How the John Brown House Got Broken


I KEEP six honest serving-men
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who.
— Rudyard Kipling

On a very, very blue morning in June we opened the doors to the oldest house in the city of St. Catharines for the first time, and invited the city in for a visit.  The city seemed happy to be invited. Cars filled our little parking lot and lined up and down the street, and the beautiful old farmhouse was full of people, and laughter, and energy from 9:30 in the morning until almost five in the afternoon. In fact, more than 750 people visited the Brown Homestead that day!

The city seemed happy to be invited

We wanted everyone to feel welcome, and in the parlour, we set two clear boxes with notepads and pencils lying near by. “Tell us what you think!” The boxes read. “We hope you are enjoying your day at the Brown Homestead! Please leave us questions, comments or feedback - we want to hear from YOU!” And we did!

Lots and lots of guests left messages and compliments and questions in the boxes that day, and we were extremely pleased and grateful for their interest. ONE person, however - eight year old Nadia - left us a whole BUNCH of questions! My, was Nadia curious.

It was curiosity -  to “see what we could do” to save the farmhouse -  that pushed JBHF into existence. But it is the curiosity of children like Nadia that will secure its future. We want Nadia and other children (like YOU) to keep asking questions, to get involved, and even to help determine our future programing. One of the ways we can help you to do that is by answering your questions from the start!

So without further ado, here is everything Nadia wants to know about the Brown Homestead:

What was the name of John Brown's wife?

John Brown's wife was named Magdalena. She and John were married on May 5th, 1770 and 2017 would have been their 247th wedding anniversary! John and Magdalena had NINE children, and believe it or not, that wasn’t even an unusual size family in those days. They had four daughters while they still lived in New York, and after they moved to Ontario they had five sons. What a big family! No wonder they wanted to build such a big house!

Magdalena stayed in New York with the children

Magdalena stayed in the Schoharie Valley in New York when John went to fight with Butler’s Rangers during the American Revolutionary War. It was a very difficult time in New York. Many people felt that their lives would be better off if the colonies separated from England, and many people felt their lives would be better if they remained under British rule.

Friends and even family were often fighting on different sides of the conflict. It must have been quite hard for Magdalena to remain there, alone with the children, while her husband was off fighting against her neighbors! 

After the war was over, Magdalena and the girls joined John at Fort Niagara, and from there, they moved to what would become the Brown Homestead.

When did they start building the house?

We are pretty sure that John, Magdelena and their children moved from Fort Niagara to the Brown Homestead sometime after 1785. At that time, the land was covered with thick forest, with only a few trails running through it, and they probably built a log cabin to stay in at first.

The John Brown House was built in two stages. First they built a small, stone house, which they moved into in 1796. It probably took at least a year to build, because all the stone had to be dug out of a nearby quarry and dragged to the Homestead on sleds pulled by horses or oxen. The stone weighed 162 pounds per cubic foot. That must have been a lot of work for the animals!

The Stone was dragged to the Homestead on sleds

We believe they started building the rest of the house around 1802. That would have taken a LOT more stone and probably took at least 2 years to build! The original small stone house became the kitchen of the new big house. So, the John Brown House is actually two houses in one!

What is the main material of the house?

The inside walls are covered with lath and plaster

The outside of the John Brown House is made of stone. Though there are several kinds of stone that make up the whole house, the main type is a limestone called Reynales Dolomite. The stone is also very soft (for a stone!) and over the years, rain and wind and snow start to wear them away. You can see that erosion on the walls today!

The inside walls are framed with timber (wood) and then covered with what something called lath and plaster. Lath are very thin strips of wood which are nailed to the frame and cover the whole wall. Plaster is another building material, a powder that becomes a kind of thick paste when mixed with water. It is applied to the lath when it is wet, oozing between any gaps and leaving a smooth layer on top that hardens as it dries. 

I like that the inside of the house is pretty even though it is cracked and broken. How did the house become cracked and broken? What year did it get broken?  I hope it gets fixed soon.

We are so glad that despite its cracks and broken bits you still find the house pretty. We agree with you! 

Houses also need seasonal changes, to keep them safe, warm and dry

Remember, the John Brown House is more than 200 years old. Imagine how a man or a woman who was more than 200 years old might look. When you think about it that way, the house looks pretty good for its age!

Also, just like people, the buildings we live in need to be taken care of as they get older. When the season changes from summer to winter, we need to protect ourselves from the cold, wind and snow. We trade in our bathing suits, shorts and sandals for warm sweaters, jackets and waterproof boots. This helps keep us stay dry, warm and healthy! 

Houses also need seasonal changes, to keep them safe, warm and dry for us to use. We might put on storm windows when winter comes, as further protection from the wind and cold.  We repair the roof so it doesn’t leak when it rains or snows! If we don’t attend to these kinds of things regularly, houses begin to show signs of wear and tear. 

Our job is to restore and repair what we can, and then to make certain that we take regular care of the John Brown House from now on! 

When do you think the house will be fixed? 

The short answer is never, but that sounds strange, doesn’t it? Of course we will restore and repair what we can, and make sure that the house is taken good care of from now on. But we also look at our job a little differently. Part of what we will do is to use some of the broken bits of the house to teach people about old buildings - how to fix them and make them last for another 200 years. This may mean that some of the cracks you see may be there for a while!

We will use some of the broken bits of the house to teach people about old buildings

Also, we believe in a process called Adaptive Re-use. That means giving a new purpose to an old building that might otherwise be torn down. It also helps the environment by conserving natural resources and minimizing the need for new materials.

The John Brown House was a farmhouse for more than 150 years. And a long time ago it was also used as a tavern! In order to make sure that the house is still standing 200 years from now, we have to find a new purpose for it that suits the community’s needs today! 

In that sense, our work on the house will be part of a continuous process. It won’t ever quite be “fixed” because it will continue to adapt over time. Fixed implies there is an end. Change doesn’t end.

Does that make sense?

Will the house be sold when it is fixed?

No it certainly will not! 

We want it to be a place that someday you can bring YOUR grandchildren

We think the house and the cabin on the Brown Homestead are very, very special, and we are going to keep sharing them with everyone, just like we did the day you visited for Doors Open St. Catharines.

We want it to be a place to learn, to share ideas and ask questions - about history and culture and farming and food and much, much more!

We want it to be a place that someday, many years from now,  you can bring YOUR grandchildren to visit.

We couldn’t do all of that if we sold it!



We want to thank Nadia for her fantastic questions! We sure had fun answering them, and we hope that other children will discover more about the Homestead because of her curiosity! We hope she will visit us again, and that other young people will visit us too and ask even more questions!