The Fairbairn House --
a Witness to Change Along the Gatineau
A regional heritage centre now under development at Wakefield in Quebec's Municipality of La Pêche
For more than a century William Fairbairn's handsome 1860s farmhouse had been a landmark in the Gatineau Valley, sitting as it did beside the main road on the northern outskirts of Wakefield village. So, it is for obvious reasons that this house is now considered an ideal setting for a new heritage centre for the region. A meaningful venue for telling the stories of our past.
Also, its builder could be described as a founder here. His early vision and enterprising grist mill at Wakefield became the nucleus of an industrial complex around which villages and farming communities grew up and saw continued development for the next 100 years. Without his influence, there may have been much less history for us to tell.
This former home of William and his family was placed on a new permanent foundation in 2005. Since then community volunteers, in cooperation with the Municipality of La Pêche, have formed a cooperative, and after much planning and garnering of support, in 2010 the old home is starting to be renovated in preparation for its new life as a heritage centre to serve the Gatineau Valley.
By 2012 the new Fairbairn House Heritage Centre is scheduled to open its doors to visitors, ready to focus its attention on our unique history and enhance the area's potential as a recreo-touristic destination. In this role it will be assisted by its location beside the Gatineau river on the north-eastern fringe of the historic village of Wakefield and a stone's throw away from its picturesque covered bridge.
History of the House:
One of Wakefield's oldest dwellings, this Fairbairn house was the home of Scottish settler William Fairbairn who in 1838 erected a sturdy stone grist mill beside waterfalls on the La Pêche River just as it begins its descent to join the Gatineau. The original thick stone walls he constructed are still an attraction in today's Wakefield Mill Inn.
The house was built on the farm where William first settled on Lot 1 of Range 3 in Wakefield township, County of Ottawa. It was the second home he built for his family here, the first being a log home a short distance to the east on the bank of the Gatineau river. In the Census of 1852 William described himself as a carpenter living in a log house. Then, sometime in the 1860s he built the new frame house, the same one destined now to become our region's heritage centre.
This old farm home remained in the Fairbairn family for three generations -- almost half a century, eventually being passed to Joseph Shouldice who bought the farm in 1906 and later turned it over to his daughter and son-in-law, Edith and Findlay Stevenson; in 1943 it was purchased by the last farmers to own it -- James McNally and later his son Lewis McNally. In the early 1980s the house became the property of Andy Tommy, and then it was sold to Dave Rinn who ran a marina from the house. After Rinn's death the house and its surrounding property were sold to a condominium developer.
Now the house sits proudly on the east bank of the river, a short walk from the centre of Wakefield village, and not far from its original site on William Fairbairn's farm. It has an adventure-filled past, having been relocated twice. Threatened with demolition in 1993 to make way for a road approach to the new two-lane bridge over the Gatineau River, it was moved across Route 105 from its farm location by Andy Tommy. Then, again in 2005, about to be torn down to provide space for more condo housing, the house was moved by the Municipality of La Pêche to its new permanent site across the river in the seven-acre Hendrick park across from the covered bridge.
Just as the house has moved with the changing times, so has much of William's original farmland been developed for housing and business ventures, making up about one-third of the built-up properties in modern-day Wakefield Village.
Unique Features of the House:
William Fairbairn built a sturdy house that has stood the test of time. And, it was built with interesting decorative and architectural features on both the exterior and interior of the house. Two motifs are most prominent -- a long diamond and a roundel. The main doorway resembles that of a Greek temple flanked by large side windows, with a transom over it. A front dormer window in a large gable above the doorway is similarly decorated and topped off by a sunburst. The diamond and roundel features are repeated inside the house, in particular around the front door and windows, and on the staircase. The house had an ornate front verandah with wood bracket carvings and other trim.
The layout of the main house on the ground floor features two large rooms on either side of a central hallway with an open stairway, leading to an open space on the second floor, with bedrooms on either side. A two-storey summer kitchen was added to the main house, and it has its own staircase leading up to a large room with gabled walls.
The house now sits on a poured concrete foundation 8 feet deep (financed by the Municipality of La Pêche when the house was moved in 2005.) In addition to space in the original house this new full basement allows for all services to be centralized there, including two large meeting rooms which will be available for public use on a rental basis.
The Fairbairn Family
William Fairbairn and his wife Jean Wanless were married in 1813 and they emigrated to Canada from Roxburghshire, Scotland in 1817. William was trained as a stone mason; his wife was a nurse. They originally settled in St. Andrews-East, near Lachute, Quebec, but later moved to Bytown, where William is said to have worked for a time on the locks of the Rideau Canal. In Bytown, they lived on a plot of land which later became the site of the Justice Building on Wellington Street, at the foot of Parliament Hill. He and his family moved north to Wakefield Township in 1834. Then in 1838 he petitioned the Governor of Upper and Lower Canada to be allowed to build a grist mill on the last falls on the La Pêche River, in neighbouring Masham Township. In his petition, he described himself as "of the millwright trade." First a mason, now a millwright, Fairbairn soon opened a grist mill in the newly emerging settlement. In 1844, David MacLaren bought the grist mill from Fairbairn and added a sawmill and a woollen mill, creating an important industrial complex.
William and his wife had four sons -- Archibald, William, John and George, and four daughters -- Helen, Mary, Elsie and Frances. In 1861, their sons went west to prospect in the gold fields of British Columbia. At about the time they returned to Wakefield in 1864 William built his new frame house a short distance west of the family's log home. Members of the Fairbairn family lived in the house until 1906. William died on February 6, 1872; his wife Jean Wanless predeceased him in 1868.
The House Today
Since 2007 board members of the Fairbairn House Cooperative have been working to develop plans and raise funds to transform the house into a regional heritage centre. Major assistance has come from the Municipality of La Pêche, the CLD des Collines-de-l'Outaouais, the Desjardins Caisse populaire de Masham-Luskville, and the Gatineau Valley Historical Society.
Renovations on the exterior of the heritage house were completed in the summer of 2010, the first phase of the restoration project. This will be followed by interior work as funding allows, and continuing on towards its targeted opening in the spring of 2012.