Engineer on mission to preserve waterfront landmark east of Brockville

Philip Ling and his privately owned historic tower that he has restored on the St. Lawrence River. Nation Valley News photos

Tom Van Dusen
Nation Valley News

MAITLAND — Toronto-based electrical engineer Philip Ling describes his commitment to one of Eastern Ontario’s oldest farmsteads as ‘’leading while remembering.’’

Over the past three years, Ling has spent $2 million acquiring and repairing several stone structures in this village on the St. Lawrence River which comprise a farm dating back almost 200 years that looks like it was plucked from the British countryside.

The investment is all personal. It turns out, says Ling, that government grants are only available to non-profits and public institutions, which hampers the ability to restore buildings in private hands: “It makes it easier for people to take the sad demolition route … which is exactly what drove me to buy and restore.”

The centrepiece is a 90-foot stone tower constructed in 1828 by George Longley to which he attached 50-foot blades or sails — 100 feet from tip to tip — to operate a grist mill with wind power. In less than a decade, the operation closed after Longley determined there wasn’t enough wind to make it work.

Ling surmises the cloth over wooden sails were simply too bulky to turn efficiently in the St. Lawrence breezes. He has no plans to reintroduce blades on the tower which has been refurbished from the ground up and is considering the best way to cap it and possibly make it accessible to the public. Nor does he intend to reintroduce framed windows which would have filled several openings in the tower.

A similar stone tower built a decade later, this one 60 feet high and complete with windows, has been restored downriver just east of Prescott. It was also a grist windmill, converted in 1873 into a lighthouse; it’s now a National Historic Site managed by Parks Canada.

After discovering the farm while cycling along Highway 2, Ling bought the tower, stone stables and stone charts, building on six acres almost on a whim. Last fall he added the stone manor house, which will be occupied by current residents until the end of the year.

With no connection to Maitland or the area, Ling is hard-pressed to explain the acquisition. It was almost out of a sense of duty: “It’s about a passion for giving it another life as an active part of the community and being there at least another 100 years.”

After the tower failed as a windmill, Longley converted to steam power and tower and a stone side building — also being restored — were used in flour processing. Later, the property accommodated a distillery, a post office and general store, and a printing business, while the stables housed prize-winning horses. A printing press that was on site is also being refurbished.

While Ling is proud of the history of his property — of which he’s the first owner outside the original family and descendants — he wants to repurpose it for modern use while keeping the heritage intact. Eyeing the imposing stables, he wonders aloud if they could be converted into a destination restaurant. The old charts building has been earmarked for his relocated offices.

While there’s no particular deadline on completing the project, Ling is hoping to wrap up the tower in 2021 and the charts building by the end of this year: “I can’t wait to really be there and plug into the community.”

Kathy Dorion of Prescott is the last member of the original family to live on the farm. Dorion said she’s very pleased with Ling’s restoration plan: “I feel he’s the right person to feel the love of the property.”

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