Ancestral Roofs

"In Praise of Older Buildings"

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Child Star

I've been browsing through the photos I took in Old Oakville during a visit in Fall 2014 (how did I forget them 'til now?) and pulling books off my shelf to hear what my favourite writers have to say about the history and built heritage of the earliest lakeside section of that worthy town.

Sixteen Mile Creek, Erchless rock garden

I am intrigued by the number of stories in our history that feature orphans - life was even more perilous then - who managed to survive to become successes. Perhaps they were absorbed by another family, or wandered, just 'getting by' through the kindness of strangers or an informal 'apprenticeship' (menial work in exchange for temporary shelter, food, an occasional kindness.) Stories of resilience.

Left: Thomas home 1829   Right: first Post Office 1835
Mary Byers and Margaret McBurney tell an interesting story in The Governor's Road 
(U of T Press, 1982. ) The founding father of Oakville was Colonel William Chisholm (my version of the story here.) Here's where I get into my diatribe about history being written by the victors, or by men, or by the influential - which leaves huge pieces of history's story untold. There. Feel better.

The writers explain that Chisholm was "still in residence in Nelson township" when he purchased the land which was to become Oakville. He "entrusted the initial planning of the new community to his young and industrious assistant, Merrick Thomas. The house which Thomas built is probably the oldest surviving structure in its original condition in the area.

Thomas was only twenty-five when he undertook the task of supervising the orderly development of Oakville. Since the age of ten he had been forced to make his own way alone and as a result had learned a variety of trades in the ensuing years."

steps lead up from the verandah to a sleeping loft
Merrick Thomas' father, a mason, was at work in Queenston, Upper Canada, at the outbreak of the War of 1812. He hurried home to join the American forces (bad choice) and was captured and imprisoned in October of that year. On that very day, his wife died. Byers and McBurney continue: "The younger three of their four children were taken in by relatives in the United States, but Merrick, the eldest at age ten, was left on his own." Not a helicopter parent in sight.

The lad found work with a ship-owner, and learned the trade; at twenty-five he was "ideally suited to serve as manager for William Chisholm and to draw up plans for the harbour and clear the forested area on which Oakville would be built." He organized the allotment of land, and did the initial work on some of the firtst homes on the site. " He married the boss's wife's sister. Did okay.

The Chisholm family provided some of their original land for the magnificent Lakeside Park. In 1955, the Merrick Thomas house was moved to the park - I read somewhere that an historically minded Chishom descendant was behind the move, and that of the restoration of the rock gardens at Erchless.

The two room house was built in 1829, a fireplace provided heat, children slept in the upper loft in summer. Togetherness near the fireplace would characterise lakeside winters.

 The Heritage Register describes the tiny white 1929 clapboard house as "a fine example of an early settler's house."

There are many much finer homes in the neighbourhood, but I treasure the time I spent in kinship with this tiny dwelling, its family, and its history.

 The autumn park was a fine spot to shuffle through autumn leaves, senses alive with the smells, sounds and the warmth of the late summer, contemplating the town's early settlement and shipping days.

Lakeside Park was a gift from the Chisholm family. It truly is a gift.

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