“I wouldn’t live anywhere else... I don’t think you can beat it!”
Antoine ‘Tiner’ LaRush
“People are drawn to this house. It’s got a spirit of its own.”
Victoria M. Stewart, WIHS Founder
Old, creaky and almost decrepit. She was perfect for the role.
Wolfe Island’s Old House Museum, the ol’ Tiner LaRush house as it was called, is getting ready to open its doors for its fourth season.
The rumoured oldest house on Wolfe Island, located just around the corner from the ferry landing on Leander Street became the pride and joy of the newly formed Wolfe Island Historical Society in 2009. Now, four years later, the grand ‘ol dame has maintained her dignity and accepted a much needed ‘facelift’ over the past winter months.
The Township of Frontenac Islands, the owners of the building, supplied funding. “We had asked for $10,000 from the township,” said WIHS Treasurer Brian MacDonald. “They approved $7,000. So far we have spent $3,955.00 for the siding and $3,730.00 for the contract to install, including other materials required.” Don Chisholm, a contractor from Kingston has meticulously kept the antique, weathered look of the ancient, wooden building. Dark, treated wood now covers the former exposed and worn, weathered timbers and makeshift coverings over the outer shell of the two story wood frame structure complete with a steel roof added sometime in the last century. Wood rot was evident in corners both inside and out and especially around the windowsills. And it was getting worse over the years. So really, how much of the outer timbers and coverings were original, we wondered?
‘There are many aspects of the building which are consistent with a mid 19th century or even slightly earlier date of construction’, wrote Andre Scheinman, Heritage Preservation Consultant to then WIHS President Brian MacDonald in 2010. ‘The building is of timber frame construction on a shallow limestone foundation which over much of the perimeter rests on bedrock.’
In 1836 Michael Baker opened the first store in what is now the home of Antoine LaRush. His son, Edward, moved the store to a brand new building in 1878.
‘Wolfe Island Past and Present’ by Winston Cosgrove, 1973.
No one was more excited about the possibility of a museum on Wolfe Island than the late Victoria Stewart, the founder of the new Wolfe Island Historical Society. Sadly, Stewart passed away in early 2012.
Since its humble beginnings in late 2005, the WIHS had been headquartered in Stewart’s own house out on Button Bay, the south side of Wolfe Island. Now, if we could only display some of our items where the tourists and other Islanders could have access, she wondered during one of our earlier meetings. That first summer of 2006, Stewart and WIHS Treasurer Theresa Broeders gathered newsletters and small Island artifacts, displaying them in the front portico of a villager’s house in Marysville, thanks to owner Robert Graham. Between the two, the post was manned most weekdays as well as every weekend all summer long. People would wander in and ask about the Island’s history and especially, family connections.
Then, during the summer of 2008, Stewart received word that David Helwig’s house was up for sale. The ‘oldest house on Wolfe Island’ located on the waterfront right in the middle of the village of Marysville, known locally as the Tiner LaRush place. Devoid of paint, tired looking and completely surrounded by weeds with beehives, spider webs and bird’s nests under almost every awning. Much like Buttercup Cottage, Stewart’s own renovated farmhouse when she purchased it in 2004. Victoria Stewart was elated.
In a WIHS newsletter article, Victoria wrote “Following the November 11 Remembrance Day ceremony of 2008, many of us gathered in the municipal hall to warm up and chat over hot coffee and sandwiches. As I stood listening to war stories being told with great gusto, Mayor Jim Van Den Hoek whispered that he wanted both President Brian Johnson and me to step outside.
“Jim told us that older Island residents thought that a museum would be good for the community. The building that we might use was still to be determined, but if the rumour was true, the Tiner LaRush house was up for sale. Well, I could only dream.” The Wolfe Island Historical Society is a non profit organization depending entirely on memberships and volunteer support.
On July 28, 2009 that dream came true.
In a members only ceremony, the Tiner LaRush house filled to capacity as the door keys were handed over to me, in my role as president by councillors Denis Doyle (Mayor of Frontenac Islands Township today) and Wayne Grant. Present also was Cape Vincent Museum Curator Mary Hinckley Hamilton to offer congratulations. “The non profit Society only received the structure four weeks previous from the Township after more than a year of collecting materials pertaining to the Island’s history,” wrote EMC columnist Margaret Knott. “It was at a public meeting in May 2009 convened to hear what was required to preserve, restore and rehabilitate the ‘Old House’ when the Historical Society’s Vicki Stewart (then Vice-President) declared the Island’s need for a museum.”
“The community is getting behind us,” Stewart said in her EMC interview. “Volunteers have brushed off the initial shock of reality and now, running the museum is not so scary.”
Indeed, Victoria Stewart, a Montreal native, was no stranger to the workings of a museum. The daughter of Montreal philanthropist David Macdonald Stewart of the Macdonald Stewart Foundation and proprietor of Macdonald Tobacco was drilled constantly in early Canadian heritage. “From the age of five, my late father would take me to anything and everything that labeled itself a museum in and around our home in Montreal,” continued Stewart from her WIHS column. “Back then, he was just dreaming of what he might accomplish in the art of presenting history.
“Upon his death in 1984, Dad had established two internationally acclaimed museums in Montreal and another in France. There were countless others, both abroad and on the North American continent that received his benevolence and guidance. If there was anything my father taught me during these treks, it was the value of such an institution to its community – if it was established with passion. If fervour shaped the exhibits, then support for the institution would naturally follow. Certainly our Historical Society had the enthusiasm needed.”
“The society began on the Island about three years ago,” wrote Jordan Press of the Kingston Whig Standard in an article in 2008. “In that time it has digitalized documents, war medals belonging to an islander killed in the First World War and now has the museum. The Old House was built in the early 1800’s and was once home to what was the island’s lone school.”
“There has been speculation that the Old House was once a school house moved from near Lambert’s hill,” said Brian MacDonald. “Or that is was used at that location in the 1830’s by Michael Baker as his first store.
In 1833 the first school was opened in a house situated at the foot of Lambert’s hill about half a mile from the village. It was a log structure without a floor at first... School was afterwards kept in the house now occupied by Mrs. David Adair, (Originally Mrs. James Coyle) the oldest house now standing on the island, also built by Mr. A. Hitchcock. The first teacher on Wolfe Island was Miss Eunice Hinckley who was hired in the old way...
‘Early Wolfe Island’ by R. M. Spankie, 1913.
“I have not been able to find any firm evidence to support either theory”, Macdonald continued, “but I would have to think it extremely unlikely that Michael Baker ever operated a store at that location.
“In 1864, John Hitchcock sold the lot on which the Old House stands to James Coyle. Born in Ireland in 1824, he had a son named James Coyle born on the island about 1844. When he died in 1909, he left a life interest in the lot on Leander Street to his widow and the lot was to go to their son Enroy Coyle. In 1919, his widow and son split the lot and sold the upper half to Sam Hogan. They sold the lower part to Louis LaRush. Louis and Dora Davis were married in 1904 and their son Antoine was born in November, 1907.
“Louis LaRush’s widow, signed a Quit Claim deed transferring the property to Dora’s eldest daughter Virginia McDonnell. Tiner continued to live there as did his mother, who lived until 1962. Following Tiner’s death in 1988, Virginia’s son John McDonnell sold the property to David and Nancy Helwig.”
Islander Sheila LaRush remembers her days in her Uncle Tiner’s house. In an interview with Theresa Broeders she said, “I learned how to dance the Waltz and Fox Trot around the dining room table here. My Uncle Tiner taught me how to swim, encouraging me until I swam all the way to Garden Island while he coached me from his rowboat.”
Just how many Islanders have passed through the doors of the old house over the years? Or learned to swim off the nearby dock? Sitting by a former heavily travelled ‘ice road to Kingston’ the Grand ‘ol lady has probably welcomed generations of families and their children’s children and even their grandchildren over her threshold in impossibly untold numbers, throughout one century into the next. Sailing scows, wood-fired steamboats and finally the big Wolfe Islander III now ties up almost outside her front windows. ‘Powdered and painted up’, her doorway can continue as a time portal into Wolfe Island’s history for many more years to come.
No one said it better than the founder of it all, Victoria Stewart, at the Old House Museum opening in 2009. “This is going to be the face of the Island,” she said.
By Brian Johnson
Brian Paul Johnson is a past president of the Wolfe Island Historical Society. He is one of five captains of the Wolfe Island car ferry Wolfe Islander III. He has worked for the Ontario Ministry of Transportation for more than 30 years, recently celebrating 20+ years as captain. We often see him pass through the islands as captain of the Canadian Empress. Today, Brian combines his marine career with writing. Fascinated by stories and legends of the 1000 Islands area he has written for the Kingston Whig Standard, Telescope magazine and the Great Lakes Boatnerd Website:“Seaway News”. Brian co-edited Growing up on Wolfe Island, a compilation of interviews and stories with Sarah Sorensen.