Ainslie House, circa 1890
no fireplace in the parlour, or in any of the other rooms.
Lumber people were afraid of fires.”
house as it looks today.
Photo Renka Gesing
David and Gail Ainslie look out the windows of their 1890s
home, they can see David’s nectar and lavender gardens,
a bee house, a barn impressive for its 35-foot height, and
tidy farmed fields. On the other side of the gardens, there’s
a tranquil pond and the recently built home of Craig Ainslie,
David’s father. Both Ainslie homes stand on the outer
edge of the quiet village of Comber about 40 minutes east
with a population of just over 1,300 (and now considered a
part of Lakeshore), wasn’t always so quiet. In the late
1890s and early 1900s, Comber was five times the size, says
David. There were gas lamps in the streets and six hotels
in the downtown area. That was when J.S. (John Straith) Ainslie,
David’s great uncle, lived in the home with his wife,
Annie, and their four children.
J.S. and Annie’s windows was a bustling sawmill operation.
A mill sat on the land where Craig’s house now stands
– the pond provided a steady supply of water for the
generation of steam for barrel making. J.S. ran a small conglomerate
of logging, lumber, agriculture and even gas interests. He
pulled his brothers into his businesses and they established
their own homes in Comber. Other smaller houses were built
for the workmen and their families.
generations of the Ainslie family, circa 1910s
was George Ainslie and his wife Mary, who had brought the
family to the area in the 1860s. (His father came to Canada
from Scotland in 1812.) George’s 12 children –
J.S. was the oldest, while Craig’s father, “Young
Willy,” was the youngest – were all born in Valetta.
When they moved to Comber in 1882, families had been settling
in the area for the previous couple of decades on land purchased
from the Crown – land that was covered with dense hardwood
to the Lakeshore history web pages: “Trees were cut
for log cabins with the cracks being filled with mud. The
fireplaces were made of logs plastered with lime, the chimneys
were also made of logs. As the land was cleared, the hard
wood was burned. The potash was carefully gathered and taken
to Windsor by oxen. The trip would take three to four days.
The ashes were sold and used to make lye soap. The settlers
cleared the land to grow corn and potatoes.”
was back in the 1830s. By the time the Ainslies started establishing
the family in the area, the Canada Southern Railway was already
running from Niagara Falls / Fort Erie across the north shore
of Lake Erie to Windsor, where it rejoined its parent, the
New York Central. Like Comber, communities along the rail
line grew quickly. By the end of the 19th century, Comber
businessmen were sending lumber and agricultural products
down the rails to Windsor and Detroit.
hardwood forests once covered Essex County. The Ainslie
family operated a logging/milling company. Top row,
left to right: Donald Ainslie, Gerald Fenner, Claude
Ainslie, 4th boy unkown
Bottom row, (l-r): R.O.Y. Ainslie, G.W. Ainslie, Isaac
Ainslie, I.S., Ainslie,
W.J. (Young Willie) Ainslie, behind W.J. is W.A. Keith,
photo courtesy David Ainslie
was one of the main businessmen to drive Comber’s growth
– and a steady increase in the family fortune. “They
were the only people in Comber who could afford a cement walk
to the outdoor toilet,” says David. The house was built
in three different sections. “As family fortune grew,
they kept expanding.”
town perhaps should have been renamed something like Ainslieville.
The family members, “who were all teetotallers,”
says David, “had the means to buy up all the hotels
and make the town dry.” Once a year J.S. and Annie would
hold a family dinner for all the area’s Ainslies. “They
were like royalty; we really had to mind our manners.”
The J.S. family travelled widely throughout the world, packing
their clothes in big trunks that are still found in the home.
early 1900s, however, the lumber industry was quickly decreasing
in importance as the forests that were being cleared for both
lumber and agriculture were rapidly disappearing. “By
1910, the boom was over,” says David. Over the coming
years, the tall barn would be used increasingly for agricultural
purposes, and less for lumber. “I still remember piles
of sawdust around the barn, but on a much smaller scale.”
died in 1938. His two youngest daughters, Aethel and Floelia,
were the last two members of the J.S. Ainslie family to live
in the house. They never married, and lived there on their
own from 1956 to 1977. The two enjoyed botany and grew spectacular
gardens. One garden had 200 to 300 varieties of iris. Another,
a spring garden around the path to the house, yielded a different
scent every week. Floelia was also a collector of Royal Dalton
figurines, purchasing every figurine and other glass and crystal
items. She even commissioned her own sugar bowl and teapot.
purchased the home after his aunts died and when David returned
to Comber, he moved into the J.S. Ainslie home with his wife
Gail in 1979. One of the first things David and Gail did after
moving into the home was to have the Royal Dalton collection
appraised – an activity that took an entire summer –
and arrange an auction to sell them all. Other than moving
out all the glassware, they have not made any major changes
to the house.
it’s much like J.S. would have seen it,” says
Gail. “The same furniture, the same woodwork, rooms
left much like they were initially constructed.” The
woodwork is all tiger maple. Solid wood pocket doors allow
each room to be closed off. Just off the living room is a
parlour, throughout which are scattered some of grandson Duncan’s
toys. It’s known in the family however, as the “funeral
room.” Gail and David believe that since dying is really
part of living, it’s more appropriate to hold a wake
for a family member at home than at a funeral parlour. They
smile at the memory of Duncan and one of his cousins playing
cars under a casket.
there’s no fireplace in the parlour, or in any of the
other rooms. “Lumber people were afraid of fires,”
says Gail. “They had more than one fire in the sawmill.”
Another interesting feature, although it’s covered up
with newer wallpaper, is leather wall ‘paper’
on the staircase up to the second floor. J.S. brought it back
with him on one of the family trips to Germany. The furniture
he acquired locally and abroad still graces the house. Down
in the basement is a huge cistern, the size of an aboveground
swimming pool, that was used for water storage.
15 years away from Comber, during which time David worked
in construction, travelled throughout the world, and studied
agriculture, he came back to move into the J.S. Ainslie home
with Gail. Their focus is very different from David’s
great uncle. David has set aside large tracts of land to re-establish
a couple of these were planted 30 years ago uniquely with
ash trees, under the insistence of the Ministry of Natural
Resources. “The woodlot that is my ‘church’
has been destroyed,” David says, referring to the devastation
of his favourite place of meditation caused by the emerald
ash borer beetle.
Ainslie relaxing in the dining room. Photo Renka Gesing
keep planting and managing all the other activities he operates
from the Ainslie properties. Gail keeps to her job as case
manager for Community Living Chatham-Kent. “David’s
work is more of a philosophy,” she says, “and
I don’t want to squash that philosophy.”
philosophy involves growing and making a number of all-natural
products, such as flours and honey, and all products in between.
David grows and grinds his own grain, farms soy beans, raises
bees, at the same time attempting to return some of the Ainslie
land back to the forests it once knew. A store inside the
family barn stands open and unattended for customers to drop
in and leave their money in the till.
rather plant trees than make money,” says David.
some day, future owners of the J.S. Ainslie house will see
forests again as they look out their windows.
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