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Belle of Breckness

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By Pat Mestern
March 19, 2004

“Breckness”, the former home of Stella Watt, sits on a wee knoll, on the corner of Albert Street W., and Perth, amidst twentieth century infill. Few people know the history of such a marvelous Canadian manor house - and of its gracious owner. There was once a plaque, mounted on a pole at the entrance to the circular drive announcing “Breckness”, a word which mean “Morning”. Indeed the brass plaque shone as brilliantly as the morning sun. .

The property once belonged to Lt. Col. George Jardine. During the 1840's, Jardine operated a store on the north side of St. Andrew Street, near Tower Street. He married Aglianby Valentine, a sister of both John and Thomas Valentine, Upper Nichol. In 1850, Jardine began work on a magnificent home, on land on the south side of the Grand, stretching from the river to the top of the south boundary hill. Workmen toiled for a year on the structure before Jardine called a halt. He left his wife and children (although we don’t know for sure that he had any children) in Fergus and set out to make his fortune in Bruce County. We know that Jardine was appointed, on May 6, 1858, Commander of the lst Battalion, Bruce County. We also know that when Civil War broke out in the U.S., he went south and served; retiring after the war as a Major in the U.S. Cavalry.

After the war Jardine got involved with some questionable business partnerships. One caused his death. On December 21, 1866, George Jardine tried to take possession of a disputed mill in Lockerby, Bruce County. In an attempt to enter the mill through a hole he’d made in a wall, he got stuck. Not being able to summon help, he died between the walls, his body found sometime later. Fortunately, as one person wrote, it was a bitterly cold December.

Back to the story of “Breckness” - What had been built of the house, known as “Jardine’s Folly”, were the stone walls, framework of the inner walls, and a roof. No doors, windows or floors had been installed. We have a shell of a house and it stayed that way for a number of years, until the property was purchased by J. MacKenzie Watt.

J. MacKenzie Watt made his fortune in banking, cattle and natural resources. His home was the thriving city of Montreal. He never would have moved to Fergus but for his wife Stella. Stella was the daughter of William Pattison of Islay Argyleshire, Scotland. After coming to Canada William lived in St. Catharines and worked in the firm of a relative who made his money in shipping on Lakes Ontario, Erie and Huron. When William was ready to strike out on his own, he built a general store in Fergus, on the east corner of St. David and St. Andrew Streets - now site of the c1970's Royal Bank structure. Later, he built an imposing commercial building on the south side of St. Andrew Street. This building was gutted by fire and replaced by some c1960's concrete block abominations. William married a Mrs. Piper - we’re never told her first name, only that she was the daughter of Robert Archibarld of Banffshire, a wealthy landowner in Scotland. William and Mrs. Piper Pattison had five children - James, Sheridan, Wilhelmina, Madeline and Stella.

By all accounts Stella was a beauty with an extraordinary talent for music. As a young belle, she spent time in Montreal with the David Henderson family. Mrs. Henderson was Elizabeth Barker, sister to Mary Barker Young of “Stonehome”, Fergus. While a guest of Elizabeth’s, Stella was introduced to J. MacKenzie Watt - world traveler, collector of antiquities, a man with an eye for a beautiful woman. After Stella was introduced to Montreal’s high society, she never looked back. A wedding was heartily approved by both the Watt and Pattison families.
Stella and J. MacKenzie lived in Montreal and traveled the world. They had not children. At some point, in later life, the pair decided to retire to Fergus, possibly to be closer to Stella’s family. J. MacKenzie purchased Jardine’s former property which included the shell of the house, not much the worse for wear, testifying, Watt said, to good Scots stonemasonry. Watt finished the house, which was Georgian in design with a kitchen tail, added a large wooden barn and stone carriage house, formal gardens, stone wall and gated circular drive.

Can you imagine the ground swell when these two very cosmopolitan folks moved into the village? Even the Beatty families had a healthy respect for the J. MacKenzie Watt’s. It was fortunate, Mrs. Beatty penned, that the families didn’t have to move in the same social circles as “they are Anglican and we are Methodist; they imbibe and we don’t”. Must have been small social circles, Grandmother said. The number of wealthy families in Fergus could be counted on the fingers of one hand. Until J. MacKenzie died, Stella and he spent a great deal of time away from “Breckness”, leaving the property in the hands of capable servants.

After being widowed, Stella became somewhat eccentric and reclusive. She was kind and considerate to her neighbours, grandmother included. I can vaguely remember the interior of “Breckness”. I was so impressed that I was, for once, grandmother said, “silenced”. I remember that as we walked through each room, I held the hand of an older woman who was dressed in a long, gown that swished as she moved. I remember peanut butter cookies. Grandmother and Stella were a two-woman sewing club. They sewed costumes, among other things, chatting all the while. Grandmother sewed some of Stella’s gowns, dipping into bolts of material stored in a room over the kitchen. Even in her old age, Stella wore “couture” designs made of the most exquisite cloth. When invited to a local event, she always wore long gowns with an elegant cape and held herself very erect, in a stately manner. Grandmother said that Stella’s “couture” reached only to pre-First World War but that she looked beautiful in her gowns and hats.

We are indebted to Lena Grantham for a description of the interior of Stella’s home. I have paraphrased Lena’s writing. If you wish to read the entire article, please refer to Volume #1, “Looking Back”, the Story of Fergus through the Years. Lena’s writing refers to the 1940's.
Lena recalls that you stepped into a front foyer, to the right of which was a divided room - with dining room in front and music room behind. Stella’s grand piano and violins held a prominent place in the music room. She had played for Queen Mary at a Garden Party at Buckingham Palace and showed a picture to prove it. An amazing collection of expensive crystal, brass and silver was displayed in every room. Walls were hung with paintings.

To the left of the foyer was the drawing room with fireplace and cabinets that held precious and valuable objects from around the world as both Stella and J. MacKenzie were avid collectors. The room boasted a pink velvet love-seat and large round table covered with collectibles, including a Roman footed fruit bowl. One of the most interesting pieces of furniture in the room was a felt-topped gaming table with ivory chess board on one side, and cribbage board on the other. The base for this table was harp-shaped. A cozy breakfast room, decorated in deep rose, was located behind the drawing room. Beaded curtains separated the drawing room from the long hall which was both a museum and art gallery. An officer’s sword hung above an old sea chest. On the newel post, a metal stature of a Roman soldier in full dress guarded the stairs. There were four large bedrooms upstairs over the main wing, all beautifully decorated and full of period furniture. There were also rooms over the kitchen tail. Servants had quarters in the spacious basement that had its own entrance door that lead into the large kitchen.

When Stella died, she left instructions in her will about a few items. Several were gifts to grandmother. All the rest of her possessions were sold at public auction. I was at the auction with mom, dad and grandmother. I remember seeing trunks of gorgeous men’s and women’s clothing, beautiful artwork, dishes, furniture. I remember mother gasping at prices as there were a lot of antique dealers present. In short order, the possessions of a gracious home were scattered to the four winds. Within a decade few could remember Stella, the belle of “Breckness”.



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