Ancestral Roofs

"In Praise of Older Buildings"

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

...and there my true love sits him down

Last Wednesday's junket to Kingston was delightful, as always. We drove down lots of streets of houses calling me back (when it's warmer, please) to visit on foot, with camera. Lunch at a favourite pub. A browse (always fruitful) for pre-owned books at the remarkable Berry & Peterson Booksellers. That accounts for the pile of new-to-me books on the desk.

My fella pulled the first needful title from the shelf (rather appropriate after a couple of pints at Sir John's Public House.) There is a Tavern in the Town was written by the indomitable duo  of Margaret McBurney and Mary Byers  and published by UofT Press in 1987 . The book had been on my want-list for some years (I already have most of their work in my library, great go-to books) but as my book budget shrinks, my visits to my list diminish and I had forgotten it.

Michael Cook's Tavern (1822)
I have been fascinated by the role of the tavern in the early history of our towns, since I researched Mrs. Simpson's tavern (a ramshackle log building near the Moira river in equally ramshackle late 1700s Belleville) for a March 2013 article for the HCHS Outlook.

Here's a wee account of the tavern - and the later Wallbridge House hotel - from Belleville: A Popular History, written by Belleville's most prolific and respected historian, Gerry Boyce. I invite you to pick up some of his titles; Historic Hastings (1967, updated 2013) is but one of Gerry's impeccably researched and entertainingly written visits into our past.

John Willard's Hotel 
The McBurney and Byers book's flap text description of the role of the early tavern (which Mrs. Simpson's fulfilled admirably) is better than I can do (and much more succinct.) I quote it here:

"As soon as the first roads were cut through Ontario's wilderness, an inn-keeper, that jack of all trades to his pioneer community, opened the doors of his hostelry. His was the first public building until the town hall appeared years later. All events of any importance took place in his establishment: court sessions, elections, land sales, and even in one instance, a sitting of the Legistlative Assembly of Upper Canada. Doctors, dentists and travelling salesmen met the public in the inns. Church services and Sunday school classes competed with circuses and concerts. Political movements were born there. Settlers were given provisions, directions, loans and supplies at the inn."

Aaron Merrick's "respectable tavern"
From what I've read over time, that's an excellent summary. I tsk'd the entire time I was copying it, stumbling over the HE pronoun, given that (as you'll know if you followed that link to the passage from Gerry Boyce) Meyer's Creek's indomitable tavern-keeper was a SHE. As were many others.

Mc Burney and Byers visit many of my favourite taverns. Most of the ones I've visited to date feature in the chapter 'The Danforth Road.' I'm just getting into this entertaining and informative book, and already foresee its future tucked into the Blanche's map pocket (along with my driving gloves) leading me to visit all the ones I haven't yet seen (or frequented.) Thirsty work.

William Fairfield's house, old Bath Road
Let me share what the writers have to say about a few of early Ontario taverns. Several superb early inns were spared thanks to historic preservationists, and now live out their lives in old house sanctuaries, telling their stories.

The fine British Classical brick structure at the top, "one of the best" according to our authors, is Michael Cook's 1822 tavern, originally standing on the Prescott to Cornwall stage-coach route along the St. Lawrence River. It was that same river whose alteration by the Seaway Project drowned many early properties and townsites. One happy result was the relocation of Cook's Tavern (restored to the 1835 period) at Upper Canada Village. We visited in 2012.

Alexander Thompson's Inn 1840s
Below it is John Willard's Hotel, which was built in 1790, and had three owners before he purchased it in 1830. Here's an interesting tidbit from the book: "His records show that for the month of February 1830...he served nearly five hundred people with food or lodging, or both." I wonder how those numbers compare to today, when the lovely Loyalist building serves lunches to the tourists at Upper Canada Village. Here's an account of the day mi amore and I joined the lunch line.

full entablature on a side entrance?
The little stone building is  the tavern operated by one of the nine children of William Merrick, UE, who built the first mills in the town which took his name in the first decade of the 1800s. I wrote about this town, one of our favourites, a few times in 2014. Where does the time go?

Below that is a pair of Loyalist Georgian inns, both protected. The William Fairfield home, built by 1793, entertained travellers who would have required R&R after a rough passage on Samuel Purdys' stage-coach along the rudimentary Kingston to Bath road. Hospitality was like that in the day, I've read. Even the simplest and most crowded cabin would never turn away a stranger from the door. The home sits in Amherstview's Fairfield House and Park, a delicious shore park spot I visit often.

I'm a keen admirer of this welcoming spot
Looking a bit like Fairfield's city cousin is a former resident of Scarborough, a halfway house for coaches on the Dunbarton (near Pickering) to Toronto jounce. This white frame inn with double verandahs and two exquisite doorways, is Alexander Thompson's late 1840s inn; it plays The Halfway House in its newest role at Black Creek Pioneer Village. The interior of the inn is just exquisite. Its interpretation of the life of an inn-keeping family in the day kept me busy for hours.

I visited this lovely stucco over frame building twice last summer; it's the Kennaley family's inn. It was built as a home in the village of Keene before 1836, and grew fourteen rooms by the 1860s. It was restored by B.Napier Simpson Junior and is now adeptly playing the role of the Keene Hotel at Lang Pioneer Village.

A fellow traveller throughout this exploration of early inns is Anna Jameson. I've been reading The Embroidered Tent by Marion Fowler, a tad academic but entertaining study of five British gentlewomen taking on the Canadian wilderness from 1791 (Elizabeth Simcoe) to 1872 (Lady Dufferin.)  Anna Jameson, British writer and feminist, published Winter Studies and Summer Rambles (1838) her observations on Toronto society pretensions and her passion for the wild north. Tavern in the Town is peppered with her acerbic remarks about the dubious quality of inns from Chatham to Sault Ste. Marie.

As soon as spring arrives and the open road beckons, I will visit a few more of these historic taverns. Look for another round of reminiscences, soon.

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