SOUTH DUNDAS — Yesterday’s loss of the old Ballantyne house — perhaps better known as the Vilmansen place in more recent decades — has resonated all the way in Calgary, Alta., where Lee Hart was surprised to learn of the devastating fire in an email from Nation Valley News.
Hart, a field editor with Grainews, reminisced in an online column a few years ago about his family’s connection to the unmarked South Dundas community of Colquhoun — including the stately home where his parents first met while employed as hired help at the rural residence owned by the well-to-do Ballantynes.
At the request of NVN, the former Standard Freeholder reporter once again delves into the history of the building destroyed in the Dec. 30 blaze:
I didn’t know the “Ballantyne” place in my early days growing up in Colquhoun. In my days I always knew of it as Vilmansen’s – the third family to live in the one-time grand home. But for my parents and their generation, it was still referred to as Ballantyne’s many years after the Senator had died. In 2018 terms I suspect it was about as close to having a “Downton Abbey” in Eastern Ontario as you could get.
In the community of Colquhoun, the Ballantyne place was a stately home on a well managed farm at one end of what is now Don’s Road [at Beckstead Road]. It was owned by a wealthy family from Montreal — Senator Charles Ballantyne, who was born in Colquhoun in 1867, went onto become a successful millionaire Montreal businessman, one-time owner of Sherwin-Williams paints. He was also a commander in the First World War and later became a Member of Parliament and minister in the R.B. Bennett government in 1917. He was appointed a senator in 1932.
It was a home of the wealthy, complete with servants and farm workers, nice cars and the comings and goings of people with influence and some celebrity. The Ballantyne place was an operating farm, known as Evie Farms, that I believe served largely as a summer home (or get away place) for the Senator and his family. It was a 200-acre dairy farm, with about 85 acres of cleared land with a herd of about 15 head of purebred Ayrshire dairy cattle imported from Scotland.
My grandparents, Ernest and May Hart, and son Roy came to work at Ballantynes in about 1925 after immigrating from England about a year earlier. When they first arrived in Canada they came to Riverfield, Quebec, and met the minister at the church, Rev. Robert Ballantyne. He later told him his brother Charles Ballantyne was looking for someone to manage his dairy farm in Ontario, so the Harts moved to Colquhoun.
My grandfather, who grew up on a farm in England, managed the dairy herd and my grandmother became the cook in the house. There were other farm workers including a horseman, as well as a gardener who tended to the large grounds around the house, including some measure of a golf course. The large manicured yard was fenced, gated and lined on two sides by towering Lombardi poplar trees. In the house, along with my grandmother as cook, there was also housekeeping staff. That’s where my one-day-to-be mother arrived on the scene. Marion McConnell grew up on her family farm a few miles away at Gallingertown and came to work at Ballantynes as a housekeeper when she was about 15. Her dad, Jack McConnell, worked on some of the building projects at the farm.
My grandparents returned to England in 1929 to look after family farm business there and later returned to work at Ballantynes in 1936. Upon their return to Ballantynes my grandparents and father lived in the servants quarters at the back of the house. According to my dad, it had four bedrooms and bathroom and large kitchen. And when the Ballantynes weren’t at Evie Farm, the Harts had use of the whole house. Ballantynes supplied all the groceries and paid $50/month in wages.
I don’t recall much discussion of Mrs. Ballantyne but there were two children, Jim and Roseley Ann, who where at the house quite often and stayed in touch with my parents for many years later.
In 1942, the Senator was getting older, 75, and decided to sell. In 1943 the farm was sold to Stanley McDonnell and his family, and I’m figuring they lived there until sometime in the early 1950s. They moved to Green Valley area (near Cornwall). The place was bought by Konrad and Anna Vilmansen and their family. To my knowledge they never operated it as a dairy. Konrad had experience in the lumber industry so he operated the farm as a sawmill for many years. Eventually that business was closed. Konrad died first and Mrs. Vilmansen and oldest son Arne continued to live there. Mrs. Vilmansen died a number of years ago and Arne continued to live in the house until his death in 2012. Since then the place has been empty until it was bought by Jack and Sasha Flammia in 2016.
The Ballantyne place was just a grand home in the middle of a humble farming community. It brought employment as well as some stature to the Colquhoun community over the years, and to some extent it also served as as a gathering place for some local activities. I got the impression, it was reserved for the Ballantynes when they were in residence, but when they were absent certainly family and friends of the Colquhoun community were welcome there.
I was only in the house two or three times in my life during the Vilmansen years. The last time was probably in about 1970. I was a reporter at Cornwall Standard Freeholder, and I did a Christmas feature interview with Konrad and Anna that looked back on Christmases they remembered from their home country of Estonia compared to Canada.
I remember it having a large spacious living room with a fireplace and lots of dark wood panelling around the room. There were several bedrooms on the second level and my sister tells me the couple times she was up there with Vilmansen girls she was impressed because each bedroom had its own sink.
— Lee Hart
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