Our Fantastic Legacy From Mackenzie King
On a bushy hillside outside Ottawa he left Canada a strange man-made collection of ancient stone and salvaged relics on his Kingsmere estate. Did he leave a part of his personality there too?
GROTESQUE, fantastic, unreal, they stagger drunkenly along the wind-swept ridge of the bushy hillside—a crumbling heap of moss-grown, ivy-choked ruins, as
unpredictable in their crazy contours as the puzzling personality of the man who put them there.
Nobody knows why the late William Lyon Mackenzie King erected his “synthetic ruins” at Kingsmere, or what strange longings, nagging inhibitions, or unfulfilled desires found expression in their building.
He poured thousands of dollars into their construction, gathering a bewildering assortment of fluted columns, orna-
mental cornices and ancient arches from places as far distant as London, England, and for the best part of five years kept a prominent Ottawa contractor at his wit’s end endeavoring to keep abreast of his capricious, ever-changing, ever-broadening plans.
He spent hours upon hours prowling about their serrated walls, peering through vacant windows, standing in the shadow of empty doorways which opened upon space and led to nowhere.
He liked best to view them in the moonlight when a silvery patina softened their harsh outlines, giving them a mysterious
KINGSMERE — A “THANK-OFFERING” TO CANADA
ghostlike quality which they lacked at noon-day. And, as time went on, he often took a chair and sat quietly by a small, simply marked grave which lay sometimes in the sun, sometimes in the shadow of the brooding walls.
Today King’s “ruins” belong to the people of Canada, but they are not the only amazing features of the five-hundred-acre estate which, by the terms of King’s last will, is to be set aside, partly for use as a public park and partly as a permanent summer home for Canadian prime ministers.
King left the bulk of his fortune to the nation —historic Laurier House and a trust fund of $225,000 for its upkeep; another trust fund of $100,000 to provide traveling scholarships for graduates of Canadian universities; and, finally, the property which he had always considered peculiarly and particularly his own—his beloved summer home at Kingsmere.
Each of the three bequests has its own special significance, reflecting in singularly sharp and re-
vealing detail a separate, well-defined and fully developed phase of King’s career.
In Laurier House is reflected the public personality of King, the statesman. At Kingsmere there is more to be learned of the private personality of King, the man.
Laurier House is an old, nondescript, grey brick three-story mansion in the core of Ottawa’s oncefashionable Sandy Hill district. The home of Sir Wilfrid Laurier, it was bequeathed to King by Lady Laurier on her death. It has become part of the Dominion Archives and visitors may see it for a nominal charge.
Here in an atmosphere of faded gentility are all the outward and visible evidence of a Great Personage. Here are keys to a dozen cities, trowels which have planted a dozen ceremonial trees, a silver service from the people of Sheffield, a silver box from the city of Aberdeen. Here in the highceilinged Victorian rooms are the signed photographs-from Harry Truman, John D. Rockefeller, General Foch, Field Marshal Haig. Here are the statuettes and busts, the paintings of Laurier and Gladstone, the brass bedstead where Laurier slept. Here is the fourteen-volume Bible which was at his side since youth, the framed Biblical mottoes, the copies of two of King’s books—Industry and Humanity and The Secret of Heroism. Here is a picture of his mother, lit by a single lamp, and the piano which has not been played since her fingers last touched it. Here is a statuette of the dog that died. And here, on the piano, is a crystal ball.
But what was the everyday, put-on-your-slippers-and-sit-by-the-fire King like? Did he ever think of anything except politics, strive for anything except power? Was he always aloof, evasive, retiring — forever dodging behind a protective screen of impersonal officialdom?
Some of the answer can be found at Kingsmere, the rectangular five-hundred-acre tract which lies twelve miles north of Ottawa.
It is not easy to describe Kingsmere. King never liked to hear it referred to as an estate. He didn’t want the public to think he was living in luxury when all he had was a modest country place. There is no air of royal magnificence here, no Hollywood swimming pools, no mahogany bars, no model barns filled with prize-winning Holsteins.
When Jean-François Pouliot, the Liberal member for Témiscouata, suggested publicly a few months before King’s death that he turn Laurier House over to Prime Minister St. Laurent and retire to his “princely estate” in the Laurentians, there to write his memoirs, King was furious. For years Pouliot had snapped at King’s heels like a terrier worrying an old disdainful mastiff, but this attempt to paint him as a man of unlimited means angered King to the point of exasperation.
Actually, the entire property at Kingsmere wouldn’t be worth much more than fifty or sixty thousand dollars. The great bulk of the acreage consists of bush and rough, rock-strewn hills and meadows not fit even for good grazing. It is only the comparatively narrow strip of land on which the buildings stand, close to the road, that has any real value.
With characteristic neatness, King subdivided his land into four more or less self-contained demesnes. Each has its own cottage and its own entrance from the public road, and each is enclosed by a prim white rail fence. And to each King gave a special, descriptive name—Moorside, The Farm, Shady Hill, The Cottage.
King could never quite explain just how he came to amass five hundred acres of mountainside. In his will he declared that he had not been long in office before he conceived the idea of acquiring sufficient land to make Kingsmere into a park which he might some day present to his country as a “thank-offering” for the opportunities of public service which the people of Canada had given him.
But at the same time King always felt that he vas making a shrewd investment. The ownership of Laurier House had always given him a comfortable feeling of security, and similarly his land At Kingsmere was like an anchor to windward in An unstable and uncertain world.
Before he made his will King told me that he vas troubled over Press reports that he planned io present Kingsmere to the nation during his lifetime. He admitted he hoped to do so on his death, but in the meantime he did not wish to commit any part of his land.
“I always looked upon my land at Kingsmere AS an investment—as a means of saving,” he said. “I never bought stocks and bonds like some people, but over the years, when I had the opportunity, I invested my money in a little more land.”
Then, in a little burst of confidence, he added: “It may be that I may even have to sell some of it some day to meet personal obligations. I hope ihat never happens—but one cannot see very far into the future.”
Once Percy Philip, Canadian correspondent of ihe New York Times, told King that he had purchased a few acres at Aylmer, Que., and was putting up a summer cottage.
“Excellent, excellent!” enthused King. “You couldn’t do better. Any land within twenty miles of Ottawa is a good investment.”
King never forgot that his grandfather, William Lyon Mackenzie, had forfeited a comfortable forlune when he led an unsuccessful revolt against ihe Government of Upper Canada. His father had
lost his means of livelihood when his sight failed. A brother had had to relinquish his medical practice due to ill health. King felt that a similar unexpected reversal could happen to him.
He was always in the market for a few extra acres—if he got a bargain. He never tried to force a deal, but waited patiently until someone made him a good offer. As a result he got most of his land at rock-bottom prices.
Once in a while, however, he did set his heart on a piece of property and if he couldn’t get it for what he considered a fair price he felt properly frustrated. Usually he did his best to conceal his disappointment, but sometimes, particularly if he felt someone was trying to capitalize on the fact that he was prime minister and thus able to pay top price, he would sulk.
The rankling memory of one such uncompleted transaction was revived in the summer of 1949 when the American owner of Wit’s End, a cottage near Moorside, accidentally started a grass fire while burning garbage. The fire spread into a field owned by King and was only brought under control after people from the entire district turned out to fight it.
Early the next morning a black Cadillac drove up in front of Wit’s End and out climbed a redfaced and crotchety-looking King. In language that fell just short of being abusive, he demanded to know why his neighbors had “trespassed” on his property.
The couple mumbled an embarrassed explanation. “We always
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burned our garbage where the former owners did,” they explained. “We didn’t realize we were trespassing.”
“Well, you should have,” snapped King. “People around here seem to think they can turn this place into a regular Coney Island and I don’t propose to permit it. I’m having a fence erected first thing tomorrow. I would have been over here yesterday helping to fight that fire only my physician has told me I cannot afford to take strenuous exercise.”
King started back to his car, scowling, and the owner of Wit’s End, a New York banker who had long cherished the memory of meeting him in New York on one of his wartime visits, was about to give voice to a revised opinion of him when his wife found her tongue.
“Apparently you resent us, Mr. King,” she said. “If you wanted this land and cottage so badly why didn’t you buy it when it was offered to you some years ago, before we purchased it?”
King stopped dead in his tracks, turned slowly about, and eyed the woman coldly.
“When it was offered to me,” he said bitterly, “I was too busy looking after the affairs of this country to consider it. By the time 1 had an opportunity to do anything about it the place had been sold.”
The shaft had struck home. The fact was that the former owner of the property, knowing that King was always interested in acquiring land in the area, had offered it to him at what he considered a fair price, and when King ignored the offer he had sold it to the next buyer at a lower figure. King had taken this as a personal affront. For once his procrastination had failed to pay off.
King put a fence up just as he had threatened—workmen were on the job tbe next day—but it was really the fear of fire rather than his dislike of “trespassers,” that worried him. Actually he never objected to people crossing his property as long as they did no damage. The Pink Lake Trail ot the Ottawa Ski Club traverses the entire length of the property, and King liked to see hikers using the woodland paths which he had cut through the forest. He didn’t object to some ot his neighbors using the well at The Farm. Once during a long dry spell almost everyone in the area was beating a path to King’s pump.
“They can have all the water they want for drinking,” he cautioned his housekeeper, “but they’re not to take it for their gardens.”
Of his four country dwellings King liked Moorside best. It was here that he erected his “ruins” which he occupied every summer until 1941 when he decided it was too damp. He moved to the winterized house at The Farm. After 1941 he only opened Moorside on the few times that his sister, Mrs. Morrison Lay of Barrie, Ont., came to visit.
A Wing for Twenty Thousand
The Cottage lies along the south shore of Kingsmere Lake, just across the road from Moorside. King was sentimental about it, because it evoked so many memories of his early years. Here he and Henry Albert Harper, his associate in the Department of Labor and his dearest friend, bought a small lot around the turn of the century. When Harper lost his life in 1901,
attempting to save a young woman from drowning in the Ottawa River, King was grief-stricken and it was months before he found the heart to return there.
“Harper and I paid a visit to King’s Mountain, fell in love with the place and decided to buy a piece of land and build a cottage,” King told me once. Then he paused and smiled sheepishly. “I used to like to drive the stage,” he went on. “Sometimes when there were no other passengers the old man who drove the stage would let me take the reins. We used to cover the four miles from the station in record time.”
Shady Hill is sandwiched between Moorside and The Farm. King picked it up because it was offered for sale and because its acquisition gave further continuity to his roadside frontage. For years he rented it to his city neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. G. B. Pattison.
King purchased The Farm from the Fleury family whose ancestors pioneered the land more than a century ago. He rebuilt the solid frame house and added a new twenty-thousanddollar wing. Mr. and Mrs. Frank Kelly, his gardener and housekeeper, have occupied the old part of the house for many years, while King occasionally used the new wing in winter. Since 1941 it had also been his summer home. It’s the finest of all the buildings on the estate, and it will probably be set aside as a permanent summer home for Canadian prime ministers.
At Kingsmere King studiously put aside his role of statesman and prime
minister and became plain Mr. King, country squire. He rather fancied himself as an amateur farmer. He cultivated the friendship of district farmers and liked to buttonhole them and talk about the price of eggs, the condition of crops or what was the best spray for his apple trees.
“King had a lot of horse sense at that,” one farmer told me. “He realized he knew next to nothing about farming and was ready to take advice from anyone who did.”
Even so, he had his failures and disappointments at farming. Once he tried raising sheep, but they developed a disease and King had trouble saving them. Then he found that the cost of keeping them over the winter was more than he had bargained for. One day he dropped in on a neighboring farmer.
“You can probably do more with these sheep than I can,” he said. “Tell you what I’ll do. I’ll let you have them for a few acres of your land.”
The acres he had his eye on were worth practically nothing to the farmer, but they contained a little stream and miniature waterfall which King had long coveted. The farmer agreed to the deal.
Another time King tried raising pigeons, but that didn’t work out either. Chicken hawks found where they could pick up a tasty snack and soon the flock had disappeared.
Kingsmere lies alongside the twentyfour-thousand-acre Gatineau National Park and game from the protected area frequently come down into the settlement and “trespass.” This was particularly the case with bears which often invaded King’s orchard and sometimes overturned his beehives.
“Almost an Obsession”
The fact that certain members of the Russian Embassy who had rented a cottage nearby thought it was great sport to feed the bears didn’t help matters. Emboldened by this soft living the bears became more and more of a nuisance and a threat to the peace and security of the community.
Jack Lay, King’s chauffeur for more than a decade, recalls one Sunday afternoon when, for the benefit of some of his staff, King chased a black bear out of one of his apple trees. Dressed in his Sunday best King swung his walking stick, occasionally glancing over his shoulder to see if his audience was enjoying the game.
“The nerve of you climbing my apple
trees—and on a Sunday afternoon at that!” lectured King with mock indignation. “I’ll have you understand that I don’t put up fences around here for nothing. I’ll have the law on you, you rascal !”
The old bear dropped the fruit it had been gathering and slid down the tree. Then, with King in hot pursuit, it lumbered in the direction of the fence, pausing only to give an occasional roar of anguish as King, still clowning, whacked it over the rump, again and again, with his cane.
In 1946 another bear or possibly the same one — did a thorough job of wrecking King’s apiary. Fearing the bears were getting too bold and that some child might be injured or even carried off by one of them, King sent for his beekeeper, Harry Clegg, who resided in nearby Chelsea. Clegg set a trap and caught a bear.
It is possible that if Bennett hadn’t defeated King in 1930, King’s “ruins” would never have been built. But with
time on his hands he retired to Kingsmere. Soon he was building, not political fences, but his far more substantial and enduring “ruins.”
King once told me he put up his first bit of wall as a windbreak so that he could sit on the hillside and read, protected from the prevailing winds. But soon the project became almost an obsession. During the next five years he rode his new hobby with unrelenting enthusiasm. Wherever he went he was on the lookout for suitable materials. When he learned that the Public Works Department had preserved some of the stone carvings from the old Parliament Buildings razed by fire in 1916 he got some of them and built them into his walls. Again, when he saw workmen demolishing the old Bank of British North America on Wellington Street to provide a site for the Confederation Building, he begged the stones which formed the magnificent doorway. An old Ottawa home was being torn down. King fell in love with a big bay window and had it carted up to Kingsmere. Visiting in London he obtained tons of sculptured stone from the Houses of Parliament which had suffered bomb damage and was being replaced.
Before long the “ruins” had taken on the appearance of some medieval castle. Crickets chirped on the hearth of a fireplace which had once warmed the posteriors of long-dead and forgotten members of the British parliament, and field mice frolicked on rotting window sills, indifferent to the scowls of fearsome gargoyles.
King grew strangely attached to the main group of ruins which crowned a little hill behind Moorside. He made it the focal point of his morning and evening walks and he placed an ordinary park bench close by where he could sit and read or rest. In 1941, when his little Irish terrier, Pat I, died, ending a companionship of seventeen years, King buried him in the shadow of the walls.
There are other relics at Kingsmere —the little blacksmith shop, complete with forge, bellows, anvil and workbench, which King built perhaps to preserve for posterity a colorful detail of the Canadian scene: the two old oil-lamp standards which stand guard at the gates of Moorside and once cast their uncertain light outside King’s birthplace in Kitchener; an old ship’s bell which once sounded the watches on a Nova Scotia sailing vessel; a life-size pottery donkey from Spain; an old sundial from an English garden.
Many who studied King believe that the “ruins” provide the key to his admittedly complex and mystical nature.
What was in his mind when he built them? Was it merely a desire to create something of lasting beauty to shape, as it were, a sort of living picture? Or was it simply his abhorrence of waste in any form which led him to salvage from threatened oblivion the handiwork of unnamed, unknown craftsmen? Was it perhaps an expression of his peculiarly sentimental attachment to the past, of his adherence to tradition and form, of his respect for ancestral effort and accomplishment?
Even his closest friends were puzzled.
“He lived a great deal in the past,” one of them recently recalled. “He liked to think back upon his youth, to talk about his old friends, to dream about his brother, his father and mother. They were always with him.”
Perhaps, somehow, King had discovered the secret of some sort of extra dimension. Perhaps those empty doorways which opened upon space and led to nowhere were for him, and him alone, the gateway to a very real and satisfying world, if