No Ordinary Pioneer Home: “Uncle Tom’s” Cabin. Dresden, Ontario.

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The book “The Life of Josiah Henson; formerly a Slave” begins ominously.

I was born, June 15, 1789, in Charles County, Maryland, on a farm belonging to Mr. Francis N. about a mile from Port Tobacco. My mother was the property of Dr. Josiah McP. But was hired by Mr. M to whom my father belonged.

The only incident I can remember which occurred while my mother continued on N.’s farm was the appearance of my father one day with his head bloody and his back lacerated. …His right ear had been cut off close to his head and he had received 100 lashes on his back. He had beaten the overseer for a brutal attack on my mother and this was his punishment. 

 You’ll know Josiah Henson better as “Uncle Tom,” the inspiration for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s best-selling book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

You’ll also know Henson’s home, just outside Dresden, Ontario as “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” 

On a recent road trip down the 401 to “tobacco country,” in the Chatham-Kent area, your intrepid National History Site adventurers arrive at Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Museum. Each year, thousands of visitors from Canada, the U.S. and beyond stop to pay tribute to both Josiah Henson and Emily Beecher Stowe. 

Now largely forgotten Harriet Beecher Stowe played a significant role in the emancipation of the American Negro after the U.S. Civil War. So much so that when she was presented to President Abraham Lincoln, he is reported to have greeted her with: “So you’re the little woman responsible for starting the Great War.”


“Betrayal” set the stage for Josiah Henson’s flight to Canada in 1830. After purchasing his freedom, Henson’s master pocketed the money and prepared to put his “property” on the slave’s auction block in New Orleans.

Providence was surely on Josiah’s side for he was able to escape with his wife and 4 children. Travelling at night along the “underground railway” (a series of safe houses for runaway slaves) the family made their way into the northern states, then over the Niagara River into British North America. Here they were free. 

The Henson family settled in Dawn Township near the little village of Dresden. With financial assistance from members of the American Anti-Slavery movement, Henson purchased 200 acres of land. His dream was to build a self-sufficient community for other fugitives from slavery. Henson called it “The Dawn Settlement.”it was a worthy name for those who were starting a new chapter in their lives. 

Over the coming years, the Dawn Settlement prospered. The land was rich and supported farming of corn, wheat and tobacco. Virgin black walnut trees were harvested and the valuable timber was exported to Britain and the U.S. Henson also oversaw the building of a number of mills, a brickyard and a school for the manual trades.

At its peak, the Dawn Settlement was home to 500 former slaves.  And life was good. But for thousands of slaves still in bondage in the southern United States, their existence was a bleak and painful one.

Then unexpectedly an unknown American travel writer named Harriet Beecher Stowe set the wheels in motion to change the lives of over 50,000 American slaves. Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published in 1842. At one time the book would be the world’s second ranked best seller. Only the Bible sold more.


Chapter One of Uncle Tom’s Cabin begins with two white men—one a plantation owner; the other a slave trader discussing a “property” deal. Eliza, a “house slave” enters the room to fetch a young child and is noticed favourably by the visitor.

“By Jupiter,” says the trader, turning to the girl in admiration, “there’s an article now! You might make your fortune on that ar gal in Orleans, any day. I’ve seen over a thousand, in my day, paid down for gals not a bit handsomer.”

He presses his host. “Come, how will you trade about the gal. What shall I say for her, what’ll you take?”

As Josiah Henson’s memoir had begun with physical brutality and disfigurement, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s opened with no less an abomination: the trading in human lives. From childhood she’d witnessed both forms of cruelty and vowed she would do what she could to change her flawed and barbaric world.

Harriet had learned compassion and the concept of equality from her father. Lyman Beecher was Abolitionist who regularly sheltered runaway slaves from the American south. He assisted them to cross the border into Canada and freedom. 

By her early 20’s, Harriet was writing regional travel articles for American journals.  But her reading  the book The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave in 1841 turned her thoughts to writing more serious subjects.

The passage of the American Fugitive Slave Act only confirmed Harriet’s literary direction. Under the terms of the Slave Act, any American finding a runaway slave must turn them in to authorities or risk prosecution themselves.

Appalled by this legislation, Harriet  sat down to write “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” She based her principal character “Uncle Tom” on Josiah Henson. 

Given the political times, with Abolitionist President Abraham Lincoln having been elected, Beecher Stowe’s “expose” was explosive, and she was in demand to speak around the world.  Her visit to England, a nation which had abolished the scourge of slavery in 1808 saw the author feted as “royalty.”

The wheels of progress moved much slower than in the British Isles. It would take  11 years and a Civil War for the United States to follow Great Britain’s lead.


“This is strange,” I remark to my husband, Louis as we approach Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Museum Historic Site. 

“It’s not been recognized by the Canadian government as a National Site. Surely Josiah Henson’s house where he sheltered hundreds of runaway slaves lives and breathes Canadian history.”

My trusty driver is equally perplexed by the omission. “I’m going to find out why when we get there,” I announce to him. Louis is used to my “must know ways!” 

The Site’s interpretive staff have a perplexing  answer to my question “why?” “Josiah Henson has been declared a Person of national significance to Canada but his house is not,” offers the Curator. I’m incredulous and ask for more information.

“Because the cabin house was moved from one part of Henson’s property to another,” he answers.  And Parks Canada won’t designate us as “Officially Historic” because of this.” With curious piece of bureaucratic tomfoolery,  our guide gives a wry smile and shrugs his shoulders.


Restored to a sound condition in recent years, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” is a two story weathered timber cottage. The second story is off-limit to visitors. One downstairs room is furnished with a kitchen table, a sideboard and various kitchen equipment.

The dining room across the centre hall catches the visitor off guard. Wax representations of Josiah Henson and his wife Nancy are startlingly realistic.  

Most visitors make the Cabin their first stop but other Site buildings are of interest as well. A period sawmill and a smokehouse, cunningly built into the trunk of a large sycamore tree give a notion of life in the mid-19th century.

The Dawn Settlement church displays the original organ and the pulpit where Josiah Henson preached at  Sunday services. The last stop is the Henson family cemetery where Josiah and members of his family are buried.

A federal National Historic Site or not, I’d encourage you to make a visit to Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Museum. Pick up a copy of  The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave in the Museum’s large bookstore when you’re there.Only 69 pages, it is a window on a world, not so very long ago where men, women and children were bought and sold.


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 Look Up. Look Waaaaay Up. The Point Clark Lighthouse

“So if anyone of you feel like you won’t be able to get up to the top or get back down, tell me now,” instructs Emily, our tour guide at the National Historic Site Point Clark Lighthouse.

She forges on: “A couple of weeks ago one of our guests took a fright and wouldn’t (or couldn’t) climb down. We ended up having to call the fire department and they needed to carry her down.” 

No one in our little band of 11 lighthouse visitors—5 adults and 6 children—one as young as 4– bailed. And so we began the trek up to the top of the Point Clark Lighthouse. The view, Emily promised, would be worth the hair-raising journey.  


Before the Point Clark lighthouse rose along the Lake Huron shore, 12 miles south of Kincardine, sailors hung a lantern high in a pine tree to warn sailors of the danger. Shoals (shallow rocks) lurked 2 miles off the shore and more than one ship had met its doom there.

But given the prevalence of gusty winds along this stretch of the Lake Huron shoreline, the lantern would blow down regularly. It left unsuspecting sailors at the mercy of the Point Clark shoals.

By the mid-1850’s, with Great Lakes shipping in its heyday, the Canadian Imperial government took measures to improve the perilous situation. In 1855, 12 years before Canadian Confederation, contractor John Brown of Thorold was hired to build an “Imperial Tower” (lighthouse) at Point Clark. It was one of 6 Imperial Towers that would rise along the Lake Huron and Georgian Bay shores. 

The Point Clark lighthouse was built to last. It would endure heavy lake winds and considerable moisture. Recurrent freezing and melting over the winter months would do the lighthouse no favours either.

Massive blocks of limestone or dolomite, the best quality available at the time, were brought by scow from Inverhuron, 20 miles to the north. Stone masons now got to work chiseling and setting over 1400 massive rocks into place.  Five feet thick at the bottom, and rising 87 feet, the wall tapered to 2 feet in width at the top.

To support the heavy light tower, more durable granite replaced limestone for the top few feet.  And so, like a candle topping a birthday cake, the lantern room became the Point Clark lighthouse’s piece de resistance. Windows afford a 360 degree view of the landscape. And what a spectacular view the lantern room afforded!

In 1858, 6 French technicians arrived in Point Clark. Their job was to build and install the 12-sided cast iron Fresnel light which would emit a warning signal. It took the French experts a full year to complete the job.

On April 1, 1859, 4 years after construction began, the Point Clark lighthouse was lit. But no April Fool’s joke here! On a clear day, the revolving light which flashed every 30 seconds could be seen 15 miles away, lakeside.

Keeping the Fresnel light fired 24 hours each day was no easy exercise. Until 1953, the light was powered by coal oil, stored in drums in a crawl space under the ground floor. Each day, the lighthouse keeper ascended the 9 flights of stairs to haul the day’s supply of coal oil up to the top. 97-pound weaklings need not apply for this job!   


Emily opens the heavy wooden door of the lighthouse and our stalwart group crowds inside. The air is heavy with age and damp. “I don’t wanna be here, Dad,” one pre-schooler pipes up. “Let’s go back outside.” “You’ll be fine Scott,” says Dad. “I’ll be right here beside you.”

Young Scott’s trepidation mirrors my own. “This is not going to be easy,” I mutter under my breath. Cataracts and myopic degeneration have dimmed my vision considerably and have made my depth perception unreliable. I’ve misjudged flights of stairs on more than one occasion, and been sent careening to the floor.

And these are no ordinary steps. Narrow and steep, 114 steps are broken up by a series of 9 landings. They lead to the ultimate goal, the lantern room perched on the top of the structure.

With Emily leading the way we begin to climb 9 stories. The light is dim making my vision issues more pronounced. By the 3rd story, I’ve moved to the back of the pack, allowing the speedier climbers to move ahead. I’m awed by a grandfather in front of me, shepherding his 2 young grandchildren along. “They’re real troupers,” I comment and he agrees.

By the time we reach landing 7, Emily advises us that the supporting railing on both sides of the stairs now ends. “So it’s now like climbing a ladder to get to the top,” she chirps.

 “Lawdy, Lawdy, what fresh hell have I stepped into?” I mutter under my breath as I inch my way upwards towards the heavens.


A lighthouse keeper remained on site until the mid-1960’s. By this time coal oil feeding the Fresnel light had been replaced by electricity. A battery pack served as backup when power failed. In 1966, the Point Clark lighthouse was designated a National Historic Site, the first Ontario lighthouse to be so honoured.

But by 2000, the lighthouse was falling apart. The protective wash of limestone had done yeoman service, but after 140 years, the mortar and many of the stones had cracked. In 2011 it was deemed unsafe for the public and was closed. Experts estimated it would take a year to repair the crumbling stones at a cost to taxpayers about $500,000.

Year 1 of the Point Clark restoration blended to 2, then 3 then 4.  Black plastic covered it from top to bottom as workmen replaced and secured the faulty stones. 473 of the original 1400 stones were replaced. And while technology looked after transporting and lifting the  massive rocks, all were hand-chiseled before being set in place.

By the time National Historic Site Point Clark Lighthouse re-opened in June 2105, the cost had ballooned to $1.7 million.

National Historic Site supporters and fans of phanology (lighthouse lore) were delighted when tours of the lighthouse recommenced in the summer of 2015.


We’ve reached the lantern room and the view is breathtaking. “On a really clear day, you can see the Goderich salt mines 20 miles to the south,” says our guide. But the spell is soon broken.

“The trip down the stairs is probably going to be scarier than going up,” warns Emily. “You’ll want to go down backwards, like you would a ladder–especially on the 2 flights that don’t have railings.”

Your ever-curious National Historic Site “reporter” queries: “So has anyone ever fallen going up or down?” “Not while I’ve been here—but then I’ve only been here for 2 months,” Emily answers. “We do our best to ensure the safety of visitors,” she adds.

Other than one missed step, this sight-impaired explorer arrives on ground floor safely. Louis and our four-footed Hailey are there to greet me. It has been an adventure which, despite my challenges, I’m pleased to have accomplished.

Such a feat demands a reward.  St. Jacobs “Apple Pie” flavoured ice cream at the local corner store did nicely, thank you.

The Point Clark lighthouse is opened daily from 10:00 am to 5:00 pm until Labour Day. It’s well worth the $5 price of a guided tour.

REFORM, RIOT AND RUIN The Sorry Tale of the Bowmanville Training School for Boys /POW Camp 30

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It’s been great fun! 123 National Historic sights visited, researched and photographed. 43 blogs posted. Articles in Canada’s History, Country Connection, Grand Magazine published. Newspaper coverage too in the Kitchener Record and the Guelph Mercury.

From the stunning wall murals of little St. Jude’s Anglican Church in Brantford, to the eerie elegance of the Massey family crypt at Mount Pleasant Cemetery; from the medieval hulk of the Huron County Jail where the boy Steven Truscott was held, to the archological treasures of Sheguiandah on Manitoulin Island, we’ve uncovered Ontario’s history with feelings of awe and wonder; gratitude, admiration and pride.

One only failed the test.

So tag along with me to the little town of Bowmanville, east of Oshawa. It’s the site of the former Bowmanville Training School for Boys. Walk with me round the sprawling site which also served as a Prisoner of War camp for high-ranking Nazi officers during the Second World War.

Chances are  you’ll feel bereft too.

“The Most Progressive Facility of its Kind in Canada”

Constructed on farm land outside the town, the Bowmanville Boys School took shape in 1925. It was, at its inception, considered the most progressive training school in Canada. Boys aged 8-14 were sent to Bowmanville to be “reformed.”

Architect F.R. Heakes, an admirer of the great American architect Frank Lloyd Wright was charged with the task of designing the 6 buildings that would make up the School. Wright had previously introduced America to the “Prairie”’ style of architectural design.

The movement sought to blend new buildings in with the natural world. A “Prairie” designed structure emphasized low horizontal lines, with gently-pitched or flat roof lines. Building materials were stucco and brick, in soft earth tones. All elements combined to mimic the flatness and openness of the American Prairie.

Popular in the U.S., especially in the American west, the Prairie style did not catch on in Canada, and then primarily in house designs. Few non-residential buildings bear the mellow “Prairie” seal.

“It was an ironic architectural choice for a locked-down training school,” I suggest to my travelling companion. “Wide open spaces and all that.”

Over the next 16 years, hundreds of wayward Ontario youth did “time” at the Bowmanville Training School for Boys. Figures don’t reveal how many left ready to re-join society as model citizens.

Operation Kiebitz and other Escapades

In 1941, The Bowmanville Training School moved into the second phase of its history. Now called Camp 30, the buildings would welcome more formidable “guests” than youthful pickpockets and vandals.

Over the course of World War II, approximately 800 high-ranking Nazi officers who’d been captured by Allied forces would now call Bowmanville’s Camp 30 home. For security sake, the Allies wanted to relocate these devils as far away from Europe as possible. The wilds of “the colony” would do just fine for this purpose.

The prize “guest” was U-Boat commander Otto Kretschmer. Between September 1939 and March 1941, Kretschmer sunk 47 Allied ships including convoy vessels which were bringing food and supplies to England.

War lore reports that on learning of the capture of his #1 U-Boat ace and his incarceration in Canada, Hitler ordered his SS masterminds to engineer Kretschmer’s escape. It is known to history as Operation Kiebitz.

With Nazi operatives passing information to prisoners in Camp 30, the German officers built an underground tunnel–15 feet deep and extending horizontally 300 feet beyond the barbed-wire. Inch by inch, the escape hatch was excavated.

Cups and spoons, pilfered from Camp 30’s mess hall were the tools of choice.  An ingeniously-devised trolley carried the dirt up to the building’s attic. Not only was the tunnel wired for lighting but a ventilation system was installed.

Ah! German technology!

But with the tunnel almost ready to receive its first celebrity escapee, it collapsed. Kretschner’s Canadian visit was extended to the end of the war!

Operation Kiebitz was only one of many escape attempts undertaken at Camp 30.With typical German efficiency an “escape committee” approved all projects.

A visit to Camp 30 is not complete without mention of “The Battle of Bowmanville.”In late 1942, Hitler gave notice to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill that Allied Commandos would be immediately executed upon capture in Germany or other Nazi held-countries. Churchill retaliated by issuing orders that POW camps in Europe and Canada would now shackle their highest-ranking German officers.

Camp 30 followed orders and a prisoner riot ensured. Guards from other detention centres were called for reinforcement. They found Kretschmer and friends barricaded in the cafeteria armed with baseball mats and sticks.

The Training School’s Sad Demise

After the end of the war in 1945, Camp 30 returned to its original purpose and the school reopened. It remained in operation until 1979, then closed. More enlightened approaches to youth punishment had replaced incarceration.

Over the coming years, the site served a number of purposes: as a private, later a Catholic school and then an Islamic university. In 2008 the site was abandoned and has remained vacant for the succeeding 7 years.

With the purchase of the property in 2012 by a developer who planned to demolish the buildings for a housing project, local history buffs howled. A movement was quickly formed to save this chapter in Bowmanville’s history.

In an effort to be conciliatory, the developer donated to the town the section of the expansive property where the buildings were located. Efforts now turned to having the 6 remaining buildings designated as a National Historic Site.

In a 2012 newspaper interview, Bowmanville’s Board of Trade President went on record hoping that the designation would bring with it federal funding.

And sprinter Ben Johnson will get back his gold Olympic medal!

Almost 10 years later, National Historic Site Bowmanville Training School for Boys and POW Camp 30  remains in architectural hell,  vacant, defaced and crumbling.


With the Silcox National Historic Site tour moving into eastern Ontario, we’ve planned a stop in Bowmanville. I’ve done my homework and know that the former Boys Training School has fallen on hard times.

Still, nothing prepared these amateur history sleuths for what was revealed to us on Lamb’s Road just north of the town.

We see a property choked with weeds, garbage and broken bottles littering the onetime tended grounds. Graffiti mars the sides of every building. The blackened results of 2 arson attempts remain visible.

Those windows not smashed have been boarded up. Doors have been ripped from their frames, allowing entry and who knows what damage to the buildings. I hadn’t the heart to walk inside.

One lone “No Trespassing” sign mocks the reality of what lies before us.

Today, the Architecture Conservancy Board of Ontario, of Clarington Township continues to explore ways and means to rescue the Site from more destruction. Estimates run as high as $15,000,000.

Only a miracle can save this National Historic Site. Does the Canadian Federal election of 2015 hold the key?


Wealth, Power and Taste–Sam McLaughlin Style: Parkwood Estate

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 James, a wealthy entrepreneur and inventor, and his wife Sally, a woman with a dubious past, were seen living in considerable luxury in a palatial estate somewhere in the fledgling city Toronto. “I wonder where that gorgeous mansion is,” I asked my Murdoch-watching companion, and Toronto-raised spouse. No help there!  

Further research uncovered the answer. The Pendricks’ uppercrust home- sweet-home was in reality the Parkwood Estate National Historic Site in Oshawa. From 1915 to 1972, Parkwood was the family home of industrialist and philanthropist Sam McLaughlin. Colonel Sam, as he was known, was the founder of General Motors Canada. And for this mover and shaker, his wife Adelaide and their five daughters, only the VERY BEST would do.


Robert Samuel McLaughlin came about his entrepreneurial gifts  naturally. He was the son of Robert McLaughlin Sr., an early pioneer in automobiles in Canada. On Sam’s 21st birthday, he and his brother George became partners in Robert’s successful Oshawa company, The McLaughlin Carriage Works. The business was, at the time, the largest carriage company in the British Empire. With an eye for form, Sam took the role of designer.

But revolution was in the air.  In Michigan, circa 1908, one Henry Ford had built the Model T automobile. And while resistance to Ford’s “horseless carriage” was formidable at first, it did not take long for public opinion to change. Sam, an innovative young businessman was convinced that the automobile was the way of the future.

He convinced his father and brother to come along for the ride. In 1908, the McLaughlin Motor Car Company was founded, with Sam as its President. The McLaughlin-Buick was the first Oshawa-built car to be built. By 1915, the Chevrolet had been born in Canada. Three years later General Motors Canada was open for business.


Lore says that when Isabelle was pregnant with her fifth and last child, Sam was convinced that, finally, the babe would be a boy. And, he was going to be named Billy! When baby Eleanor arrived, Sam got his wish fulfilled—at least as far as the wee one’s name. For the rest of her life, Eleanor McLaughlin was called “Billy.”

The fabulously -wealthy Sam and Adelaide McLaughlin  had ambitious plans for the place they’d call home. In 1915, they’d purchased the former Prospect Park on Simcoe Street in Oshawa. And while Sam made money at the plant to pay for the elegant Beaux-Arts home that rose, Adelaide looked after the planning, design and construction of Parkwood. The 55 room estate took 2 years to complete.


Houses of the rich and famous invariably reveal the personalities of those who build them. Parkwood is no exception. Clearly Sam, Adelaide, Eileen, Mildred, Isabel, Hilda and “Billy” were a sports-loving family. Wander Parkwood’s lower floors and come across an indoor  bowling alley, a heated indoor swimming pool, a games room whose centerpiece is a massive slate billiards table. Outside find tennis and squash courts.

Colonel Sam was a racehorse enthusiast too and kept a large stable of thoroughbreds.  Three times, horses from McLaughlin’s  Parkwood Stables  won Canada’s most prestigious race, the Queen’s Plate. In 1950, Mclaughlin sold the stables to industrialist E.P. Taylor who renamed them Windfields Farm.


Innovation was also near and dear to Sam McLaughlin’s heart. Hence, Parkwood featured technological advancements that would take a generation or more to become available to “the middle class.”  Central vacuuming and an in-house phone system were installed when the house was built in 1915. Central air conditioning to combat humid Oshawa summers was added to the entire home 15 years later. No Depression here!

One of the home’s most curious pieces of technology is a central clock. Situated in Parkwood’s main door vestibule, the timepiece ensured that every clock throughout the house ran in synchronization with the “master clock.”  One didn’t become as wealthy as Sam McLaughlin by wasting time!  


Horticulture was also a McLaughlin passion. A virtual army of garden professionals–24 in total– designed, planned, planted and maintained the sumptuous grounds of Parkwood Estate. The McLaughlin grounds and gardens had been inspired by the English Arts and Crafts Garden movement so popular in England at the time.

Designer William Morris and playwright Oscar Wilde were its chief spokesmen.  For “eyebrow arching” tidbits on the Arts and Crafts movement—starring the eccentric Wilde– go to www. Blogs on Annandale House in Tillsonburg and the Woodstock Museum will leave you wanting to know more!  I promise.

The English Arts and Crafts Garden Movement called for strict design formality near the house. As the garden visitor moved gradually away, the mood turned less formal—and eclectic.   For the gardens at Parkwood, a design team had created a number of themes . They include the Italian Garden, the Japanese Garden, the Sundial Garden and the Sunken Garden.  Parkwood’s formal water features–pools, fountains and waterfalls also lent a refined European air to the dazzling property.  

To maximize the outdoor experience, most of the rooms on the lower level of the home opened onto outdoor terraces. Family and visitors guests could open the French doors to catch the fragrances of lilac, roses and lily of the valley. Ah! that’s the life!


Colonel Sam McLaughlin predicted that he would live until he reached 100. And like most of his other peeks into the future, the great industrialist was right on target. In 1972, entering his 101st year, he passed away. Adelaide had passed some years before. And the McLaughlin daughters? All were married and chose to live away from the family home.  

On Sam’s death, the ownership of Parkwood Estate passed to the City of Oshawa’s Hospital Board, then on to the Parkwood Foundation who presently administer it.  Parkwood Estate was designated a National Historic Site in 1989. 


Today, with government funding limited to non-existent, Parkwood attempts to pay its way thanks to visitors, charitable donations, and fees from television and movie filming. Among other big budget “Hollywood” films, scenes from “12 Monkeys,” “Chicago” and “X-Men” were filmed, at least partially, at Parkwood. TV has come calling too. In addition to “Murdoch Mysteries,” the series “Bomb Girls,” “The Kennedy’s” (mini-series) and “Monk” have filmed in and around Parkwood.

Parkwood Curator Brian Malcolm will be welcoming “Murdoch Mysteries” back for the series’ 9th season. “They’ve used the exterior of the house, the gardens, the parlour and a number of other rooms for quite a number of episodes,” he indicates. With 55 grand and glorious rooms, and 2 acres of “designer gardens” Parkwood has so much to offer.

You Say: “Only Three Women?” Surely that’s Wrong!

Here’s a quiz, so put on your thinking caps. Name 5 Canadian women whose achievements rank them as heroes and trailblazers, worthy of national recognition. It shouldn’t be hard. Canada’s women are a luminous group.

Painter Emily Carr? Laura Secord, the War of 1812-14  saviour? Agnes Macphail, first woman elected to Canada’s Parliament?  Suffragette Nellie McClung or Emily Stowe, Canada’s first female medical doctor? In recent times Canada’s first female astronaut Roberta Bondar? Michaelle Jean, former Governor General? Some might nominate writers Margaret Laurence and Margaret Atwood.

Now that wasn’t hard, was it? 

But it seems that Parks Canada, the government bureaucracy that oversees Canada’s National Historic Sites is firmly behind the barn door when it comes to honouring our female achievers.  They number only 3 in Ontario: Mohawk poetess Pauline Johnson; domestic crusader Adelaide Hoodless and Anne of Green Gables author Lucy Maud Montgomery.

Tag along with me as I hop-scotch around Ontario to visit the Sites that pay tribute to these trailblazers. You’ll learn a lot. imgresimages

Pauline Johnson and Chiefswood

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!

“The Song my Paddle Sings” by Pauline Johnson

On a crisp Ontario winter day, your intrepid explorers are seen heading towards Brantford and Chiefswood, the childhood home of Canadian poetess Pauline Johnson.

Now you remember Pauline. You were introduced to her in a high school English class. An intriguing figure–a Canadian Indian princess who wrote poetry and gave “recitations.”

But much more lay behind the surface of Pauline than her striking good looks and romantic verse.

For here was a single woman, of First Nation blood, without fortune, making her way in a man’s world.  And doing it with style and a hefty dose of chutzpah!


Born in 1861, Emily Pauline Johnson was the child of a mixed marriage. Her English mother had married Mohawk Chief of the Confederacy Council, George Henry Martin Johnson.  Chief Johnson was aboriginal “royalty,” having descended from the legendary Hiawatha.

Pauline was educated at home in the English tradition. As a young woman, she devoured the poetry of the Romantic poets: Keats, Byron and Shelley. She wrote poetry too and published her first work in the journal Gems of Poetry while still in her teens.

Much to her parents’ chagrin,  the theatre called Pauline, and she began appearing in amateur productions. In time she made her mark in the literary world, giving literary recitations of her own verse.

But this was a young woman savvy beyond her years. She took to giving her recitations as Tekahionwake, her Mohawk name. Decked out in buckskin and feathers and reciting her “Indian” poetry, she had crowds on their feet. 

Soon Pauline was in demand across Canada, the United States and Great Britain. She was a celebrity and enjoyed the status that this gave her.  Sadly, ill health curtailed Pauline Johnson’s career and she retired to Vancouver in 1909.  She died of breast cancer in that city in 1913.


Pauline Johnson is regarded by some as the woman who opened the door for female writers in Canada. Other critics have dismissed her reputation as one based more on “showmanship.”

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 full regalia.

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Adelaide Hoodless and her Homestead 

We’re remaining in Brant County to meet our second Ontario woman who has been honoured with a National Historic Site. She’s Adelaide Hoodless, celebrated around the world as the founder of the Women’s Institute movement.

What most do not know about the indomitable “Addie” is that she was also the driving force behind the founding of the MacDonald Institute at the University of Guelph, the YWCA, and The Victorian Order of Nurses (VON).

She too was responsible for Domestic Science (Home Economics) finding its way into Ontario school curriculum, 


Adelaide Hunter, born in 1858 was one of 12 children. Four months before Addie’s birth, her father passed away, leaving her mother to raise the large Hunter brood and tend to the family farm.

With minimal secondary education, Addie escaped poverty by marrying businessman John Hoodless of Hamilton.  And she moved up in the world. Were it not for a family tragedy, Addie Hoodless may have spent her days at tea parties and church socials.

The couple’s youngest child, John died at 14 months of what was known in those days as “the summer complaint.” It was so-named as the warm months seemed to bring more deaths to infants. We recognize it today as the outcome of babies drinking unpasteurized milk that had not been stored at a safe, cool temperature.

Adelaide was horrified when she learned the cause her baby’s death. She blamed her own ignorance of proper food storage, and vowed to save other mothers from a similar tragedy.

Over the coming years, Addie became a tireless crusader for better education for women. She urged them to “demand a knowledge of their own body,” and to “seek a knowledge of their social environment.”

At a meeting of the Farmer’s Institute of Ontario where she’d been invited to speak, Addie urged farm women to educate themselves. Out of her talk, evolved the Women’s Institute. From one chapter, it grew to 500, in Canada within 10 years.  

Adelaide also worked tirelessly to include the teaching of Domestic Science (Home Economics) in every school in Canada. She then took her message to the university level, convincing wealthy businessman Sir William MacDonald to put up money to assist in her cause.  

The MacDonald Institute at the University of Guelph opened its doors to students in 1903. It offered courses in Nature Study, Manual Training, Domestic Science and Domestic Art.

Fittingly when death came to Adelaide Hoodless, in 1910, it was while she was delivering one of her impassioned speeches to women.

Her family home, the Adelaide Hunter Hoodless Homestead was designated as a National Historic Site in 1995 and is  open to the public. The space also serves as the Headquarters of the Women’s Institute of Canada.

Today there are Women’s Institute chapters in over 70 countries, with more than 9 million members.


Lucy Maud Montgomery and the Leaskdale Manse

“I cannot remember the time when I was not writing, or when I did not mean to be an author.” Lucy Maud Montgomery

 Art surely imitates life in the case of Lucy Maud Montgomery.  Born in 1874, in Prince Edward Island, Maud became a virtual orphan when her mother Clara died of tuberculosis less than 2 years after her birth.

Distraught, Maud’s father John Montgomery gave custody of his daughter to his in-laws, and moved to western Canada. Maud was raised by grandparents whose rules were rigid, whose love was restrained.

Not surprisingly she retreated into the world of books. They  eased her profound loneliness.

By Maud’s teens she’d begun writing poetry and imagined herself a writer. But practicality won out. After high school, she achieved her teacher’s certification. Evenings were when joy visited young Maud.  She routinely took pen to hand and wrote well into the night, primarily short stories and poems.  

Maud’s life changed dramatically with the publication of her full-length book, Anne of Green Gables. Its success allowed her to leave teaching, an occupation she had not enjoyed.  


Maud arrived in Ontario in 1911 as a preacher’s wife. She’d married Ewan MacDonald, a Presbyterian clergyman who’d been posted to the little hamlet of Leaskdale, in York County, Ontario.  The little village was understandably “agog” with the arrival of such  celebrity!

It wasn’t long before trouble was brewing in the MacDonald home. Ewan was given to “religious melancholia” (depression) which at times incapacitated him. The birth of the couple’s two sons, Chester and Stuart did little to ease Maud’s concerns about her increasingly distraught spouse.

Only Maud’s writing brought her fulfillment. Lucy Maud Montgomery completed half of her writing output, feet up, notebook and pen in hand on the sofa in the manse parlour.

To the delight of Maud scholars, she was also a faithful journal- writer, filling 10 volumes of her thoughts, fears and observations.  These diaries reveal that Maud also suffered from periodic bouts of depression.

Maud and Ewan retired to Toronto in 1935. That year she was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire and was decorated by King George.

Lucy Maud Montgomery’s final years remained heart-wrenching ones, as both she and Ewan continued to struggle with mental illness. On April 24, 1942, she passed away, at age 67.

In recent years, her family have indicated that death came (voluntarily) from an overdose  of sleeping “draught.”

The Lucy Maud Montgomery National Historic Site, her former Leaskdale home welcomes over 5000 visitors each year. The church where Ewan preached is also on their agenda. Visitors are sure to sit in the pew that was occupied by the preacher’s wife every Sunday for over 15 years.


Fascinating, capable Canadian women  who transformed the society in which they lived and worked.

But only 3 National Historic Sites in Ontario to honour them? This is surely wrong.

Mayor Thomas Foster: Meet Detective William Murdoch


Earlier this year, fans of Murdoch Mysteries were treated to some Ontario History at its most beautiful—and bizarre.

The plot of the Season 8 episode, Murdoch and the Temple of Death saw our hunky Detective investigating a murder at a haunted temple north of Toronto. Rumour held that the building harboured a priceless treasure,  guarded by a troll.  

“Sir, they say that the Temple is cursed,” reports the impressionable but capable Constable George Crabtree, Detective William Murdoch’s right-hand man. “People say that anyone who goes inside the Temple of Death never comes out alive.”

And so Murdoch and Crabtree, with Coroner Emily Grace and several stalwarts of Toronto’s Police Station #4, travel north to Markham to investigate the dastardly goings-on.  

Before the hour is done, temple floors open to reveal secret tunnels beneath; codes are interpreted that give clues to the hidden treasure; and dungeon walls sprout deadly blades. And the hidden treasure is discovered.

But is it the Holy Grail—or a clever facsimile?


After “Murdoch and the Temple of Death” was aired, social media buzzed, wondering where the episode had been filmed. A few of those queries came my away. It appears that in my part-time role as a National Historic Site adventurer, I’m a good resource for such information.

“Where was it filmed, Nancy?”

 “Is it a National Historical Site?”

 “Have you been there?”

So come along with me on a fascinating tour of the real Foster Memorial outside Uxbridge, north of Toronto. Along the way, you’ll meet the eccentric builder, former Member of Parliament and Toronto Mayor Thomas Foster.


After a visit to the Taj Mahal in India in the late 1920’s, Toronto millionaire Thomas Foster was inspired to finally open his wallet. He planned to build a final resting place for himself, his wife and daughter.

Having made his fortune in real estate, Foster would spare no expense in creating his legacy. At the time, 1935, Foster’s free-spending ways shocked those who knew him as a dedicated skinflint. 

Born in Uxbridge, Foster began his working career as a butcher’s apprentice. Over the years, through wise real estate purchases, he became a millionaire. Foster became powerful politically too. He was elected to the House of Commons in 1917, serving a Toronto riding until 1921. In 1925, he was elected Mayor of Toronto.

Even after Foster had made his millions, his reputation as a Simon Legree was widespread. He was said to have instructed his cook to only buy small eggs instead of large or medium ones to save food costs.

A landlord with many rental properties, Foster did all maintenance and repairs himself, to save workmen’s costs.  

Foster’s penny-pinching ways eventually ended his political career. He lost his re-election as Toronto Mayor in 1927. The voters had clearly spoken on the Mayor’ refusal to increase his police force’s wages.


What Foster was willing to spend on was a contest he ran to find the Toronto woman who could produce the most children in a 10-year period. The prize? $125,000

Ah true life is surely stranger than fiction!!


So Foster-watchers were agog with his grandiose plans to build a  great Memorial. Initial estimates ran to $100,000, a veritable pirate’s treasure in Depression times. When all was complete, the figure came in at over $200,000.  

Inspired by the Taj Mahal, Foster’s Memorial was complete by  1936. Its wide-open location in the rolling hills north of Uxbridge (Foster’s birthplace) had been chosen to allow maximum visibility for all who looked and admired.

The exterior walls of the Foster Memorial’s boasted the finest Ontario limestone. A copper roof of burnished emerald green added fine contrast to the magisterial grey stone. 

Inside, its soaring domed roof rested on 4 supporting pillars.  With an octagonal base, the structure measured 87 feet by 92 feet.  16 decorative marble pillars rose from floor to ceiling. All were inlaid with 24 carat gold.

Only the finest Italian marble would do for the Thomas Foster’s final resting place. The marble was inlaid with delicate mosaic tiles, arranged artistically to represent various religious symbols or images. They included the River of Death, the Greek letters Alpha and Omega, (beginning and end) and the laurel wreath of victory.

A large removable marble slab allowed access to the crypt below where bodies were interred. Doors wrought of solid copper, and hand-painted stained glass added elegance to the interior.

On the Foster Memorial’s completion, rubber-neckers drove from miles around to witness what real wealth looked like.   

Thomas Foster waited 10 years to be welcomed “home.” He passed away in 1945, at the age of 93.  In his will, Foster had bequeathed $80,000– a tidy sum in 1945– to maintain his legacy.

Little could he have imagined how inadequate that would be in the years to come.

When the town of Uxbridge took over responsibility of the Foster Memorial in the early 1990’s, it had fallen into ruin and disrepair. The building badly needed a needed new roof. To retain the copper, this improvement alone was estimated at over $1,000,000. What to do? What to do?

And so when production companies such as Murdoch Mysteries show an interest in renting the site, Uxbridge is glad to comply.  During the summer of 2014, the cast and crew moved into the area for several days to shoot the episode.


Some alterations by the company’s Art Department needed to be made first. With the liberal use of props and computer-generated images (CGI) Thomas Foster’s legacy became the haunted, man-killing, treasure-hiding Temple of Death.

On the exterior, a combination of faux foliage and computer-animation images of trees and bush transformed the usually manicured grounds of the Memorial into an overgrown, shaggy tangle, hiding it from the outside world.

Most of the action takes place indoors—and looking down. One scene has Murdoch’s companion, Dr. Iris Bajjali, an Egyptian archeologist, pushing on areas of the marble floor to find the entrance to the crypt. Thanks to CGI she finds the “sweet spot’ and the floor opens.  

The two sleuths now descend into the tunnel below to search for the treasure. Unknown to them, a death trap of deadly knives and daggers await.

“All fake” admits Paul Aitken writer of the episode. “We built the dungeon in the Murdoch studio.”

Within a week, all signs of the Murdoch Mysteries cast and crew had departed the Foster Memorial. The building now resumed its life as a white elephant and testament to a politician’s excess.

Uxbridge-ians remain divided on the fate of Thomas Foster’ grand statement. Some advise bulldozing the site. History lovers are aghast

Open to the public over the summer months, the Memorial can also be rented for weddings and other  social events.

Note: The Foster Memorial is NOT presently formally designated a National Historic Site. 

So Small; So Lovely; So Many Tales to Tell. Nathaniel Dett’s Church in Niagara Falls

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After weeks of life getting in the way of adventuring, Louis, the two dogs and I set off on an unseasonably-warm, late December day to Niagara Falls. There we’d open the Niagara chapter of our quest to visit all the National Historic Sites in Ontario.

The Niagara Region—Niagara Falls, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Queenston and St Catharines rank second only to Toronto in the number of Sites that are of national significance.

Thank the War of 1812-1814 for that. Niagara’s close proximity to the U.S. in those bellicose days made it a predominant setting for battles during the War. Battles don’t catch my attention much. My chauffeur thinks otherwise. But unless he get his fingers flying over the keyboard, you’ll not likely get much musket talk from this writer. 

By the time we turned toward home, we’d visited 7 Sites. Come along with me to my personal favourite–the R. Nathaniel Dett British Methodist Episcopalian Church in Niagara Falls. It provided a welcome intermission from Yankees and the British Empire.

Escaping from Slavery

African Americans first appeared in the Niagara Region during and after the American Revolution, between 1765 and 1783.  Some had been freed from slavery; others remained chattels of white Americans loyal to the British Crown (Loyalists) who had relocated north of the 49th parallel.

The numbers of black settlers steadily grew with the success of the Underground Railroad. This humanitarian network of safety led American slaves to freedom in British North America. Many settled within a stone’s throw of the border. 

A House of Worship Rises

In 1836, the black community of Niagara Falls began construction of a modest church on Murray Street, close to the Falls. There they could give proper thanks to the God who had led them to freedom.

Modest in size and constructed of sturdy frame set on a stone foundation, the British Methodist Episcopal Church (BMEC) rose thanks to the efforts of its small congregation.

Only a single storey, with a minimum of ornamentation, the church gained softness thanks to a distinctive quatrefoil (four-leaf clover shaped) window above the modest entrance porch. Lancet (rectangular pointed) windows framed the doorway and lend a subtle elegance to the building.  

Inside, the Pastor preached from a raised dais in front of a sacred altar. The congregation sat on simple wooden pews.

But this beloved church was not without its failures. Located on Murray Street, in close proximity to the roaring Falls, BEMC was damp and clammy inside. Spray from the water made outdoor socializing on the way to and from church next to impossible.

BMEC was eventually deemed unsuitable. With no financial means to build another house of worship in a more suitable location, the church community came to a decision.

No strangers to labour, they freed the building from its moorings, hoisted it and placed it on sturdy logs. The British Methodist Episcopalian Church was then rolled on logs down the hill. It rested on a pleasant (and dry) property donated by a landowner, and near the present-day business district of Niagara Falls.

Honouring One of the Congregation

Music was, and remains a significant part of black heritage. Some of America’s most recognizable traditional songs, “Old Black Joe” and “Swing Lo Sweet Chariot” hearken back to slavery days.

Church services have long been a vehicle for black congregations to express their love of music—and their musicality.  In 1983, 130 years after its construction, the British Methodist Evangelical Church was renamed in honour of one North America’s most respected musicians and composers, Nathaniel Dett.


Born in 1882 in Niagara Falls, Nathaniel was a musical prodigy. He learned the piano at an early age and by his early teens he was the organist at BMEC.

Nathaniel had also begun composing and integrated into his musical compositions influences from the Negro spirituals that he had learned as a child at his grandmother’s knee. Nathaniel’s fame grew and by the 1920’s and 1930’s he was considered among the most talented of “Negro” composers.

His compositions were a highlight of “the Coloured Program” that regularly played to Standing Room Only crowds at the Chicago Music Hall.

Nor was Nathaniel Dett’s genius for the concert hall only.  He wrote and performed sacred music. His magnum opus is the 1927 Religious Folksongs of the Negro.

The legacy of Nathaniel Dett is sadly marred by a racial incident which took place in 1937,  at the height of his acclaim. In a coup for racial acceptance, Dett’s composition “The Ordering of Moses” was to be debuted at Carnegie Hall in New York. The NBC radio network would carry the broadcast.

Part way through the performance, the radio program went silent. While no official explanation from NBC was ever given, it is believed that complaints received by the network from those objecting to the playing of African-American music at a “white venue” was the cause.

After Dett’s death in 1943, his body was returned to Niagara Falls where it is buried in the cemetery of the British Methodist Episcopalian Church.

In 1983, the church was renamed the Nathaniel Dett British Methodist Episcopalian Church. 

In 2000 it was designated a Site of national significance by Parks Canada. The honour comes as a result of its role in sheltering travelers on the Underground Railway as well as Nathaniel Dett’s legacy.