Sunday, 24 July 2016
Kelwood: an English Estate in Canada
W. Lacey Amy
From MacLean’s Magazine, November 1912.
With photos by the Author.
More on Kelwood—http://vitacollections.ca/cramahelibrary/299/Exhibit/3
The remarkable country home described in this article has many points of exceptional interest. Twenty years were occupied in the selection of the lumber used in its construction, walls two feet thick divide its rooms from basement to attic, and every inch of its woodwork is solid oak or bird’s eye maple. Built in 1863, it still stands “a repudiation of the decay of age.” Overlooking the village of Colborne, in the province of Ontario, “Kelwood” is in every sense a fine old English estate, such as is rarely found in Canada.
Frantic orators to the contrary it is not such a long step from the man with the hoe to the man with the estate. The coexistence of two conditions that sound so discordant is largely a matter of ambition in these democratic days of home-spun opulence. The possession of an estate is not a formidable aim, nor the dream of an uncontrolled brain in Canada. To his suburban lot the street-car landed proprietor hurries home at six o’clock, swallows his lunch from one hand while he changes his shoes with the other, and shoulders the immortal hoe to revel in the soil of his twenty-five foot lot—his soil. An hour earlier a fellow land-owner, more fortunate in his half-acre and shorter hours, has tightened his belt for the solving of the problems of garden and lawn and park in space confined past his ambitions. Still earlier in the afternoon an auto has broken the speed laws in a cloud of dust to reach further out the estate of five or ten acres; and in white flannels the owner is giving directions to the landscape gardener and the shovel men, ever with the storied English estate in his mind.
But to Canada there is little opportunity for the broad estates that have maintained in England not only a beauty of landscape, but also a distinct class of independent gentlemen, honest to themselves, their dependents and their country, historic for the staunch integrity that is bred of centuries of proud dictatorship and dignity. The growth of such an estate occupies too many years and demands too much ready money for Canada to have attained to that luxury in a general way.
It is only when the native forest has been seized and trained before the hum of commerce and rush began its modifying assaults that this country has been able to mould a genuine old squire’s home for the ambitious Canadian. And perhaps the only instance of that in Ontario, at least, exists to-day within ninety miles of Toronto.
Kelwood is honored only in its own district. But by age, by location, by its grand old trees and roadways it lays silent claim to wider distinction. For almost half a century it has held watch over the village of Colborne. From the brow of a hundred-foot hill rising abruptly behind the village it looks out beyond the houses half hidden in the trees, over the flashing waters of Lake Ontario, and on a clear day away to the smoke of Rochester. And behind the house it hides its sixty acres of park and drive and pond, a fairyland of shadow and brightness, of grove and clearing, of woodland paths and graded driveways, of hill and hollow, of rustling bower and trickling spring. The forty acres of farmland complete the requirements of the most ambitious squire.
Far back in Canadian history when the taint of commerce was relieved by government grants of land and other favours, when the pioneer with faith to spend for the future was rewarded in the present, the grandfather of Joseph Keeler built three sawmills. The risk brought the gift of several thousand acres of land, covering the present sites of Colborne, Lakeport and Warkworth. Incidentally the slow-growing seed of Colborne was planted at that time.
Joseph Keeler, the grandson, was a man of feelings and ambitions. One of these was to represent his district at Ottawa. In this he succeeded three times. Early in life he felt the spur of the estate ambition and commenced its fulfilment in his daily duties. At that time he was the master of Cat Hollow, now Lakeport, from which the shipments of the district in lumber and produce were made. Quietly he made it a practice for twenty years of selecting the best of the lumber that passed through his hands and storing it in his large storeroom, called the Marmora. In 1863 he commenced the structure that satisfied him for his life and will gratify a few more generations to come.
In those days of few contractors, fewer brickyards, a man with ideas like Keeler’s had to possess the hands to back his brains; he must work out his own dreams. Keeler made his own bricks, which will stand a monument to his ability. In walls that even fifty years afterwards stand solid he welded them together with lime burnt in a kiln, now fallen in grass-covered ruins. And inside he fitted the timber that had been drying for twenty years—drying so well that to-day not a crack breaks the surface.
The house stands a repudiation of the decay of age. Its builder was twenty years ahead of his age in design, so that it is yet more modern in appearance than structures that, born since, are ready to pass away. When Keeler built he had in mind his descendants—many generations of them. Walls two feet thick divide the rooms from basement to attic, making the cellar a formidable dungeon, and of the upper stories a heart-rending waste of space. Between the walls a four inch air space tempers the extremes without. Every inch of woodwork (there is enough of it to build half a dozen modern houses) is solid oak or bird’s eye maple, the doors running nine feet up in rooms of thirteen feet ceiling.
Each of the sixteen rooms opens on both stories into a circular rotunda divided by a floor largely of glass. The floor of the lower is made up of one hundred shaped boards radiating out to make the complete circle from a point in the centre. One of Keeler’s successors, possessing several traits more prominent than taste, has endeavored to make these rotundas the showrooms of the house. In every space on the walls between the many doors has been painted scenes that for imagination and execution would give pointers to the first love story of the boarding school girl. These paintings, ‘covering the walls up the stairs, as well, are supposed to represent hunting and pastoral scenes. Wonderfully colored cattle, huge, frisky horses, fish that no line would bear, deer in beautiful poses—they’re all there, with embellishments none but that painter could have imagined. And to leave no doubt of his ability to improve the original this later owner painted the hardwood floor of the lower rotunda with its hundred pointed boards—painted it, and in that useful kitchen color, grey, at that. He also added a verandah of the style of twenty years ago. that frills-and-furbelows style, that goes with Keeler’s effort about as well as a lace collar on the neck of Venus de Milo.
In every room a massive marble grate, black or white, tells of the provision for comfort. China closets, clothes closets, window and corner seats reveal the hand of a woman in the planning. The basement was built as the servants’ quarters, with kitchens, bake ovens, grates, dumb waiters, ventilators and closets. And that the duties of the squire weighed on Keeler is shown by the large west wing set apart as an immense ballroom.
From the massive, handless, oak front door, with its iron knocker, through a two-story covered driveway one looks into the real dreamland of the estate. Only ten yards north the park commences abruptly in stately pine trees. For a quarter of a mile it wanders in a dignified way to the crest of a slope. In trees of smaller size it climbs down the hillside, jumps a well graded driveway, and drops slowly away again to a rippling stream and the remains of a pond to which the muskrats took a disastrous fancy. A tiny ribbon of water winds through evergreen trees that give way to nothing else until they reach the dam. And there still remains a spring bubbling up in an iron pipe, approached by a grass-covered road and a crude bridge.
All through the sixty acres of trees gravel roads have been built, now hidden a little with moss and years of dead pine needles. The driveway half way down the slope was intended for the main road from the back country to Lakeport. But unsentimental government surveyors interfered. The farmlands at the back of the park were selected for the site of Colborne. But with the independence of things too small to train, that village walked away and planted itself on the lower levels on the other side of the hill. Unwittingly it took a stand where it would not break in on the quaintness of old-land Kelwood.
A monied owner with taste and no reverence for those paintings, a little underbrushing in the parklands, a new dam indigestible for muskrats, a not-too-assidous regarding of the driveways, a servants’ staff to brighten the house, an old English gardener with his hands untied—these are the needs to assure the integrity of the dreamland of Kelwood as an estate fit for any squire.
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- As an armed forces brat, we lived in Rockcliff (Ottawa), Namao (Edmonton), Southport (Portage La Prairie), Manitoba, and Dad retired to St. Margaret's Bay, NS.
Working with the Federal Govenment for 25 years, Canadian Hydrographic Service, mostly. Now married to Gail Kelly, with two grown children, Luke and Denyse. Retired to my woodlot at Stillwater Lake, NS, on the rainy days I study the life and work of A. Hyatt Verrill 1871-1954.