Attic renovations lead to historical discoveries in Ashton home

(A wooden pull along dog toy missing its front legs and wheels was found in Tanis and Seth’s attic renovation. All photos provided by Jessica Sultan)

Regardless of which of the three ‘F’ roads you take (Fernbank, Flewellyn or Fallowfield), a drive from Stittsville to Ashton will provide you with a rich view of local history. The drive will include many farmhouses, barns and fields, both planted and fallow, a testament to the deep farming roots of the area.

The village of Ashton exudes history at every turn, including local churches, an historic pub, and original homesteads. Built in the late 1800s and jokingly referred to as one of the newer, ‘infill’ houses of downtown Ashton, there is a particularly beautiful home in the heart of the village that welcomed a new family of owners in the summer of 2018. Owners Seth Hamilton and Tanis Cappello have recently begun attic renovations that have led to remarkable discoveries. Many of the finds have ties to local families whose names you may recognize, as they grace some of our local roads, parks and community centres.

Tanis and Seth’s house was originally built in 1890 by Thomas Fleming, for his bride Elizabeth Stewart. The house next door was built by Elizabeth’s Dad, Neil Stewart, in 1845. When Elizabeth married Thomas, she only needed to move next door to take over the role of mistress of her new home. An original photo of the house can be found in the archives at the Stittsville Branch of the Ottawa Public Library, labelled ‘Fleming House- approx. 1890’.

The land that Tanis and Seth’s house is built on definitely used to include an additional 3.5 acres, and possibly many more than this. The Ormrod family bought the majority of the land from Thomas Fleming in the early 20th century, and three generations of Ormrods have lived in the house built since.

Seth and Tanis’ house is full of fascinating original details. The second floor boasts original pine flooring, which to be honest, has seen better days, but is a remarkable addition to the house nonetheless. If you look closely, there are signs of how the layout has changed over the years. For example, it is apparent that the closets were added after the original build, as there are beautiful original door plinths with bullseye rosettes that disappear a few inches into walls to accommodate the closet add-ins. Notably, there is a strange tiny square-shaped window in their son’s bedroom, at floor level, as well as a large square patch of non-matching wood in the floor, both of which indicate that a stairway existed at some point, long before the space became a bedroom. There are original plaster ceiling medallions, featuring pineapples, which would have been incredibly exotic in 1890, and used as a status symbol to demonstrate wealth and sophistication, even though most (including the original owners of the house) likely never saw a real pineapple in their lifetime.

Every single doorway in the house is transomed, and there are a few decorative vents left in the bulkheads. The house has never had a wood burning heat source (for example, a firesplace), other than a woodstove for kitchen cooking; rather, it had two coal burning furnaces in the crawlspace basement, and used duct work and the transoms to move heat around the house. This system would have been incredibly high tech for the time period. There is a metal bracket on the baseboard on the stairwell that leads to the basement, which Tanis and Seth were told would have housed levers in the brackets, used to open and shut flues to change the flow of hot air to different parts of the house.

As noted, the couple have begun to work on their attic. They wanted to remove all of the musty insulation and upgrade to spray foam. The original floorboards for the attic were still in place, although unfixed and therefore easily lifted. The family quickly discovered that the space under the attic floor had been used to hide a century’s worth of garbage. The space was stuffed with mostly broken shingles and debris: in fact, 2900 lbs of this treasure was removed in total. Amongst the garbage Seth and Tanis found a few real treasures, some of which seemed to have fallen into the under-floor space, while others had obviously been carefully hidden.

Details of special finds to date are as follows — An Orangist Handbook dated 1912, owned by Joseph Ormrod. The old Orange Lodge is now a residence, and can still be seen on Ashton Station road, past the original Highway 7. Also found were an old Christmas card sent by a Mary Watson, a delicate beaded leather baby bootie, the wings from a toy tin plane, a toy tea cup (the saucer got lost into the industrial vacuum sucking the insulation), some metal broaches and dresser handles, a leather scrap, a green glass saucer (or possibly the bottom of an old, thick glass bottle), and a key from a child’s violin. The family also found a wheel from an old chair, and an item in the far right of the second picture which they are unable to identify.

The photo below includes an old mouth harp, a couple of keys, four spoons (3 are matching and have very deep bowls compared to modern spoons), and a folding tool used to clean a smoker’s pipe. The pipe cleaning tool was found by the chimney, perhaps dropped by a mason doing repairs.

This four page letter is Tanis’ favourite find. It was found folded into the small vase pictured, stuffed into the knothole of a floorboard. The letter is entitled “The Betrothal” and contains a long list of stipulations the would-be groom expects from his bride-to-be. It is unfortunately undated, but suspected to be quite old. It does not match the hand writing of Joseph Ormrod, who lived in this house the longest, (Joseph Ormrod b. 1867 d. 1947). Tanis suspects the letter is older than Joseph, although the paper is in great condition and is easy to read.

The author of this letter is a mystery. It appears to have never been given to the author’s future bride. The stringent demands outlined are shocking by today’s standards. Tanis stated an interest in knowing whether this type of expectation was the norm for the time period, and were considered acceptable demands. At any rate, the letter provides fascinating insight into the social norms of the past.

A cheque, money order or receipt, in terrible repair, for $31.78 made out to an F.G. Langtry by an Ormrod. Dated 29 Dec, 1952.

A collection of letters to and from Joseph Ormrod, dated 1916-1924. The large letter on the left, written by Joseph and never sent to its intended recipient, provides an excellent sample of his handwriting. The back of this letter was used as scrap to figure out some math sums, perhaps for a building project.

Eleven of the letters are sent to Joseph from a woman in Alpena, MI and range over a number of years. The letters began in 1916, the year Joseph’s wife died.

The letters are quite musty and difficult to read, but the takeaway is that the woman in Alpena was smitten with Joseph. The writer often implies a desire for Joseph to visit her. A letter dated in 1920 mentions the Spanish Flu in her area and that she doesn’t “blame the women for running away”. Another more intimate and fascinating peek into an historical event.

And then there are these two amazing letters, also addressed to Joseph Ormrod, found in the same envelope, written by Lizzie McCaffrey (heiress of the McCaffrey family and namesake of the local trail). The letters were sent at the same time, a fact that she mentions in the texts, and are remarkable in that they were written at a time at which she and Joseph were both in their late 50s.

The first letter is full of love for Joseph, asking him to visit and dropping hints that she wanted to pursue a deeper friendship.

The second, dated only one week later, is authored by a woman scorned. Lizzie tears harshly into Joseph, but never explains what he said or did to incite this change of demeanor.

Tanis and Seth have never seen a photo of Joseph, but imagine him to be quite dashing, as he appears to have had a significant number of female fans.

Tanis and Seth are still in the process of cleaning out under the floorboards, but have put the project on hold until winter as they try to finish work outside on the property before the snow flies. It is almost certain that future work will turn up yet more treasure. Currently, all of the finds are kept safe in a keepsake box in the family’s china hutch, trotted out regularly for any interested viewers. Ultimately, Tanis would like to create a time-capsule out of it all, adding some items from her own family. There seems to be little of historical value to local museums, so the family would like to keep the items with the house for the next owners to enjoy, and potentially continue to add to as well.


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