BENEATH THE HEIGHTS

GROWING UP AT QUEENSTON AND BEYOND

Chapter 9
CLIMBING THE
SOCIAL HEIGHTS AT WILLOWBANK

 

Queenston was a microcosm of much of society, a miniature “melting pot.”  The 325 village inhabitants ranged from the few poor families who lived in unpainted or tarpaper shacks on dusty side streets to the wealthy royalty like the Bright family who lived in the grand columned mansion called Willowbank on a hillside surveying the entire village. 

 

Lawyers, business people, retired couples, farmers and laborers who worked on the huge Hydro Plants beyond the Heights all lived together in the village.  Our family was somewhere in the middle of Queenston society, lower middle class, I guess, but class had little meaning to us as kids.  Dad worked hard as a Raleigh salesman who drove a route through the countryside of the Niagara peninsula.   We lived in a clean and well kept home that we loved, always had plenty to eat, shared many happy times together and rarely regretted, let alone realized, our limited economic situation and social status.  But we did notice their were differences.

 

Many of the old families had lived in Queenston for many years and generations.  We were relative new comers arriving from the Ottawa Valley in 1943.  Yet, our parents had become in a few short years pillars of the United Church, the Boy Scouts and the Women’s Institute.  But these organizations did not seem to matter to the more comfortable in the village.   At times all three of us must have wondered why we could not live like the Brights across the gully at Willowbank. 

 

The Bright family, like the other few upper class families, lived largely apart from our family and most others in the village.  They rarely went to church or participated in any of the other simple social clubs.  Their friends seemed to live miles away in the cities of Niagara Falls or St. Catharines, or even in Lewiston, across the Niagara River in New York State. 

 

But for a few short years, we three brothers all visited the Brights and Willowbank regularly and shared in the benefits of being special people.  Johnny Bright was David's best friend during his first four years at Laura Second School.  We raced back and forth between houses and played in the gully between.  We were equals in the shade of the gully retreats, but we knew clearly that life was very different for those who lived at Willowbank.

 

 

Willowbank was built in 1832, the second Queenston home of Robert Hamilton, the wealthy founder of the village who became an important leader in Upper Canada politics.  Shortly thereafter, Hamilton moved ten miles west with the Welland Canal trade, where he named the new city of St. Catharines after his wife.  Hamilton moved west again another thirty-five miles inland to found the large industrial city at the end of Lake Ontario that bears his family name.  While there were no Hamiltons left in Queenston, they were definitely as close to royalty as one could get in Upper Canada history.  And the Bright family followed their lead.

 

Willowbank rose commandingly above the village on the crest of a hill.  The home's grand front with broad raised veranda and eight massive solid Ionic columns graced the label of a long famous Niagara wine.  The Bright family once owned that early Ontario winery, but Johnny's grandfather had sold it years before.  His father and uncle then ran Bright’s Foods that packed local Niagara fruits and vegetables in elegant black-labeled cans.  Johnny seemed destined to follow their lead into upper level management of the family business.

 

The Bright family, like many gracious royal families, was most generous in sharing their bounty. Each winter all the village children were welcome to use their park like front lawn with its steep slopes for sledding and tobogganing.  After the first snows, three trails were quickly blazed.  The first, on the south village side was a gentle slope suitable for the youngest.  But the same ride could be longer and more adventurous if you climbed further up the hill above the old carriage road and took a longer run beginning in the yard beside the house.  A second trail on the gully side was shorter and ran the risk of going over the precipice into the gully itself, unless you managed a quick right turn and curved to meet the central run.  The center trail was always the best.  On a good run, if the bushes at the bottom had been cleared back that fall, you could start near the front steps of the mansion and speed all the way down the hill, bank a sharp left just before getting to the front gates at the street, and then take another fast dangerous run right down into the gully to the frozen banks of what we called “Bright's Creek.”

 

Each 24th of May, Victoria Day, the whole village was treated to a spectacular display of fireworks on the same hillside.  We all chanted for weeks the old adage, “Twenty-fourth of May, Queen's Birthday, if we don't get a holiday, we'll all run away.”   And our generous village patron family never disappointed us.   The annual spectacle was planned for the three young Bright children, but the whole village was invited to join them on the front veranda of Willowbank.

 

At first, we were all handed glittering sparklers to twirl or glowing snakes to light for ourselves.  Some of us saved our pennies and brought more small fireworks to add to the excitement.  After our supplies were exhausted, their houseman began to light the more spectacular and dangerous displays.  We watched as he lit up Roman candles, pinwheels, canons and sprays of every brilliant color imaginable.   What a thrill for us to sit there on those massive steps and enjoy vicariously the spectacle of a life of colour and excitement far more wondrous than our own simple life across the gully.  But as Johnny's special guests, we had the added honour to follow him inside for treats after the show, while all the other village kids trudged back down the hill to their homes.

 

I can recall Mr. and Mrs. Bright as having that easy elegance usually reserved for movie stars and celebrities.  Mrs. Bright was a poised woman with close-cropped hair with marcelled waves tight against her scalp.  She had a beautiful warm and deep gravely voice, and when she spoke to us her words were always firm but gentle.  Mrs. Bright usually was the one who drove us to those special places.   Although David and Johnny were friends, these outings often included both me and younger brother Ralph.  We loved the drive across the river to Lewiston in their newest Buick or Cadillac to have that new soft ice cream delight called frozen custard.   One time we were treated to a trip all the way to the big city of Buffalo on Lake Erie and the wonderful zoo.  And often on Saturdays, we were driven to movie matinees at The Falls, most often on the Ontario side, but sometimes to the American Falls just across the Rainbow Bridge.

 

 

Ralph and Robin in front of Johnny and Mr. and Mrs. Bright at the Buffalo Zoo, c. 1948

 

Mr. Bright worked long hours at the canning factory and was seldom at home, and I have few memories of that stern and solemn man.  All that I can recall was a large somewhat foreboding figure with dark hair tinged with silver and a distinguished Ronald Coleman mustache.  Whenever he was at home, we decided to play elsewhere, so as not to disturb him.  Even Johnny seemed to fear his father's wrath and displeasure if he or we broke some strict house rule.

 

Playing within the world of Willowbank was always special for us back then.  We loved to explore the enormous house with three whole floors and an attic full of special rooms and mysterious places.  First of all, there was the dark downstairs ground floor.  A series of European, and often mysterious, couples lived on that service level in two private rooms, the only two that were off limits in our play. 

 

Across from their rooms was a wondrous huge kitchen.  While we still struggled with our old leaky icebox, the Brights had a grand three-door refrigerator with round electric generators on top.   Across the room stood large black gas stoves where the cook prepared their meals.  Lining the walls were numerous enameled cupboards loaded with all sorts of exotic foods.  But the most fascinating feature for me was a dumb waiter that carried food and dishes upstairs from the kitchen to the dining room or to the bedrooms on the third level.   I had only ready about these contraptions in mystery novels and I was intrigued.  When I was very small, I convinced David and Johnny to hoist me up to the next level seated inside on the wooden tray.   Discovered by the cook in mid trip, playing with the dumb waiter was forbidden us all after that adventure.

 

Upstairs, the Bright's huge living room took up half of the second level of the house.  This first floor of living space for the family was built, European style, above the lower ground level floor where the servants lived and food was prepared.  The elegant parlor had tall windows with graceful sweeping draperies.  Between those windows facing the Heights were two grand fireplaces.  The room was furnished with several sofas and easy chairs with comfortable loose fitting rose-covered slip covers.  The room opened onto an enormous central hallway with grandfather clock and family portraits.  Across the hall on the front of the house was a formal dining room with dark walnut table and elegant chairs with red and cream striped Chippendale chairs. 

 

Both the living room and dining room had tall French doors that opened to the grand front veranda on the front of the house beneath those massive Ionic columns.   Wide wooden stairs descended from between the columns down to the lawns a floor below.  Wicker furniture with bright colored cushions appeared each summer to extend the living space across this grand veranda that overlooked the village beyond.

 

At the back of the house behind the dining room was a dark paneled library filled floor to ceiling with mahogany shelves stacked with heavy leather bound volumes.  Like an exclusive gentlemen's club, it was filled with antique globes, green shaded reading lamps and comfortable soft leather chairs for curling up with a book.  This was Mr. Bright's preserve and was usually out of bounds for us boys.

 

A small butler's pantry was found under the stairs and between the library and the dining room.  Here the mysterious dumb waiter made its second stop on its trip through the house.  Odd items were stocked on the shelves to supply the dining room and bar.  Here I got my first taste of a bitter puzzling drink when looking for a soda pop.  Who in their right mind would want to drink such a weird tasting thing like “tonic water?”  After that mistake I stuck to the plain bland soda also stored there.  Why did rich people not have sweeter tastes for a more peppy drink like ginger ale or cola?  Only much later did I learn the cool delights of gin and tonics with a little bitter lime.

 

A gently curving open staircase rose grandly from the central hall to the bedroom floor above.  Up on this level, especially when the family was out, we boys had our greatest romps.   Each of the five bedrooms had doors that connected it to the next bedroom.   We loved to race from one to another through the connecting baths and around the perimeter of the house without going out into the central hall.  Sometimes we stopped to examine the secrets of a sister's drawers or a mother's closet.

 

Actually there were four Bright royal households in the village.  These four families held the highest rank for society in our little world.  The William Bright family was our neighbour at Willowbank.  His parents, his brother's and his sister's families lived in three equally grand houses in a compound right on the river bank just above the Queenston docks.  The senior Bright lived in a lovely stone ivy covered home with a curved driveway in the middle of the compound.  Brother Tom lived next door to the south in an old turn of the century shingle structure that I believe was once a summer cottage for visiting relatives.  And on the north side of the patriarch in a stone and clapboard sprawling mansion lived the Storm family.  Mrs. Storm, a sister of Bill and Tom Bright, had married a rich American businessman from Lewiston across the river.  The Storms and Brights had more relatives living in other grand houses on the Lewiston heights.

 

A wall that few were allowed to penetrate surrounded their splendid compound.  Servants kept the village at a distance.  Even as their paperboy, I never got beyond the kitchen door and the kindly cook who lived there.  I cannot even remember seeing the elder Brights, both of whom died during these early years. 

 

The Brights, however generous to the village children through the winter and on the 24th of May, never seemed to join in any local community activities in Queenston.  Their grander social life seemed to be centered around Lewiston society in the grand homes above the town on the edge of the American Heights.  Every Fourth of July, we could see fireworks rising from these homes, repeating our Canadian May celebration.  While we heard the explosions and saw the brilliant colors in the distance, we never saw those families or shared in their celebrations.

 

After only four years at Laura Secord Public, Johnny was enrolled at the prestigious Ridley College in the City of St. Catharines ten miles away.   Now with more in common with his peers from other wealthy families throughout the province, Johnny gradually changed.  David still would see his old friend on school breaks, but life at Willowbank for us was never the same.  We kids finally realized how different life was on either side of the gully.

 

Yet life was still full and happy for us on our side.  While we mourned the loss of a friend and the easy access to his grand home, we were not unhappy with our own more simple life at home.  For all the grandeur we saw next door, we also saw loneliness and a cautious tight-lipped reserve that often made me wonder if there might be some sort of long ago hidden family secret. 

 

We Lawrasons received with equanimity the generosity of our neighbours, accepting Johnny's castoff clothing and other handouts shipped across the gully to us.  But I did not really envy Johnny.  He did not seem at all happy with the strict life at the private military school and I don’t think he did better in his studies there.   Maybe I had learned early from my parents to be happy with what I had.  Or, had I learned not to envy those who despite their benefits, seemed to bear burdens I could not fully understand.

 

In the year's that followed, the Bright family fortunes seemed gradually to diminish.   By the seventies, the canning factory was bought out by another food conglomerate and most of the older generation had died or moved away.  Whether the victim of taxes, high upkeep costs or family misfortunes, we were never sure, but Willowbank stood empty for many years.  The property was sold first to some nuns for a convent, then lay empty and neglected again for several more years.  The grand columns rotted away, the beautiful hillside was neglected and the lawns filled with long coarse grass, fallen trees and straggly weeds.  Village children no longer came in winter to slide down the once welcoming slopes.  The annual fireworks displays were long gone.  And long gone were the friendships and childhood rituals that meant so much to three young boys growing up across the gully.

 

In 1987, a new wine company, Willowbank Estates, took over the name, the house and the wine label.  The solid wooden pillars were restored, along with much of the original stone mansion.  The house was saved, but plans to build a wine-bottling factory on the site, thankfully, never came to pass. 

 

By 2004, Willowbank was to undergo another more gracious future. A School of Restoration Arts has been founded in the grand old mansion and classes and the site called Willowbank Heritage Estate [www.willowbank.ca]  Cultural events are scheduled there as well as classes in restoring homes, furniture, art and other heritage items.  What a happy finale for a wonderful home that has given so much to the community over the years.

 

On recent trips back to the area I have noticed that gradually the few old shacks and tenements throughout the village have been replaced by luxurious and prosperous homes.  Queenston is no longer a village, but became a gracious suburb of the Regional Municipality of Niagara-on-the-Lake.  Laura Secord Memorial still stands, but its six or seven classrooms now serve just a couple of grades and village children are bused to schools in other communities for other grades. 

 

While the village today does not look very different than it did fifty years ago, I suspect now there are now far fewer class differences among those who can afford to live now beneath the heights.  But as in all places, I would suspect that the social levels are still firmly etched among the new inhabitants.  And as in all small villages throughout the years, I would suspect that many stories and secrets remain locked up in its darker places, whether in the homes of the rich or the poor.

 

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