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The Dunbar Residence

by Renka Gesing

108 Ramsay Street (now 273) in Amherstburg

One of the oldest houses in one of Ontario’s oldest towns
was once threatened with destruction in the name of
“progress.” When this Georgian style solid red brick home was built on 108 Ramsay Street (now 273) in Amherstburg in 1849, there were barely 900 souls in the town. By the late1960s the town had grown considerably and developers were looking for places to build.

Fortunately, William Carter, who owned the residence and was attempting to sell the home, realized its great historical value to the town and agreed to postpone the sale if a buyer could be found who would not destroy that worthiness. Since any interested purchasers either wanted to modernize or remove the building for commercial purposes, Carter contacted the curator of the Fort Malden Museum for suggestions.

Enter David Bernhardt. Co-owner of O'Neil Bernhardt, a fine furniture store in Olde Walkerville in Windsor. Evidently Bernhardt realized the potential of the somewhat dilapitated home and purchased it for his residence. He quickly initiated major renovations, including exposing the old pine floors. A back room was used to warehouse unique architectural fixtures of the home, including a set of wooden spindles over one of the doors. According to Jim O'Neil (the other half of O'Neil Bernhardt) his daughter fell in love with the spindles and convinced her husband to make a table out of them, still in use in her shop (Bedazzle) on Pelissier Street in downtown Windsor.

In 1973, Berhnardt decided to sell, as he was weary of the long commute to Windsor. Fortunately, the next owners, Stuart and Teddie Keith, were drawn to the home’s style, history and solid construction, and purchased the house for $37,500. Copies of the first building specifications for the house, were sent to the Keiths by the grandson of the builder, John Henry Abel. These diagrams emphasized good-quality workmanship. Handwritten in polished, artful script, the specifications of materials, and the carpenter and joiner work of a brick dwelling house to be erected for James Dunbar and Samuel R. McGee on the ground belonging to them down on the river bank covered such careful details as:

• The floors to be of one inch and a quarter pine, planned, tongued and grooved, blind nailed, with heading joint broken.
• Roof to be covered with one-inch board and shingled with good pine shingles laid
four inches to the weather.
• Cornice to be on front and back of building to be plain and in proper dimensions and to be put up in a substantial and workmanlike manner.
• The whole of the doors and windows to be free of unsound knots and other defects.
• Mantle pieces to be in proportion and harmony with the rest of the work.

According to information from Amherstburg Heritage Designation files and the Amherstburg Echo, the house was one of three brick buildings built in 1849 (the others being the Solmoni Hotel and the Paxton Building).

The original property owner was William Mickle, born in Scotland and a resident of the United States who married Hannah Turner in Detroit in 1792.

On April 15, 1799, Captain Hector Mclean assigned Lot #21 to Mickle, who was the Ship Carpenter. Called Second Street in 1800, there was a frame house on the lot (now lot #8, as it is still known today) by 1820. James Dunbar had the frame house replaced by a fine red brick home 29 years later, though records show that the property was still owned by the Mickle family in 1861 (Wm Mickle died in 1814 of “Lake Fever”). Dunbar had the house built as a bakeshop and his residence.

Later, the residence was the site of the Amherstburg library for about 20 years, until the Carnegie Library was opened about 1911. Next, a machine shop occupied part of the building, the remainder being used by the Pineau family, which was well known for having 12 beautiful daughters. The Keiths met a few of the daughters during an open house when the house was for sale.

“They showed us the third step on the stairway where they got their spanking,” said Mr. Keith.
About 1917 the Amherstburg Continuation School occupied the building until the General Amherst High School was opened in 1921. In 1925 Lewis Goodchild purchased the home from the town and lived there until 1965 when he died at the age of 94 years. William Carter bought the house from his widow Emily Goodchild in 1966 for use as a residence and an antique shop.

The Keiths, particularly Stuart, who is an accomplished renovator, have put a lot of sweat equity into the house. When they moved in, the entire top floor was one big room, probably, surmises Mr. Keith, from the time it was used as a school. He has taken great care to bring the house back its 1840s appearance. The lost interior doors, for example, were replaced with doors taken out of the Solmoni Hotel.

“I used to find a lot of stuff people had thrown out,” said Mr. Keith. The six foot by three foot windows – all 18 of them – are original.

The Keiths are most impressed by their home’s central hall and the six-foot wide stairway going up the middle of the house. The attic, which remains empty, “has big square beams with tree nails, [which are] big wooden bolts; it’s built like a barn, must be 13 feet from the floor to the peak.”

From time to time, the Dunbar home reveals historic secrets to its present owners. For example, when crawling under the house, which stands 15 to 18 inches off of the ground, Mr. Keith found a clay pipe and a little cannon ball about two inches in diameter.

Today the home is “right on the borderline of the commercial area,” says Mr. Keith. “We’re safely in the residential part," and is designated under the Ontario Heritage Act. Thanks to the Keith’s care and respect of this historic treasure, and because of the foresigtedness of William Carter, the home should be around for many more years to come, perhaps revealing even more secrets to future owners.

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