The History of Strathmere…1825 – today
John Phelan emigrated to Canada from Queen’s County, Ireland in 1825, via the United States. Shortly after arriving in Canada he married Margaret McCarthy of Goulbourn. He and his new bride built a small log cabin and began farming Lot 16, Concession 2, North Gower. By 1846 they had purchased adjacent Lot 17, making a total of 400 acres, and by 1874, 300 acres were under tillage.
Phelan specialized in dairy farming and the milk was sent first to the North Gower cheese factory and later to Carsonby. He also kept beef cattle and thoroughbred horses. A vineyard was maintained; one remaining vine still produces white grapes every fall. Hard work and rich soil made John Phelan a successful farmer. He and Margaret had four sons and eleven daughters.
The building of Strathmere House began in 1860. Situated on the top of the hill just north of the original Phelan log cabin, it commands a magnificent view of the surrounding farmland. It was built of fieldstone from the farm, with trimmed stone lintels brought from nearby Fallowfield by sleigh and wagon.
No fireplaces were installed as only wood stoves were then used. Completed about 1865, the eighteen-room mansion included a wide centre hall with winding staircase and two alcoves in the wall over the stairs for religious statuettes; parlour, sitting room, and dining room on the main floor; with centre hall and four bedrooms on the second floor.
The window alcove at the end of the second-storey hall was first used as a chapel and then as a sewing room. A large kitchen with pantry and summer kitchen were in the east wing, with three bedrooms above for the hired help. A stone outdoor oven (now buried) was built on the south side of this wing and a stone coach-house was attached to the rear of the kitchen.
Some of the second generation of Phelans moved to Nebraska; two sons became medical doctors and one was a successful railroad builder under the great J.J. Hill. John Jr., the second son, remained on the estate. The property remained in the Phelan family until 1955 when it was bought as a country retreat and named “Strathmere” by Alex and Eleanor Sim. It came to be modeled on a European folk school, where city dwellers could escape from the stresses of urban life to work on their personal growth and development. In 1957 the Sims moved the one-room schoolhouse known as Phelan’s School S.S.No. 11 onto the property and used it, subsequently, as the location for a non-profit drama school, “The Valley School of the Arts,” and for a summer day camp.
In 1978 Dr. Walter Baker of the University of Ottawa, his wife Barbara, and their daughters Liz and Mary, purchased Strathmere and 200 acres of the original farm, for use as a management training and development centre, a wedding and special events facility, and more recently, a spa and wellness retreat. It remains a family enterprise today.