John Phelan emigrated to Canada from Queen’s County, Ireland in 1825. Shortly after arriving, he fell in love with and married Margaret McCarthy of Goulbourn, Ontario. He and his new bride built a small log cabin and started working the surrounding land. Hard work and fertile soil made John a successful farmer; by 1846 the family owned 400 acres.
While John specialized in dairy farming, he also kept beef cattle and thoroughbred horses, as well as maintained a small vineyard—one remaining vine still produces white grapes every fall. In 1860, the family began the construction of the Strathmere House, an 18-room mansion built of field stones and offering commanding views of the farmland. The property remained in the Phelan family until 1955, when it was bought as a country retreat by Alex and Eleanor Sims, who modeled it on a European folk school: a place where city dwellers could escape from the stresses of urban life to work on their personal growth and development.
In 1957 the Sims moved a one-room schoolhouse onto the property and subsequently used it as the location for a non-profit drama school, “The Valley School of the Arts,” and 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 nearly 200 years into its existence.