The St. Marys Museum has recently unveiled a new exhibit; Legacy in Limestone honours the stonemasons who worked in the 19th and early 20th centuries in St. Marys.
Volunteer researcher Ken Telfer has a special interest in these early builders. He has identified approximately 140 people from the St. Marys area who worked with limestone from the 1840s onward. Certainly not all were experienced masons. But Ken has compiled information about these men — primarily from newspaper accounts and census records — showing their work was connected to the industry. Some were labourers doing heavy work in quarries or hauling loads to building sites. Stonecutters had more skill and, through experience, could improve their status and their daily rate of pay.
Some masons arrived in St. Marys already skilled in their trade. Others started as assistants and worked hard to gain experience until they too became professional masons and builders. In the late 1880s — prosperous times in St. Marys — almost 100 men were masons, stonecutters or quarrymen. As the peak periods passed, many people moved elsewhere but others stayed in this area until they died.
The exhibit concentrates on several masons who built some of the town’s best-known structures such as the public library, Junction Station and Central School. Information about the others is available for visitors to consult.
Included is mason John Whimster (1815-1904) whose fine whiskered portrait appears with this week’s column. John was born in 1815 in Caithness in the northeast corner of Scotland. He learned his trade from his father, who in his youth had worked in the northwest territories for the Hudson’s Bay Company as a mason, cooper and schoolteacher. He then returned to Scotland, married and raised a family.
Two sons, James and John, came to Ontario with their families circa 1840 and both found work in Kingston. John also worked on the Welland Canal before purchasing 160 acres in Blanshard Township near Glengowan. For several decades he was both a farmer and a mason. In 1854 with Francis Anderson and Andrew Knox, John Whimster built the Tracy House, now the St. Marys Museum.
In the mid-1870s, John and his wife Elizabeth retired to St. Marys. Members of their household included a little granddaughter, Lillian. The Museum has a charming photograph of three-year-old Lillian with her very precious doll, Bluebell. (The doll and the photograph are now among the Museum treasures.) It is pleasant to think that hard-working John Whimster, in his later years, enjoyed the company of this sweet granddaughter.