From Almonte Gazette, 1969
The Aristocratic Bairds of Bennies’ Corners…
by Hal Kirkland
The people of Bennies ‘ Corners always said that the Bairds were proud and aloof, or as one neighbor lady who remembered the Baird sisters put it, “they were uppish.”
Of course they all came from Scotland; the Sneddens, Toshacks, Gardners, Steeles, Naismiths, Waddells, Grahams, Cochrans, Youngs, Philips – and the Bairds too, who came from Glasgow. Perhaps these Scotch felt that they were entitled to pass judgment on one of their own. All of these family names are still familiar in this district – all except the Bairds. The last of the Bairds died at Bennies’ Corners, in the year 1900.
When John Baird emigrated to Canada in 1829 he left his wife and four children in Scotland. He also left numerous creditors in and around Glasgow. But he did expect to see his wife and family again – in Canada. And they did come out after he was established in this new land, even though Mrs. Baird was reluctant to leave the comforts of her home in the city.
If ever a man established himself in a hurry it was John Baird. In an incredibly short time he had built himself a huge two and a half story flour mill, a store and a dwelling, all solid stone buildings.
The mill and the store are still standing, after almost 140 years. The mill, named by John Baird; “Woodside Mills” is now the Mill of Kintail (The Tait McKenzie Memorial) and the store is now the attractive residence near the entrance gate to the Mill of Kintail. The Baird residence which was dismantled and razed is completely gone. It was located about where Mr. Wilbert Monette’s barn now stands.
The neighbors at Bennies’ Corners who were still living in their original log houses and struggling to clear more land must have marvelled at the audacity of this man Baird coming in and straightway putting up such grand buildings. He would have had to hire stonemasons, millwrights and laborers to put up the mill and skilled craftsmen for the rich cherry woodwork throughout the rooms in the dwelling. They concluded that he must have brought out a lot of money from Scotland or else had some mysterious method of financing beyond their ken. But they never knew for certain.
However we now know a little more about the Bairds than these neighbors did. Mrs. Baird kept the letters that her husband had written to her while he was alone in Canada and she was in Glasgow. These letters were found, probably in the drawer of a desk that someone purchased when the Baird household effects were sold in 1900. Appropriately, these letters are now in the Pioneer Museum at the Mill of Kintail the mill that John Baird built.
The letters were written in the year 1830. This writer has no inclination to quote indiscriminately from these letters written by a husband to his wife. Still I think that without violating good taste a few passages of a general nature can be selected because they are authentic accounts of conditions and problems faced by the Bairds and the other Scotch settlers at Bennies’ Corners. Anyway, John Baird did not indulge in sentimentality. he was a very practical man.
In the first letter to his wife Isabella John writes, “I cannot endure the idea of allowing you and the family to come here. I am sure none of you would like it, although I could make a living yet it would be such a living as you would not like. It would not afford an opportunity of the family obtaining such an education to enable them to provide for themselves to which I had my views directed in coming here, and not the wealth as has been stated to you.” What he meant by the reference to wealth remains enigmatic.
In his next letter (a letter was usually six weeks and sometimes longer in reaching its destination) he is talking of going back home. “I will sail for Scotland about 1st June. God willing, I will be in Greenock about 10th or 15th July. I saw Mrs. McFerson. She told me yesterday that she would sell the shirt off her back to go home; but her husband will not consent, because as he says, he will not go to be driven around as a porter, not having a trade.”
Times were bad in the British Isles. But John Baird apparently still owned property in Scotland because he says, “I still feel convinced that the estate will turn out greatly superior to what has been stated of it.” All the same he suggested that she “take a small house.”
He indulges in a little self pity for which he can be forgiven. He says, “Tell them (the children) I undertook this journey looking to their benefit. Supposing I was worth £20,000 I would give the half of it rather than undergo what I have done these last 8 months, but it is little compared to the anxious and sleepless nights I have had, fearing and doubting how you all are. I have suffered severely these four weeks past for want of letters. Within these four months I have lost at least 11/2 stones weight, although in good health.”
He was always anxious about the children’s schooling. He writes, “I hope Isabella can go through the Bible and Psalm Book now well. I trust John is a good scholar. I am quite sure William will not disappoint me. Keep him at his counting, writing and bookkeeping.”
Well, spring came in Canada and John wrote, “I like this country greatly better than I did.” He tells her, “the strawberries grow here in the fields and there are immense quantities of large plums in the woods, much larger than you have. Since April came in the weather has been fine. April and May are like Scotland in July.”
Again he mentions the immoderate drinking by the settlers. He says, “it is no uncommon thing when a man passes a neighbor’s house at night perhaps with three gallons of whiskey to finish it that night.” In a previous letter he said, “it is the worst whiskey you can have any conception of at 2/6 a gallon.”
But a year later, in his store at Bennies’ Corners, John Baird himself was selling whiskey to the settlers. The price had gone up according to his daybook, which is also in the Pioneer Museum, he was selling whiskey at 3/9 a gallon. Perhaps it was a better grade of whiskey. To those with some knowledge in these matters it may be of interest to know that a gill of whiskey was 4d. and that a gill is 1/4 pint.
The remaining letters are mostly concerned with detailed instructions about preparations for the voyage over. He advises them to purchase warm and sturdy clothing and it is interesting that he admits “my clothes are all too fine.”
In one letter he informs her casually, as if an afterthought, “ I have bought 200 acres of as good land as is in Ramsay. The Indian river runs through, about one half size of Clyde; a waterfall of 10 feet; a fine mill seat and store.” It is odd that he never mentioned this before as the records show that he had bought the land from the canada Company more than a year previously.
Apparently he did not tell his wife everything. Just the important things – such as not to forget the gingerbeer and to get her chairs packed with cross spars of wood and Janet’s and Jean’s pictures must be packed with cotton waste and the piano must also be carefully done and strong. he sent the poor woman long lists of goods she must buy and have shipped to Canada for the store at Bennies’ Corners and told her exactly how much to pay for a dozen shawls or a dozen handkerchiefs, how much a yard for various kinds of cloth and so on. Furthermore he specified the merchants or agents from whom the items should be purchased. This would be a new and novel experience for the genteel Isabella Baird. I wonder, how she made out?
There is no record of when Mrs. Baird and the children finally set sail for Canada. She was in no hurry and you cannot blame her. The children were in their teens except William the youngest, and all of them were attending good schools. Jeannie, the eldest, was a gifted musician and was studying in Ireland, probably at a young ladies’ convent school.
However, we do, know that the mill and the store were soon going concerns and that Mr. Baird was doing very nicely. But he was never satisfied. Years later he acquired a grist mill in Almonte and his son William came in from Bennies’ Corners to manage it. After that, he built a two story mill in Almonte, the bottom story, stone and the top story frame, which he rented to Gilbert Cannon for the manufacture of woolen goods. This mill was on the bank of the Mississippi about opposite the parking lot of Harry’s Motor Sales.
This venture marked the beginning of the decline and eventual end of the Baird Fortune. He became involved in lengthy and costly litigation over water rights in the Mississippi. This and the fact that his Bennies’ Corners mill was becoming obsolete because he was still operating his flour mill with burr stones while others were converting to the roller method. One of the millstones is now part of the McKenzie Memorial on our Town Hall lawn.
From now on the plight of the Bairds is a sad story, Mrs. Baird died in 1857. In the same year John advertised that he had for sale pork, flour and oatmeal. In 1860 the mill was up for sale. John Baird died in 1867 in the 88th year of his age. After the grist mill in Almonte failed William went back to Bennies’ Corners and passed away there. The other son John lived until 1894. The two sisters, Isabella and Jean, were left alone. They were old and feeble.
This writer is indebted to Mrs. Hollie Lowry and Mrs. Peter Syme for the little that is now known of the last days of the Baird sisters. The two spinsters stayed in their beautifully furnished home at Bennies’ Corners, aloof, with no friends and no means. If it had not been for their close neighbours, Mrs. John Steele and Mrs. John Snedden, the proud and pennyless sisters literally would have died of starvation.
Both sisters were highly intelligent, but were considered eccentric. Jean, the musician, died first and Isabella was alone until she passed away in 1900. Mrs. Syme, who was then a small girl named Mabel Snedden, remembers taking food to Isabella, a task which she did not relish as there were usually a sheep or two and a flock of hens in the house. The hens had no respect for the fine furniture and roosted on the piano. Isabella, unkempt and listless, would be reclining on the settee in her expensive bonnet and fine silks.
And sadly so ended the last of the proud and aristocratic Bairds of Bennies’ Corners.