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Lewis Williams I - The Very First !

By Rick Wallace

At the southern most extremity of the Ottawa East Community is the land that was once occupied by one of the very first settlers in the Ottawa area - Lewis Williams. This land, originally covered by a dense pine and oak forest, was cleared beginning in the 1820's and transformed into an agricultural paradise that continued to feed the City and provide employment for scores of Ottawa East residents up to about 1950. Today the land is still marked by the presence of the Williams Family as the original homestead (and believed to be the second oldest in Ottawa) still stands at 96 Southern Drive.

Lewis Williams (1770-1844), originally from Monmouthshire England, left Pontypool Wales in 1817 and arrived in Quebec on October 2 aboard the "Thomas and Mary". His wife Lady Mary Phillips (1787-1821), daughter of the Earl of Phillips, and their 4 children accompanied him. By January 1818, he had settled in the northeast corner of the southern half of Lot K, Concession C, Rideau Front (near Main and Riverdale). He was given this land (and later the northern half of Lot K) by a Crown Grant. Totaling 200 acres, the land was bounded by the Rideau River; Main St., Bronson Ave. and extended into the present-day Lansdowne Park. The Crown expropriated the northern section of his land in the late 1820's to build the Rideau Canal.

The original house was destroyed by fire early on and Williams built the existing structure on the original squared timber foundation ("a sturdy barn frame") in 1827. Some authors indicate 1821 for construction. According to the "Assessment for Nepean Township" in 1822, Williams owned 100 acres (88 uncultivated and 12 arable), one horse, two "milch cows" and one horned cattle for a total value of £44, 12 shillings.

It appears that Lewis was a very hard working, kind and trusting man - but to a fault. Elliot, in his book "The City Beyond" describes Williams as being "hindered by a credulous disposition that left him vulnerable to opportunists". Elliot cites an 1826 letter from Isaac Firth to the Civil Secretary Major Hiller requesting a land grant for Williams. In the letter he is characterized as being a sober, quiet, industrious and honest man but a victim of misfortunes. An example given was his purchase of a yoke (2) of oxen from a scurrilous American only to have the real owner come forward and Williams had to pay again!

The Williams family continued to grow after he arrived in Canada. But in 1821 the youngest son Thomas died in infancy followed a few months later by his mother Lady Mary. The eldest son Lewis Jr. (1807-1875) married Orilla Healy (1817-1900), born in the USA and the daughter of a saddlebag preacher, in 1836. They remained on the farm and raised 13 children. The eldest daughter Elizabeth (1809) eloped in 1826 and was promptly listed in the family bible as having died. John (1811-1898) and Henry (1818-1898) eventually settled north of Long Island near Manotick. There was also William (1813-1837) who died as a young man; and Mary (1815-1903) who married John Frost and moved to Owen Sound.

According to the Bytown Gazette, Lewis Williams I died in his 74th year, on the 5th of April 1844 "near Bytown". The farm was then operated by his son Lewis Jr., who in addition to producing numerous children, developed the acreage into one of the most bountiful farms in the Ottawa Region. The 1871 Agricultural Census indicates that he was working 60 improved acres with 3 acres in pasture and 10 in gardens/orchards. That produced 350 bu. of oats, 30 bu. of peas, 50 bu. of corn, 700 bu. of potatoes (on 6 acres), 12 tons of hay and 30 bu. of fruit (pears, plums, other fruit) and 50 lbs. of butter. Livestock included: 3 horse, 5 milk cows, 3 pigs and 14 hives of bees. Firewood cut totaled 45 cords. The farm complex consisted of 1 dwelling house, 3 barns/stables, 2 carriages/sleighs, 2 cars/wagons/sleds and 1 pleasure/common boat.

In 1874, the Mutchmor family who owned land in Lot I, Con. C purchased approximately 54 acres of the farm for $10,300. This part, which lay west of Bank Street Road and south of the Canal, became the suburb of Rideauville. Lewis Williams II died in 1884 and control of the much-reduced farm went to his son Francis (Frank, 1860-1934). He married Christina Masson in 1887 and they brought up a family of 7 children on the remaining 45 acres of the original farm.

In 1907 the City of Ottawa annexed Rideauville (Ottawa South) and Ottawa East Village, among others. The farm, now an agricultural island nearly surrounded by residential areas, was forced to switch to specialized crops to meet the growing city taxes. The Williams family then became one of the largest wholesale florists in the province.

In 1926 Frank Williams created a limited company under the name of Rideau Garden (not Gardens). On his passing in 1934 control of the farm was turned over to his two sons Lewis IV (1887-1970) and Charles Tolmie Williams (1889-1952). With the beginning of the Second World War the company was asked by the government to switch from flowers to vegetables with the creation of a huge "victory garden".

The Williams brothers were up to the task and within one season had established an intricately planned enterprise of rotating crops on 39 acres. Market garden crops of 40,000 cauliflowers and 50,000 tomato plants were the norm. The average fully employed staff throughout the year was 30 men. This figure rose to over 100 staff at the height of the growing season with the employment of high school and college students from adjoining communities such as Ottawa East. The farm complex consisted of four enormous greenhouses, a metal two-story barn and 2500 hot bed and cold frames serviced by seven trucks, five manure spreaders and a multiplicity of tools. The capital investment was significant!

As successful as the Rideau Garden farm was, ultimately it could not withstand the onslaught of residential development. In 1945 the Ottawa Hydro Electric Commission purchased 3 acres to erect the sub-station at the corner of Main St. and Riverdale Ave. By 1947 the fourth generation of the Williams family decided that land development was preferable to the long hours and vagaries of the weather involved in market gardening. Between 1948 and 1954 the farm was subdivided into residential lots and the community of Rideau Garden (named in honour of the family) was created. Mrs. Charles T. Williams sold the final two lots, on which the original house still stands, later in the 1950's. This brought to a close the long connection of the Williams family to this land.

There are still many residents of Ottawa East who can remember the farm as one of the most attractive sights in the Ottawa area. The next time you take a walk in that area you may want to remember what Douglas E. Williams (the last direct male descendent of Lewis I) wrote in a 1991 letter.

"The saga of the Williams Homestead in the wilderness came to an end but the "Heritage Home" continues only a few yards from the banks of the Rideau River, where it was founded by a young brave family struggling for survival and trying to establish roots and carve out a future in a new, strange and often forbidding land. It is a proud heritage for all their descendents".

And a proud heritage for Ottawa East as well for Lewis Williams I was the first!

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