Tea-Time with Shanna at the Macdonell-Williamson House
A brief history
For as long as I can remember, I have always dreamed of living in the 19th century, and more precisely, the Victorian Period. The elegant fashion, the detailed architecture, the fine art, the exquisite craftmanship, the romantic literature and the slower-pace of life are some of the things that have made me fall in love with this awe-inspiring period of our history. Of course, living during this era was not an easy way of life. Times were hard for many. People died at a younger age and diseases were rampant. But if you were fortunate enough to be born into a family with good means, you would have lived a more comfortable life. Maybe even in a place surrounded by both natural and handmade beauty, with vast spaces, both in and outside of your home. Macdonell-Williamson House (MWH) is one of those exceptionally fine places where anyone would have loved to call home. I know I would!
Located on the Ottawa River, near the village of Pointe-Fortune and at the border between Ontario (Upper Canada) and Quebec (Lower Canada), this majestic residence was built by entrepreneur John Macdonell, a prolific business man, fur-trader and partner in the North West Company, during the Georgian period in 1817. There, he lived with his Métis wife, Magdeleine Poitras and twelve children, for whom he built this dream-home which also housed his general store, until his death in 1850. The next person to acquire the house would be William Williamson in 1882, whose family would be the last to live in it until 1961, when it was expropriated by Quebec Hydro for the hydroelectric development at Carillon. Fortunately for us all, the dam ended up being constructed further away, and the house was spared. Today, the original stone markers designating the borders between Upper and Lower Canada can be found at proximity to the MWH property. How cool is that?!
After having been designated a National Historic Site in 1969, this heritage treasure was kept from demolition and saved by the Ontario Heritage Trust that would later partner with The Friends of the Macdonell-Williamson House, a charity that would operate and care for the house, and to whom we owe the preservation of a part of our shared history today.
My experience of Macdonell-Williamson House
This was my very first visit to this magnificent residence that was then called Poplar Villa. As I pulled up to the building, my eyes widened and a faint sound escaped my gaping mouth. The grandeur of the house with its twenty something windows and shutters, was simply – overwhelming! I had no words...
The first thing that struck me about the house was how well it has stood the test of time. Surrounded by a large English garden and overlooking the Ottawa River, I could tell this house would have so many lovely stories to share. Upon entering the house, I was greeted by a large, welcoming entrance and a grand wooden staircase leading to a second floor. On the main floor, old photos lined the walls and an information desk was available for those who would like to delve deeper into its fascinating history. To the right was, and still is, the General Store, where loads of antiques and collectible, artworks made by local artisans and history books can be purchased to help support the important work done by the charity. To the left is the exquisite and functional drawing room which opens onto The Heritage Tea Room, where visitors are invited to sit and chat over a lovely cup of tea served in beautiful china cups with saucers while enjoying a delicious warm scone.
These two rooms are the only rooms in the house that have been renovated. As per heritage conservation rules, the rest of the house has been preserved in partial ruin, which ads to the authentic experience of this charming historical site. Chipped plaster walls reveal the wood and stone structure of the house and offers the visitors a glimpse into the past. Needless to say, I spent quite some time roaming the rooms, filled with goose-flesh, as I soaked up the history and memories of those who made their lives there. One of the sitting rooms now serves as a museum and special exhibition of artefacts, dedicated to the house’s history during the times of trade and travellers on the Ottawa River. One of the most intriguing rooms though, is the round sitting room surrounded by three bed closets, off the grand ballroom on the second floor. Each bed closet is carefully staged with the furniture and everyday items the family would have used: beds with straw mattresses, high boy dressers, cotton and lace nightgowns, porcelain chamber pots, simple wooden toys, etc.
Wait, what? A ballroom on the second floor you say? Yep! The majestic room with a gorgeous ceiling medallion continues to serve as a meeting place and has hosted charity dinners. It is a sight to behold!
Each room offers a snapshot into a time our modern lives have long forgotten. Dark stained furniture, such as wooden barrister bookcases and luxurious side boards line the hallways as we make our way to the various rooms where detailed plaster cornices and crown moulding line the main rooms.
But, the piece de resistance, if I can choose only one, is the open-hearth masonry fireplace in the basement where the food was prepared and the servants slept. If I close my eyes, I swear I can smell the musky aroma of corn bread cooking over the open fire.
Speaking of fire places, here’s a fun fact. The house originally had 12—TWELVE-- fire places! Being that it was a very big house, it would have been pretty difficult to heat. Here is a picture of the fireplace in the ballroom:
One can really hit their 10 000 steps visiting all the rooms of the MWH! And so, after a couple of hours, I ended my tour in the Tea Room to recharge my batteries with a cup of soothing Earl Grey, and a warm homemade scone with cream and jam. And all for only $ 5! Yum!
Seasonal Programming: So, you Wanna Visit MWH Now, Eh?
MWH may be twice a centennial, but it is far from quiet! From July to the first weekend of September, the Friends of the MWH are busy welcoming tourists and visitors, eager to experience the beauty and history of this important historical Canadian site. Open on Saturdays and Sundays from 11 am to 4 pm, MWH is bustling with rich programming such as exhibits, speakers, authors, arts and crafts, musicians and much more! During my visit, I even had the pleasure of meeting a lovely group of rug-hooker ladies, one of whom is with the Martintown Wild and Woolly Rug Hookers* over in our neighbouring counties of SDG, who were busy working away on their creations in the renovating drawing room. My imagination brought me to ponder what this scene would have looked like by the glow of candlelight, only 200 years ago. My heart sang!
The cost of entry is a humble $3. Got ten friends? Bring them for a group tour for only $10! And if you have littles and not-so-littles under the age of 12, entrance is free!
So, if you haven’t had the chance to visit MWH yet, get moving ‘cause there are only 2 weekends left to experience this nostalgic trip down memory lane! This Saturday, August 26 at 2 pm, the Vankleek Hill Fiddlers will be filling the rooms with cheer; and for the last weekend of the season on September 2 and 3, a Garage Sale will be held during the whole weekend, ending with a Family Picnic with a corn boil and handmade ice cream on September 3. Who can say no to handmade ice cream??? Um, not me! Hope you can make it to experience the history of this very special heritage jewel in Prescott & Russell.
If like me, you need to know more about this fascinating place, there are some great resources available online such as on the MWH website at www.mwhouse.ca; the Heritage Trust of Ontario’s online and print magazine, Heritage Matters, with a full issue dedicated to the archeological excavation, engineering and history through artefacts found on the land of MWH, (see sources at the end of this post for complete title,), and THE book on Macdonell-Williamson House written by Valery Verity, which can be purchased in the General Store of the MWH. I for one, need to know more and will be revisiting this house for their last weekend bash so I can get my very own copy and learn more about its long and fascinating history.
Personal conversations with volunteers and Friends of the Macdonell-Williamson House. I.e.: Judith Henderson. Thank you!
Conservation at work: Understanding Macdonell-Williamson House, Heritage Matters: A publication on the Ontario Heritage Trust, Volume 12, Issue 2, December 2014.
Macdonell-Williamson House: Heritage Just Across the Ontario Border! Ann Peters, Outaouais Heritage WebMagazine.
*Interested in seeing what rug-hookers are creating today? The Martintown Wild and Woolly Rug Hookers will be having a show at the Centre Culturel de Cornwall, September 4 to 29, 2017, Vernissage: September 4, 5 pm to 8 pm.