of the nature around her. She was an amateur botanist, and published several studies of plants including Studies of Plant Life in Canada.

 Recently I managed to capture her literary home, something I'd been meaning to do for ages. The house in Lakefield had proved elusive until a  road trip for lunch in Buckhorn with our lovely aunt, and a return via Lakefield, address in hand. While my two favourite people cooled off near the river, I wandered up to take a few snaps of the shy frame farmhouse hiding in the trees. This site has some additional views and some text, if you can ignore the zippy animations.

The house is Westove, Catherine's home after the death of her husband in 1862, until her own death in 1899. There's a lovely contemporary image of the house on this dandy site.

 Catherine's sister Susanna Moodie may be better known. She wrote two works about the emigrant experience: Roughing it in the Bush(1852) - the title describing pretty much how she felt about the pioneer life - and Life in the Clearings(1853) - which expresses her relief and relative contentment, upon their move to Belleville in 1840, where her husband Dunbar served as Sheriff of Victoria District /Hastings County from 1839 to 1863.

No excuse for taking so long to photograph this fine stone house, which has evolved over the years from a pleasant Regency cottage. (I'm sure I saw a photo of its original form once.) Susanna (Strickland) Moodie's Belleville home is a short hop across town.

Although I know the owner, I haven't yet seen the interior. You'll recognize the doorcase in this 1866 photo at Collections Canada.

At right, Susanna's final resting place in bucolic Belleville Cemetery, by the tranquil Bay of Quinte.




Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Steeple Chase

Wesleyan Methodist Church, Actinolite (1864)
There's a knack to it. I don't appear to have it.
I love looking up, trying to capture the communion of steeple - windows, roof treatment, adornment - and sky,  in that moment just before I fall over backwards.


Hazzard's Methodist Church (1857)












The photos don't do justice to the places, and certainly don't capture the Heaven-reaching of their spires, and their church congregations.
Nevertheless, I'll share these photos of some I've encountered lately, and add a reflection.
Burnbrae Presbyterian Church, est. 1836

These are very old churches.
The lives of the people who built them were enormously challenging.
Their faith sustained them through the heart-breaking work of clearing the forests, wrestling livelihoods from uncooperative land. They lost wives in childbed, children to simple illnesses, husbands to cruel accidents, precious livestock to predators and homes to raging fires.

St. John the Baptist Anglican Church, Madoc (1865)










But they built churches. Early on they gathered in homes. Sometimes they met in their rudimentary schoolhouse built for their children's better future. As early as they could, using what they had at their disposal, they built churches.




Thursday, June 2, 2016

Paying your own Way

Special Effects, Brighton
Our dad was big on "paying your own way." Being a practical farmer, he dreaded debt, "paddled his own canoe" and was "beholden to no man."

I expect he would approve of the thought that popped into my mind as I enjoyed the tropical heat of Brighton last week.


I wandered up Young Street (toiled might be more precise, given the hazy sun broiling pedestrians to perfection), strolled through the grounds at Proctor House (she's having work done, good to see) and trickled slowly downhill via Kingsley and Sandford to Main Street to find a house on the western edge of town. And back. Via Lighthouse Books (more on that later) and all the shady trees I could find.
ogee arch garden trellis..'piano' at right


 One gorgeous red brick home in particular drew my attention - starting with the shade and expanding to the luscious gardens. The sun-speckled front lawn was a feast for the senses with all kinds of needful garden art. The focus, which would bring a grin to the face of a Victorian butler, was the upright piano/water feature/music centre. Worth the drive to Brighton. The house was lovely, as an abode, but it's also the home of Special Effects Decorating. I recognized the sign, and was delighted later to reconnect on-line with the very creative and lovely style of Sheryl Delorme, who I met years ago, when her shop was in downtown Belleville.

Another fine old house on the other corner of Meade Street has been in my sights for some time. I've been admiring with considerable relief,  the restoration of the Mansard roof with polychromatic tiles or shingles, and the repair and repainting of cornice brackets and porch gingerbread. Delightful spot.

Now it's the home of Paramdhan Kaur yoga studio and several other practitioners of healing arts. One could say that the worthy Victorian house has been healed as well.

Right next door, along Main Street, in a rambling frame Edwardian  house is a Brighton institution, The Blue House, featuring home and garden gifts and original art.


I also admired the HQ of Brighton Massage Therapy and Footcare Clinic, who have revved up the  their Greek Revival facade with white and pale yellow paint.








Old homes have long been re-purposed as B&B's and funeral homes, but I think I see a growing trend to repurpose interesting old houses into business venures. It seems to me that tourists and shoppers are drawn to businesses in heritage buildings, heritage districts. Even if they wouldn't know a pilaster from a pinochle, there's a charm, a presence, an experience in and around old buildings that the shiniest newest build just doesn't provide. Even this old house nut accepts that not every worthy heritage structure can be fully restored and run as a museum. Nor are there enough owners with the means to restore and retain yesterday's massive single family homes in private hands.




Some old houses, like the rest of us, have to pay their own way. Ask Alex Fida, visionary owner of the restored House of Falconer in Picton, who purchased an at-risk  property, painstakingly restored it, and has now "monetized it" into a vibrant community arts hub.



Thursday, May 12, 2016

Clouds over Brighton...or, there'll be no toMorrow

Morrow's Storage ramp and freight shed at MJM
Apologies to Annie, but I have been intrigued by the Morrow story since my first visit to Memory Junction museum.

 A bit of Brighton history which might be easily overlooked, as a visitor crosses the threshold of the Interpretation Centre and gets overwhelmed by the amazing collection of area history, is the Morrow's Storage sign, impressed into the cement of the ramp leading to the car doors. This steel-clad building was once the freight shed for the J.H.Morrow Ford automobile distributorship.

In 1910, James Morrow travelled to Detroit (as Ralph Bangay of Memory Junction Museum recounts it) to obtain distribution rights for the new-fangled Ford motor car. He managed the deal, and became distributor for the autos from Oshawa to Gananoque.





The Fords arrived by train (an irony that can only be appreciated with the end of passenger rail service there in 1965) and were off-loaded into the building along the dedicated siding. Somewhere I have seen photos of crowds throngs of people meeting the train, climbing up on the freight cars, streaming around a horse and carriage caught up in the crowd.


Across the road stood a massive cold storage warehouse and grain elevator; it too had rails leading to the loading dock. Lots happened by rail then.







I have been fond of this steel-clad building with the blue boom-town front since I first visited Brighton. Just recently, I saw an historic photo showing it when it housed Morrow's Ford dealership.




 Ralph Bangay recounts climbing out onto the front to replace one of the cylindrical finial adornments.










The Home Theatre/Crown Theatre @ 21 Prince Edward Street, Brighton
thanks to Brighton Digital Archives

Next door to it, in 1922, the Bank of Commerce opened in their new quarters, which had become the Home Theatre by the time the above photo was taken (from the Susan Brose collection at the Brighton Digital Archives.) As you can see, the Morrow building had changed hands as well, becoming home to the Canada Rex Spray Company. We farm kids likely remember Fly-Tox, one of their products.
Unfortunately, both buildings with all their history are under threat, as a new gas station convenience store is planned for the property.

Soon there will be no Morrow building.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Something about a vineyard

Yesterday I spent some time in Hillier township, tracking down the origins of  a unique road name. I took a road never travelled, heading south from Melville toward Wellington along dusty Chase Road.









 I had just entered the wide expanse of vineyards belonging to a winery named for the roads that intersect nearby (Closson and Chase roads) when this beautiful little church came into view. What an outstanding display of the roofer's art, emulating the multicoloured slate roofs of its big city brethren.


 I suspect that the former church (I didn't find any signage as to its denomination) may now be providing refuge for seasonal workers. I did notice a number of smallish cottages round about which in my lifetime on farms used to be called 'tenant houses.'



Now my scripture knowledge is a bit rusty, but it seems to me there is a nice resonance between gentle fields of newly greening grapevines and an historic little church whose parishioners did their best to create something splendid. I'll leave that for you to contemplate.
Brockville - big city polychrome slate
PS Mystery solved. I've remembered a book in my history library, a 1971 Christmas gift to our grandparents from our mom and dad. History of the Churches of Prince Edward County. It has interesting origins. Compiled by the Picton Branch of the PEC Women's Institutes, it is one of those fine local histories titled Tweedsmuir books. I'll leave you to look up their origin. This compilation was revised and edited by Patricia Taylor and published by the Picton Gazette Publishing Company.

The little church is (was) Christ Church, Hillier, an Anglican church. Seems to me that Anglican churches can always be counted on to be, well,  churchier. More picturesque. Even this humble example in the countryside. Christ Church was begun in 1846, destroyed by lightning in 1944, and rebuilt by 1947. Things found, things missing. The photo in the book shows the stones of the churchyard to the southeast of the entrance. But the fuzzy photo doesn't reveal those inspiring patterned shingles.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Mr. Rogers would approve

I remember Mr. Rogers. Do you? His slow-paced children's television show Mr.  Rogers' Neighborhood [sic] ran for years, replaced by increasingly zippy educational offerings like Sesame Street and Electric Company. Mr. Rogers' show was like a visit with a kindly uncle or grandpa. A bit slow, maybe a tiny bit dotty, but a person who conveyed warmth, caring and all the patience in the world. The show ran from 1968 to 2000.

You might recall his often-used kindly prompt to his tiny viewers,encouraging them to attempt the name of something he might be telling them about. "Can you say....?" Today's more cynical folk parody that occasionally. "Can you say Transpacific Partnership, boys and girls?"

 The theme song for Mr. Rogers' Neighbourhood was "Won't you be my Neighbour?" Here's an invitation back into the simple magic of the show.

I think Mr. Rogers would have liked Old Oakville. He might be especially pleased with the neighbourliness of the neighbourhood, where ship captains, merchants and tradespeople lived in close proximity, in well-built homes. The quality of building might be attributed to the skills of the ships' carpenters who migrated to Chisholm's shipyards.

This might be due to an early prohibition on makeshift buildings and log construction imposed by Chisholm or his town planner Merrick Thomas. (I read that somewhere, and am having no luck relocating the source!)


Mr. Rogers would also like the well-kept nature of the neighbourhood, everything put away neat and tidy.

A feature of Old Oakville which makes a ramble even more edifying is the house plaques, identifying homes with the names of original owner/builder, his occupation and the build date.



Justus Williams, merchant  (1838)
Old Oakville's homes, grand and humble, all look so well-built and lovingly maintained. This is due to the owners no doubt, who value their community and properties and want them all looking their best. The presence of an active Historical Society has doubtless 'raised the bar' through the years.

I found online a copy of the Oakville Historical Society newsletter from 2006, in which the process of application for the exterior house plaques was outlined.

Eligibility is simple. Houses have to be 100plus years old. I grew so curious as I wandered, not just intrigued by the architectural features and the exquisite natural beauty of the neighbourhood, but wanting to know so much more about the early inhabitants and their times.

Instant history lesson. Well done, Oakville Historical Society!

I must admit to being disappointed when some home owners appear to have declined to participate.



The tiny perfect 1860 James Kelly house is my absolute favourite. The Old Oakville Walkers' Guide provides a real gem: Farley Mowat's grandma and grandpa lived here.


George Ewan, carpenter (1853)
gorgeous coleus

Carriage-maker's abode  (1855)