William Lyon Mackenzie King museum at Woodside, in Kitchener Ontario. Visit the boyhood home of the 10th Prime Minister of Canada and discover middle-class family life in 1890s.
Woodside National Historic Site is the former childhood home of Canada's tenth prime minister. I recently visited the museum during the Christmas season, when the house is prepared for the festivities with Victorian handmade decorations, toys, gifts, and of course, the traditional old Christmas tree.
William Lyon Mackenzie King served as prime minister of Canada for nearly 22 years (1921-26, 1926-30 and 1935-48). He was born in Berlin Ontario (now known as Kitchener Ontario) on 17 Dec 1874 and died in Ottawa on 22 July 1950. King is famous for bringing in such practical social tools as the Old Age Pension, Unemployment Insurance and Family Allowance, but he had his quirky side as well. He allegedly communicated with his dead mother through a crystal ball, and had an unusual hobby of collecting ruins of buildings from Canada and abroad.
A Brief History of the House
King's family rented this sprawling country house just outside of Kitchener and lived here for seven years, from 1886-93. The family unit consisted of King's parents and four teenaged siblings including young William. The building was built in 1853 and was occupied by a series of tenants both before and after the Kings made it their home. It wasn't until the 1940s that community members in Kitchener began working towards making the house into a museum in commemoration of King, though. The main push for this arose when the news came out that due to poor condition, the house was being slated for demolition. A dedicated group rallied around and worked to have the house totally dismantled, restored and opened to the public. A lot of the advice on the layout and decor came from King and his sister Jennie who were still alive then. Sadly, by the time the house opened to the public in 1952, William Lyon Mackenzie King was dead.
The museum is run by Parks Canada and is a National Historic Site of Canada. The entry fee is minimal (see web site below for current prices and hours of operation) and it includes a helpful booklet and a guided tour of two floors with leaders dressed in costume from the 1890s. After the tour you can go down to the basement and watch a 15 minute film for more information and check out the current (small) display area on that level. You'll also find the washrooms and occasionally workshops for children on that floor, as well as pamphlets with information about other Canadian historic sites.
The First Floor
After you've paid your entry in the cozy vestibule, you'll probably be taken into the kitchen, and if baking is being done that day you might be offered a small treat. I was there around Christmas so got to sample a (very sweet) sugar cookie and some hot apple cider. The cookies were made from a traditional recipe on this impressive Rococo cast-iron stove that burns coal or wood.
There's a handsome cabinet in the kitchen too – an important piece of furniture in the days before overhead kitchen cupboards (I wonder when those came in?).
And of course they have a great pantry, envy of any modern homemaker. Here you'll find pottery, dishware, tinned foods, surprisingly modern kitchen gadgets like a can opener, and preserves typical of the era.
Next door is the elegant dining room, a rich combination of golden wallpaper (even the ceiling is wallpapered!) with splashes of red here and there.
In the hallway going toward the library you'll come across a beautiful grandfather clock, and if it's Christmas season, look up and you'll see the mistletoe hanging from a decorative ceiling lamp.
The library is my favourite room in the house. Lined with bookcases and cluttered with a desk, a table and several comfy chairs, it was obviously a hive of intellectual and creative activity for this busy household of teenagers. It comes closest to what we'd call a family room today, and was mostly used by the immediate family and close friends only.
Then there's the parlour, which was where the Kings would have entertained guests. Naturally, it's more formal (and tidy) than the family's space. The piano belonged to the William Lyon Mackenzie King when he was Prime Minister and it still works. About 10% of the furnishings in the house were original to the family; the other pieces are antiques from the same era but not actually belonging to the Kings.
The Second Floor
Upstairs are the bedrooms: one shared by the girls, two separate bedrooms for the boys, the parents' room, and a massive guest room that looks like an apartment. This space must have impressed the King's frequent guests, especially considering the fact that the Kings weren't that wealthy, were really struggling middle class, rented this house, and much of the time had to make do without servants. They certainly went all out for their company, though. John King, the father of William Lyon Mackenzie King, had the wall removed between two smaller rooms to carve out this giant space. The family then filled it with homey treasures. See this brass bed:
Note too the delicate little desk in the corner and the trendy wicker chairs that would gladden the heart of any Victorian lady.
There's also a huge walk-in closet on this floor and a common space with a shared wardrobe and seating area by the window.
You can visit three other historic sites in Ontario associated with William Lyon Mackenzie King:
-The Mackenzie King Estate in Gatineau Park near Ottawa (where you'll find his collection of ruins)
-Laurier House in Ottawa, the former home of Wilfred Laurier and then William Lyon Mackenzie King
-King's grandfather was William Lyon Mackenzie, and you can visit the William Lyon Mackenzie House in Toronto
For more information
For current admission fees and hours of operation and special events, see Woodside National Historic Site of Canada:
Waterloo Region is a community with a lot of pride in its heritage, so you'll find many interesting historic museums in this area. See for example:
And click here for more Ontario history sites.