This is an abridged chapter from my upcoming book of stories on a few forgotten old buildings and ruins in Muskoka. Please comment and tell me what you think and if you like it and you are not already signed up – please join my newsletter to find out first what’s happening with the book and to see new paintings before they go public.
History of a Muskoka Ruin – Gold, Love & Loss…
A long bend in the old road between Bracebridge and Gravenhurst sweeps wide around a mostly empty field then runs parallel to railway tracks, which still vibrate with passing northern trains. If you watched the train cars go by, you probably missed the ruin of the house Mr. Livingstone built. I drove by this old house for years and for the seconds it was in my sight, wondered about it, until one day the wondering became too powerful to resist.
My first visit was on a cool spring day in 2009. A vanishing rainstorm left a brisk, penetrating breeze in its wake. The brick house sat blind with its windows shattered or entirely absent, allowing the wind to wander through its rooms unrestrained. A gust moved a loose door, tapping and knocking on its broken jamb. The walls whispered and wailed as the air pushed through the lathe left exposed like an untended wound. The sharp roughness of peeling paint broke off in my hands and when the wind subsided, the house breathed its musty breath over me.
In moments of stillness, the house seemed merely awaiting the return of its owners. The house held its secrets close, revealing only small things I could not grasp or that disappeared as soon as I thought I had them.
Longing and loneliness hung in the air inside the walls of this beautiful house. I stood in the parlour when a rustling of the leaves broke the silence. I heard male voices involved in a boisterous and friendly conversation sound as if they were approaching the building. I went to the front hall expecting to meet some fellow explorers, but when I leaned out the doorway, the voices ceased there was no one in sight. My skin began to prickle and I wondered why I was really drawn here and if there was a story I needed to discover.
While many farmhouses in Muskoka were very plain and practical, this house showed the artistry of an experienced and talented carpenter. Farming in Muskoka was often an impossible business due to the rocky terrain, so few would have had the wealth to build a brick farmhouse with so much elegant carpentry.
Who built this house?
Following the records, I discovered that the Stephens family, Richard and Belle, owned the farm for most of the first half of the last century. So I decided to see if any of Richard and Belle’s children were still alive. A chance conversation with a local historian led me to Elva (Stephens) Bowes. 90-year-old Elva was Richard Stephens’ youngest daughter.
Elva told me her hearing aid was acting up and I would have to write down some initial questions. After passing her my notebook, she paused, lit her cigarette and told me the story of Neil Livingstone and the farm that became so beloved of her family.
Elva Tells Me a Story of Gold, Love and Loss
In 1877, Neil Livingstone found a nugget of gold while digging a well in Gravenhurst near Gull Lake and set off a short lived Muskoka ‘gold rush’. It made him an instantly wealthy man and he purchased the farm at Kilty Switch on the road between Bracebridge and Gravenhurst. A carpenter by trade, Neil Livingstone emigrated from Scotland in the 1840’s and went on to build the original land registry office, the original town hall, the fire hall tower and was hired to finish a partially built Dominion Hotel in Bracebridge. The records showed that Livingstone applied to build the house in 1891.
Gossip was not encouraged in Elva’s family home, along with the vices old Neil Livingstone copiously engaged, but she would overhear things as a little girl from time to time. She told me she heard them discuss a lady that was promised to Neil Livingstone would not have him because he loved to visit the bar at the Dominion Hotel all too frequently. His heavy drinking lost him his wife and, eventually his life. In 1903, he transferred the farm and the farmhouse he built to Peter Milne, the owner of the Dominion Hotel. The property was handed over in exchange for “bed, board and burial”.
What Elva told me next, surprised me…
Neil Livingstone never actually lived in the house. In early 1905 at the age of 84, Neil Livingstone died of pneumonia and Milne sold the farm and the hotel and took his family to Alberta. Richard Stephens took over in 1906.
Richard Stephens Takes Over the Farm
Elva’s family had deep connections to the region of the farm and Richard worked hard to expand on Livingstone’s original 100 acres toward the family holdings in Stephen’s Bay. Stephens Bay on Lake Muskoka was named after Richard’s grandfather, who left County Tyrone in Ireland when he was 15 years-old. He eventually settled Stephens Bay with his family in 1865 on a Crown land grant, leaving a significant legacy, including a political one.
Richard became a town councilor, and his father Thomas had been a reeve of Muskoka Township. Thomas, who had also received a Crown land grant in 1869 further down the Muskoka Beach road, lived out his last years with Richard and his family at their farm until he died in 1936 at the age of 90.
Thomas was settled into the parlour with a mirror rigged up so that he could see who came up the long farm lane to visit from his chair. I painted “Waiting” (above), wondering if this was the window by which he sat.
Jane Morgan, Elva’s niece, shared life on the farm:
“The farm’s outbuildings were two barns, a drive shed, henhouse, ice house, pig pen, a field for sheep, horses and about 12 cows. Grandma used to have a vegetable garden, with peas, beans, carrots, potatoes, onions and tomatoes. The garden was behind the farmhouse. In her perennial garden, she had iris, phlox, lemon and orange lilies, four o’clocks, wild roses, and purple and white lilacs.
Dad remembers Grandpa Stephens ‘pruning’ the tops of the pine trees: he’d shoot them off with his .33 rifle, so the trees didn’t get too tall!”
The phlox still grow in Elva’s garden and in the gardens of Belle’s grandchildren.
Richard’s Death and the Slow Decline of the Farm
Farm work was grueling and took its toll on Richard Stephens. In 1955, while Elva was in San Francisco, her father died suddenly. He came in from the fields and Belle told him to take a rest before dinner. He never awoke from his nap.
The Stephens owned the property from 1906 until 1955. After Richard’s death, most of the farm was sold leaving only an acre and the farmhouse for Belle in which she would live out the rest of her life. After Elva’s mother’s death in 1960, the farm was transferred to a corporation and operated as a poultry farm. The house was occupied until the 1980’s.
Wading through the census information for 1911, I discovered that shortly after the Stephens purchased the property, Edward Cronin, the eldest son of a neighbour and 15 years of age, lodged with the Stephens’ possibly as farm labour. Elva has no memory of him, so he was, likely, gone by the time she was born in 1919. I wonder, from time to time, if it may have been the echo of Edward’s voice and maybe one of Richard’s sons coming in from the fields that I heard on that windy spring day.
Elva passed away in the summer of 2011 and is buried with her parents. I have yet to find the resting place of Neil Livingstone.
During my last visit, the whispers and intensity of this house seemed to have quieted and, as if satisfied, the house seemed to lean further toward Nature.
In 2012, more than 120 years after the first brick was laid, it passed into history.
All of the paintings in this post were painted from this house between 2009 and 2011. Another painting from this house is here. More stories and historic photos will be in my upcoming book. Sign-up for my newsletter to be the first to know about release dates!
© 2013 Michelle Basic Hendry
The above text and images are the copyright of the Michelle Basic Hendry and may not be copied or reproduced in any form without express permission from the author/artist. All rights reserved.