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J.S. Ainslie House, circa 1890

By Renka Gesing

“There’s no fireplace in the parlour, or in any of the other rooms. Lumber people were afraid of fires.”

Ainslie house as it looks today.
Photo Renka Gesing

When David and Gail Ainslie look out the windows of their 1890s home, they can see David’s nectar and lavender gardens, a bee house, a barn impressive for its 35-foot height, and tidy farmed fields. On the other side of the gardens, there’s a tranquil pond and the recently built home of Craig Ainslie, David’s father. Both Ainslie homes stand on the outer edge of the quiet village of Comber about 40 minutes east of Windsor.

Comber, with a population of just over 1,300 (and now considered a part of Lakeshore), wasn’t always so quiet. In the late 1890s and early 1900s, Comber was five times the size, says David. There were gas lamps in the streets and six hotels in the downtown area. That was when J.S. (John Straith) Ainslie, David’s great uncle, lived in the home with his wife, Annie, and their four children.

Outside J.S. and Annie’s windows was a bustling sawmill operation. A mill sat on the land where Craig’s house now stands – the pond provided a steady supply of water for the generation of steam for barrel making. J.S. ran a small conglomerate of logging, lumber, agriculture and even gas interests. He pulled his brothers into his businesses and they established their own homes in Comber. Other smaller houses were built for the workmen and their families.

Three generations of the Ainslie family, circa 1910s

It was George Ainslie and his wife Mary, who had brought the family to the area in the 1860s. (His father came to Canada from Scotland in 1812.) George’s 12 children – J.S. was the oldest, while Craig’s father, “Young Willy,” was the youngest – were all born in Valetta. When they moved to Comber in 1882, families had been settling in the area for the previous couple of decades on land purchased from the Crown – land that was covered with dense hardwood forests.

According to the Lakeshore history web pages: “Trees were cut for log cabins with the cracks being filled with mud. The fireplaces were made of logs plastered with lime, the chimneys were also made of logs. As the land was cleared, the hard wood was burned. The potash was carefully gathered and taken to Windsor by oxen. The trip would take three to four days. The ashes were sold and used to make lye soap. The settlers cleared the land to grow corn and potatoes.”

That was back in the 1830s. By the time the Ainslies started establishing the family in the area, the Canada Southern Railway was already running from Niagara Falls / Fort Erie across the north shore of Lake Erie to Windsor, where it rejoined its parent, the New York Central. Like Comber, communities along the rail line grew quickly. By the end of the 19th century, Comber businessmen were sending lumber and agricultural products down the rails to Windsor and Detroit.

Dense hardwood forests once covered Essex County. The Ainslie family operated a logging/milling company. Top row, left to right: Donald Ainslie, Gerald Fenner, Claude Ainslie, 4th boy unkown
Bottom row, (l-r): R.O.Y. Ainslie, G.W. Ainslie, Isaac Ainslie, I.S., Ainslie,
W.J. (Young Willie) Ainslie, behind W.J. is W.A. Keith, photo courtesy David Ainslie

J.S. was one of the main businessmen to drive Comber’s growth – and a steady increase in the family fortune. “They were the only people in Comber who could afford a cement walk to the outdoor toilet,” says David. The house was built in three different sections. “As family fortune grew, they kept expanding.”

The town perhaps should have been renamed something like Ainslieville. The family members, “who were all teetotallers,” says David, “had the means to buy up all the hotels and make the town dry.” Once a year J.S. and Annie would hold a family dinner for all the area’s Ainslies. “They were like royalty; we really had to mind our manners.” The J.S. family travelled widely throughout the world, packing their clothes in big trunks that are still found in the home.

By early 1900s, however, the lumber industry was quickly decreasing in importance as the forests that were being cleared for both lumber and agriculture were rapidly disappearing. “By 1910, the boom was over,” says David. Over the coming years, the tall barn would be used increasingly for agricultural purposes, and less for lumber. “I still remember piles of sawdust around the barn, but on a much smaller scale.”

J.S. died in 1938. His two youngest daughters, Aethel and Floelia, were the last two members of the J.S. Ainslie family to live in the house. They never married, and lived there on their own from 1956 to 1977. The two enjoyed botany and grew spectacular gardens. One garden had 200 to 300 varieties of iris. Another, a spring garden around the path to the house, yielded a different scent every week. Floelia was also a collector of Royal Dalton figurines, purchasing every figurine and other glass and crystal items. She even commissioned her own sugar bowl and teapot.

Criag purchased the home after his aunts died and when David returned to Comber, he moved into the J.S. Ainslie home with his wife Gail in 1979. One of the first things David and Gail did after moving into the home was to have the Royal Dalton collection appraised – an activity that took an entire summer – and arrange an auction to sell them all. Other than moving out all the glassware, they have not made any major changes to the house.

“Inside, it’s much like J.S. would have seen it,” says Gail. “The same furniture, the same woodwork, rooms left much like they were initially constructed.” The woodwork is all tiger maple. Solid wood pocket doors allow each room to be closed off. Just off the living room is a parlour, throughout which are scattered some of grandson Duncan’s toys. It’s known in the family however, as the “funeral room.” Gail and David believe that since dying is really part of living, it’s more appropriate to hold a wake for a family member at home than at a funeral parlour. They smile at the memory of Duncan and one of his cousins playing cars under a casket.

Interestingly, there’s no fireplace in the parlour, or in any of the other rooms. “Lumber people were afraid of fires,” says Gail. “They had more than one fire in the sawmill.” Another interesting feature, although it’s covered up with newer wallpaper, is leather wall ‘paper’ on the staircase up to the second floor. J.S. brought it back with him on one of the family trips to Germany. The furniture he acquired locally and abroad still graces the house. Down in the basement is a huge cistern, the size of an aboveground swimming pool, that was used for water storage.

After 15 years away from Comber, during which time David worked in construction, travelled throughout the world, and studied agriculture, he came back to move into the J.S. Ainslie home with Gail. Their focus is very different from David’s great uncle. David has set aside large tracts of land to re-establish woodlots.

Sadly, a couple of these were planted 30 years ago uniquely with ash trees, under the insistence of the Ministry of Natural Resources. “The woodlot that is my ‘church’ has been destroyed,” David says, referring to the devastation of his favourite place of meditation caused by the emerald ash borer beetle.

Gail Ainslie relaxing in the dining room. Photo Renka Gesing

He’ll keep planting and managing all the other activities he operates from the Ainslie properties. Gail keeps to her job as case manager for Community Living Chatham-Kent. “David’s work is more of a philosophy,” she says, “and I don’t want to squash that philosophy.”

That philosophy involves growing and making a number of all-natural products, such as flours and honey, and all products in between. David grows and grinds his own grain, farms soy beans, raises bees, at the same time attempting to return some of the Ainslie land back to the forests it once knew. A store inside the family barn stands open and unattended for customers to drop in and leave their money in the till.

“I’d rather plant trees than make money,” says David.

Perhaps some day, future owners of the J.S. Ainslie house will see forests again as they look out their windows.

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