Only a few can claim to have lived part of their childhood in a cottage on the wooded grounds of the Erchless Estate. Fortunately, Leslie MacLaren Bailey was one of those children. In 1962, at age eleven, she stepped into what she calls “a child’s wonderland.”
“It was kind of funny how we came to live at the cottage,” she explains. Leslie’s parents Jo and Ken MacLaren were friends of Ruby and Monty Hart; they had met as mutual members of The Oakville Club. Leslie and the Hart’s daughter Ann, whom Leslie called “Posy,” began their friendship in fifth grade at St. Mildred’s-Lightbourn School. The girls shared quiet temperaments, colourful imaginations, and a zest for adventure. They were best buddies.
The Hart family lived in the grand two-story, red-brick, Chisholm ancestral home, called Erchless Estate. As a child, Leslie called it “the big house.” Monty Hart was the son of Hazel Chisholm Hart Mathews, and great-great-grandson of William Chisholm, the founder of Oakville.
“The grounds were glorious,” recalls Leslie. “Huge elms were everywhere and big, sweeping garden beds were around the house and down the hill to the harbour.”
For over a century, “the big house” perched well above the shores of Lake Ontario to the south and the Sixteen Mile Creek to the west. A red-brick wall, over six feet high, surrounded the north and the east side of the estate. An arched doorway poked through the brick wall leading onto the grounds. Stone pillars framed a gateway at the north and east wall. Four acres of property, much of it hidden from passers-by.
On one occasion, while her family was visiting the Harts, says Leslie, “Dad was complaining about yard work,” as they lived on a large Lakeshore Road property. Furthermore, he would have preferred to live closer to downtown Oakville. Offering a solution, the Harts mentioned that one of their two cottages was for rent.
The cottages, known as Number 8 and Number 10, were located at 8 and 10 King Street (the street numbers later changed to 108 and 110). They sat at the northern edge of the estate, snug between the Coach House and a hill that sloped down to the creek. Directly across the road from the cottages, a mere few strides away, was The Oakville Club. And as if by design, through the kitchen window of Cottage Number 8, the MacLarens’ cruiser Lady Evelyn II, could be seen in its mooring on the Sixteen Mile Creek.
Perhaps the Harts never really thought that their friends would take them up on the offer, as it was made, says Leslie, in a “kind of joking” manner. But Jo and Ken were so taken with the little cottage, that they promptly listed their house for sale and moved into Cottage Number 8.
“The cottage was delightful!” recalls Leslie. “The cottage was divided by a hallway that ran through the centre, [a straight line] from the front door through to a French door that accessed the back garden.” Crude flagstone flooring, flush with a hint of pale pink, typical of Port Credit stone, was laid in the hallway and the dining-living room area. “French windows faced onto the beautiful grounds with a massive elm right outside the living room window,” she says. The cottage came with exposed wooden beams, a skylight that occasionally leaked, and an enormous red-brick fireplace that covered much of one wall — its smoke often lingering.
Cottage Number 8, was built in 1952 for Monty’s Aunt Juliet; it featured elements of a Normandy-style cottage that Juliet was so fond of. Cottage Number 10 was built a year later for her sister Hazel, Monty’s mother. The dwellings were constructed of used materials to give them an older appearance. They shared a wall and a roofline, but functioned as separate cottages.
Moving into a one-bedroom cottage may have been a concern for some, but not for the MacLaren family of three. The large carpeted bedroom came equipped with an oversized walk-in closet. That closet was converted into a bedroom for Leslie. “My parents bought a large Victorian wardrobe cupboard for their clothes,” she says. “It’s a good thing that I was still pretty young, because I had to go through their bedroom to get to the bathroom or anywhere else.”
“It was a fun place to live,” she recalls. “There was a lot of scope for imagination on that property [for two young girls].” And imaginative, they were: they played down the hill from her cottage, on the flood plain — among fallen trees, tangled branches and rose bushes, and woodland wild flowers. There were thorns and thistles that plucked their clothing and scratched their skin, yet that didn’t deter them from playing there, says Leslie. She took delight at finding flowers, particularly the roses that pushed their way up through the brush. Leslie thought of them as “beautiful surprises when they were in bloom.” It was their favourite play area. The girls called it “the wilderness.”
“The wilderness” was the remnants of Hurricane Hazel, she says. The force of its breath uprooted trees and caused raging waters to flood the creek banks. But, before the storm hit, the hill and flood plain were neatly groomed between gardens, sugar maples, red ash and willow trees.
A low stone retaining wall followed the creek, from “the wilderness” to a beach. “We played on the pebble beach and hauled some of the rocks up to the cottage to make a rock garden of our own,” she says, “[leaving a trail of rocks] beside the rough, dirt footpath that lead from my cottage to the ‘secret garden.’”
For two girls with a love of horses, the Coach House stables became a place where make-believe horses whinnied, and the pawing of metal hooves smacked the wooden floor of their stalls. Even though horses had not graced the stables for many years, a faint smell of horse remained. “The stalls were still intact,” says Leslie. “We loved playing ‘horses’ in them.” And although Posy’s grandmother Hazel and Aunt Juliet (Posy’s great aunt), lived in the Coach House apartment, no one told the girls that playing in the stables was off limits. Yet, she adds, “I don’t imagine that we were supposed to be there.”
“The ‘Sixteen’ was an important part of our life,” says Leslie. “Dad built me a plywood dinghy from a kit on the front lawn of the cottage. . . . We rowed all around the harbour area, often with the Macrae twins, [as they rowed] Anitra’s dory. Sometimes all four of us would row all the way to the old mill ruins, as far as the water was deep enough for a boat. We explored the channels through the reeds.”
In wintertime, Leslie and Posy tobogganed down the steep hill that faced the Sixteen. Nothing could beat the thrill of sledding down through a clearing on that hill, she says, stopping just short of landing in the creek!
The MacLarens moved out of Cottage Number 8 in 1964. They left behind the Victorian wardrobe — but took with them a storybook full of memories.
Future: sketch by Jo (Dode) MacLaren, View Through the Window of Cottage 8, 1963
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