Where would you go to find one of the oldest surviving buildings in Ontario? Toronto, Kingston, Ottawa? Sure. Or you could head off the beaten path to the small community of Williamstown, just northeast of Cornwall, where the Sir John Johnson House has been standing for about 225 years near the banks of the Raisin River. Built between 1784 and 1792 by wealthy landowner Sir John Johnson, it’s now a National Historic Site and a great way to step back in time to when the United Empire Loyalists first settled in this area.
Sir John Johnson
Before the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War, Johnson held extensive properties throughout the Mohawk Valley in what is now New York State. But once the battle broke out and his British sympathies were discovered, he abandoned that land and escaped to Montreal. He took many of his allies with him, becoming part of a military contingent knows as the King’s Regiment of New York. When the war ended, however, thousands of loyalists who had fled north were stranded. They needed help, and the British provided it through people like Johnson, who organized the movement of 3,776 loyalists to land grants along the St. Lawrence River and the north shore of Lake Ontario.
Johnson himself was given land plots throughout eastern Ontario, one of them being a 2,300-acre property in Charlottenburgh Township that had the Raisin River flowing through it. The river was perfect for saw and grist mills, so Johnson had a one-and-a-half storey log house built right beside it for the future miller. From the late 1780s until the 1970s, the house grew and changed as people settled Williamstown and different families moved in. Two of the biggest changes happened in the 50-year period after Johnson sold the house in 1819. The first, a two-bay extension added to the south side; the second, a two-storey addition, along with porches and dormers.
Johnson’s goal was to support the settlement of what would become Williamstown, and so he had grist and saw mills built. The first millwright was Jonathan Muchmore, who died tragically under one of the mill’s wheel in 1787. The sawmill lasted until 1897 but the grist mill, at least partially powered by steam from 1897 onwards, didn’t stop grinding grain until the mid-1930s. A flood forced the dismantling of the sawmill in 1914, and the grist mill was demolished in 1935. Check out the plaque commemorating the mills on John Street east of Bridge Street.
Since 1975, part of the house has been used as a local library, and in 1996 a group of locals began the process of opening the rest of the house to the community. Known as the Sir John Johnson Manor House Committee, they rehabilitated the house and now welcome visitors to explore the inside and visit the Glengarry Archives, also found within.
Hours: Monday – Saturday, 10 am – 4 pm