Industrial on the Outside; Glorious within. The Studio Building

IMG_0902IMG_0905IMG_0903355722_2“Well,” I comment to Louis,” all the detective work it took to get us here was well-worth it wasn’t it?” He agrees and like me regrets time-traveling back into the bustling world of present-day Toronto.

We’ve spent the last 90 minutes poking into the nooks and crannies of the National Historic Site  “The Studio Building” in mid-town Toronto. Designed and built by Group of Seven founder Lawren Harris and his friend, art patron Dr. James McCallum  in 1914 , the Studio Building’s intent was to provide studio space for the builders’ artist friends including Group of Seven painters Tom Thomson, A.Y. Jackson,  Franklin Carmichael and JEH MacDonald.

Now a private residence, the public is not welcomed to this historic site without permission. A long and winding trail led me to the present owner and an invitation to tour the building, located on the edge of the Rosedale Ravine at 25 Severn Street.

“The exterior of the building is pretty unremarkable,” I suggest to Louis as we approach the door. “It looks like it could be an office building or even a factory.” “Industrial design pretty-well describes it,” he counters.  “I hope the inside is more remarkable.”

We need not have worried.

Tag along with the art-loving Silcoxes  as we explore Canada’s first “purpose-built artistic studio and residence in Canada.” The Studio Building’s  live-in caretaker Abe will show us around.

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“As you probably know, Lawren Harris and his friend Dr. James McCallum were the brains, and the money behind the Building,” offers Abe. “Harris came from a wealthy family and was generous with it, especially when it came to helping his artist friends.” The builders’ plan saw six apartments providing living accommodation for artists who planned to work in the Studio for some time.

“At the time it was constructed, it was big news in Toronto,” continues our guide. “Not because of its purpose but that people thought it was ugly.  Critics in 1914 called it a ‘factory-looking building.'”

“I know that Tom Thomson lived here for a time, but he didn’t paint inside,” I question Abe. “Yes it’s true,” he answers and points out the area at the back of the building where Tom Thomson’s  “shack” sat. (see photo of area and of shack) -“Thomson much preferred the outdoors to the inside and felt his creativity was stifled in the modern and comfortable environment of the Studio Building.”

So, Group of Seven lore tells us that Harris and McCallum (the patron of a number of artists) located a suitable one- room shack and moved it to the back of the property for Thomson’s convenience. Lore tells that “renter” paid “landlord” $1 a month rent.

“And when spring came, Thomson cleared out for Algonquin Park where he spent the summer,”says Abe.

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Thomson’s shack “explored,” we climb the stairs to the Studio Building’s main floor and enter a studio.  I’m stopped in my tracks by the effect of the strong January sun shining on the rich wood floors and furniture. “I’ve admired the huge windows from the outside,” I offer to Abe, “but they can’t even begin to convey the effect of light from the inside.”

“Light,” says Abe “was the whole purpose.” Harris left much of the design of the building to his architects, but he was firm about one feature–the windows. They had to be big, allowing the maximum light into the rooms.”  Six massive north-facing windows over the 3 floors of the building measure 3 meters (approx 10 feet) high by 4.5 meters wide (approximately 15 feet). On this sparkling January day, the effect is magical.

I close my eyes and images of A. Y. Jackson, Franklin Carmichael, J.E.H. MacDonald and Harris himself filter by. “I can’t believe I’m standing in the very spot where members of the Group of Seven painted,” I say, with reverence,  as a shiver runs up and down my spine. Abe laughs. “I live here and I still feel that way.”

Passing out of the first studio,  my eye is drawn to the numerous paintings on the walls. A fan of artist David Milne, Louis stops to admire several of his works. I’m an A.Y. Jackson fan and am not disappointed either as I move on.

“It’s obvious that cooking and eating wasn’t tops on the artists’ list of priorities” says Louis, as he peruses the small utilitarian kitchen on the main floor.

In 1948, Harris sold the Studio Building to artist Gordon McNamara. On McNamara’s death in 2006, his son James Mathias inherited it. It was designated as a National Historic Site in 2004. Mathias, a successful underwater photographer spends most of his year in Fiji and resides in the historic Studio Building for only a few months a year.

I speculate to caretaker Abe that keeping up such a historic building surely cannot be inexpensive. He agrees, noting that all the windows and doors have undergone recent replacement. “And it was a huge expense.”

And what does the future hold for the historic Studio Building? “Maybe someone wealthy with a last name of Thompson will buy it?” I suggest. “Or maybe it’ll be turned into an office building?” Images of other proud historic buildings now neglected and crumbling  leave me troubled.

National Historic Site “The Studio Building” is not open to the public.

 

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“By Invitation Only” The Arts and Letters Club of Toronto

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You’ve seen the photo a hundred times and somehow never tire of scanning the faces again. Seen through the smoky haze of a dimly lit room, seven men–a cultured lot, in conservative dark suits with perky pocket handkerchiefs showing, are seated round a table. They’re clearly relaxed in each other’s presence, sharing a beverage or two in congenial conversation. 

On closer view, it’s plain that a few show discomfort, even hostility towards the intrusion of the camera into their social time. One, craggy-faced, with a “take no prisoners” attitude stares belligerently at the camera’s eye; two respond with faces cast downward; a fourth, of finer features adopts an embarrassed grin.

Taken in 1920 at Toronto’s  Arts & Letters Club, the photograph  captures the faces and personalities of six of the seven members of the Group of Seven.  It marks the only known photograph of A.Y. Jackson, Fred Varley, Lawren Harris, J.E.H. MacDonald, Franz Johnson  and Arthur Lismer together.

Over the next century, the venerable “members only” club, devoted to the artistic fellowship and promotion of Canadian literature, music, and the arts would welcome other icons including novelist Robertson Davies, eminent orchestra conductor Sir Ernest MacMillan, and Sir Edmund Walker, banker, patron of the arts and founder of the National Gallery of Canada.

Almost 100 years later, a walk through the National Historic Site Arts and Letters Club of Toronto continues to reverberate with Canadian artistic and creative history. Come on along; let’s discover more.

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Founded in 1908 by Toronto journalist Augustus Bridle,  the Arts & Letters Club, moved in 1920 to its present quarters at St. George’s Hall on Elm Street, Toronto. 

Founded with a mission to promote the Arts in Canada, the Arts & Letter Club quickly became the favoured meeting point for the aesthetically inclined of Toronto society.  They included journalists and writers, musicians, painters, poets and publishers.

The Club’s best known members remain the Group of Seven who, according to later Group member AJ Casson “luncheoned there daily.”

The collegial setting allowed these artistic pioneers to gain strength from each other, to strike out on their own artistic journey, rejecting the premise that Canadian art must copy the well-worn path tread by European painters. Instead this Group of Seven patriots would celebrate the distinct landscape of Canada.

Group member J.E.H. Macdonald served as Vice-President of the Club for four years and designed its crest. Madonald’s design, still the Club’s logo, shows a Viking ship with sails billowing against the rising sun. Macdonald’s artistic mission was to “remind members of the open seas and great adventure.”

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In the 1920’s and 1930’s, one of the Arts & Letter regulars would seem, at first glance, out of place in a meeting place devoted to the arts. He was Dr. (later Sir) Frederick Banting, co-discoverer of insulin and Nobel Prize winner.

But this scientist was a closet “Artsie” too, an amateur painter, on friendly terms with members of the Group of Seven, and  a frequent sketching companion of  A.Y. Jackson.

And while the eminent doctor was said not to participate in many of the songs and skits presented regularly by talented Arts & Letters Club members at lunchtime gatherings, Dr. Banting was  known to be “a good companion at table, for he loved the singing, the story telling and the good drinking of men relaxing .” (Michael Bliss, Banting: A Biography,  page 168).

A sketch of Banting by Group of Seven member Arthur Lismer reveals the affection by which the artists felt for their medical friend. The admiration was no doubt mutual. Banting biographer Michael Bliss speculates that that the time spent with friends at the Club was a pleasant change from the “stuffy formality of the University.”  

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And for artistic women? Sorry ladies. Women were not invited to become members of the Arts and Letters Club until 1985. Even then, outraged protests from male stalwarts were heard. One hardliner protested vigorously against the ground-breaking change, fearing that there was little doubt that “women’s superior acumen and intuition would in the end take over the club leaving the male members with no opportunities to develop their limited skills. “

When all was said and done, the vote saw 64 in favour of women; 38 opposed. Given its usual membership in the hundreds, clearly many men abstained from voting.

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In 2017, Arts and Letters Club membership hovers around 600. It includes both men and women of all ages, “for whom the arts are an essential part of life—a place to pursue creative expression, engage in the free and vigorous interchange of ideas and opinions, and enjoy good conversation and the companionship of kindred spirits.”

In addition to fellowship of kindred spirits, members use the venue to promote their own, and other artistic ventures.     

While the club is closed to the public, arrangements to visit are welcomed by calling Club Manger Fiona McKeown at 416-579-0223.
 

 

 

 

Chiefswood: Ontario’s House of “Royalty”

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Chiefswood: Ontario’s House of “Royalty”

It’s a delicious spring day and the Silcox National Historic Site bus is on the road. We’re heading to Brantford—the First Nation Reserve of Oshweken to be exact. Our destination is Chiefswood, the ancestral home of poet and performer E. Pauline Johnson.

As we approach the Site on the banks of the slow-moving Grand River, snippets of Pauline’s  best-known poem “The Songs my Paddle Sings,” are called up from the depths of my six-decade-long memory.

West wind, blow from your prairie nest,

Blow from the mountains, blow from the west

The sail is idle, the sailor too;

O wind of the west, we wait for you!

Now you remember her from your own school days, don’t you—this half First Nation princess; half proper Victoria lady. And your memories aren’t that favourable are they? Like me, you were forced to study her poetry in high school and we found it sickly sentimental and flowery.  Too bad the English teachers of the 1960’s didn’t tell us about the woman herself.

“Pauline Johnson was before her time,” I remark to my chauffeur. “She lived generations before social media, but still Pauline knew how to get attention.   She was mysterious; she was beautiful; she had talent; she had chutzpa; but more than all this, Pauline Johnson knew how to court the media,” I add.

My driver,who doubles as navigator, dog-handler and purser agrees whole-heartedly.

We’re both hoping to get more insights into her larger-than-life character before we leave Chiefswood for home.

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Born in 1861, Emily Pauline Johnson was the child of a mixed marriage. Her English mother, Emily Howells had married Mohawk George Henry Martin Johnson.  Four children including Pauline were eventually born.

Now George Johnson was no ordinary mortal.  Descended from the great Hiawatha, he was known in diplomatic as circles as Teyonhehkon, (some sources name him Onwanonsyshon)  the esteemed Chief of the Mohawk Confederacy. As such, he was afforded the respect that few of First Nation blood achieved.

As the children of “royalty,” Pauline and her siblings were educated at home in the English tradition. Her diary entries detail her growing infatuation with the romantic poets– Keats, Byron and Shelley. She began to write poetry herself and in her teens, her verse was published in the literary journal Gems of Poetry.

Much to her parents’ chagrin, by her early 20’s, Pauline had begun giving recitations of her poems.  But no run-of-the-mill Victorian poetry readings were these. The first part of the evening’s entertainment would see the night’s attraction  reading poems in her persona as the finely-bred English lady, Pauline Johnson.

Audiences politely applauded but remained restrained. They were waiting anxiously for the main act!

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After a quick wardrobe change–out of hooped skirt and demure long sleeves into buckskin, beads and feathers, the main event returned as Indian princess Tekahionwake. Her verse reflected her altered persona. Birch-bark canoes and brave warriors had replaced flowers and singing birds. Crowds cheered and begged for more.

Pauline Johnson/Tekahionwake was soon in demand across Canada, the United States and Great Britain. She became a veritable celebrity and enjoyed the status that this gave her. This included rubbing shoulders with the literary and artistic crowds of the day.

Two of these luminaries were artists Carl Ahrens and Homer Watson. The artistic trio had also been drawn together as spiritualists who met regularly at séances (usually at the Watson Kitchener-area home) hoping to  seek contact with those who had moved on to the afterlife.

One spiritual tall-tale tells of  Johnson and Ahrens on an evening canoe outing paddling down the Grand River.  Suddenly they are ambushed by a war canoe carrying a vengeful Iroquois hunting party. Only Tekahionwake’s skilled canoeing skills save them from losing their scalps to the vengeful foe.

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Sadly Pauline Johnson’s life was to be a brief one. In 1913, she died of breast cancer in Vancouver where she had relocated in the early 1900’s. she was only 52. 

Time has not been a friend to Pauline Johnson, poet. The writer of 13 books of verse, she is now rarely studied in school. Her name is more associated with overwrought emotion and Victorian angst than outstanding verse. Critics have also dismissed her performance legacy, calling her  nothing more than a savvy “entertainer;” one whose fame was based more on “showmanship” than literary talent.

Still, some with broader perspectives, treat Pauline Johnson with  more respect. She’s lauded as the woman who opened the door for succeeding female Canadian writers and performers.

In 1992, Chiefswood was designated a National Historic Site. Set on a hill overlooking the Grand River, the property is well worth a visit. If only to see the photographs displayed of the Mohawk Princess in buckskin, feathers and beads.

 

The Kingston Penitentiary:Murderers,Serial Killers and Childen

li-kingston-pen-istock-6201954_riot.jpg.size.xxlarge.promor-KINGSTON-PENITENTIARY-CLOSE-large570Constructed in 1835 during Queen Victoria’s reign, and occupied continuously until 2013, the Kingston Penitentiary once held a dubious distinction.  K.P. as it was known in the corrections system remained among the oldest of North American prisons to house criminals in the age of computers, space exploration and smart phones.

On a fall visit to the lovely and historic “limestone” city of Kingston, on National Historic Site adventuring, Louis and I  had “The Pen” on the top of our “must see” list.

On arriving at the massive 8.4 hectare site, we were disappointed to learn that the doors to the Gothic fortress remain bolted shut. “You’d think Corrections Canada could make a bundle having public tours,” I suggest. He agrees.

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Kingston, Ontario once reigned as Penitentiary King of Canada. At one time 9 jails, including the Kingston Women’s Prison, held society’s law breakers in the province of Ontario.  

One Joseph Bouchette was the first criminal sentenced in 1835  to serve a penitentiary term at Kingston. His crime “Grand Larceny.” His punishment 5 years. 

The youngest inmate to arrive at K.P. was 8-year-old Antoine Beauché, a pick-pocket. Even at that young age, the court described him as an “old offender” and an” experienced pick-pocket.” The lad’s sentence was 3 years.

Records show that within a week of arriving, Antoine received the lash. Over the next 9 months he was lashed on 47 other occasions for: “staring, laughing, whistling, giggling, making noise in his cell, having tobacco and idling.”

Bad Girls Too

The adjacent Kingston Women Prison opened in 1836, thanks to the labours of their male “neighbours.” Three women, sentenced on the same day, were its first residents. All from the Hamilton area,the women had been convicted for the crime of Grand Larceny (theft).

The youngest female inmate to occupy a cell was 9-year old Sarah Jane Pierce. She was sentenced to 7 years of imprisonment for housebreaking and larceny. Among the items that the little girl was found guilty of stealing were: a quilt, a ladies hat, a towel, some beef, raisins, biscuits, tea and sugar. 

Larceny was by far the most common crime for which men, women and children were sentenced. It takes little insight to see poverty and empty bellies as the motive behind such crimes.

Too Tired to Cook up Trouble

Riots and escapes—successful or failed, go hand in hand with prisons. August 1954, saw an uprising at K.P. involving 900 inmates. Guards, reinforced with RCMP assistance got the situation under control within a few hours.

The inmate riot of April 1971 was more destructive. Two prisoners were killed during the 4-day rampage.  6 prison guards were held captive and much of the prison was heavily damaged.  

The 1971 riot is notable for its use of the media to publicize the prisoners’ grievances. Prison leaders used newspaper, radio and television to air their grievances.  A lack of recreational time and little meaningful work time were tops on their complaints . Too much time spent in cells was another “bone to pick.”

K.P.’s  “Walk of Fame”

Kingston Penitentiary has housed many of the most infamous of Canadian criminals. They include: James Donnelly of the murderous Black Donnelly gang who terrorized the London/Lucan area in the mid-19th century. Donnelly was awaiting hanging in Kingston but was spared the noose after his wife circulated a petition to spare his life.

The notorious bank robber, “Red” Ryan also called K.P. “home” in the 1920’s.  A personal story illustrates just how daring the flame-haired criminal was.

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Several years ago my services as writer were requested to complete the biography of an elderly woman who was born and grew up in the Kingston area in the early 1920’s .

Then only a child, she was living with her family on an isolated farm outside of town. Suddenly they heard an unexpected pounding on the door. Fearful of who would be out on such a stormy night, the family held together as my client’s father answered the door.

On the step were two rough-looking men, one with flaming red hair. “They wanted food and shelter for the night,” my elderly friend recalled. “So my father told them they could sleep in the loft of the barn. And my mother gave them some bread and meat.”

By the morning the pair had gone. “It wasn’t till later that we realized that our visitors were the escaped bank robber Red Ryan and his accomplice,” she recalled. “It gave us the chills thinking about how it could have been much worse for us.’

Political prisoners such as Tim Buck, leader of the Communist Party of the 1930’s also “broke bread” with hardened murderers and rapists.

Modern day criminals and social deviants Paul Bernardo, serial child killer Clifford Olsen, Michael Rafferty (convicted of the death of 8-yer-old Victoria Stafford), former Canadian Armed Forces Colonel Russell Williams, and “honor killers” Mohammad and Hamed Shafia also resided at K.P

Through a Hole and Over the Wall

The stuff of Hollywood movies, escape attempts often catch the public’s attention when they occur. Prison records show 26 escape attempts from the the date of opening in 1835. Only a handful, including Red Ryan succeeded. None remained at large for long.

In 1999, one escape had a different outcome than most. Prisoner Ty Conn, on the loose for more than two weeks had been traced to a Toronto hotel room. Seeking to tell his story, Conn had contacted the CBC.  As Toronto police were surrounding the hotel, Conn was on the phone to a CBC reporter. Suddenly the reporter heard a deafening roar. Conn had put the gun to his head and fatally shot himself as she listened.

Despite its archaic conditions and dubious reputation, the end of the road for the Kingston Penitentiary didn’t come until 2013.  Prison reform advocates called K.P. “a dumping ground for bad guards.”   

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Although the doors to Kingston’s Penitentiary remain closed, across the road Canada’s  Penitentiary  Museum allows a glimpse of life behind bars. The Museum houses prison artifacts such as leg irons, shackles, straight jackets, as well as escape equipment–knotted bed sheets, knives, spoons and small trowels .

The Curator of the Museum is Denis St. Onge who has written a book on the prison, “One Day Gone.”It is for sale in the gift shop.The book is dedicated to the 34 Corrections officials included guards who lost their lives on duty. li-kingston-pen-istock-620li-kingston-pen-istock-620 

 

 

The Sad, Sad Tale of the Shickluna Gas Station

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With the New Year of 2016 on our doorstep, and a newly-elected federal government promising change, it seems timely to put the spotlight one of Canada’s most unusual National Historic Sites. It’s the former Shickluna service (gas) station in the town of Port Colborne in Ontario’s Niagara Region.

What’s the connection, you well might ask, between a small-town gas station and our newly-elected federal government? The answer comes in one word–“history.”

Shickluna has the distinction of being the only service/gas  station in Canada to be named a National Historic Site.

And while this designation alone is cause for praise, the future for the L.J. Shickluna Site is a clouded one. It joins at least two other National Historic Sites in Ontario–the former Bowmanville Boys’ School and the once gracious Bellevue House in Amherstburg on the historically-endangered list.

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 Let’s travel back in time first to the island of Malta. One of the smallest nations in the world at only 122 square kilometers, Malta lies in the Mediterranean Sea, 80 km south of Italy.

It’s in this nation of mariners, that the Maltese Shickluna family had made their fortune in the ship-building industry.   

The Canadian connection to the Shickluna clan finds its beginning in 1808. In that year, one Louis Joseph Shickluna was born into the powerful family. Following tradition, it was hoped that one day, Louis would take over the family business.

But this young man had other plans.  At age 23, Louis boarded a sailing ship for the British colony of Canada. Adventure was tops on Louis’  list of priorities.  

Disembarking at Quebec City, Louis first found work at a shipbuilding company.  By the next year, he’d moved on to Youngstown, New York.

But not for long. By the mid-1800’s Great Lakes shipping was booming, thanks in a large part to the opening of the Welland Canal in 1833. Seeing his long-term future here, Louis returns to Canada.

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He chooses the Niagara area, along the shores of Lake Erie  to make his mark and founds his own shipping company.  Over the next half-century the Shickluna shipyards work at full-throttle, producing some the most advanced Great Lakes sailing ships of the day—some 140 in total.

In the process the Shickluna name became synonymous with wealth, power and innovation in the Canadian shipping industry.

On Louis’ death in 1899, his son Joseph stepped into his father’s large shoes. But the great age of shipping was inevitably  drawing to a close. If the Shickluna dynasty was to maintain its financial and social standing, they would need to diversify.

That future seemed to point to the automobile.

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With car ownership growing exponentially across Canada and the U.S., in the early years of the 20th century, gas and service stations were springing up across the nation.  In 1924, third generation Canadian Louis Shickluna joined the entrepreneurial crowd and planned to open his own business.

He’d chosen Port Colborne just east of the town of Fort Erie to start his business.  But this would be no ordinary “get your gas and grease job here” type of commercial establishment. Young Louis Shickluna had plans for something special.   

Working with the Imperial Oil Company, Louis brought built a fair measure of architectural flair to his proposed business establishment. It would be designed in the California Mission Revival architectural style—one that drew its inspiration from the Spanish missions in California.

Gabled pediments, massive supporting pillars, broad overhanging eaves and red Spanish tile roof define the decidedly southwest American style.

(One of the best-known examples of California Mission architecture is featured in Alfred Hitchcock’s film Vertigo which is set north of San Francisco. )

California Mission  architecture was a rarity north of the 49th parallel.  No doubt  Louis Shickluna’s gas station must have caused more than one driver to do a double-take.

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Early September 2015 sees your intrepid National Historic Site explorers heading southwest from Waterloo Region to the Niagara Region along the Lake Erie shore.

The area is home to a number of Sites, including the previously profiled Point Abino Lighthouse and several Sites connected to the War of 1812-14. But we’re most eager to see NHS Shickluna, surely one of the most curious Sites in our travels across Ontario.

Historical research has little-prepared us for the sad reality of Canada’s only  gas station National Historic Site.  Standing on a weed-choked property, with derelict rubble propped against the building,  Shickluna is  boarded and closed. Its white stucco paint has peeled and the exterior is vandalized with graffiti.

 “It doesn’t even have a plaque indicating what it is,” I comment to Louis. We leave with no fond memories of Canada’s gas station tribute to the California Mission architectural style.

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A chat with local residents following our Shickluna visit gives us was no solace. It does reveals Port Colborne’s mood about the town’s only National Historic Site.

“It’s an eyesore,” says one resident. “And right on the main street. It makes the town look bad.”

Another puts blame on the National Monuments and Sites Board for allowing a “national treasure” to deteriorate so shamefully.

Still another shares the Shickluna buzz around town.  

“A developer bought it a few years ago and is just waiting till there are enough complaints that the town will order it torn down as a hazard and eyesore.”

He continues the Port Colborne scuttlebutt. “The word is that demolition is what the developer wants in the first place– National Historic Site or no National Historic Site.

“You mark my words,” our “mole” predicts. “You’lI see high- priced condos on the property in 5 years. “

Under 10 years of Conservative government, Parks Canada which oversees National Historic Sites, has been stripped to the bare bones, both financially and with respect to resources.  History lovers hope that a Prime Minister with a history university degree will be kinder.

If you feel that preserving Canada’s heritage is a priority for the new Liberal government, let your MP know. I have.

The former Shickluna Service Station in Port Colborne was designated as a National Historic Site in 1995.  

Look to the Sky and feel the Wonder: Gillies Grove, Arnprior

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“It’s a reverential place,” I whisper to my companion. “You seem to leave the outside world behind when you step onto the path.”

He agrees. “It reminds me of when the Pevensie children stepped through the wardrobe into Narnia.”

Indeed Gillies Grove National Historic Site in Arnprior is a magical and otherworldly place. It is surely one of only a handful of Ontario’s National Historic Sites where man plays little part.

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Dense forests, Canada’s First Nation people and abundant wildlife greeted French explorer Samuel de Champlain when he ventured into central Canada in 1613.

The French explorer had crossed the sea to the New World, then turned his sights on the daunting St. Lawrence River. This massive waterway would lead him into the heart of Canada. Halting at the turbulent rapids at Lachine, the adventurers traded ship for canoe and set off into the unknown.

Algonquin guides led Champlain and a number of his crew westward along the Ottawa River—a landmine of rocks, rapids and shoals.

For the French explorers, the view must surely have been awe-inspiring. Dense virgin forest grew on either side of the fast-flowing Ottawa River. Sugar maples, yellow birch, American beech, eastern hemlock and basswood trees stretched as far as the eye could see.

All were dwarfed by magnificent stands of the Eastern White Pine. One of the tallest species of tree in Canada, a mature White Pine can tower over 50 meters.  

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Fast forward now  to 1823. Scottish-born land developer Archibald McNab has petitioned the Canadian government to grant him land along the Ottawa River west of Ottawa. McNab’s aim was to become wealthy by selling plots to the influx of Scots, English and Irish who were flocking to Canada at the time.

As McNab’s plan went forward, expanses of forest land was cleared for farming. The trees provided raw materials for barns and houses. And soon the forests became a memory.  

The Eastern White Pine had a different fate than homesteaders cabins. It was especially prized in both France and England. With trunks that grew long, straight and strong the trees provided perfect raw materials for the masts of sailing ships.

And so, the Eastern White Pine gradually disappeared from the eastern and southern Ontario landscape.

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The decimation was halted by lumber magnate Daniel McLachlin, who had acquired an expanse of land outside the town of Arnprior. While most of McLachlin’s purchase was razed for lumber, he preserved  22-hectares for family picnics.

When McLachlin went bankrupt, the 22 acre site was purchased by another lumber king—David Gillies. Gillies prized the land and stated his wish to preserve the forest reserve after his passing.

With Gillies death in 1967 and his wife’s in 1980, Gillies Grove was willed to the United Church of Canada. Church administration turned the bequest down and the property went on the market.

In 1986, it was purchased by the Ottawa-based Roman Catholic Oblates of Mary Immaculate for $100,000.

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By the early 2000’s Gillies Grove was on the market again, with the Oblates declaring the property too expensive to maintain. Arnprior buzzed with rumours that their beloved Grove was about to be sold to a developer who would raze the property for building lots.

It’s reported that the howls of protest coming out of Arnprior could be heard as far as neighbouring Pembroke!  

It was conservationists to the rescue. Gillies Grove was purchased by The Nature Conservancy of Canada in 2001. The organization continues to administer the property with volunteers from the Land Preservation Society of the Ottawa Valley.

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Let’s take a leisurely stroll ourselves through the Grove. It’s a mere hop-step-and jump from the fast-running Ottawa River.  

As is customary, we’re accompanied on our National Historic Site adventure with our Golden Retriever, Hailey. Given the time of year (late fall) and the weather (cool and rainy) we are the only visitors to Gillies Grove. We allow her the privilege of exploring off-leash.

Seemingly awed like us by the experience, she stays close. Her nose confirms that there are other species than trees and plants in the Grove.

A number of birds—many now rare in populated southern Ontario lure dedicated bird-watchers to the Gillies Grove site. They include the uncommon scarlet tanager, red-shouldered hawks, pileated woodpeckers and barred owls.

If you stay long enough and show patience, visitors may be treated to the acrobatics of flying squirrels leaping from tree to tree. Look down too and if you’re sharp-eyed, you may spy red-backed salamanders scurrying along the forest floor.  

A dazzling array of plant species changes according to the season. Spring flowers include hepaticas, violets, red and white trilliums. Summer brings white baneberry and the Indian pip plant.

But today, we’ve come primarily to see the Eastern White Pine. And  we are rewarded. The pines stand shoulder-to-shoulder near the centre of the grove. So high are they that from the ground it is difficult to see their top-most branches.

In May of 2015, the Nature Conservancy announced that the tallest tree in Ontario finds its home in Gillies Grove. Measuring 47 meters (147 feet) high and more than 100 cm. in breadth, this magnificent giant stands taller than a 13-story building.

Estimated to be between 150-200 years old, the pine has been added to Forest Ontario’s Honour Roll as the province’s tallest tree.  A bench has been placed beside the gentle giant to invite tree-huggers to rest a spell and look up—look way, way up!

Gillies Grove was honoured as a National Historic Site in 1994.

Take that, you Yankee Landgrabbers! Kingston’s Murney Tower

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We’re headed out on our most ambitious National Historic Site adventure so far. It will take us to Kingston, “the Limestone City.”

As is customary, Louis is the driver/navigator, with Hailey as co-pilot up front. Me? I’m in the back doing research. It’s a jolly band.

Over the course of the next 2 days, we’re aiming to visit all of Kingston’s 21 National Historic Sites. It’s a tall order, but the Sites are in a cluster along the historic waterfront. We should be able to meet our target.
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Truthfully though, I’m carrying less than my usual enthusiasm about our outing. Kingston, strategically located where the St. Lawrence River and the Rideau Canal meet Lake Ontario was a key British military base before and during the War of 1812-14.

But for this blogger, recounting rounds of musket fire and rapacious American invader tactics are not high on her list of historical interests.

I’m making an exception for the curious Murney Tower. Read on to find out why.
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We’ll time-travel first back to 1794, on the Mediterranean island of Corsica, of all places. There the ever-striving British Navy is bombing the be-jeepers out of a squat, round watch tower at Mortella Point on the coast of the island nation.

Over the next several hours, 2 British warships, with 104 guns on board, relentlessly pummel the French-held tower.

Given the strength of the British assault and the diminutive size of the fortification, logic predicts that the building will be soon leveled.

Not so fast.

This is no ordinary 19th century fortification. When the smoke clears, the Mortella Point watch tower remains virtually intact. The British are so impressed with the impregnability of the fortification that they borrow the concept as their own. From now on, they`re called Martello Towers.

Over the coming years, a number of Martellos are constructed along the south coast of England. Try to get through these defenses, Napoleon!

War is also nigh in the Colonies with Americans pounding on the door to British North America. A number of Martello Towers go up –in Quebec City, in Nova Scotia, and in New Brunswick. There will be sixteen in all throughout the colony.

Four rise in Kingston alone. Given the town`s strategic location, the British are taking no chances with the wily Americans.

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Before a musket had even been fired, a brou-ha-ha erupted over the naming of the finest of the Kingston Towers. City fathers had chosen to name it “The Murray Tower” in honour of Sir George Murray, a high-ranking British official living in Kingston.

The man on the street had different ideas. The Tower should be named after sea captain Henry Murney who had once owned the piece of land where the Tower now sat.

To no one`s surprise, the Murray-ites won the day over the Murney-ites. A plaque identifying the Murray Redoubt (Tower) was affixed to the Tower wall to make it official.

But not for long.

And while the culprit was never caught, the second “r” in Sir George’s Murray’s name was indelibly altered. An “n” had replaced it. And so the “Murray Tower” became the Murnay Tower. Not quite right but close enough!

The sign with the artwork remains today.

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Let’s take a closer look at structure of the Murney Tower, considered to be the best surviving example of the fortification in Canada.
Built of Kingston limestone and rising 3 stories, the Murnay Martello Tower boasts walls 3 feet thick on the landside and 5 feet facing the water. No wonder they gained the reputation of being almost impregnable.

A deep, dry ditch surrounds the Tower. Access to the inside is limited to one drawbridge over the ditch. I wonder if the ditch was ever filled with water to become a moat?
But protection of the Kingston harbor was only one of Murney’s assignments. On each of Murney`s 3 levels were 32- pound cannons, capable of doing significant damage to ships entering the Kingston harbour.

But these were no ordinary lumbering cannons. They were portable weapons, able to be moved as need be– either lakeside or landside. On the upper floor the largest cannon could be rolled along an iron track for full 360 degree coverage.
The most ingenious feature of the Murney is the “rapid removal roof.” The panels could be removed to provide a flat surface allowing sharp-shooters to lie prone and fire unseen at enemy ships.
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Despite their inspired design and superior construction, Martello Towers eventually became obsolete. By the turn of the century, they were closed as active defensive structures.

Now what to do with an thick-walled, windowless structure surrounded by a ditch. Some Martello Towers across the country were torn down, but the 4 Kingston towers remained.

Now owned by the City of Kingston and managed by the Kingston Historical Society, only the Murney and the Fort Frederick Tower on the grounds of the Royal Military College are open to the public.
The Murney Tower was designated a National Historic Site in 1930.

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And what would a watch tower be without a ghost? According to paranormal investigators at C.H.A.P.S. (The Canadian Haunting and Paranormal Society), the bottom floor of the Murney is especially rife with spooks.

Investigators wielding night-vision security cameras and magnetic field detectors report hearing the shuffling of feet; an unseen hand touching the arm of an investigator and spirit readings in “the red zone.”

The Murney Tower is open to visitors during the summer months. Check out the rolling cannons and paranormals for yourself.