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A Tale of Two Houses

Summer 2020 Newsletter

Carole Black-Brisley Friends of Roselawn Historian

By Carole Black-Brisley, Friends Or Roselawn Historian

Historical Museum

Friends of Roselawn Centre has joined forces with the Historical and Marine Museum Board — a happy meeting of hearts and minds.

Between us, we are the custodians of two of Port Colborne’s most important historic homes: the Williams House, and Roselawn. The people who built and inhabited these places could never have imagined our lives today, yet we walk on some of the same streets, and benefit from their many accomplishments.

History should never be a dry and dusty list of dates and places. These were real people residing in a small Ontario town. They must surely have encountered one  another and interacted as they went about their daily lives. The period of the 1860s would be a good time to meet some of them.

Lewis Green Carter (1828 – 1896) was a native of New York State. He was the eighth of 11 children born to Levi and Hannah Green Carter who were of English  descent. He arrived here in Port Colborne in 1838 and by the 1860s had been a Justice of the Peace, Postmaster and owner of a general store. His wife was
Mary Fielden Scholfield.

John Williams (1823 – 1892) was descended from United Empire Loyalist parents who owned Beechwood farm near Allanburg in Upper Canada. He is listed in the 1861 census as a carpenter. He was a lifelong resident of Welland county . His wife was Marie Judith Schloeffel.

These two gentlemen, at about the same age, began work on their respective houses in the early 1860s and continued to beautify them and their sizeable properties for the rest of their lives.

We should mention here that in 1867, Lewis’ brother Charles H. Carter, began building his own beautiful mansion, Ingleside, a short distance north of the Williams house on King Street. Most of us are familiar with these three homes and picture them amid the buildings and busy roads of present day Port Colborne. It is
interesting to note that in the 1860s, there would have been nothing but trees and fields between them.

Lewis Carter’s Roselawn is a fine example of the “Second Empire” style of architecture with its tower, mansard roof and decorative brackets under the eaves. He and Mary maintained an elaborate landscaped garden around the house and employed a full time gardener, John Stout. There were many beds of fragrant roses, Mary’s favourite flower, from which the house got its name – Rose Lawn. The driveway which winds from Fielden Avenue past the front of the house was laid out by Lewis himself. Their home became a landmark in the area.

John Williams built his home at King and Princess Streets, the south east corner of his property. It was a well-built house with a double roof and a solid brick wall  inside the frame exterior. It faced the Grand Trunk Railway tracks. There are two bays on the south side with shutters and decorative mouldings around the windows.  An unused door on the east side of the building dates from the early years when a small grocery store and a short lived newspaper did business in one of the first floor rooms. A black iron picket fence ran along the south and east sides of the property. Inside the fence was a vegetable garden and a profusion of well-tended flowers, bushes and fruit trees. There was a grapevine tunnel with seats inside it and a line of sunflowers ran west to the red carriage house. The property was considered to be one of the beauty spots of the town.

Lewis and Mary Carter had no children of their own but Lewis took a great interest in his nephew, DeWitt Carter who grew up at Ingleside. He was the eldest son of Lewis’ brother Charles. DeWitt often accompanied Lewis on the European buying trips he took to purchase goods for his Emporium on West Street. He was active in the Carters’ tug business and went on to hold many business and municipal posts. He became the first mayor of Port Colborne.

Emanuel Williams

John and Marie Williams had one son, Emanuel, who was born in 1857. He was trained as a stonemason, but became known as one of the best “hard head divers” in the area. The picture shows the type of equipment he would have used in this dangerous profession. These intrepid men were in constant demand for salvage work on the Great Lakes and in the construction of the Welland Canal. “Manny” Williams did all of the diving for the Welland Canal Tug Company, owned by the Carter brothers of Ingleside. They must have known each other from childhood as neighbours on King Street. He worked on the buttresses of the Peace Bridge and a waterworks tunnel in Buffalo along with many salvage jobs. He died of cancer in 1913.

John and Marie’s daughter, Arabella, was born in 1865. She was often seen gardening with her mother wearing sun bonnets and colourful dresses. This tranquil scene was occasionally interrupted, however, as the Tribune reported, “Robbery: A bold robbery was perpetrated last Friday night, when about 50 heads of celery were stolen out of Mrs. J Williams’ garden immediately behind the house. The robbers, of whom there is no clue, brought a wheelbarrow with them to cart away the

“Bella” became an excellent business woman making a living as a landlord and owning farmland and many income properties in Welland and Port Colborne. The lovely little house on the south west corner of the Williams land was built as an income property. She was a very private person and never married; although, she
was involved in a $10,000 Breach of Promise suit against a local businessman , Samuel Hopkins, in 1892. The lawsuit caused quite a sensation but the many curious onlookers who crowded into the courtroom were disappointed when the case was settled out of Court. Hopkins admitted to the engagement but said he never got even one kiss. Remarkably, Arabella was about 26 and Hopkins was 70 at the time! Bella was an active member of St. James Anglican Church . She lived her whole life in her King Street home, dying in 1950 at the age of 85.

It is interesting to speculate whether the residents of our two houses knew each other. Lewis Carter was well known as a philanthropist who was responsible for many works of generosity which benefitted the citizens of the town. Although Arabella was many years younger than Lewis Carter, they were both active in the buying and selling of local real estate. Manny most certainly knew the family of Lewis’ brother through his diving profession. Lewis Carter and Samuel Hopkins built large, neighbouring commercial blocks on West street. Did a young Bella Williams walk the short distance to the Carter Emporium to purchase the latest millinery fashions from France? In the end, THE TALE OF TWO HOUSES is entwined with THE TALE OF PORT COLBORNE.

On John Williams’ land, which was willed to the City by his daughter Arabella, we find our Library and the Archives. The red carriage house is still there, but the charming historic village now sits where animals used to graze. The lovely rental house is known far and wide as Arabella’s Tea Room, and the Williams House itself is the home of our Historical and Marine Museum.

Lewis Carter’s home, Roselawn, went through many renovations and additions over the years – first, by his nephew, Charles Steele who owned the house from 1902 to 1947 and later, by the Port Colborne Club after the building had passed out of private hands. The members of the club added a curling rink which was transformed in 1994 into a theatre. This became the home of Showboat Festival Theatre which has entertained us with excellent professional productions to this day. The theatre has also been home to a fine jazz series and the renowned Authors Series.

The legacies of the Williams and Carter families are of incalculable value for us all. Their two homes with their surrounding properties have grown to become the  major Historical, Educational, and Cultural Centres in our City! This is not the end of the Tale; There are many more exciting chapters to be written…

Many thanks to Dr. Michelle Vosburgh of the LR Wilson Archives