Homesteads: Early Buildings and Families from Kingston to Toronto by Margaret McBurney and Mary Byers (Colborne excerpt)
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Major-General Sir John Colborne was Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada from 1828 to 1836. In his honour the village of Keeler’s Tavern changed its name. (One family in the province, according to Dr. Caniff, went further; it named triplet boys born during the governor’s tenure “Sir”, “John” and “Colborne”).
The change in the name of the community did not however effect the dominance of three successive generations of Joseph Keeler — “Old Joe”, “Young Joe” and “Little Joe” — in Colborne’s settlement, growth and industry from the 1790s until 1885. Today the jome ofepKeeler II on Church Street attests to their economic success in the era of Colborne’s greatest prosperity.
“Old Joe”, a Loyalist from Vermont, settled in the 1790s at Lakeport (known initially as Cramahe Harbour, Colborne Harbour or Cat Hollow). Shortly afterward, he was followed by a group of settlers. They included Aaron Greeley, an American surveyor who came at Keeler’s request to lay out the town site.
But it was “Young Joe” who is considered Colborne’s founder. He was the first merchant, opening a store in 1815, and its first postmaster. He donated land for a public square and to both the Methodist (now United) and Presbyterian churches. He was also justice of the peace.
The Keeler House
Keeler’s Church Street house is almost identical to the Barnum House in Grafton. The Keeler House was built about 1820, about the same time as Barnum House; it is possible they were built with the same inspiration.
Eliakim Barnum’s house is nationally known, however, while the Keeler House has been given much less attention. It has long been considered a later copy-one of many in the Grafton-Colborne-Cobourg area — but it is the only one with the same intricate detail of new-classical trim as on the Barnum House.
The first floor contained a hall and adjacent living room in the central portion, a sitting room and library in he two wings, and the dining room and kitchen at the rear. The upper story contained three bedrooms off the hall. Superb craftsmanship is evident in the carving over the door, on the pilasters, cornices, mouldings, mantel, stairs and in every detail of interior trim.
The Keelers bought the property on which the house stands in 1812; it was part of a Crown grant made to George Palmer nine years earlier. In 1824, the family subdivided the 200 acres, presumably to encourage the development of the neighbourhood.
“Old Joe” died in 1834 in his son’s house, aged 77.
By the 1850s, “Young Joe” has decided to build another house on the hill overlooking Colborne. Kelwood, many years in construction, was planned in the grand manner, with parquet floors, marble mantels, large dining and drawing rooms, servant’s quarters and an elaborate series of walkways.
Keeler presented the Church Street home to his daughter but raised his son in Kelwood.
“Little Joe” became the Member of Parliament for East Northumberland, established a newspaper and acted as editor. Kelwood was destroyed by fire in 1911.
The Keeler name is associated with another building that survives on the northeast corner of King and Parliament Streets (Lot 28, Concession 2, Cramahe) in East Colborne. It was once Keeler’s Tavern for which the community was first names. According to the District of Newcastle records, “Old Joe” was fined two pounds in 1808 for operating a still; apparently he had a business well before the opening of York Road in 1816. Was it built by one of the previous owners (Shuyler, Hodges or Jacob Loomis would be the most likely candidates). Did Keeler have an inn on some other site? Or did he operate more informally?
At one time the house was covered with insulbrick. Restoration in the 1970s revealed not only the original frame siding but four unexpected windows which had been covered, no doubt to preserve the heat within. The house now displays all nine windows, five above and four below, in typical Loyalist style.
3 King Street
At 3 King Street West is the white frame house which was the home of John Steele and his wife, Mary Spalding.
Steele came to Canada from Grenock, Scotland, in 1820, lived for a while in Montreal and then moved to Colborne where he was involved in business ventures with Joseph Keeler. He published a Colborne newspaper, The Northumberland Pilot, and was late involved with the Port Hope Watchman.
A staunch Presbyterian, he protested against the then-position of the Anglican church, helped found Queen’s University and was a member of its first board.
Between 1831 and 1835, Steele bought parts of the land at the town centre which had been granted by the Crown by John Ogden in 1809. The present frame house would have been on the site already for its simplicity and detailing relate to an earlier period. Mary Steele may have been writing from the house when she addressed her friend Susan Greeley in Haldimand on 7 February 1831: “My haste must apologize for my abruptness while I say that I would like to get that girl Miss Smith and that I wish her to begin next week with me if possible. Perhaps better to say come on Saturday as I would never encourage going or coming on the Sabbath. I forgot to mention I should expect to pay her out of the store and, of course, to let her get shoes and the like we are dealing. Please give my best regards to your dear mother.”
In 1843, John and Mary Steele sold their Colborne property and moved to Grafton to live in a red brick house beside Mary’s father, Thomas Spalding. Later, they moved to Port Hope. A surviving letter to John Steele there in 1851 expressed sympathy on Mary’s death.
The Cumming House
The red brick house adjacent to the Steele house (5 King Street West?) was at one time part of the Steele holdings but by 1861 belonged to Cuthbert Cumming. It remained in his family until 1910.Cumming was a Scottish-born fur trader with the North West Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company. He became a chief trader in 1827, was married in the northland in the early 1840s to Jane McMurray, served at Fort Pelly in the Swan River district and in 1844 retired and moved to Colborne.
At the time of the census of 1861, he was 70 years old. Jane was 47 years old and they had three children.
Across the road is a house which dates from the period of the War of 1812. It served as a kand later a school. In 1828 it was turned over to King’s College as part of the land grant intended as a financial base for that institution which became the University of Toronto..
In 1851, the university sold the property to Peleg Wood. The memoirs of Elizabeth Goslee Grover, who was present, recall the day when Peleg brought his bride — “a pretty girl with dark eyes” — to his home. The party danced to “violin reels and country dances — all the girls wore white caps and the men, in dancing, would spring from the floor, slap their heels two or three times and fall into place-kicking dance steps that was the style then, and Mrs. Wood was called the best dancer in the settlement”.
The house was built with a verandah on the sides and French windows, all of which have been removed. It has all the features of the solid construction of the early 1800s. The exterior mouldings are simple and heavy. The door in the second-storey verandah is a feature typical of inn construction. While it was owned by King’s College, it was leased for income, but it is impossible to be sure which lessees occupied the land in that period.
In view of the style of construction and location — right on the Danforth Road — could it have been used as an inn? To take the speculation one step further, could it have been Keeler’s first inn?
The Octagon House
An Octagonal house, north on Parliament Street past Keeler’s Inn, was built by Reuben Scott, an iron founder. The unusual shape was promoted by Orson Fowler who believed that both health and disposition were greatly improved in an eight-sided house. A book by Fowler was found in the house indicating that Scott was familiar with the theories discussed in Chapter 14..
The single-storey Cumming house was probably built of locally made bricks as there were at least three brickyards operating in Colborne in the mid-1800s.
Colborne’s United (formerly Wesleyan-Methodist) church was built in the 1860s to replace an 1830 structure. The bricks came from the Keeler brickyard.
The Presbyterians built their handsome church, St. Andrew’s, in 1830 as well, hauling the stone from Lakeport quarry over rugged roads. John Steele was one of the first Presbyterian trustees. The ministry in those days was a hazardous occupation: the Presbyterian minister in the area drowned crossing the ice of the Bay of Quinte in 1834 while travelling between his parishes."
(Excerpt about Homesteads: Early Buildings and Families from Kingston to Toronto by Margaret McBurney and Mary Byers that appeared in The Canadian Historical Review, Vol. 61, Number 3, September 1980, p.378).
"Homesteads grew out of the work of its authors as volunteers on a project to prepare a province-wide inventory of early Ontario buildings. They have chosen to focus on pre-Confederation structures along three eary and interrelated roads in the eastern section of the province — the Danforth, Kingston Road, and older portions of the Highway between Kingston and Pickering."
- University of Toronto Press, 1979, 282 pages, illus. Photos by Hugh Robertson.
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Cramahe Township Public Library
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Colborne, ON K0K 1S0