The McQuesten family left behind a remarkable legacy of parks and heritage to Hamilton and Ontario. Read their story here and learn more about their mansion, Whitehern House, now a public museum.
Many museums pay homage to a single remarkable individual. Examples like the Bell Homestead, Chiefswood and Dundurn Castle come to mind. Whitehern House and Garden, however, honours a remarkable family, the McQuestens. Their story reads like a melodramatic Victorian novel, with many of the typical motifs common to such stories, such as the industrial tycoon, the evil stepmother, scandal, bankruptcy, insanity and early tragic death. Last but not least is the theme of thwarted romance.
Three generations of this enterprising Scottish-Irish clan occupied this mansion from 1852-1968. The first McQuesten to live in the house was Dr. Calvin McQuesten (1801-1885), who bought it in 1852. Calvin had trained as a school teacher then as a medical doctor in his birthplace, United States, but he didn’t practice either profession for very long because he had an entrepreneurial mind. He made his money through real estate and manufacturing. While still living in the US, during the 1830s, he and three partners started the first foundry in Hamilton, making stoves and the first patented threshing machine for farmers in Canada. The company was innovative, and struggled like any start-up, but soon grew popular and began producing a range of other objects. Eventually it became the powerful Sawyer-Massey firm. This was the beginning of industry in a city which previously had only been a small commercial centre. Heavy industry was to have a huge impact on Hamilton and would shape its economy, landscape and social life for more than a century to come. Dr. Calvin played a key role as one of the city’s first innovators.
In the early days of the business, Dr. Calvin travelled frequently back and forth between his home in Brockport, New York, and the foundry in Hamilton Ontario, but sometime around 1839, he moved to Hamilton with his two sons, Calvin and Isaac. In 1852 he bought Whitehern, which was then called Willowbank. Dr. Calvin’s first and second wives had died, and he married his third wife, Elizabeth Fuller, an American schoolteacher, in 1853. From the very start, Elizabeth did not get on well with the children and in later years the relationships deteriorated to legal battles. However, Elizabeth left her mark on the house. She loved to go on shopping trips to the US and she bought many of the luxurious pieces we still see today in the home, like the rosewood pianoforte and the monogrammed dishes.
Dr. Calvin sold his part of the business in 1857 at the age of 56 and retired with a fortune of half a million dollars plus real estate and investments. He lived on to enjoy his wealth for another 28 years, supporting many churches and charities, and died in his own bed – a lucky man – on October 20, 1885 at the age of 84, far exceeding his generation’s life expectancy. After his death, his sons and step-mother fought over his will and although the sons eventually got most of it, the legacy didn’t last long.
The second generation to occupy Whitehern consisted of Isaac McQuesten (1847-1888)
and his wife Mary. They moved into the house in 1885 upon the death of Isaac’s
Isaac’s older brother Calvin spent several years in Hamilton, but when it came time for his studies, he moved back to the United States to study medicine, the profession his father abandoned, and stayed there and built his medical practice in New York City. He eventually moved back to Hamilton as an older man, but spent much of his adult life out of the country.
Isaac and Mary had six children when they took over the family house. When they moved in, Mary renamed it Whitehern.
Although Isaac was a popular man in town, well-liked and active socially and politically, he had serious personal problems. He was addicted to alcohol and opium and possibility other drugs that were at that time often prescribed as medicine. Mary had in fact broken off their engagement early in the courting because of his drinking, but she took him back. During his thirties, Isaac was treated at the Homewood Sanitorium in Guelph for depression and addiction.
Isaac also suffered from a combination of bad luck and bad judgement when it came to financial investments, particularly a large one in a textile mill in Hespeler (now Cambridge).
On March 7, 1888, only three years after moving into Whitehern, Isaac died. He was only 40 years old. Although there were rumours of suicide, the official cause of death was heart attack, after an overdose from a sleeping potion with alcohol. Whether it was intentional or simply an accident will always remain conjecture.
To make Mary’s tragedy even worse, she discovered after his death that Isaac was bankrupt, and that she was now a 39-year-old widow with six children between the ages of three and fourteen to raise and very little income.
If there was one bright spot for Mary in the tragedy, it was this: Isaac, who had studied law, had the foresight at some point before his death to transfer the house to his wife’s possession, so they still had a home, but very little else. She could perhaps have sold it, and moved to a smaller, humbler home and live off the proceeds of sale, but Mary had another plan. She spent the next two decades scrimping by, and playing her children like chess pieces in order to restore the family’s prosperity.
The book “Tragedy and Triumph: Ruby and Thomas McQuesten” by Mary J. Anderson tells the story of the path and sacrifices that Mary set out for her children. Each child was assigned a particular role in the recovery process. Ruby, one of the older girls, became a teacher in Ottawa and sent money home to finance the education of the youngest boy, Tom. Ruby contracted tuberculosis while living in drafty teachers’ quarters and died at the age of 31 before she could see the ultimate triumph of the McQuestens. Ruby, whose paintings hang in Whitehern, was an accomplished watercolour painter, although she never had the time to develop her talent or career.
One daughter, Edna, suffered from mental illness and died in an asylum in Guelph at the age of 50. The oldest boy, Calvin, became a minister and worked out in Saskatchewan for a while, but had several health issues and eventually returned home to live out his days in Whitehern. He continued to work as a semi-volunteer chaplain at the Hamilton tuberculosis sanitorium. Hilda and Mary (junior, named after her mother) stayed home and with their mother and helped with the housekeeping during the lean years. Both also took care of their sisters and their mother when they were ill, helping out with nursing duties, and joined their mother in her missionary activities and other social works.
Each time one of the siblings expressed an interest in a romantic partner, their mother Mary put a stop to it. At one point, later in life, she admitted (some) regret over her repression of her children’s chances at marriage but given her own experience – a marriage that ended in such hardship – her regrets were probably short-lived.
Tom is the Golden Boy of the last generation, the one who would have made his grandfather proud. His name is not as well-known as it should be in Ontario, especially when you add up everything he did for the province. During the first half of the 20th century, he used his numerous political positions at both the provincial and city level to help create or preserve many of Ontario’s best-loved public treasures. In the Niagara area, these include Queenston Heights Park, the Niagara Parkway, the School of Horticulture, and the Japanese Rock Garden at Niagara Falls. In his home town of Hamilton, he played key roles in bringing McMaster University to the city, building the High Level Bridge, developing an extensive public parks system, and – the jewel in the crown – creating the Royal Botanical Gardens, one of his proudest achievements.
Some of his roles included Member of Provincial Parliament, Minister of Public Works and Minister of Highways, Hamilton city councillor, and the chair of the Hamilton Board of Parks Management and Niagara Parks Commission. As a public administrator, McQuesten worked tirelessly at bringing beauty to public settings through works of art and architecture and through preservation of natural spaces like Cootes Paradise in Hamilton. He found and worked with some of the best artists and architects and landscape specialists of the period. His respect for the past led him to preserve and rebuild forts that had been neglected by previous governments -- Fort George, Fort Erie, Fort Henry, and Kingston’s Martello Towers. Biographer John Best, who wrote “Thomas Baker McQuesten: Public Works, Politics and Imagination” has called Tom the Unknown Builder of his involvement in the construction of three international bridges, including the Rainbow Bridge at Niagara, as well as the Queen Elizabeth Highway, North America’s first superhighway, and the extensive landscaping of the Niagara Parkway.
Tom died in January 13, 1948 of throat cancer. Shortly before he entered the hospital in December, he visited the Royal Botanical Gardens and sat silently, looking at the Rock Garden. Was he pondering and savouring his greatest achievement for the last time? Shortly before he died, he was named Hamilton's Citizen of the Year for his many contributions to the city. He was by then too sick to attend but his brother Calvin accepted the honour on his behalf.
After Tom’s death, the other three siblings lived on in their childhood
home until Calvin, the last member of the family, died in 1968 at the age of
92, outliving even the grandfather after whom he was named.
You can visit the family home: Whitehern Museum.
You can also learn more about the family at the Whitehern Museum Archives.