Ancestral Roofs

"In Praise of Older Buildings"

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Canniff's Mills

I like Cannifton a lot. Cannifton is a little village north of Belleville, unassuming at first glance. But Cannifton's got a lot going for it...not the least of which is a lot of links with local history. At the present time the Hastings Heritage Centre resides there in the former township office. On the wall outside this plaque is proudly displayed. The plaque honours William Canniff, who had a brilliant career in medicine in the second half of the c.19. William Canniff was also an historian contributing the History of the Early Settlement of Upper Canada, a hugely important source for historical researchers. I'm still working on where he fits into the pioneer Canniff family. (By the way, I learned the entire book is available free on  Googlebooks - it's so ironic to read electronically the fuzzy old hand-set type of a book first published in 1869)

But of course, I like Cannifton because of its buildings as well as its history...indeed, they are one. Situated as it is on the Moira River, which tumbles over shelves of limestone on the way to the Bay of Quinte, it is not surprising that a lot of Cannifton's early buildings are of stone. Of special interest are several associated with the founders of the town, the Canniff family.

Some time after 1806, John Canniff, the community's founder had begun to clear land in the area. His family built a dam, a sawmill and a flouring mill at the site of the present village, and a stone house. Canniff's Mills was at one time Thurlow township's largest village, the junction of all the area's roads and the link to the north in the 1830's. John Canniff came from Dutchess County N.Y. (as did my mother's people), joining other Loyalists in the move northward. In 1815 it is reported that there were only two houses in the area - one was John Canniff's, reported by my building researcher friend Lois to be the white house (stone beneath the stucco) pictured at the bottom...I think it may be the building mentioned as son Daniel's inn at one time.

John Canniff's two sons Daniel and Joseph  continued the work of empire building. Sometime after 1820, Joseph crossed to the east side of the river and built a grist mill and saw mill. Cannifton was at its peak in 1860. It's said that there were 90 people with the name of Canniff living in the area at that time.

 The store with living accommodations above (photo above) was built by Joseph Canniff for his son John. Joseph's home is the lovely Regency style stone farmhouse immediately to the north of the store (shown below). Mary Plumpton's 1967 history The Rambling River features an archival photograph of the store taken around 1880. The store was once Windsor's Store (1880's) and was also run by Washington Palmer. Today it is operated by a Mr. Jason Ro, a lovely person whom I interviewed today for a Country Roads article on general stores.
Cannifton also has some amazing trapezoidal stone houses that I must get a photo of soon...waiting for the right light. And for all the cars to go home. There's also a hugely picturesque little stone barn.

Lois the building lady just gave me the name of the folks who live in the stone cottage with the beautifully restored verandah. They are passionately interested in the history of the village. Suspect I'll be inviting myself for a chat someday soon.

In the meantime, if you can, go to Cannifton. Don't speed through on your way to Walmart or the subdivision sprawling to the north. Stop a bit. Look at the river, see where the stone for the village came from. Think about the time before the old stone store, about the time when building a sawmill and a flouring mill meant the beginning of a settlement's success. When a general store was the place you went for vital news and human contact, not just a lottery ticket.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

slip sliding away...

Just came across the fascinating story of this weary building in my old favourite 'Heritage Buildings East of the Moira' (Heritage Belleville, 1991). I will try to get back to make a photo that does it justice, although we are not as lovely as once we were. The fact that the structure is several feet below the level of the street now makes it a challenge to find just the right angle, and the car and train travel swirling around the old property make it risky to try.

That the house was built before the railway is indicated by the street level higher than its foundation, due to the grade requiring adjustment to cross the tracks, several feet above. 'Heritage East' (as I chummily refer to it, old friend it has become) states that the structure was built as a store and dwelling around 1845, in what was then "a pleasant location near the harbour and surrounded by substantial homes,"

The building is interesting for its wide stance, shallow roof pitch, and the large windows on either side of the plain door. A 1991 photo shows the wide 12 x 8 sash windows on either side of the door, "quite common in ordinary buildings of the time". The house has trademarks of Greek Revival styling - grand words indeed for such a humble spot - the gable end facing the street, and a low window on the south wall under the eaves which the book says "is absolutely typical of houses in Greek Revival taste in New York and Pennsylvania.

The owners and the structure are part of our history. According to the outstanding work of the historical researchers behind this book, the property was first owned by John Thompson; in his military service he saw action as a Captain during the War of 1812. The first nations resident in the area in 1804 gave him permission to build on the shore of the Moira. Later his son  purchased additional property in the area. Lawyer and local politician Edmund Murney bought this site from the son in 1841, and built this store and dwelling as a rental property.

The walls are bowing, the paint peeling. The windows are boarded up. Have we turned our back on this one, on another piece of our local history, and embarrassed, are we prepared to watch it die?

Friday, January 27, 2012


I love this building. A favourite lady-friend lived here for years, across from my parents' red-brick Victorian era house. Although Elsa's apartment was large and elegant, with some fine architectural detail, it was plagued with problems resulting from an inattentive landlord. It was a sad day for mom when this lovely person left town to live nearer her sons west of Hamilton.

The focus of our periodic tea and biscuits conversations was catching up on the news, and sharing pleasantries. Didn't hear enough of her amazing life. We were intrigued to learn that during WWII, Elsa had travelled to my husband's hometown of Lincoln, UK, to visit her new husband serving in the Royal Air Force. The young man was killed a short time later over Germany, and she had to make her way back across the perilous North Atlantic, widowed and alone.

During all these wonderful visits with Elsa, I never once devoted time to exploring this amazing building. Some day I shall look up its date of construction; one thing I know for sure is that it was built between 1920 and 1950. It is a beautiful example of Art Moderne or Machine Age architecture. No historical detailing here - the shape and massing is about streamlining. In fact, it looks like an ocean liner with its decks, and prow-like balconies with metal railings. Other design features that say Art Moderne include the corner windows, the rounded balconies and frontispiece on the third floor, the glass block, the flat roofs, stubby chimneys like smokestacks, the banding emphasizing the horizontal lines. Really an elegant and sophisticated building for a small red brick Ontario town.

No, this building is not from 1830 or 1895. It has no red brick or limestone, no parapet walls, no towers or bargeboard.
But in its design so unique to its time, and in the stories it tells us about our past and ourselves, it is heritage. Modern heritage.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Hey Bangla Bill

This blog is becoming entirely too red-brick this week. Time to insert some architectural levity. My candidate, the Bungalow. I have always loved this Picton home; in fact LOML and I would likely be able to agree on its purchase, should a number of unlikely stars align at some time.

The typically one and one-half storey Bungalow style arose in the early 1900's as a new way to define living space. Its design ancestor is the single-storey Bengal style house, called 'bangla' in Hindustani, which was adopted by British colonists and soldiers for summer use.

The Bungalow style was in part a reaction to the massive Victorian mansion with its many defined formal rooms, mazes of hallways, overwhelmingly ornate decoration and the resultant need/space for servants. The Bungalow faced the bright new Edwardian era with efficient and open floor plans, simple built-in cabinetry and seating, and an orientation to the outdoors. Other names for the style are Craftsman or California Bungalow. (Somehow the word 'bungalow' was co-opted later to describe the familiar plain single-storey house. But that's not the Bungalow we're talking about here.)

The Bungalow's most appealing features are the two-tiered low-pitched sloping roof, wide eaves with open rafters, and usually a gable. The Bungalow is an informal shape; the roof-line commonly extends forward to enclose a front porch with heavy columns. No gingerbread, no dripping finials. Instead, a craftsman-like emphasis on natural materials, and on revealing architectural elements like roof brackets, rafters and bracing.  Wood shingle or stucco cladding, stone or brick exterior chimneys complete the rustic look. Belleville has some great examples with rugged river rock chimneys and verandahs, that I want to capture. The Bungalow sits low to the ground, integrating with its surroundings via banks of plantings. 

Not ostentatious. Cheerful. Welcoming. Homey. Let's get to work on aligning those heavens.

Is there a pharmacist in the house?

Back in May, an on-line news source I regularly visit,, recounted the closure of a Prince Edward County institution - Teasel's Drug Store. Teasel's, they recount, is the oldest business establishment in Picton and the oldest pharmacy in the province. The store resided in an historic block built c.1860 by two partners, pharmacist Reuben Gerald Chapman and his brother-in-law, Gideon Striker. The block still stands as the Allison Block, the name changed in 1887 on the sale of the property after the partners' deaths. 'The Settler's Dream' contains photos and descriptions of the facade - the cast iron window detail masquerading as stone is magnificent. Must get some photos next time I'm 'in town'.

I can remember the drug store from when I was a kid - a long narrow, cosily dark shop, with a shiny chrome lunch counter and a pharmacist's domain through an archway to the rear. I seem to remember a mysterious staircase leading upwards, oiled wood floors, and the ornate globes shown in the countylive article. Lots of atmosphere, Teasels. Felt old. But it was the smell that transported me - a scent like no other - a combination of perfume, medicine and coffee. The lunch counter was terra incognita - the idea that farm folk would linger to have coffee or a float at that counter was a foreign one. That was the preserve of the town kids. Teasels was a place to pick up Tweed or Evening in Paris for a special gift for mom.

Gideon Striker house, East Main Street, 1868
But this pharmacy is more a part of my story than the occasional stop for discretely dispensed prescriptions or beauty supplies that promised to transform me from a gormless farm kid into a Loretta Young making an entrance. These two Picton houses tell the tale.
Chapman house, King Street, c.1857

In 1786 two brothers left an increasingly awkward situation in upstate New York. James and Sampson Striker, my maternal ancestors, left behind the part of the world their family had inhabited since migration from Holland in 1652, and found their way to Prince Edward County. Tory James was sentenced to death for 'harbouring spies', then had his property confiscated on his reprieve. Sampson (origins of my line) settled on farming in Prince Edward County. His brother James must have been the 'city mouse', for among the family tangles I am trying to unravel is Gideon, who partnered in the pharmacy, built a fine home in a fine neighbourhood, and went on to three terms in the provincial legislature as PEC representative.

Chapman's great house also still stands, though its good Georgian lines are blurred by a Victorian two story bay, a more modern sunporch at the front, and a box on the west. Fix your eyes on the parapet walls and end chimneys, and the picture becomes clearer.

As does my story.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Liddle Tailor Shop c.1850

 I am beginning a small research project about the War of 1812, investigating the connections to Hastings County and the city of Belleville (as it is now
called). Most accounts of the war centre on events to the east and west
of our city - very close, indeed (think Presqu'ile, Bath), but we were spared the loss of life and terrible damage to property experienced on the battlefields and in such places as Newark, violence that remains burned into the Canadian memory.

We were spared - or were we? Today I received research notes from one of our area's most esteemed historians. Over the next while, I will share these findings with folks who are anxious to know more about our Hastings Co. connections to the conflict.

But in the meantime - one of my small discoveries, made in my early explorations, was a story connected to this structure. This building is featured in my often-cited favourite Belleville resource 'Heritage Buildings East of the Moira River', Heritage Belleville 1991. This rubble-stone building with brick facade and parapet walls is the Liddle Tailor Shop, built about 1850. The first owner  (and probably builder) was Francis McAnnany, an important name in early local commerce and politics. The building is close to the old wharf district where much of the commerce of the city was once centred.

An intriguing detail is the rooster carved in the stone lintels over both wide doorways. The rooster, according to my source, is a sign once associated with customs houses. One of the owners of the property was Henry Baldwin, Collector of Customs from 1933 to 1836. Perhaps at one time, the building was slated for use as a custom house?

But wait, there's more (I heard that somewhere). 'Heritage East' goes on to make the War of 1812 connection. And I'll quote "In February of 1819, Joseph Dennis, a mariner, was granted Lot 16 in a patent from the Crown. Dennis owned a vessel on Lake Ontario upon the outbreak of the War of 1812. He fought in the war, was captured and held prisoner for 18 months. His service to the Crown may partly account for the Crown patent." I hope to find out more about sailor Dennis.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Tale of Two Families

The 1780's...all things considered, a good decade for our clan.

In 1784, Patrick Pierce, UE, British militiaman, landed with Loyalist settlers in North Marysburgh. His grandson John, my great-great-grandfather, built the right side of the double house in this photo sometime in the 1860's. This was the house my brother and I grew up in.

The fine stone house below was built by Isaac Striker, my maternal great-great-grandfather, around 1865. Isaac, one of PEC's pioneer cheesemakers, was the grandson of  Sampson Striker UE, who left his Duchess County, NY, home in 1786 to settle first in Adolphustown, later in Prince Edward County.

Today I joined the Quinte Branch of the United Empire Loyalists Association of Canada. This year, I will search records to document these Loyalist connections and apply for my Certificate as a descendant of a United Empire Loyalist. Should I be able to find the "proofs" which will validate the connections between the generations, I will be entitled to "use the post nominal letters UE after my name, an honour that dates back to Lord Dorchester's Order in Council in 1789, conferring recognition of the service of the Loyalists in their defence of "The Unity of the Empire." (from the Bay of Quinte Branch website)

I grew up knowing the story. But it's like always knowing the way to a well-known place, without ever seeing the map in print. This year, I draw that map.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

From our house to yours

 The years have not been good to 193 West Moira, Belleville. I hope they have been better to the children who stayed under her roof. This house was the Marchmont Home, a receiving and distribution home for immigrant orphans from the British Isles from 1875-1925.

The top photo is borrowed with many thanks from 'Belleville's Heritage', a 1978 publication of the Hastings County Historical Society. The bottom vinyl-clad version was captured today, only by sneaking between two bungalows planted on the original front lawn of the children's home.

When my English immigrant husband met my Prince Edward County born and raised mother, he was astounded by the number of English vernacular expressions which peppered her "County" speech - expressions his Lincolnshire family had used for generations - transplanted somehow to this family which hadn't left PEC since their arrival in the late 1700's.

I believe the link is this very house. Mom's words in the family history document below would seem to confirm it. She writes " We had a series of hired men, they were English and no doubt came to Canada as Bernardo boys....I'm sorry to say many of them were overworked and abused ...These two who came to our place had a good home, lots to eat and certainly were well used. They were very ignorant about farming...(but) soon fit in with our family life as well as the workings of the farm."

Two great books about the English orphan immigration movement, 'Marchmont' (cover above) by James S. Gilchrist of Trenton and 'Barnardo Children in Canada' by Gail H. Corbett of Peterborough are powerful voices telling the story of  homeless children who found homes here, and contributed to the growth (and the language) of Ontario. They tell of the organizations and the great-hearted people who sought to improve the lot of many disadvantaged children in the UK.The story is complex, sometimes dark. It's history - not a story book for children. But it's a story that should be told, and not forgotten.

Thanks mom, for remembering to tell those stories to us.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

...with a fist-sized rock

Harrington Road
Before I leave the topic of cobblestone buildings for good (for now), I just want to mention my admiration for the folks who gathered round stones one by one from fields on glacial moraines, or from creekbeds and the Lake Ontario shores to dignify their simple homes with cobblestone facing. I've written a few articles about this building/art form over the past few months. One I'm particularly fond of (since, at the editor's request, it pushed me outside my comfort zone to interview owners of cobblestone houses in Hastings County) is in the winter edition of Country Roads magazine, a great publication celebrating this wonderful county.

I'll leave the last word to John Rempel, whose great resource book 'Building with Wood: and other aspects of nineteenth-century building in central Canada' is just SO WRONG on the subject of cobblestone building. With all due respect, Mr. Rempel, Hastings County would like to take issue with the following assertion : "In Ontario, this cobblestone veneer occurs only in two places: In and around the town of Paris, and at Baldwin on Highway 48." (page 282)

 Mr. Boughton, meet Mr. Wickett.
Vermilyea Road
Roblin Road