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The Yellow Brick Question

by Elaine Weeks

Steeped in history ... 131 McEwan Avenue,
built in 1872

A reader’s architectural query opens the door to an astonishing time in Windsor’s history.

I moved to Windsor in 1969.The Windsor, Walkerville and Sandwich areas are such great places in which to live. My question is, why are there so few soft yellow brick buildings this side of Chatham? If one travels to Chatham, Sarnia or London, the number of soft yellow brick buildings from the late 1800s and early 1900s is significant. Why does Windsor and amalgamated communities have so few of these brick buildings? The only one from that era I can think of is McEwan Manor at 131 McEwan.
Robert Schmidt, Windsor

Ed: Your interesting question was passed on to Fred Cane, Heritage Conservation Advisor. According to Mr. Cane, the colour of brick depends on the amount of iron naturally found in the clay used. Most communities obtained their brick from a local brickyard using local clay. The buff or yellow brick found so commonly in southwestern Ontario has less iron in it than the clay that produced the orange or red brick seen in other areas. Red brick was used more in the Windsor area and in Amherstburg than buff. The answer may lie in the proximity of Windsor and Amherstburg to the St. Clair River. The clay deposits along the river may have a higher iron content than those farther away. Mr. Cane says he’s “no geologist so I can't explain how that would have come to be, but I suspect that this is the reason.” There are exceptions like Mackenzie Hall and Assumption Church. As buff brick was preferred for important buildings, the brick for these buildings may have been intentionally sourced from a different location.

Now that I am more aware of brick colour, I have noticed several homes and small apartment buildings dotting the neighbourhoods of Windsor and area that are yellow brick. Thanks to Robert, we thought that in this month’s My Old House, we would profile McEwan Manor, also known as the Sheriff John McEwan Home, as well as have a look at the fascinating life of its first inhabitants, John McEwan and his family.

Current owner John Hyatt, Photo E. Weeks

Sheriff John McEwan Home

This unique Italianate with Flemish gable house is comprised of brick, stone, terra cotta and wood. It has a square plan with two stories, low hipped roof, a north side projecting central bay with semi-parapeted gable, eight chimneys and a frame addition on the south façade. The Italianate style was in popular use for town houses about the time of Confederation (1867).

In 1955, the entrance was switched to the McEwan Avenue side.
(photo courtesy John Hyatt)

In 1929, the house served as a temporary home for the Sisters of the Good Shepherd for a year. The current owner is John Hyatt who has lived in the Sheriff McEwan home since 1998 when he purchased it from his parents, Frederick and Ruth Ann Hyatt, owners since 1977.

John Hyatt has in his possession a copy of a local newspaper page from 1872 describing the progress of the house’s construction and indicating that it was nearing completion. The home was built to face the river but John Hyatt guesses that sometime in the 1950s it was turned to face the McEwan Avenue side.

The living room on the main floor today.
photo E. Weeks

A 1955 snapshot of the home given to his parents by the previous owners shows the house facing McEwan and a vacant lot to the north, (now occupied by a residence). Although the photo is black and white, the red paint that once covered the brick is evident. John thinks that the reason the house painted was possibly because the light-coloured brick had been discoloured by the coal as it was dropped down the coal chute into the basement.

The Manor was converted into a multi-unit home several years ago with the main (north) entry bricked in (a bathroom has been built in what was once the entrance). A large wooden front porch has been added. Despite the changes to the home, John has worked hard to preserve as much of the remaining character as possible. The high ceilings, the many tall windows, the ornate fireplaces and much of the original wood remain.

Who was John McEwan?

John McEwan was born in Saratoga, New York in 1812. As a small boy he moved to Gananoque, Ontario and grew up along the St. Lawrence River. He married Margaret Arnold, daughter of Richard and Ann Arnold, and granddaughter of Benedict Arnold, of Revolutionary fame.

In 1846, John and Margaret McEwan settled in Sarnia where he engaged in the timber business. In 1848, they relocated to Windsor and a year later, he was made Clerk of the Court, a position he held until 1853 when he engaged in the warehouse and lumber business. When the Great Western Railroad was completed, the right of way led through his lumber yard, which required him to sell the land and close his business. In that same year he accepted the position of Station Agent for the railroad.

John McEwan

In 1856, John McEwan was appointed Sheriff of the County of Essex which he held until 1883. John was also editor and owner of Windsor’s first newspaper “The Windsor Herald,” which he started in 1855. Later he became promoter of the Canada Southern Railway, school board trustee and municipal councillor.

The children born to John and Margaret McEwan were the following: Charles; Patrick Anderson of Chicago, Illinois; William J.; Margaret; James; Porter; and Christine.

Construction of his fine new home on what became McEwan Avenue began in 1871. According to the custom of the day his daughter, Margaret, drove around in a horse-drawn buggy to invite guests to attend the reception in the new home.

The property at that time and for years afterwards ranked as an estate and stretched south from the river to London Street [University Avenue]. A hired man’s house stood on the grounds about 200 feet back of the McEwan home, which originally faced the river. Just south of the house was a splendid well and it was said that even people from the east side of Windsor would come to drink its water.

In 1872, John’s son James was appointed Crier of the Court of Essex County. In 1881 he married Amanda M. Rogers. They had four children: Grace Margaret, Arnold, John, and Anderson. In 1895, when the Humane Society was formed, James McEwan was chosen as head of the organization.

John McEwan died in 1892 and is buried in St. John’s Church yard.

James lived in the old homestead until his death in 1917. Four years earlier his daughter, Grace (Mrs. J.W. Hanson), opened up McEwan Avenue between Sandwich [Riverside] and London [University] Streets, in response to the needs of the new industrial age, which was then causing rapid growth in Windsor.

McEwans Tried to Save Stricken Norwegian Immigrants

In an article by Alan Abrams, which appeared in the Windsor Star on March 20, 1982, entitled Black Hole of Baptiste Creek, 57 Norwegian immigrants – men, women and children – died of cholera when they arrived in Windsor by train from Hamilton on July 2,1854. These immigrants were part of a large group that had sailed to Quebec from their homeland and were heading to Detroit across the river from Windsor, where they were to take a train to Chicago and eventually end up in settlements in Wisconsin and Minnesota.

In her book, A Scandinavian Heritage: 200 Years of Scandinavian Presence in the Windsor-Detroit Border Region, Joan Magee explains that the Norwegians had been exposed to cholera a number of times while enroute to Windsor. She notes that because the train service from Hamilton to Windsor had just started that year, overcrowding was common as the railroad was anxious to accommodate the massive traffic to increase the rail line’s profitability. The Norwegians were therefore crammed into freight cars, which had no windows.

As Abrams put it; “100 years later, similar box cars were used in Germany to transport Jews to the death camps.”

As the train neared Windsor, it was stopped because a gravelling engine had derailed due to the rails expanding from the intense summer heat. The first class passengers were transferred to another train but the immigrants were left at Baptiste Creek, in the township of Tilbury, for two additional days without the provision of food, water or shelter from the heat. They resorted to drinking the water in the creek (also referred to as a swamp).

When the immigrants finally reached the newly established village of Windsor, the journey had taken its toll – one Norwegian was dead and 33 others collapsed on the platform at the station house. In 1854, Windsor only had a population of 750. There was no hospital and only one doctor, Alfred Dewson who set up a cholera hospital in the Great Western storehouse at Moy Avenue and Riverside Drive.

When word of the plight of the Norwegians spread, the McEwans and a Mr. Blackadder went to the storehouse to help the sick foreigners, but in spite of their efforts and the risk to their own lives, (John McEwan himself contracted cholera) many died.

One Norwegian couple left two children behind in their deaths, and Mrs. McEwan did not hesitate to take care of them for several years, until they could look after themselves.

View of Detroit from the Great Western Terminus in Windsor, circa 1860. In 1854, it served as a temporary hospital for newly arrived Norwegian immigrants afflicted with cholera. (from A Dutch Heritage 200 Years of Dutch Presence in the Windsor-Detroit Border Region, Joan Magee, 1983)

Originally the railway agreed to defray the expense of providing coffins and burial of the immigrants but the company reneged on the offer. Ironically, as a token of appreciation, the railway presented Mrs. McEwan with a gold watch on January 1, 1855. It was inscribed with the words, “Presented to Mrs. John McEwan, of Windsor, Canada West, for kind and Christian benevolence to the poor sick Norwegian emigrants in July, 1854.”

As there was no cemetery in Windsor, nor a Lutheran church to perform the burial rites, one can only speculate as to the place where the bodies of the cholera victims were buried. Abrams noted that historian Alan Douglas recalled incidents of Windsor homeowners in the Moy and Hall Avenue areas [near Riverside Drive] having uncovered human skeletons and bones within the last 20 years and wondered whether they might have been the remains of the Norwegian immigrants.

This incident is still one of Windsor’s great mysteries. Not only are the graves of these victims unknown but their names are equally elusive. There were no records kept by either the shipping companies or the Canadian government for these immigrants. According to Magee, the event didn’t even make the pages of the newspapers in Canada, Norway or Detroit.

Today in 2003 local archaeologist Rosemarie Denunzio confirms that “no remains of the cholera victims have been discovered. The bones that have turned up over the years have been determined to be that of Native Canadians who lived in the area hundreds of years ago.”

It has long been thought that the bodies were buried near where they died. Several archeological digs have been conducted along the waterfront over the years in an effort to discover the remains of these immigrants, including under the Peabody Bridge at Chilver and Riverside Drive but nothing has turned up.

Denunzio explains that even back in the 1850s, the locals would have known not to bury diseased bodies near the source of their drinking water, in this case, the Detroit River. As to the location of the bodies, she says they are still a mystery. “To people of those days, ‘near’ was a whole different concept from what it is today. They thought nothing of walking miles to get somewhere.”

The bodies were definitely buried or disposed of somewhere in the Windsor area. Denunzio cautions anyone who discovers bones to call the police. “And don’t touch them,” she says. “If they belong to one of these immigrants they can still carry the infection.”

1/ The Township of Sandwich, Past and Present, 1909 by Frederick Neal, 1979 (reprinted)
2/ “Black Hole of Baptiste Creek” by Allan Abrams, Windsor Star, MArch 20, 1982
4/ Garden Gateway, 1854-1954 by Neil F. Morrison, PH.D., 1954 (1st printing)
5/ Architectural Information: Nancy Morand, City of Windsor Heritage Planner
6/ John Hyatt, current owner of home

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