It was just an old house at the end of the road I grew up on in Eastern Ontario, but for some reason news I received on New Year’s Eve that the Ballantyne place had been destroyed by fire, really hit home — it was a bit like losing a friend.
I had only been inside the Ballantyne house perhaps three or four times in my life — it was located right next to the one-room schoolhouse where I gathered the first eight years of my education. Both the school and the Ballantyne house were about half a mile west of the farm where I was raised.
But the Ballantyne place had a long and important history for the Hart family. The house and farm, built and owned by Senator Charles Ballantyne, provided employment for my grandparents shortly after they immigrated from England in 1925. And of course they had in tow a toddler named Roy (who was to become my father).
And later in the early 1940s the Ballantyne family hired a young slip of a girl Marion McConnell, from nearby Gallingertown. She worked on the housekeeping staff. So this McConnell gal met up with this farm worker named Roy Hart at the Ballantyne farm… One thing led to another and they were married in 1942 and a few years later along came their third bundle of joy — me.
The namesake of what in those days would have been a mansion or certainly an estate was Charles Ballantyne. He was born in that community called Colquhoun in 1867. At some point he moved to Montreal (about 90 miles away), became a successful businessman — one time owner of Sherwin-William Paints — and then became a millionaire. He later went on to be a cabinet minister in the government of R.B. Bennett and later in his political career became a Senator.
Somewhere in the success of his life — late 1800s, early 1900s — he returned to Colquhoun and built the fine home and farm at the corner of the 7th Concession and Beckstead Roads. It was a large brick and wood combination home with a coach house and servant quarters at the back and portico over a curved driveway at the front. The main part of the house was large, with several bedrooms upstairs, a large living room with heavy wood panelling, fireplaces, and other features.
The farm, known as Evie Farms, was an operating dairy farm. There were about 200 acres of which about 85 acres were cleared for hay, pasture and crops. My grandfather was hired to manage the dairy, which initially had about 15 purebred Ayrshire cows imported from Scotland. My grandmother was cook at the house. It appears there were about three or four housekeeping staff, along with three or four farm workers including a horseman and a gardener. The house sat on a small rise and was surrounded by two or three acres of well manicured garden. The grounds were fenced and gated, dotted with several maple and elm trees. A row of towering Lombardi poplars lined the one side of the yard that faced the road.
The Ballantynes used the place on weekends and often as a summer retreat. I don’t recall stories of lavish parties, but it was the home of the wealthy in midst of a humble farming community — fine horses, later nice cars with people of some celebrity coming and going.
In his later years (age 75) the Senator sold the farm to the MacDonnell family who farmed there for several years, they sold it to the Vilmansen family— who had immigrated from Estonia. The oldest son of the Vilmansen family was the last to live there until his death in 2012. The house sat empty for a few years until Jack and Sasha Flammia from Montreal bought the place in 2016 with plans to restore the house to its original condition. The Flammias were in the midst of those renovations when the house caught fire and burned December 30, 2017. They were in Montreal at the time.
Although the exact cause of the fire isn’t known, local fire fighters did say they saw a half-naked racoon (fur had been singed off) running from the house shortly after they arrived. Suspected cause of the fire was attributed to a rodent chewing electrical wires.
It was just an old house, with about 120 years of history, and in its day a real anchor for the community. It was a household that brought together people who ultimately gave me a start in life. The house is gone, but the Ballantyne memory lives on.