Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Postcard: Billings Estate Museum,

We made our way to the Billings Estate Museum last week, an Ottawa historical site neither Christine nor I had previously visited (we weren’t entirely sure where it was before). Since we moved out of Centretown last fall, I’ve been curious about a number of aspects of our new neighbourhood, slowly making our way out to explore side-streets and parks, and a series of small pockets of city I knew little or nothing about. Our immediate part of Alta Vista Drive was originally one of a series of farmer’s fields before the advent of mid-1950s housing development. To the east, houses are slightly more recent, stepping into the early 1960s. A few blocks to the north-east, the houses along Orchard Avenue, for example, weren’t constructed until the late 1970s (what I would consider rather late for the area), and various neighbours apparently still have memory of a plethora of fruit trees. Christian McPherson, who owns a house on Orchard, recently discovered a lattice of tree-roots throughout his back yard.

We’d only been meaning for a couple of months to start taking advantage (in the tourist sense) of Christine’s maternity leave, and the three of us finally ventured the half an hour or so walk north along Alta Vista through Pleasant Park, over the Transitway towards Riverside, and up into the estate of old Braddish Billings (1762-1864) and his wife, Lamira Dow Billings (I’m curious to know if she, in fact, was related in any way of the Dow family who helped name Dow’s Great Swamp, later cleared out as Dow’s Lake). Curious, too, to see the occasional house around the transitway that seem to pre-date the other houses in the area (including the loveliest green house at the corner of Cavendish and Pleasant Park, with charming log fence), suggesting the 1940s, 1930s and even a house that appeared to be built closer to the end of the 19th Century (among, of course, the more modern and expensive monolithic in-fills). Once closer, we saw that the estate sits on a fascinating rise, and there is a section of Cabot Street where one can even catch a glimpse of the Peace Tower, which suggests it must have been quite a view before the emergence of city.

Given my fascination with history, I thought the tour quite compelling, and learned a number of things I didn’t previously know, including the fact that American-born Braddish Billings was raised in Brockville, and later moved to the area to work for American-born Philemon Wright (1760 - 1839), the same Wright who established the first permanent settlement in the area (Wrightstown, Wright’s Village, Wrightsville; what eventually became Hull, Quebec). Interesting enough, Billings and Wright were both originally from neighbouring towns in Massachusetts, born two years apart in the towns of Ware and Woburn, respectably. Billings also managed to get the contract to provide food to the workers who built the Rideau Canal, long before being known as one of the city’s founding lumber barons, helping him establish himself enough to build his grand estate on the Rideau River, slightly east of where Billings Bridge and Billings Bridge Plaza now sit. The tour was pretty interesting, with a number of characters throughout the family worth paying attention to, some of whom were quite colourful. It was interesting to compare the story of Billings and his family, as well as see how his connects, with other tales of early Ottawa-area settlers and figures, including Colonel John By, Hamnett Pinhey, Ottawa lumber barons Booth and Eddy, and William Stewart (who invented Stewarton) [see my piece on such here].

According to Wikipedia (which appears to have far more information than The Billings Estate website actually has):

The Billings Estate National Historic Site is an Ottawa museum located 2100 Cabot St. in the former home of one of the region’s earliest settlers. The oldest wood framed house in Ottawa was built in 1827-9 by Massachusetts-born Braddish Billings. It became the home for the following four generations of the Billings family. It is Ottawa’s oldest surviving house, though the Bytown Museum building is older. Billings had moved to the area in 1812, and was the first settler in Gloucester Township.

Billings became prosperous in the timber trade, and built the large home that was named Park Hill. Billings later moved into agriculture, and the house became the centre of a large and prosperous farm providing produce for Bytown, with the farm linked to town by the Bytown and Prescott Railway.

The estate remained in the Billings family until 1975. Over time the property was slowly sold off to developers, and today the estate retains only a relatively small plot of land. In 1975 the house became a Billings Estate Museum which is today operated by the city of Ottawa. The house was included amongst other architecturally interesting and historically significant buildings in Doors Open Ottawa, held June 2 and 3, 2012.

The estate also includes a historic cemetery that contains graves dating back to 1820.

For whatever reason, one of the bedrooms in the house, decorated with an exhibit on World War I, reminded slightly of the Hemingway House in Key West [see my post on such here].

We were given our own personal tour of the house, and later wandered a bit on the grounds, before stopping for tea (my scones are better than theirs). High tea: not something I’d done before either, but I know something my mother would have appreciated. Rose sat on the lawn for a spell, brushing her palms through the grass before finally tearing out a series of small handfuls. After tea (during which Rose was amused and distracted by Christine's change purse), we picked out postcards and guide books, and Christine gifted Rose a small kerchief doll, which brought up peals of laughter from the wee babe. Before we left, we wandered the small cemetery, and Rose fell asleep on my chest, nestled deep in her snuggly. What else might our summer bring?

No comments: