houses


The Deseronto Public Library and Deseronto Archives were delighted to welcome Frances Itani back to town to mark the culmination of the Tri-County Reads events for 2015. Tri-County Reads is a joint program of the Public Libraries of Northumberland, Hastings and Prince Edward County and this year the book chosen was Frances Itani’s Deafening, a First World War novel which is partly based in Deseronto.

Guided tour walkers at the Dockside Tavern, Deseronto

The Deseronto event on October 17th began with a guided walk for around 45 people around Mill and Main Streets. The photograph shows the tour group as it passed what is now the Dockside Tavern. This building was originally the Empress Hotel, owned by William Jamieson. Jamieson’s widow sold the lot to John Freeman, Frances Itani’s great-grandfather, who ran it as the Arlington Hotel. Itani’s grandmother, Gertie Freeman,  was born in the house adjoining the hotel in 1898. Gertie became deaf at 18 months and her life experiences formed the inspiration for Grania, the main character in Deafening. Like Grania, Gertie attended the Ontario Institution for the Education of the Deaf and Dumb (now the Sir James Whitney School for the Deaf) in Belleville.

The house where Gertie Freeman was born can be seen in this late nineteenth century photograph of the property, taken by Herbert A. Osborne:

The Empress (later Arlington) Hotel, c.1895

At the time the Freemans owned the hotel, Deseronto was at its industrial peak. This picture was taken from an upstairs window, and shows the mills and factories of Mill Street:

View from Arlington Hotel, c.1895

The walking tour also stopped outside the Post Office and Naylor’s Theatre, both of which featured in Deafening and its sequel, Tell. Afterwards, the group convened for lunch at the Legion, followed by a fascinating talk from Frances Itani on the inspiration and process of writing the novel Deafening and Tell.

Frances Itani

Frances Itani

Fans of the novelist will be pleased to hear that Frances is currently working on the third novel  in the Deseronto trilogy.  This one will take a particular interest in the experiences of people who are adopted and Frances is keen to interview individuals who are adopted and who are willing to share their thoughts with the author. Please email the Archives at deseronto.archives@gmail.com if you were adopted and would be happy to be interviewed by Frances for her next Deseronto-based book.

A glimpse of what life was like in Deseronto in 1906 and 1907 has come to us courtesy of a conversation recorded in 1967. Bill and Jack Duncan were taped as they reminisced about their arrival in Deseronto and Bill’s early experiences of work in Canada. Their father, John Duncan, had been a shoe laster in Leicester, England, but his involvement in the trade union movement meant that it was difficult for him to find work there and the family relied on their oldest son, Bill, for their income (26 shillings a week).

John and his wife Maria decided to move their five surviving children across the ocean to Canada. The family spent less than a year in Deseronto before moving on to Stirling and then Toronto, but Bill and Jack had some strong memories of their time here, including loitering in the Post Office in order to get warm in the winter!

This small house on First Street in Deseronto looks to have an idyllic location nowadays: no immediate neighbours and a pleasant view of open fields behind it.

House on First Street (from Google Street View)

But over one hundred years ago, its location was considerably less ideal. You can see it at the bottom left of the photograph below. Immediately behind the house was the vast site of the Rathbun Company’s brick and terra cotta works, busy with railway cars transporting raw materials to the factory from the Rathbun Company’s sawmills (sawdust was a key ingredient in the production of terra cotta):

Brick and Terra Cotta works

The works was in operation from 1887 until 1898, when it was destroyed by fire. As the house was so close to the buildings of the terra cotta works, it was fortunate to survive the blaze itself.

From a Hastings County directory of 1868-1869, this map shows the street plan of the village of Mill Point, later to become the town of Deseronto.

Mill Point in 1869

It is interesting to see how few streets were laid out at that time: Thomas Street, which now runs the entire length of the town, was only two blocks wide in 1869. Centre and Prince Streets were yet to be established and there were no roads north of Dundas. In 1869 the village did have a Third Street, however, which is more than the town can boast today! Compare this plan with the appearance of the town in 1962:

Deseronto lots, 1962

In 1869 the industrial core of the village was firmly in the southwest corner, where the steam saw mill, wharf, post office and ship yard can be seen. The H. B. Rathbun and Son advertisement from the 1869 directory neatly summarizes the firm’s interests at this date:

1869 advertisement for H. B. Rathbun and Son

The 1869 map also shows the location of Deseronto’s first church, at the top of [St.] George Street, close to the current location of the Presbyterian Church of the Redeemer. The Union Church had been built in 1868 as a shared place of worship: the Anglicans had a service there in the morning, the Presbyterians in the afternoon, and the Methodists in the evening.

Only one residence is marked on the earlier map: presumably that of the Rathbun family. At this period, Edward Wilkes Rathbun (1842-1903) had taken over the day-to-day running of H. B. Rathbun and Son, due to his father’s ill health. E. W. Rathbun built the Deseronto firm into a hugely successful business, becoming a millionaire in the process. While other family members built houses on Dundas Street, away from the busy industries of the waterfront, E. W. Rathbun had a new house built on the site of this 1869 residence in 1892. It was designed by Toronto architects Langley and Burke and was a substantial property, as this photograph shows:

E. W. Rathbun's house on Main Street, Deseronto

This house no longer exists, although the architects’ plans for it survive, held at the Archives of Ontario. To the front, it looked out on Central Park (now the Rathbun Memorial Park), which was laid out at E. W. Rathbun’s expense. He brought in A. J. Hopkins, a landscape gardener from Oswego, New York, to do the work.  The back of the house would have afforded good views of the Rathbuns’ industrial empire along the waterfront of the Bay of Quinte: Edward Wilkes Rathbun was clearly a man who liked to keep a close eye on his business!

Did you miss the chance to explore Deseronto’s Doors Open sites on May 28, 2011? Or perhaps you weren’t able to visit all of them?

Fear not! We’ve made all the Deseronto site brochures available here for you to look at. Just click on the images below to get a large version that you can print off or read online.

Deseronto Cemetery [site 22]
Camp Rathbun [site 23]
St. Mark’s Hall [site 24]
Grace United Church [site 25]
Public Works Garage: former aircraft hangar [site 26]
Naylor’s Theatre [site 27]
Deseronto Post Office [site 28]
Deseronto Town Hall [site 29]
Rathbun Memorial Park [site 30]
McGlade Funeral Home [site 31]
Foresters’ Island [site 32]
Former industrial sites [site 33]
Church of the Redeemer [site 34]
St. Vincent de Paul Roman Catholic Church [site 35]
Founding of Deseronto [site 36]
Deserontos oldest house DESHIS-06-04

Deseronto's oldest house DESHIS-06-04

This photograph was taken during the 1970s and is, according to the note on the back of it, a picture of ‘Deseronto’s oldest house’. Unfortunately, there is no information on the picture about where exactly this house was.

Does anyone recognise this building? Can you help us pinpoint its location?

UPDATE: We’ve had two suggestions and the house is on the east side of Fourth Street – below is a photo of how it looks today.

Updated October 4th 2011 to add that the current owners bought the house in 1962 when there were two fuses in the whole house and one cold water pipe to the kitchen and no drain. The house is constructed from 18-inch barn timbers and hand-made nails.

92 Fourth Street today

92 Fourth Street today