The Brownley pioneer house was one of the last of its kind
Brownley home a classic ‘Free Grant’ house.
The Brownley pioneer home stood unoccupied in 1959, when this picture was taken, but later it was renovated for reuse.
John Macfie photo
The number of hewn-log “Free Grant” homes left standing in the district has dwindled almost to the vanishing point.
This spring, the 125-year-old Brownley house, situated near Mary Jane Lake in a remote corner of McKellar Township, was lost to fire. Once upon a time hundreds of its kind, built by settlers claiming farm acreage under the provisions of the Free Grant and Homesteads Act of 1868, dotted Parry Sound district.
As recently as half a century ago, quite a few examples of this unique architectural form still stood along our rural highways and byways, and at that time I record the anatomy of some of them on photographic film.
Three elements dictated the building style. For starters, the law required the homesteader to erect a house of a certain minimum floor area, 16 feet by 20 feet, before he could gain title to the surrounding acreage, and few settlers had the means or the need to exceed those dimensions
Trees cut down while clearing the surrounding land provided a handy source of timber, so almost without exception the settler’s first home was a log house. Tree trunks were sectioned into the required lengths and hewn flat on opposing sides with a broad axe, then dovetailed on the ends to lock together at the building’s corners. In most cases, white pines, submissive to the axe, limb-free and tall with little taper, were chosen for the purpose.
Pine also resists weathering, but that may not have been a consideration of the builder; after all, it was every settler’s ambition to eventually move into a handsome frame or brick home. But choosing pine ensured that a few pioneer homes, the Brownley house among them, remained standing in three consecutive centuries.
The appearance of a completed Free Grant house also reflected the handiwork of the labour force that erected it. When those hewn logs, the balsam-pole rafters, thousands of hand-split cedar or pine shingles, and sufficient sawn lumber for flooring and roof sheeting lay ready on the spot, a bee was called.
All the neighbours, familiar from previous house-raisings with what pieces went where, gathered on the appointed day, and the basic shell of the house usually was up and roofed by nightfall.
Without the cookie-cutter design, it wouldn’t have worked.
It’s unclear when the late, lamented Brownley house was built, and by whom. The Guide Book & Atlas of Muskoka & Parry Sound Districts, published around 1879, shows the surrounding 200 acres, Lots 12 & 13 Concession Ten of McKellar Township, as having first been claimed by one William Taylor. McKellar Memories, Evelyn Moore’s history of McKellar Township, states that the property wasn’t patented until at least 20 years later, in 1899, when title was issued to 29-year-old Ross Brownley.
Handed-down family lore says that Ross’s father, Alexander Ross Brownley, “came over on the Waubuno,” indicating that he arrived no later than 1879, the year the vessel was wrecked. The elder Brownley soon moved on to settle on St. Joseph’s Island, near Sault Ste. Marie, leaving his son to entrench the family name in Parry Sound history.
So did one of the Brownleys, father or son, build the recently lost log house, or had Taylor done so before abandoning his land claim? Whoever the architect was, he incorporated a couple of refinements in the design.
In contrast to the usual storey-and-a-half house, this one stood over two storeys tall counting a garret reached by a ladder leading from the second floor.
Another feature was the lath-and-plaster finish on interior walls. Milled laths being unavailable within a hundred miles of McKellar, all of those thin strips of wood had to be split by hand from blocks of straight-grained cedar.
Lime for the plaster likely was produced in a kiln charged with lumps of crumbly crystalline limestone quarried on the property.
Later on, in Prohibition times, an illicit whisky still was secreted in a cave in the same limestone formation.
But I’ve already told that story. Read my books.