Ancestral Roofs

"In Praise of Older Buildings"

Monday, April 18, 2011

Rural more

I've just walked to the mailbox to pick up another treasure from my used bookseller. This order, interestingly, originated from a small bookstore in Fenelon Falls!! We had a look for the place last week while driving through the village but couldn't find it, so the transaction took place at third hand through AbeBooks. AbeBooks is an amazing online bookseller - infinitely searchable, the purchaser can choose a title from a range of prices and condition, and identify the point of origin of the book - I have 6 titles on order currently, travelling by priority post from Ottawa, Hartford, Detroit, and Mishawaka, Indiana! Prices are ridiculously low, shipping can be 5 times the price of the book - but when a valuable out-of-print architecture reference costs $1, it's hardly an issue.

According to my friend Jimmy Wales, the company is based in Victoria, with offices in Dusseldorf and the US. It was incorporated in 1995 and launched its websites in 1996. At present, I'm told, AbeBooks lists more than 100 million books on sale from 12880 booksellers in 57 countries. It was acquired by Amazon in 2008.

The book I have added to my library this afternoon joins two other great books (architecture/settlement history) by the same authors, that I use as 'field guides' when we travel southern Ontario byways. All were published decades ago. All feature pre-Confederation buildings, in different parts of Ontario. Margaret McBurney and Mary Byers collaborated with different partners to write Homesteads (subtitled Early Buildings and Families from Kingston to Toronto) in 1979 and The Governor's Road (subtitled Early Buildings and Families from Mississauga to London) in 1982. It was Homesteads, purchased on a family visit to Picton from my home in central B.C. in 1980, that started this dangerous addiction to old houses. It's dangerous because, like loving unsuitable men, it is destined to bring heartbreak.

Heartbreak? Oh yes, guaranteed. My new acquisition, Byers and McBurney's Rural Roots, records many of the pre-1867 buildings of York Region. Rural Roots was published 35 years ago. Addresses they feature: Yonge Street , Major Mackenze Drive, and Main Streets of many burgeoning bedroom communities. This Friday I will be visiting in Markham and Kleinburg, and will do some exploring. I wonder how many of Byers and McBurney's wonderful accounts of these buildings and their creators now serve as epitaphs for long vanished heritage, the only echoes perhaps amid all the din of progress, change sadly so inevitable on the edge of a massive city. On our way home last week we witnessed the four-laning frenzy on old Highway 7 east of Markham. How many more buildings, part of our pioneer farming heritage, will vanish in favour of the progress we all demand?

Oh, in case you wonder, I do not flatter myself that these thoughts are original, but I do know that talking is an important part of dealing with loss.

Photos - two pre confederation survivors in Belleville
left: Front Street
right: Queen Street


  1. Oh, that house on Queen Street! I drool every time I drive by. Thank goodness for the people who chronicle the appearance of urban streets and country lanes - once something has disappeared, it's hard to remember what was there.