A Home Away From HomeOn April 30, 2020 by Ian Gillies
What makes a house a home?
As I actively ignore the mound of dishes that is ever piling up in my peripheral, I find myself thinking of this question.
Truth be told, it is a thought that I have had a lot as of late. I’m pretty sure self isolation and quarantine do that to a person – and I consider myself quite fortunate to have the time for such reflection. Privilege is something that I have been thinking of quite a bit, as I believe it is something to always keep in mind, regardless of the times we live in. So when I look around at my small one bedroom apartment, I try to actively think about how fortunate I am to live in a place that I chose – a place that I have grown to love.
Even when that place makes me feel like Ryan Reynolds in Buried some days.
Still, I am captivated with the idea of classifying a building as a home. I know, as we all do, the age old adage: “Home is where the heart is,” and I agree with it. The apartment I live in has become a home to me, partly because of the sheer amount of time that I have spent in it and partly because it is where a piece of my heart is (three pieces, if you want to get technical – I own two rats).
As I have been thinking about my own home, I have been actively reflecting on some of the places that I have been fortunate enough to travel to during my time with Live History. Many of the places that I have visited have been historic homes and there is truly nothing like experiencing one that has been well preserved over the ages.
I think of Laurier House right here in Ottawa and how the rooms still feel very much alive (sometimes a bit too alive) with the spirits of Prime Ministers Sir Wilfred Laurier and William Lyon Mackenzie King. I think of the Fairfields Heritage House and how it is a hidden gem next to one of Ottawa’s busiest shopping centres. I think, too, of the Billings Estate and how a magnificent building overlooks an incredible piece of land.
Each and every historic house that I have visited with the team have presented unique traits and stories that truly immerse you in the local history of the site. As an actor, dressed in period costume, it is easy to let reality slip away and feel as though you are truly back in time.
One of my very first experiences with this unique sense of wonder was during my first visit to the Lynde House Museum in Whitby, Ontario.
Since moving from a smaller town in southwestern Ontario to the nation’s capital, I have driven through Toronto and Whitby an innumerable amount of times. Unfortunately for me, it has only been in the last few years that I have become aware of this incredible hidden wonder. Since that fateful first visit, I have had the fortune of visiting the museum several times, and with each visit, my admiration for the building, its history, and the people that work so hard to preserve it have only grown.
So let’s dive in!
Upon arriving at the Lynde House Museum, you are immediately reminded of what life must have been like some 200 years ago. The house stands out from the parks, businesses, and homes that dot Brock Street in Whitby, and even before you enter through the main door you realize that you are in for something special. While the distance between the administration building, which also serves as the Warren General Store, and the adjacent museum is a short one, the 30 second walk adds tremendously to the experience. For indeed, as you leave the General Store (a modern building with some historic looking goodies on sale), you are presented with the image of the house in its entirety – a palpable sliver of quiet in a relatively bustling area. A sense of calm overtakes you as you approach the house and at once you are taken in by the feeling of comfort and security.
Amazingly, over two centuries ago, that same feeling persisted and it would have been a lingering light in an uncertain time.
Jabez Lynde emigrated from Massachusetts to the Whitby area around the year 1803 and settled around what is now Lynde Creek and Dundas Street in Whitby. Before too long, this pioneer family needed more space and so construction on the Lynde House began – finishing up around 1811. Modelling it after his original home back in Massachusetts, the new family home would surely have been a comfort for a family that had travelled some distance to start a new life. As it turns out, a comfort was exactly what was needed during those days.
If you are familiar with North American History, you’ll know that the early 1800’s were a very interesting time for early Canadians and their neighbours to the South. With the War of 1812 beginning in, well 1812, many individuals had divided loyalties. Many of those who sided with the British Empire fled to Upper Canada (now Ontario) and took up arms in militia movements across the southern half of what is now our most populated province.
One of these loyalists was Jabez Lynde, who actively did his part to help the cause. Mr. Lynde served as a militia in the British army, but also transformed his house, with the help of his wife Clarissa, into whatever it needed to be to support the troops. Whether it was a good night’s rest or a well deserved meal, the Lyndes supported however they could. Over the course of the war, Lynde House was used as an inn, a tavern, and even a supply depot for British troops as they travelled from one staging ground to another. There are even reports that General Brock himself once stopped at the house!
Following the War of 1812, the house once again became what it was meant to be in the first place – a home. Raising eight children between them, Jabez and Clarissa may have felt that the house was less busy during the war! Still, they laboured intensely to provide for their family and, in doing so, cemented their place in history. Members of the Lynde family would continue to occupy the house up until 1893.
Nowadays, the house holds the distinction as being the oldest house in the Durham Region, a title that it has needed to labour intensely to maintain. All historic buildings require a considerable effort from those that wish to preserve them to do just that, but each and every single one offers its own unique challenges. Lynde House, in that regard, is no different, but the challenges that it has produced for its volunteers over the years have been numerous and difficult. What has transpired, however, can only be described as inspiring.
Back in 1986, the house was moved for the first time from its original spot to Cullen Gardens. You read that right – for the first time. It remained at Cullen Gardens for nearly 3 decades before it, once again, moved to its new (and permanent) location on Brock Street in Whitby back in 2013. If Jabez Lynde had known how mobile his home would have become, he might have invested in a trailer.
It is at its newest home that I first had the luxury of visiting the site and experienced the magic of the property. I say “magic,” because there really is no other way of describing it. Not only is the walk up to the front door an eye opening experience (as I have tried to outline here already), once you enter the building itself, your breath is immediately taken away. The best way that I can describe the house is to say that it feels lived in. What I mean by this is that, as soon as you open the door and walk in, you feel as though Mr. Jabez Lynde himself will come walking down the stairs to greet you. You expect to hear the sound of scampering feet as children play in the upstairs bedroom, or to smell a delicious meal being presented in the dining room.
As you explore the building, each and every room that you peek into gives you a new feeling to explore. I’ve personally spent a great deal of time seated in the parlour, gazing around at the beauty of the room – from the lovely fireplace to tiny, intricate details of the wall decor. There is always something new to notice and reflect on, and as you move on and continue to explore the house, that feeling only grows. You easily feel the lives of those that have lived within these walls. You can picture the Lyndes in each and every room and the only disappointment you’ll have is that none of them are actually there to speak with you.
That is, of course, until you enter a certain upstairs bedroom.
Picture, if you will, the thing that terrifies you most in life. A deeply rooted, childhood fear.
I guarantee you that you’ll have a new one as soon as you lay eyes on Elmina.
Apparently, once upon a time (and back before we knew any better) people had the idea that animatronics would make great additions to just about anything. Disneyland, Museums, birthday parties, funerals…
Okay, maybe not those last two.
Still, the trend took off and in just about every scenario, proved to be a mistake. Enter Elmina Lynde, the last surviving member of what was once a common sight at the Lynde House Museum: An eldritch horror from beyond imagination, peering at you quizzically from the void beyond a closet door. I have been told time and time again that she isn’t an animatronic and that her cold, dead eyes are just that. Still, when the sun sets and the house is empty after a busy day… would you want to test that theory?
If you want some advice, just make sure the closet door is closed before you start your visit.
You might think then, that after all of this, that the one thing I remember most about my first few visits to the Lynde House Museum was the creepy doll in the upstairs bedroom. While you may be right, there is another aspect of the house that I would be remiss to not speak about – the heart and soul of the Museum and those that have cared for it over many years.
I have had the fortune of meeting several of the volunteers that run Lynde House and have worked with many of them over the past few years during the different shows that we have performed at the museum. Time and time again I am overwhelmed by the kindness, generosity, and sheer passion that each and every single one of them embodies. Taking a quick look around the house will showcase the hard work and dedication of these individuals, but sitting down and speaking to them will reveal the names and faces of those who have worked to preserve this piece of history. I think of Trina, Ed, Lisa, and Raven, all of whom I have had the pleasure of working closely with on performances, and all that they have accomplished. I think of that feeling of comfort the house brings and how, despite the challenges, the moves, and the tremendous amount of work that goes into the building each and every day, how they have succeeded in so much.
It is people like these and volunteers who have dedicated so much of their time and lives to efforts such as this, that history remains alive and well in so many communities around the world. Countless volunteers, staff members, and others strive to preserve their local piece of history.
What an amazing achievement.
I have thought of those at Lynde House Museum, both those named and the countless others who have dedicated their time to the building, often during these interesting times. They have ensured that history has survived and that there will always be past stories to tell. They have laboured to make Lynde House continue to feel alive and well and have made it a go to recommendation for me whenever anyone asks about Whitby, Ontario.
I think back to some 200 years ago and the feelings that Jabez Lynde must have had about settling in a new area. I think of the hesitation, uncertainty, and hope that he must have had. I think of his desire to find comfort in the unknown and to carve out a sliver of quiet happiness in his corner of the world. And I think of how proud he would be, knowing that his beloved house is still, after all these years, what he intended it to be.