Victorian Era Elegance
For more than 130 years, the Meiklejohn House has stood on the edge of Harriston, a monument to the opulence of a by-gone era and a brick and mortar archive of a significant portion of the town’s history.
After more than 30 years in nursing, Drayton area resident Irene Drost was looking for a new challenge. She found it within the walls of this striking Victorian mansion.
“We were looking for something different and we started thinking bed and breakfast,” she recalls.
Something different was indeed what Irene and her husband, Ralph Drost, obtained in December of 2007 when they purchased the Meiklejohn property from previous owners, Gerry and Cathy Vandenbroek.
The Meiklejohn House was built in the 1870’s as a stately Victorian home by Alexander Meiklejohn who became the first mayor of Harriston. It has many unique features including a wall which recesses into the ceiling to make the parlour into one large room and eight fireplaces, four of which are made of Italian marble.
The house has had numerous owners since it left the Meiklejohn family ownership in the late 1950s. It had been largely restored by then-owner, the late John Purkis, early in the last 2000s and the Vandenbroek’s had operated it for a time as a bed and breakfast, allowing the Drosts to open their business in short order.
“We moved in December and we opened in February,” notes Drost.
The response to the business has “exceeded our expectations,” says Drost. “It’s going very well, despite the economic times and challenges.”
In addition to the bed and breakfast clientele, the house is also available for other functions. Events such as 50th anniversaries, Christmas parties and various business functions (including the official launch of The Rural Route News and Lifestyle Magazine in November, 2009) have been held at the Meiklejohn since it opened.
“We’ve also had a bridal party in for photographs,” adds Drost. The facility is also ideal for training sessions, she
“I think it’s good to have meetings outside of a sterile boardroom. You can bring a different sense of purpose if you make it a cozy, comfortable environment.”
Despite the home’s size and Victorian linage, it is remarkably “cozy.” The interior decor is bright, with plenty of natural lighting and the layout contains numerous small comfortable-feeling rooms.
Visitors can enter from either of two hallways, near a spacious country kitchen, which includes a large butler pantry and an attractive wooden-cupboard style refrigerator. There was once a dumb waiter, which allowed access to and from the cellar. The downstairs also features the double parlour, library and dining room. The glass-walled conservatory/solarium is another unique feature of the home. The room had a glass ceiling as well until the 1950’s says Drost, and was once basically a full-fledged greenhouse. Now it makes a great place to relax with a cup of coffee or enjoy breakfast. There is also a comfortable sunroom on the second floor. Above the garage is located a large games room, featuring an ornate tin ceiling and a massive slate pool table. The original design drawings for the house are also displayed in the games rooms adding a sense of history to the atmosphere.
The second floor of the home includes five bedrooms, decorated in old-world elegance, each with a fireplace and four-post bed.
While the fireplaces are functional and used to create atmosphere and cut the chill on fall and winter evenings, the primary heating for the house comes from three gas furnaces located in the basement.
“You don’t want my heating bill,” quips Drost.
Alexander Meiklejohn came to Canada from Scotland in 1851 and arrived in Harriston in 1862. He constructed a store with a small apartment on what is now the town’s main street, currently the site of Acheson Pharmacy. A successful dry goods merchant, he later entered the hardware business, erecting a large building on Elora Street North. He became the first reeve of Harriston in 1873 and the first mayor in 1878. He and his wife, Elizabeth didn’t have children, but raised two nephews. In 1876, John Meiklejohn came from Scotland at the request of his uncle and joined him in the hardware business.
The builders of the house are believed to have been from the Guelph area and a nearly identical house is located in Mount Forest. The Meiklejohn Estate grounds once extended from the Clyne farm to George Street, taking up more than half a block, and included an orchard featuring apple, plum, cherry and pear trees. Today the property consists of about an acre and a half.
The house was the first in the area to have running water, both hard and soft. A windmill centred over the well pumped hard water to a tank in the front attic. Rain water from the eaves was collected in a cistern from which soft water could be pumped up to another tank. A third tank supplied water by underground pipes to the garden and a bowling green. For the conservatory, a hand pump drew water from a tank below.
Labour of Love
While the house has been beautifully restored, like any older home, it requires a great deal of maintenance.
“It’s a good thing Ralph is a handyman. There’s always something to fix or paint,” says Irene, who adds that the local community has been very supportive of the couple’s endeavours.
“People seem to be just glad that someone loves the house and looks after it,” she said, adding, “The house has so much character you can’t help but love it and treat it well.”