Historic Whitehern – Hamilton’s early years

Hidden behind City Hall and encased by modern day life in the downtown core exists an historic Hamilton gem: Whitehern, home to three generations of the McQuesten family who lived here from 1852 to 1968. The property, which consists of the mansion, garden and stable, was originally named Willowbank, and was built between 1848 and 1850.

Thankfully the home wasn’t lost to the wrecking ball as so many others have over time. It was bequeathed to the City with all its original contents, spanning Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian time periods. Public tours run frequently, giving visitors an opportunity to explore the heritage and austerity of life prior to World War II.

Dr. Calvin McQuesten was a New Hampshire native who arrived in Hamilton with dreams of starting a new life, and he opened a foundry with his cousin. McQuesten purchased the home in 1852 for 800 pounds. Dr. McQuesten enjoyed the traditionally-styled garden and planted many of the maple and elm trees at the front and the side of the property. According to records of the City of Hamilton’s Department of Culture and Recreation depicting Whitehern dated January 1, 1900, “While the front garden bespoke elegance and style, the back garden served more utilitarian purposes. The servants’ work area was located along the east side and back of the home. A servant could be found scrubbing clothes in the washtubs, toiling away in the laundry yard. A few feet away in the stable yard, another servant could be seen milking the McQuesten cow.” Dr. McQueston and his third wife, Elizabeth liked to sit on the wooden verandah on summer evenings; he would read while she did her needlework.

McQuesten’s garden was lush with crops of peas, beans, asparagus, lettuce and squash, along with a small herb garden containing sage and lavender. The good doctor also had a few grapevines in his garden and apparently they yielded between 130 – 140 gallons of wine in 1875 – that must have been a very good year! He apparently enjoyed giving baskets of his pears as gifts to close friends and business associates.

When McQueston died in 1885, his son Isaac and his wife Mary moved into the home. Mary was responsible for the name change of the property, changing it from Willowbank to Whitehern after an historic residence in England. She had the garden transformed into an ornamental one, with a heart-shaped bed at the front entrance. “Mary took an artistic pleasure in her garden and planted more ornamental trees and shrubs such as catalpa, cotoneaster, lilac and magnolia,” notes the City’s letter.

Isaac took over the family business after the doctor’s passing but unfortunately didn’t have the same business mindset his dad did. What he did have though, was a very active social life and a penchant for drinking. A letter from a friend described Isaac as “a mighty mingler” and “drinker of strong drink”. While trying to keep the business running, Isaac ended up hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. He died in 1888 at the age of 40, three years after his father’s passing, allegedly from a combination of alcohol and a full bottle of sleeping draught

Isaac’s son Thomas Baker McQueston saw himself as more of a political figure rather than a family businessman, and he lead a successful career as an MPP and became Minister of Highways in 1939. Under his political influence, the Queen Elizabeth Way (QEW), the Rainbow Bridge in Niagara Falls, and Skyway Bridge were created. Thomas was also instrumental in creating the Royal Botanical Gardens, Gage Park, Kings Forest, McMaster University, and the Oakes Garden Theatre.

Today, in addition to hosting public tours and various community events, Whitehern is also a coveted location for weddings. And of course a property this old just has to have ghost stories, which Ghostwalks know all about.

When you see the property in person and read the historical archives, a rose-coloured picture of how life was back then is painted…. “Looking past the iron gate are … lovely rose beds… on the west expanse of lawn, the young McQuesten family enjoyed a leisurely afternoon of lawn tennis: gone are those lazy, genteel summer days. Now only the McQuesten’s sundial (George Bateman Co. 1942) marks the passage of time.”

Local Links

Whitehern Museum Archives

City of Hamilton, Civic Museums

By Becky Dumais

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