Up the Gatineau! Selected Articles

Brooks Hill - Low, Québec, Canada — Built 1859

Volume 16, page 1

Grete and Reg Hale

Out from the North pours the wild Gatineau River, cutting a path through the granite Laurentian Hills, until it joins the broad Ottawa River within sight of the towers of Canada’s Parliament. Its waters work hard, carrying down a rich crop of timber.

It was the timber that drew the first settlers to the valleys of the Ottawa and Gatineau. Lumbering sustained their economy for a 100 years. First to arrive was an enterprising yankee from Woburn, Massachusetts, Philemon Wright, who came up the frozen Ottawa early in 1800 with 25 families to build his settlement at Hull.

Brooks Hill
Brooks Hill, Low, Qubbec, 1859. (GVHS 13/1)

In 1818, an 18 year old nephew arrived to work for Wright, Caleb Brooks from Boston. In a few years working as a millwright he earned enough to get married and start farming on his own account.

Each winter the lumbermen pushed further north up the Gatineau Valley cutting the virgin pine. By 1836-37 the axemen of Hamilton & Low Co. were logging the area around the Paugan Falls, where the river, trapped between granite crags, raged over a 36 foot drop. He and his wife Anne Maria Dexter, arrived in February 1837 and moved into an abandoned shanty so soon after the lumberjacks moved out that the coals were still alive in the hearth.

Pioneering was in Caleb's blood. He descended from English Puritans who emigrated from Suffolk to Massachusetts in 1630. They baptised their second son "Caleb" and the name persisted in the family. Caleb III and his brother John were officers of the Minutemen in the War of Independence and were among the first men roused by Paul Revere during his famous midnight ride in 1775. Both fought at Lexington the next day. John served at Valley Forge with George Washington, ended the war as a Major General and in 1816 was elected Governor of Massachusetts. Caleb III was a Major and served in the Massachusetts Legislature.

His grandson, Caleb Brooks V was the pioneer who settled at Low. He opened an inn for the lumbermen pushing up the Valley - the only temperance inn upon the Gatineau. He and his seven sons kept a store, a smithy, a livery stable, a sawmill and farmed 1000 acres. They started a stagecoach line from Wakefield to Maniwaki.

Marshall, Caleb's oldest son, carried the mail on horseback to Maniwaki 70 miles north until a road was built and then he drove the stage. The stage driver was a glamorous figure in that frontier world. He made the speed records and was the first to learn the news along a hundred miles of road. Little wonder that pretty Hannah Chamberlin of Chelsea, just home after education in Boston, took an interest in Marshall.

Caleb Brooks' tombstone
Caleb Brooks' tombstone in the Low United Church cemetery.

Marshall and Hannah Brooks were married in 1859 and as a wedding gift Caleb built them a house and a barn — as he did for each of his sons when they married. This white farmhouse still stands on its hill overlooking Low and is named Brooks Hill.

Across the road in the graveyard, a tall memorial column marks the grave where Caleb "of Boston” and Anne Maria Brooks lie surrounded by many of their children and grandchildren. Hannah Brooks was 102 before she was laid to rest beside Marshall. Their descendants have spread across Canada as far as the Pacific Coast. But the railway put the stagecoach out of business; cars replaced horses; the inn burned down. Sad days also came to the farmhouse on the hill. By 1966 the building, the oldest in the village, was showing its age.

Cecil Morrison, co-founder of Morrison Lamothe Bakery, who had been born in the house and was a great-grandson of Caleb, longed to save the old home. With his daughter and son-in-law, Grete and Reg Hale, they determined to buy and renovate it for Canada’s centennial year. The architect Ted Fancott had a way with old houses, yet when he saw it he shook his head, “if it wasn't for the sentiment" he said, "you wouldn't start on this one, would you?" but he gave it his best skill. The builder Rudolphe Alie of Point Comfort was a master of woodcraft. He stripped the house to its hand-adzed ribs, exposing white pine boards, some 22 inches wide. When new wiring, plumbing and insulation had been installed and the walls repainted, the antique charm of the house was restored and enhanced. The four brick chimneys were taken down and the old bricks used to build a wide fireplace where large logs crackle on a winters evening.

Cecil Morrison
Last photograph taken of Cecil Morrison on the verandah of Brooks Hill before his death at 89 years in 1978. Left to right: David Pigott, Gay and Bob Cook, Donald and Kelly Cook, John Pigott, Grete and Reg Hale, Jean, Mary Jane and Arthur Pigott and dogs Muffin, Patrick and Susy. Photo credit: John Evans. (GVHS 437/4)

On Thanksgiving Day 1966 Cecil Morrison carved the turkey surrounded by his grandchildren in the restored Brooks homestead. It was fitting that the first meal should be the special feast of the Puritans. For the aim was not just to reconstruct an old house, but to revitalise the historic home. Homes are the seed-bed of our Western culture, the truest form of folk art. The hunter and the lumberman passed and left the forest still in wilderness. But close behind the settler’s cabin-home followed the church, the school, the store, trade and traffic. It was for homes that furniture was skilfully fashioned, carpets woven, pictures painted and pianos freighted in over mud roads. Canada is truly a home-made civilization.

When the reconstruction of the house was paid for there was little money left to furnish it. Then the old barn came to the rescue. Discarded treasures of an earlier day were stored there including a hutch-table which became a chair when the top was lifted up, popular in New England in the 1800s but rare in Canada. Caleb built this one from his boyhood memories. The dry-sink where dishes were washed before the days of piped water is now a serving table; the walking-wheel, broken in pieces, is re-assembled; a harness-jig now makes an end table; a dog-chum holds the TV set; the yoke that bone many a pail of water from the well, now supports two water colour paintings. The original front door with its Suffolk latch opens from the dining room onto the pillared porch where, seated on deacons' benches, one can gaze out at a magnificent view of the Gatineau Hills.

The hutch table
The hutch table (top tilts up and becomes a chair)

Brooks Hill has been enriched by the generous gifts of many friends. The first one was a signed portrait of Canada's great Prime Minister, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, presented by his cousin, The Hon. Paul Martineau, Q.C. Lighting the stairs is a tin lantern given by a friend whose grandfather made it to light his way to the cowbarn more than a hundred years ago.

The stairtreads are worn down by the feet of five generations. Serving as handrails are a peavey, an axe and a pike-pole. Together with a cross-cut saw, pickaroon and two-bitted “Methodist” axe, they rouse memories of the great lumbering days.

Father Roger Guindon, the former Rector of Ottawa University joined with Rev. Edward Furcha, Minister of the United Church at Low, to bless the restored house. Dr. Guindon placed over the main door a palm cross blessed by Pope john XIII in St. Peters, Rome. Then Rev. Furcha read the 127th Psalm, followed by the singing of "O Little Town of Bethlehem”, a hymn written by Bishop Phillips Brooks of Massachusetts, a fifth cousin.

Brooks Hill has been blessed with many visitors, some cousins coming from as far as Vancouver, San Francisco, Texas and Fort Simpson, Northwest Territories. A memorable occasion was the visit of the secretary of the Brooks Family Association, USA, and ten Brooks cousins from New England. Fifty of the Canadian cousins came to meet them and, at a time of remembrance around the grave of the pioneer Caleb Brooks, the American and Canadian branches of the family were re-united after a gap of 150 years.

A home is never finished because a family never dies. There is much yet to be done. As Brooks Hill enters its second century; the best years of its history — and of Canada's - lie ahead.

List of articles - Volume 16