Paul Wilson: Old Hamilton family gives us a mansion on the Mount

Wilson Balfour Baxter died last week in the same stone home on the Brow where she was born nearly a century ago. Now that home belongs to Hamilton.
This stone mansion on the Brow comes with beautiful grounds and big views. It's been in the same family for a century, but the passing of Wilson Balfour Baxter means the home now belongs to us all. (Paul Wilson/ CBC)

She was christened at Christ’s Church Cathedral, James Street North. She was confirmed there. Married there. And today, 97-year-old Wilson Balfour Baxter will be buried from there.

You may not know her name. Wilson liked it that way. When she talked to her children about her funeral, she said, "Try not to make me the centre of attention."

So her death notice the other day was modest. No picture.

But her story does need to be told. It is of the old Hamilton.

And you need to know about Wilson’s stone mansion on the Brow, just west of Garth. With her death, this home and the magnificent piece of land that surrounds it belongs to us all.

Southam bought The Spectator

Her grandfather was William Southam. In 1871, he bought the Hamilton Spectator. Over the years, he and his descendants built up one of the largest communications companies in Canada.

At the company's peak, it owned most of the major newspapers across the country and had some 13,000 employees.

Twenty years ago, the family finally lost control of the papers to the press baron who needs no introduction, Conrad Black.

But long, long before that – a century ago – William Southam gave his daughter Ethel and her husband St. Clair Balfour II a home.

People called it Chedoke House. It was built in 1836 by Scott Burn, a Scot of aristocratic connections.

In a letter back home to his father, he writes: "I have purchased 18 acres of ground upon the top of the Mountain above this town... The view is as magnificent as I have almost ever seen – yet nobody thought of going there."

It was a home with 24 rooms, including a grand drawing room and dining room and a widow’s walk. There was a stable – still there – with schoolroom overhead, that doubled on Sundays as a chapel.

A generous gift

Other owners followed Burn, including the Brydges family and the Dewars. Then, in 1909, that generous gift from William Southam to his daughter and her new husband.

It was no starter home.

Ethel raised six children there, one of them Wilson. She was born upstairs, in the same bed in which she died last week.

She left Chedoke House at 17 for finishing school in Italy, a year of soaking up art in Florence. Next she was off to Montreal to study at McGill. There she met med student Hamilton Baxter.

In June of 1935, there was a wedding reception on the lawns of Chedoke House. But home for Wilson and her husband was to be Montreal – Westmount, of course.

Wilson raised six children there – Wilsie, Fred, Sue, Sally, Debbie, Jeannie.

Mother died and daughter returned

Wilson’s mother was still in the stone mansion on the Brow. That is where she died, in January of 1976, age 94.

Soon after mother’s death, Wilson and her husband came back to the place where she was raised. He died just a few years later.

Around that time, the family gave the house to the Ontario Heritage Trust. The one proviso was that Wilson could live there as long as she wished.

And for more than three decades, that is where she has been. She loved dogs and always had some around the place. But otherwise, she lived in that mansion on her own.

Her daughters say she was never afraid: "She knew the house, she knew every creaky floorboard."

Thirteen beautiful brides

On the wall in the hallway upstairs are photos of the family lace-and-satin wedding dress, which since 1909 has made 13 brides look beautiful. Further down the hall, there are photos of family babies in the "seven-month dress." Eighty-two infants have posed in it so far.

Until the very end, Wilson’s health never faltered. She drove a Dodge van, lots of room for the dogs, and loved to head up to the family cottage on Lake Joseph in the Muskokas, built by Sir Casimir Gzowski.

At Christ’s Church, she was a regular volunteer. But it was not her way to lead the parade. She liked to be in the kitchen, making sandwiches. Her long service earned her the Order of Niagara.

Her last pet, still at Chedoke House, is a rescue dog named Spence – as in Ralph Spence, retired Anglican bishop of Niagara. He apparently doesn’t mind.

Wilson picked out her own hymns for today’s funeral. And she’ll be piped out to an old Scottish favourite, Road to the Isles.

It's up to the Trust

In the days ahead, it will be time to decide how Chedoke House can best be used. That decision will rest with the board of the Ontario Heritage Trust, an organization with hundreds of properties – from the Winter Garden Theatre in downtown Toronto to Uncle Tom’s Cabin in Dresden.

Chair of the Heritage Trust is Thomas H.B. Symons. He was the founding president of Trent University in Peterborough. He lives there, in a 165-year-old house. He’s never seen Chedoke House, so we describe the home and the setting.

"I like the sound of it," he says.

Money, of course, is always tight for heritage projects. Symons says they will have a report put together for our mansion on the Brow. "And I assure you, it will then receive careful and thorough attention."

Wilson Balfour Baxter would have it no other way.


Read more CBC Hamilton stories by Paul Wilson here.