by Richard Nicol
While it has been nicknamed, “The Loveliest Town in Canada,” Niagara-on-the-Lake is one of our region’s most historic towns, with a rich and vivid history, from its stint as the first capital of Upper Canada to its central role in the War of 1812. To the present, the town has come a long way from its growing tourism to being the perfect location for on-site film or TV shots.
There’s a reason why a town so steeped in history becomes a destination location for those both wanting to visit, and to live within the beauty and grace of Niagara-on-the-Lake.
A perfect example of this refined beauty and grace lies in the Georgian-style manor, first built and owned by John McFarland. Take a trip back in time to colonial Niagara through Niagara Parks’ oldest property, McFarland House, which dates back to the year 1800 when John and his sons first built it from bricks made in the property’s kiln. An engineer and Master Shipwright with the British Navy, procuring timber supplies in terms of ship-building, John McFarland travelled from Scotland in 1776, spending most of his time here in the colonies during the American Revolution. He settled in Newark (now NOTL) and married Margaret Wilson, who passed away in 1809; however, McFarland re-married, outliving both of his spouses, parenting five children.
In 1875, John added a back wing to the property, which included a new kitchen, servants’ quarters, and more common area or living space. A wealthy family like the McFarlands would have expanded the property to accommodate more servants or butlers to maintain the stately home.
In December of 1812, after the infamous burning of the town (Newark), the McFarland house survived, boasting one of the only structures, to this day, pre-dating the War of 1812. How did it survive? The building was used as a hospital and officers’ headquarters by British and American troops. Due to its strategic location, the property (including the ravine behind the homestead) was the perfect place to launch a raid and capture, initiated by the British on Fort Niagara on December 19, 1813. Of course, the ongoing saga had taken its toll on the property, and the house did experience some damage, which was said to have left John heartbroken; he eventually took ill in 1815, and passed away shortly after. His two eldest sons, John Jr. and James restored the home after the war ended.
Descendants of the McFarland clan resided on the property until 1942, where it had begun to fall into disrepair, needing a lot of work. It was then purchased by The Niagara Parks Commission, renovated in 1955, and then opened as a historic site in the spring of 1959.
Manager – Curator Rebecca Pascoe brought me on a quick tour of the property, which currently features original architecture and interior, as well as modernized additions and renovations to preserve the past, and establish a comfortable atmosphere for those wishing to catch a glimpse of colonial antiquity. According to Pascoe, by early 19th-century standards, the McFarland House was a very fine manor home, and one can just imagine the surrounding 30 acres of parkland once filled with outbuildings, whether a kitchen, outhouse, storage shed, or stable.
In lieu of the Bicentennial of the War of 1812, McFarland House received more renovations in 2011, including a new historically inspired conservatory, modern washroom facilities, and renovated interior spaces in the back wing of the home, allowing for easier access to visitors. The conservatory provides a breathtaking panoramic view of the entire park, and hosts table seating for guests to enjoy treats from the a la carte luncheon or afternoon tea menu, while relaxing to background classical music. Baked goods are made fresh daily from scratch in the kitchen. “We’re all history Martha-Stewart types, but we’re very good at what we do,” relates Pascoe. “We’re like the microbrewery of tea houses.”
The McFarland House hosts two holiday events, the Rotary Holiday House Tour, which took place over the first weekend of December, and the Christmas Tea Weekend over the second weekend. Due to its popularity, guests are asked to book reservations for the Christmas Tea Weekend, taking place on December 14 and 15.
The property is truly a sight to see, as it is suitably decked out for the holiday season with the help of The Garden Club of Niagara, who decorates the house with wreaths on every window and doorway, bannister decorations, and mantle and table displays. Members from The Garden Club also maintain the kitchen garden, which adorns the front of the house during the summer.
If you can’t make it in time for the last afternoon tea, the McFarland House is available for private functions, bridal showers, and intimate weddings — a perfect backdrop for your special event. For more information and contact info, check out www.niagaraparksheritage.com/mcfarland-house.