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Places Lost - Between the Tall Grass of the Ogilvie Mansion

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It was a hot summer’s day in the early 1970’s, as we rode our bikes off 31st Avenue in Lasalle onto Centrale Street heading east. Crossing the boundary fence of Riverside Park, meant leaving civilization behind, as we pedaled our way into the wild. Dirt paths, one-tire wide, would wind you through the tall grasses to many different destinations at the edges and within the natural mazes of plants and flowers. As we turned on to any of these paths, we were surrounded by nature, not being able to see over the foliage from the “banana” seats on our bikes. Only the sounds of birds, crickets and other wildlife (which we cared not to think of) could be heard as we whizzed through the brush, with a kind of wind-in-our-hair freedom that we rarely experience today. We discovered the many places within these fields, with just our bikes and a sense of adventure. At the time, we did not know that they would lead us to a magical place, a place of Victorian elegance, to a place lost in time. For just over the next ridge, we would be entering another world, as the grounds of the old Ogilvie Mansion came into view.

From Centrale Street, the path leading right offered the thrill of discovery and an element of danger, as it steered us into the unknown like the very first explorers. With a silent gulp, we bravely turned in. The route wove its way through many small clearings where other kids had made makeshift “forts” in the overgrown field. Popsicle sticks and empty Perrette “sip-sacs” would be the only clues that they had been there. Continuing on, we twisted through turns and over small peaks and valleys, while picking up speed downhill for momentum to reach the next rise. Like a ghost from the past, the old Victorian mansion appeared before us, as if out of nowhere. Getting off our bikes, we stood in an eerie silence, in awe of the old house as we made our way around to the front and its tree-lined driveway. The house’s civic numbers “1893” were still intact, yet only years later would we discover that they revealed the its age and not its address. For most of its life this place had remained off the map, and as we explored it, we also felt transported to another time. A time when the mansion was lit up with lights, excitement and the laughter of people from a bygone era. We were completely unaware that we were standing in the middle of history, for this was once the summerhouse of William Watson Ogilvie, of the Ogilvie Flour Milling family dynasty.

W.W. Ogilvie was born on February 15th, 1835 in Cote-Saint-Michel, to Alexander Ogilvie (Sr.) and Helen Watson. He was the tenth of their eleven children. During the early 1800’s, his family established one of the biggest flour-milling operations in North America, the Ogilvie Mills. In May 1860, he joined his brothers Alexander (Jr.) and John, and eventually became president of the Ogilvie Mills in Montreal. On June 15th, 1871, he married Helen Johnston and started a family of his own.

In April 1892, William purchased the 180-acre Sommerville farm (also known as the “Rapids” farm), which included a half-mile of St.Lawrence shoreline, in an area now known as Lasalle. He hired well-known Montreal architect A.C. Hutchinson, to plan and build an English-American Queen Anne style mansion on the land facing the rapids, and to distinguish it by using wood instead of stone materials for its structure. Stables and Barns were added to shelter his racing horses and his cherished Ayershire cows. The country estate was completed in 1893 and became the family’s summer residence. The house was adorned with beautiful paintings and works of art.

For the next few years the Ogilvie place would be in its heydays as a popular summer spot for Montreal’s dignitaries and affluent celebrities, many coming to take part in the “Montreal Hunt”. We can only imagine the Victorian elegance and refined beauty of the “summer socials” that the Ogilvie house once held, not knowing that their parties would end only seven summers away.

William Watson Ogilvie died on Jan 12th, 1900, leaving all of his lands and possessions to his family. Upon his death, the Ogilvie estate also went silent for a time. Until in 1910, when it was sold by the Ogilvie family to the Ross Realty Company. There are no apparent records as to the use or condition of the house from 1910 up to 1937, when it was sold to the Sunlife Assurance Company, possibly to use as a summer estate for its company officers.

In 1944, the estate was sold to Lasalle’s famous Alepin family, who soon after rented the land and the house to the Lasalle Golf Club. During the following years many changes were made to the old mansion to accommodate the club, yet its original design and architecture were maintained. A photo from 1950, shows the mansion’s interior entrance hall with its wooden panels and doors in tact, yet now seen on the floor is the circular “Lasalle Golf Club” emblem, with word GOLF in the center divided by two putters. The golf club operated up until 1970, when it was finally closed and was assigned a “guardian” to watch the place. He looked after the house and area for almost ten years, and it was only in July of 1980, that the old Ogilvie Mansion was officially abandoned. This beautiful old home, that once entertained the famous, that once echoed music from its windows into the night, was now sentenced to a death plundered by vandals and by natural deterioration through our own neglect…and plunder they did.

At the time, the city of Lasalle had expropriated the land and was proposing the demolition of the mansion to make way for a new road and park. Outraged citizens collected 2,248 signatures and presented them to their city council to save the mansion and preserve it. Yet their voices remained unheard. On December 6th, 1980, the Cultural Affairs Minister advised the municipality that they were proceeding to classify the Ogilvie mansion as a cultural site. Adding that this was to protect the importance of its original owner and of its architectural style within Quebec’s heritage. For this purpose, on January 13th, 1981, the ministry sent out a public notice finally classifying the Ogilvie house and its surrounding areas as a National Heritage site.

Just two weeks after the minister’s announcement, on Feb 1st, 1981 at 10:50pm, a “mysterious” fire broke out at the mansion. Firemen could not put out the roaring flames of the old timbers. Sadly the morning papers of Feb 2nd, showed only the charred ruins of that once beautiful place. After further investigation, arson was proven beyond a doubt.

Many years have passed since we first rode through those fields and allowed the spirit of the Ogilvie house to take us away, to another place in time. Yet, it would take us as many years to truly appreciate the historical significance of what we had found, or in fact, what we had lost…simply by exploring the many magical places now completely lost within our Southwest Corner.


Sources:

Local Archives, Lasalle Historical Society Journal (volume3, oct81), History of Lasalle, WikiPedia, Dictionary of Canadian Biography.