Evolution of the House
Information for this section comes from reports by Peter J. Stokes, David Spector and Maria Blicharski.
1784-1819 Sir John Johnson
The land that Johnson chose on the north and south sides of the Raisin river contained an ideal spot for saw and grist mills. These were two essential components of early settlements in Loyalist Upper Canada. The house built adjacent to the mills, now known as Sir John Johnson House, was most likely constructed for the miller, not for Johnson himself. It was a small five bay, 1½ storey log house constructed in the French piéce-sur-piéce manner. This construction method uses squared, horizontal logs laid one on top of the other and mortised into the vertical posts.
The house was built sometime between 1785 and 1792, probably before 1787. Peter Stokes examined the property in 1961 and concluded that the foundation of the house was laid before the mill was completed but the upper portion of the house was finished after the mill was operational, as milled timbers were used there. The western shed addition has not been reliably dated, but appears to have been added by 1813.
1819 -1848 Hugh McGillis
Hugh McGillis, a retired fur trader, purchased the property from Johnson in 1819 for £3000. McGillis was not a stranger to the area, as he had moved to Charlottenburg with his parents after the American Revolution, before joining the North-West Company. By 1801 he was a partner in the company. He retired in 1816 and returned to Glengarry in 1819. Although married to a First Nations woman and having fathered 7 children in the Northwest, it is believed that Hugh McGillis lived alone in the house, with a housekeeper. During this period the shed addition was converted to a two bay extension, the house was covered with wood siding and new trim was installed. David Spector's 1982 report suggests that at least some of the dormers were added in this period, while Blicharski's 1990 Structural Assessment Report doesn't show them until the John McGillis period.
1848-1872 John McGillis
John McGillis inherited the property in 1848, upon his uncle's death. The estate contained, by this time, some 550 acres. He, his wife Eliza and their nine children lived in the house. During their occupancy, but after 1861 a two storey addition with a porch at the east side of the house was constructed, and a veranda along the south and east elevations. Stokes gives a date of 1855 for the extension, while Blicharski suggests between 1861 and 1871 as the construction date. During these years the dormers were also added.
Both Hugh and John engaged in mixed farming, Hugh leaving horses and cattle to his nephew in his will and the 1851 census reporting 11 cows, 14 calves, 8 horses, 38 sheep and 38 hogs on John's property. John expanded the active farm land as well – in 1861 the census reports him cultivating 180 acres - up from 150 acres a decade before.
1872-1897 Murdock McLennan
Murdock McLennan purchased the property from John McGillis in 1872. For 25 years he farmed the land and owned eight houses in the or near Williamstown.
No major changes have been found to have occurred during this period.
1897-1938 Donald Murdock Robertson
Col. Donald Murdock Robertson inherited the property from his uncle. He never lived in Williamstown, but for the first 16 years of his ownership operated the farm through a local farm manager. In 1913 his stepson, Gibson P. Shaw moved into the house and occupied it until 1939. Little major change occurred to the house: the porch on the eastern wing was removed sometime during this period and a small shed off the northwest corner of the house was added.
1938 – 1956 Lionel and Lionel Patrick Devaux
Lionel Devaux bought the property when Robertson died in 1938. He and his son Patrick continued some farming, but focussed their energy on raising race horses and purebred cattle. During their period in the house, they removed the north west shed and added two windows on the south side of the eastern wing.
1956-1971 Les Soeurs de Sacré Coeur
Les Soeurs de Sacré Coeur purchased the property in 1956 and used it as a religious retreat and summer residence for the noviciates. They had sold most of the adjoining recreational lands by 1965. Some modernization was carried out on the interior, but no exterior changes were made.
In 1961 Sir John Johnson House was declared of national historic significance by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada.
1971 – present Government of Canada
In 1971, the Department of Northern and Indian Affairs purchased the house. In 1974, some renovations were carried out on the first floor of the eastern wing to provide space for the Williamstown Branch of the Seaway Valley Libraries. A sprinkler system was installed and insulation was added on the second storey.
In 1996, a community group called the Friends of the Manor House was formed. This group wished to see the house available for community use, and worked with Parks Canada to develop a plan for use. The interior of the west wing, vacant and unusable, was rehabilitated, and now provides space for the Friends to carry out their business which since 1998 has included the operation of the Glengarry Archives. Their collection includes Glengarry Land Record Abstracts, legal instruments for land transfers, Glengarry Church Record Indices of Baptisms, Marriages, Burials, Local History books and many photos and maps.