Written in 1982
Few are aware that near the shore of nearby Lake Eloida the derelict abode of the Witch of Plum Hollow sits empty, ravaged by time and vandals. . However for three generations of Joynt women, descendants of Mother Barnes, a visit to the tiny cabin shortly before Halloween proved a sentimental journey of sorts.
Lera Joynt, daughter Carol, 11-year-old Susan Joynt and Lisa Joynt, 14, had varied reactions to the forlorn cottage. “I recall Grandpa Samuel Barnes telling of hitching up the horses for the long ride from Smiths Falls to Plum Hollow,” Lera reminisced. Sam, one of Barnes’ nine children, was a blacksmith and mayor of Smiths Falls in 1906.
Her daughter Carol felt a strong bond with her famous ancestor. Mother Barnes ‘gift’ to foresee the future appeared in every generation, she said. Lisa and Susan, daughters of Witch of Plum Hollow Painted by Henry Vyfinkel well-known farmer and auctioneer John Joynt, were fascinated. With visions of bats, broomsticks and black cats racing through their heads, they gingerly tip-toed through the debris. “There’s an old piece of wood in here that’s marked made in 1805,” Susan called out excitedly. Lisa reported with disappointment the rickety old stairs were gone. “I’ll come back in my old clothes and climb up there,” she told her grandmother. “I want to see the room where Mother Barnes read the tea leaves for all those people.” Lera Joynt’ disapproves of the dubious title of witch applied to her ancestor. “We don’t like it at all. Her kindly advice and honest predictions helped countless numbers of people.”
Over at Plum Hollow Cheese factory, Claude Flood explains why he and his late wife Ella erected a monument to Mother Barnes in nearby Sheldon Cemetery. “During the 50 years I made cheese here people were always coming in with stories about Mother Barnes.
Lera Joynt and other family members felt the same. Some years ago, they purchased the two acres with its original cabin, its apple trees, tumble-down barn and abandoned well. Lera and husband Percy re-shingled, the roof and cleaned up the grounds when they took over the property but it hasn’t weathered the years very well. Weeds have taken over, the roof sinks in and vandals have removed the original pine doors and smashed the windows.
The Witch of Plum Hollow has. served as title for a book by Thad Leavitt now out of print a musical show produced in Toronto and an oil painting by area artist Henry VyfinkeL The huge painting dominates his studio near Brockville.
“When I read that the last man hung in Brockville had been convicted of murder through her police assistance,” Vyfinkel recalled, “I believed there was something to what they were saying about her.” A seventh daughter of a seventh daughter, Mother Barnes was born Jane Elizabeth Martin in the County of Cork, Ireland, in November, 1800. She was the daughter of an Irish landowner of English descent who was a colonel in the British Army, and of an Irish woman of Spanish gypsy descent.
Although her father had arranged a marriage for her to a colonel friend of wealth and distinction, 20-year-old Elizabeth eloped on the night of her wedding with a ‘Canadian army sergeant, Robert Joseph Harrison. Disowned by her parents, the couple sailed to America where Elizabeth bore a son and became a widow at 27.
Several years later, she married shoemaker David Barnes, had six sons and three daughters and moved to Sheldon’s Corners near Plum Hollow in 1843. David left Elizabeth and several of the children to live in Smiths Falls with his son Sam, a blacksmith and Mother Barnes turned to fortune-telling to support the family. No explanation has ever been heard by the family as to why David walked out and his grave has never been located.
Mother Barnes success brought her fame and she moved to the small cabin near Lake Eloida. Countless stories are passed along of her predictions but the one referred to by artist Vyfinkel is perhaps the most famous. A local law enforcement officer consulted her regarding the mysterious disappearance of an English immigrant named Hunter. His friend reported the immigrant drowned, leading a search party to Charleston Lake without success. The story goes that Mother Barnes told the constable the man’s body was hidden under a fallen tree, partly submerged in water. The body was found and the friend charged with murder, found guilty and hanged in Brockville. Elizabeth Barnes was 91 when she died, leaving seven children and a legacy of love.
Plum Hollow was also famous for its Plum Hollow Cheese Factory from 1924 to 1982, which then became a chocolate factory, and was subsequently destroyed by fire in 2015. Known for the nine murals that made Athens famous by the late 1980s, the Township of Athens is rich in hist
An historic homestead
In 1892, local writer Thaddeus William Henry Leavitt published his short novel, The Witch of Plum Hollow, featuring Mother Barnes and her “sixth sense.” Today, her little cabin still stands behind a rail fence along Mother Barnes Road, just west of County Road 29. It’s on private property, and is posted with “No Trespassing” signs. Visitors cannot go inside, but they can park beside the road and have a look at this piece of the past along the back roads of Leeds County.
By Sally Smid
Could it only have been a co-incidence that the Super Moon was in the sky the weekend of the Mother Barnes presentation in Athens? Re-enactor Elaine Farley began her talk at the Joshua Bates Center on Nov. 13th by refuting a myth about Mother Barnes with a quote from her grandchildren stating, “As far as we know she was an only daughter…but when she became famous, she told people she was a seventh daughter of a seventh daughter to add to her glamour.” It is also important to realize that Jane Elizabeth Barnes was “well read and had a full command of the English language” but there are no letters, diaries, or journals known to exist for public disclosure.
Census records show that she changed her religious affiliations and country of birth various times but it is believed that she was born in 1851 and had Irish origins. She was married several times, her last husband David Barnes left her with 7 children and moved to Smiths Falls with his son, Samuel, who later became the mayor.
In 1891 Mother Barnes was buried from the Methodist church in Farmersville, now Athens United Church. Elaine proposed that this changing information was perhaps “part of the mystery she was trying to create or was she moving from church to church to be accepted?”
She also spoke of the “fascination and fear about Mother Barnes’ abilities”, as the Brockville Recorder commented in April 20, 1876, “if she were to take it into her head to exercise her power for evil there is no knowing what mischief she might do.”
In 1865 the Herald newspaper of Carleton Place referred to her as “the old hag, who is said to live in Plumb Hollow” and talked of information “pointed out by the witch.” Thaddeus Leavitt, a former Brockville Recorder editor and historian, wrote a book in 1892, one year after she died, which he entitled The Witch of Plum Hollow. The 254 paged book makes only a brief reference to Mother Barnes on 8 pages and “was not at all about her”. Elaine speculated, “Was he counting on the mystery she had started to sell his book? Repeatedly, he was, and still is given credit for the term “Witch of Plum Hollow.”
It seems that she never tried to refute the “witchcraft” interpretation of much of her life’s work. It is interesting to consider how she may have received that label. The 19th century stereo type of witches, included that they were often widowed or deserted by their husbands and without male supervision, lived in rural areas, were of the lower class, cured illness, acted as mid-wives, and were independent. “Using this list, she was easily labeled a witch”, Elaine concluded.
When Upper Canada Village in 1969 and the Ontario Historical Society in 1988 said no to acquiring her property north of Athens because it did not “consider the site to be of historical significance”. Though the family struggled to hold on to it, the property was eventually sold. Her cabin has been restored and has been open to the public from time to time. The present owner has now decided to put it up for sale and, despite any rumors, it remains unsold.
Elaine’s abilities as a re-enactor and the detailed research that she has collected brought new insights and appreciation for this legendary woman. Though she has been called a “witch” it seems that she should be more suitably remembered as a kindly, compassionate and caring mother, neighbor and grandmother, who told fortunes and gave advice to help support her large family. The presence of her wooden table on the stage, where she used to tell her fortunes added further audience appeal and interest. It even has been said that John A. MacDonald came to inquire about where our nation’s new capital should be, adding real significance on the eve of Canada’s 150th birthday.
The event was well attended and proceeds went to the work of AAHS. It is the second in their speaker series for the season with famed Railway Bob coming to the JBC on March 26th to make a presentation on local railway history.
Re-enactor Elaine Farley stands behind Mother Barnes’ table as part of her recent presentation sponsored by the Athens and Area Heritage Society. Photo: Sally Smid — in Athens, Ontario…