The town will review a list of 20 buildings in Virgil for inclusion in the Municipal Register of Properties of Cultural Heritage Value or Interest, including one that is a contender for the oldest building in Niagara-on-the-Lake.
Council passed a motion by Coun. Allan Bisback that drew on the book “The Cross Roads: Fortune Favours the Strong,” by David Hemmings, a NOTL historian and president of the Niagara-on-the-Lake Museum, to put together the list of properties.
“I think folks think of historical properties as only being in Old Town or St. Davids and Queenston. I was really surprised that Mr. Hemmings identified 20 properties in Virgil that he thinks should be considered," Bisback said.
The municipal register is a tool to list properties with historic value and those sites can then be considered by the province for protection under the Ontario Heritage Act.
In an interview Monday, Hemmings said Virgil as a historical site is underrepresented.
“That was really the impetus for putting this list together. There is big concern that there are houses there that are at risk,” he said.
When Hemmings started telling people he was writing a book on the history of Virgil he said a common refrain he heard was, “What history?”
Hemmings' work uncovered a rich history in the village – and one of the oldest standing buildings in the municipality and possibly the region.
The Gordon Hunter-Dick house was built in 1796, just 15 years after the founding of the town, originally called Butlersburg. It is tucked away on a gravel road off East and West Line, completely hidden from the road.
“It’s got to be in the top 10 (oldest buildings in the municipality),” Hemmings said in an interview.
Back in the 1800s it would have been the kind of house you could only find if you already knew it was there, he said.
It’s out-of-the-way placement meant during the War of 1812 it was safe from invading American forces, who burned most of the homes and buildings in Virgil.
The home is also not a part of geographical Virgil but is in what Hemmings considers “cultural Virgil.”
Many of the settlements in the Virgil area were built by members of the United Empire Loyalists, including the Gordon Hunter house, which was built by John Young in 1796.
Mennonites arrived from what is now Ukraine in 1934 and revitalized the farming lands in Virgil, including the area where the Gordon Hunter house stands.
These connective lines of history weave together to form what Hemmings refers to as “cultural Virgil,” drawing on the historic roots of the settlement and not its arbitrary political boundaries.
“Virgil is really a cultural community, not a geographic community, in the sense that there are parts of Virgil that go all the way up to Lakeshore Road,” Hemmings said.
The Gordon Hunter house has had many additions over the years, as every time Young had another child he would build a new bedroom for them.
“Consequently, each floor of the house is at a different level,” says Hemmings' description of the property included with the motion.
Young’s first child was born there in 1804. The house stayed in the Young family until it was sold to the Niagara Land & Fruit Company in 1910. It has had a series of owners since then, including a family who lives there now.
Hemmings said all the homes mentioned in the motion are worthy of inclusion on the municipal register. He also noted the Lawrence house, rebuilt in 1818 after being burned during the war.
It was home to George Lawrence, a Methodist preacher, local leader and captain in the militia during the War of 1812. For a time, Virgil was known as Lawrenceville in his honour, Hemmings noted.
The Lawrence house is behind the Twisted Vine restaurant on Niagara Stone Road.
Coun. Clare Cameron, who sits on the municipal heritage committee, noted inclusion on the register does not mean the properties will be recognized by the province.
“(The municipal register is) only the most initial level of protection or acknowledgment of some of those heritage attributes,” she told councillors.
She pointed to the former Virgil Public School as a historically significant building that is on the municipal register but not protected under the Ontario Heritage Act.
Cameron noted that while the list was great it did not include all the historically relevant buildings in Virgil.
The list will be reviewed by the municipal heritage committee and a heritage planner to deem which buildings are fit for inclusion on the register. The full list of 20 properties is included in council's Aug. 30 agenda under a report on the municipal register.
Evan Saunders, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Lake Report