Colborne Ontario’s Keeler Legacy

Colborne Ontario, is best described in a Ron Brown book, “Downtown Ontario”, “as an unusual main street to explore”, the Ranger agrees.   One of the most unique towns in Ontario, it was named after Sir John Colborne, Lieutenant Governor of what was then Upper Canada.  The picture above shows the Town Hall and the former Mansion House Hotel.  Joseph Keeler, the first settler and surveyor Aaron Greeley laid out the village once known as ‘The Corners’ in the shadow of a hill known as Kelwood.  Eventually the village became Keeler’s Tavern and later Colborne.  There was three generations of  the founder Joseph Keeler who was known as ‘Old Joe’, his son Joseph Abbott Keeler ‘Young Joe’  and his grandson Joseph Keeler  III or ‘Little Joe’.  Old Joe was a United Empire Loyalist  from Vermont in the United States and in the 1870’s settled at Lakeport, originally called Cramahe Harbour, Colborne Harbour and later Cat Hollow.  See post: Cat Hollow (Lakeport) Ontario

The distinctive Victoria Square Park or as it is known today as the historical designated Village Square Park, is a unique physical space in the town and was first laid out in the Reid Plan of 1854.  The original town plan of 1815 mimics a village square found in the 1700’s in the eastern United States, on land donated by Joseph A. Keeler to the town.  Some features of this beautiful park include a pre 1903 fountain at the south end of the square replaced by a new fountain in 2020. Pointing south are two six thousand pound cannons from the Korean War, installed by the town between 1907 and 1910, a World War 1 Cenotaph dedicated in 1922 and a World War II and a Korean War Cenotaph.  In recent years a gazebo was constructed at the north east corner of the square to be used for presentations and other events important to the town.  Today, the gazebo is well known for the free live entertainment offered on Thursday evenings during the summer months.

The village of Colborne was founded by Joseph Abbott Keeler (Young Joe) in 1829 and was incorporated as a village in 1858.  ‘Young Joe’ was the first merchant of the village, opening a general store and post office, making him the first post master of Colborne, following in his fathers footsteps in the settlement of Keeler’s Creek (Lakeport).  Joseph Abbott Keeler (1788-1855) was the only son of the first settler in the area Joseph Keeler (1763-1839) and was credited with the founding of the settlements of Colborne, Castleton and Norwood.  Arriving in Lakeport as a child, the thriving communities were built in areas of nearly impenetrable forests.  Because of a lack of schools anywhere in the area, it is assumed that ‘Young Joe’ likely received his early education from his parents.

Joseph A. Keeler was deeply involved in his fathers endeavors  and is recorded as the builder of the Keeler Mill in Castleton circa 1806. This mill was destroyed by fire and was rebuilt near the original site around 1830  as the Castleton Mill. It still stands today as the recently restored Purdy Mill on the west side of County Road 25.  See post: Purdy Gristmill, Castleton, Ontario.  Other mills in the Colborne area were the Teal Brother’s Cider, Lumber and Grist Mill and the Christie Mill (named after the miller who operated it), was built by Joseph Keeler, west of Ontario Street.  The ruins of this historic mill, once a local landmark, were demolished in 2003 after a bid to preserve the stone ruins was defeated.  The ruins were removed for public safety reasons.   The limestone for this mill was quarried at the nearby Lakeport quarry, which was also used in the building of the Old St. Andrew Church in Colborne.

In 1815 at the age of twenty-seven, Keeler opened a small store and post office in the village and was its first postmaster, like his father before him at the Keeler Creek (Cat Hollow) settlement in Lakeport, and was a Justice of The Peace for the Newcastle District, later the United Counties of Northumberland and Durham.  Sometime around 1812, ‘Young Joe’ married Nancy Day and they raised four children: Eliza Jane (M. Gilchrist), Mary Ann (B.Y. McKeyes), Harriet Maria (P.M. Grover) and Joseph III, ‘Little Joe’.  During the 1880’s, Joseph and Nancy built one of the town’s best known homes the Joseph Abbott Keeler House at 9 Church Street East in Colborne facing south down Maybee Lane,  This was one of the first architectural designed homes in the village and bears a striking resemblance to the Barnham House in Grafton which is designated a National Historic Site.

Some of the early Colborne Hotels, according to Heritage Cramahe:   The Colborne Hotel operated  from the 1830’s to the 1870’s.  Located on the north/east corner of Toronto Road and Church Streets.  This hotel was sometimes referred to as Yarington’s, McDonald’s Hotel and the Hick’s Hotel.  The Colborne was demolished in the 1870’s and the Windsor House Hotel was built on the site.  The Mansion House Hotel, located across  Toronto Street from the Market Square operated from 1832 until 1879 and today is the location of the Red Rooster Restaurant.  The Marion Hotel may be the same hotel as the Colborne Royal Stage House and the Northumberland Exchange Hotel (1830’s) and possibly may have been called the Brown’s Hotel, the Globe and possibly the Snider Hotel.  Located on the north/east corner of King Street and Maybee Lane, it was destroyed by fire in 1882 and was replaced by the Brunswick Hotel, this building still stands today.  The Grand Trunk Hotel was located at the south/east corner of Earl and Division Streets and was named after the railroad that reached the town in 1856 and operated until about 1879.  The Arlington Hotel was located on the south/east corner of Division and King Streets in 1882.  Some name changes over the years were the Bristol, the Alexandra, the New Bristol and is now known best to the locals as the Queen’s Hotel.

Some Heritage/Designated properties in Cramahe Township related to the Keeler Name:   1 Church Street, East Colborne, this Gothic

style United Church (1862), was built on land donated by Joseph A. Keeler. This church was created in1925 when several of the Methodist Churches amalgamated and it served the community until 2010 at which time it was used mostly for funerals and community events.  By 2017 it was in private ownership and was turned into a performance space serving all of Cramahe Township town residents.

The Old St. Andrew Presbyterian Church, 45 King Street East.  Built on land donated by J.A. Keeler in the winter of 1829, limestone for  building the church was hauled by oxen to the site.  Though he was of the Anglican faith, he had donated land to the Methodist Church as well, he had only one request, “that a seat be reserved for him”.

The Joseph Abbott Keeler House, 9 Church Street, East, Colborne.  Built by the founder of the town, and if it looks familiar, it should. This home is an exact replica of the National Designated Barnham House in Grafton.  This is a large timber framed house with a two story center block and one story wings on each side.

The Keeler Tavern, 171 King Street West, Colborne is thought to be one of the oldest buildings in the village, circa 1821 by one of the village founders ‘Old Joe’ Keeler at Cat hollow.  The structure is of a Classic Loyalist style, only one of two to be found in the township of Cramahe.  This tavern was one of the first of several found along the old Kinston Road (now Highway 2) for stage coach travel which could only cover about ten miles a day.  This explains why the towns and villages in the old days were located approximately ten miles apart.

The Keeler/Campbell House, 150 County Road 31, Cramahe Township (Lakeport Sector) was built by Joseph ‘Old Joe’ Keeler.  The Crown Patent in the sale of this property stipulated that the Crown reserved the right to sell off all of the white pine trees on the property.  The house, a typical 18th century Cape Code was built in the post and beam style with all the oak, ash and red pine timbers being hand hewn, with a ‘pit saw’ used for some of the home’s timbers.

The Registry Office, 51 King Street East, Colborne.  At one time this building was owned by Eliza (Keeler) Gilchrist and at some time later was sold to the United Counties of Northumberland and Durham in 1861 for $4900.  After one hundred and thirty years it is now operated by the Colborne Art Gallery. The Seaton House, 57King Street East was built for another of J.A. Keeler’s daughters, Maria.  The above are only a few of Colborne’s many historical designated buildings.

Joseph ‘Little Joe’ Keeler, was the only son of ‘Young Joe’ and Nancy Keeler.  In 1848 he married Octavia Phillips and they moved into their mansion Kelwood where they lived for many years.  It was here they raised two sons, Joseph and Thomas Phillips and one daughter Annie Sybilla.  the beautiful Kelwood mansion was their home for twenty years.  The huge mansion was destroyed by fire in 1911 caused by a lightning strike.  The large grounds of the two and a half story ruins for some years after, provided a great location for the locals to picnic, with many a photograph taken of local residents with the ruins as a backdrop.  Joseph III ‘Little Joe’  Keeler spent twenty years building the monumental Kelwood home, in the 1866 economic downturn unfortunately lost the family fortune.  Eventually, the estate sold off some one hundred thousand of the ruin’s bricks to establish a park by planting many spruce, oak, elm and beech trees.

In 1855, ‘Little Joe’ operated a printing press and issued the towns first newspaper, the Colborne Transcript. He was a Major in the local militia, as well as a partner in establishing a branch of the Bank of Toronto in 1856. ‘Little Joe’ appears to be the builder of the three story Keeler Block, (the third floor for unknown reasons was later removed) on the north corner of Victoria Square and King Street East.  The following year the building next to it was also built by Keeler to serve as public space on the second floor, with the main floor used for commercial space.  A Strong Conservative, Joseph was elected as a member of Parliament for the Riding of Northumberland  County East serving from 1867-1873 and again in 1879 until his death in 1881.  ‘Young Joe’ was a great supporter for a railroad across the prairies to entice British Columbia into Confederation, and fought for the building of the Trent Canal System and the Murray Canal to join Weller’s Bay to the Bay of Quinte at Carrying Place.  The passing of ‘Little Joe’ Keeler marked the end of an era for the town of Colborne and Cramahe Township.  This Keeler family grave marker is located at Cat Hollow, better known today as Lakeport.

Regards   Ranger






















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