Does the Ghent house on Brant Street at Ghent matter historically? Should it be saved and if it should how can a city do that?

Who Knew 100x100 2015By Mark Gillies

May 23, 2015

Burlington has the enviable distinction of being located right in the centre of the area known at one time as “the Garden of Canada”. The Village of Burlington at the turn of the 20th century was producing agricultural products that were shipped across Canada and around the world.

Ghdent Gillies Garden of Canada

Burlington, and especially the village of Freeman was a very busy place at the turn of the 20th century. Market gardeners used the Grand Trunk Railway to ship their fruit and vegetables out of the area, bound for destinations across Canada and around the world. Market gardeners would line up alongside the tracks at the very busy Burlington Junction train station in Freeman waiting their turn to load their produce on to the boxcars. Today, the historic Freeman train station has been relocated to Fairview Street and is undergoing restoration.

Our local farmers were referred to as market gardeners. Most major varieties of fruit and vegetables were grown locally. This agricultural base provided great wealth to the local economy. So, how did Burlington evolve into this status of providing food for the tables of families right around the world?

The answer goes back to this historic date in time, December 16, 1773. On this day, a civil act of disobedience changed the course of history, an event that affected the world right to this day. What happened has become known as the Boston Tea Party, where Samuel Adams and the Sons of Liberty boarded three ships in the Boston Harbor and threw 342 chests of tea overboard, in protest to British rule and taxation.

This resulted in the passage of the punitive Coercive Acts in 1774 and pushed the two sides closer to war. This was the catalyst for the American Revolutionary War which saw approximately one third of the 13 colonies population remain loyal to Britain and the monarchy. During and after the war, Loyalists were seriously harassed, forcing many to leave their homes. Some went to Africa, and founded Sierra Leone, others went to the Bahamas, some families went back to England, while many relocated to Upper and Lower Canada. They were known as United Empire Loyalists.

Ghent Gillies Boston Tea Party

This single act of protest escalated into the American Revolutionary War in I775. Citizens of the 13 colonies were divided between independence or choosing loyalty to Britain. Many loyalists left for Upper and Lower Canada to start over. Burlington and the surrounding areas were major destinations for some of these United Empire Loyalists.

So how does this have anything to do with Burlington? Actually, it has everything to do with how Burlington emerged into the city that we enjoy today.

Let’s start with William Alexander Davis who was born in 1741 in Baltimore, Maryland. He married Hannah Phillipse and they owned a plantation in Franklin, Orange, North Carolina. William Davis became quite wealthy and was a loyal British subject. Their neighbours on another plantation were the Gant family.

During the Revolutionary War, General Cornwallis and 2,000 British soldiers marched into North Carolina. The General set up headquarters on the Gant plantation, and the soldiers were sheltered and fed at the Davis plantation. To compensate the Davis family, General Cornwallis issued a “Due Bill” for 10,000 pounds. Among the British soldiers that stayed with the Davis family was a young man by the name of John Graves Simcoe, a soldier with the Queen’s Rangers. A lasting friendship began, which was to have a huge influence on William Davis several years down the road after the war terminated in 1783.

Over the next several years, the Davis family could not properly re-establish their plantation due to continued harassment by the rebels, and the punishing tax system that was enacted on Loyalists. They decided to leave for Upper Canada, where John Graves Simcoe was now the Lieutenant Governor.

Ghent Gillies John Graves Simcoe

John Graves Simcoe was born in 1752 and died in 1806. He served as Lieutenant Governor from 1791 to 1796. Simcoe was a personal friend of William Alexander Davis, and was instrumental in relocating the Davis and Ghent families to the Stoney Creek area of Upper Canada.

The family walked and drove several wagons the entire 800 mile distance from North Carolina to Upper Canada. Included in the entourage were William & Hannah’s seven children. Their one daughter Elizabeth had already married Thomas Ghent, and he also made the trip. (The Ghent name was originally Gant, and it may have been Thomas who initiated the spelling change).

Their trip ended at the Genesee River in Rochester where they stayed over the winter, and in the spring Governor Simcoe upon hearing of their plight, sent a gunboat to pick up the family and their belongings. They were relocated in the Stoney Creek area where Albion Falls eventually became the sight for William Davis’ two mills. The area became known as Albion Mills. This land was the compensation for the Due Bill..

Ghent Gillies Battlefield House

Battlefield House Museum in Stoney Creek was the homestead of James Gage and his family. James married Mary Jane Davis, a daughter of William Alexander Davis.

In 1804, Thomas Ghent purchased 200 acres of land from the estate of Joseph Brant, who had been awarded the land as compensation for Brant’s support of the British during the Revolutionary War. The land was called “Brant’s Block”, the area that is now mainly downtown Burlington. Asahel Davis, one of the sons of William Davis and brother-in-law to Thomas Ghent also decided to purchase land from Joseph Brant’s estate.

Ghent Gillies Asahel Davis

Asahel Davis was a son of William Alexander Davis and the older brother to Mary Jane Davis who married James Gage.

And now, we get to the place in our local history where we can see the humble beginnings for “the Garden of Canada”. The Davis and Ghent families had wisely brought fruit seeds from their North Carolina plantations and planted them in the Stoney Creek area where their original farms were located. The young plants were later transferred to the Thomas Ghent and Asahel Davis farms in Brant’s Block. This would officially start Burlington on its way to becoming the focal point for “the Garden of Canada”.

Small click here - blackThese two Brant’s Block farms were located in the Plains Road area, west of Brant Street, in an area which later became known as Freeman. Joshua Freeman from Nova Scotia, and his family settled in this area around Brant Street and Plains Road.

Asahel Davis built a couple of homes, and one still stands to this day, but the original house cannot really be seen. The home is called Woodland Terrace, and is located on Plains Road at the QEW. The house was rebuilt in 1883 and became much larger. It was altered by Burlington’s leading house builder of the day, George Blair, for Charles Gilbert Davis, a grandson son of Asashel Davis, and brother to Hannah Augusta Davis.

Ghent Gillies Woodland Terrace Residence

Woodland Terrace is a beautiful large historic building on Plains Road located on the eastern side of the QEW. It is still there. Local home builder George Blair added to the original home of Asahel Davis in 1884 for Charles Gilbert Davis, a prominent local market gardener and owner of the house.

Ghent Gillies Charles Gilbert Davis

Charles Gilbert Davis was a son of Gilbert Davis. Gilbert was a son of William Alexander Davis. Charles Gilbert Davis was a very successful market gardener on Plains Road. He took his grandfather Asahel Davis’ house and had George Blair build around it to create Woodland Terrace.

It was Asahel Davis who donated a corner of his property for the creation of the Union Burying Ground, which is located on Plains Road right in front of the Fortinos and Ikea stores. William Alexander Davis died at the age of 92 in 1834 and is buried in this cemetery.

Ghent Gillies Union Burying Ground

The Union Burying is an historic treasure and has been designated as a United Empire Loyalist cemetery. The property was on a corner of the original Asahel Davis market garden farm. It is located on Plains Road, in front of Fortinos and Ikea. Many of Burlington’s earliest settlers are either buried here or at St. Luke’s Cemetery.

Asahel Davis had a sister Mary who married James Gage. James was responsible for setting up Wellington Square, formerly known as Brant’s Block. James Street in downtown Burlington is named after him.

Asahel Davis had a son named Gilbert Davis. One of Gilbert’s daughters was named Hannah Augusta Davis. She married Thaddeus Ghent, the son of George Ghent. One of their children was Frederick Davis Ghent, who became the second Mayor of Burlington in 1917.

Ghent Gillies Rev David Ghent

The Reverend David Ghent was a brother to George Ghent and another son of Thomas Ghent and Elizabeth Davis. Rev. Ghent was instrumental in aiding William Lyon Mackenzie’s escape to the United States.

Thomas Ghent died in 1824, and his wife Elizabeth Davis died in 1841. Both are buried in the Union Burying Ground.

As a matter of local interest, Thomas Ghent had one son named David Ghent, a man of the cloth, who was responsible for hiding William Lyon Mackenzie during the 1837 rebellion.

Although Thomas Ghent’s house has not survived, one of his other children, named George, also a prominent local market gardener; bought a house on Brant Street that was called Maple “Maple Lodge”.

The home was built in 1854, and credit for the construction of the house goes to Jabez Bent who was a brick maker by trade. It’s probably more accurate to say it was the Bent family of brothers who were responsible for building this house. Jabez had a brother George, who was a mason, and another brother James Cushie Bent who was a carpenter. George most likely was responsible for the foundation, James built the framing, and Jabez manufactured and installed the bricks. As a side note, Jabez is also credited locally with building the stone wall around the Union Burying Ground around 1884. It was probably his brother George who did the work, since Jabez and his family had already moved away in the late.

Ghent Gillies George Ghent

George Ghent, a son of Thomas Ghent and Elizabeth Davis was born in 1806 in Brant’s Block. One of his sons was Thaddeus Ghent, and his grandson was Frederick Davis Ghent, son of Thaddeus Ghent. Fred Ghent was the second mayor of Burlington. George and his second wife Anna Bray lived at Maple Lodge on Brant Street. George’s first wife was Catherine Bates, and she died in 1844. George was a prosperous market gardener. He died in 1883 and was buried in the Union Burying Ground.

What’s so significant about the George Ghent house? It symbolizes the entire span of over 220 years as to how Burlington evolved into market gardening and “the Garden of Canada”, an industry that was created from the ravages of the American Revolution, propelling Burlington into world prominence and locally, new found wealth. The George Ghent house should be a national historical monument.

Unfortunately, in 1975 this treasured landmark, was unwisely converted into a commercial property. Mayor George Harrington and his council approved the decision at that time, despite objections from concerned citizens. The beautiful handmade red brick exterior was covered over with an unsightly dull grey paint. The backyard became a parking lot.

Much of the historical architecture internally has been removed or changed. But down deep, underneath it all, the core structure is still with us, after 161 years. This building is a very, very significant part of Burlington’s colourful past. We are so lucky to have it with us.

Would you like to see this historic structure for yourself? The house just recently has become potentially vulnerable, and its survival could be in jeopardy very soon. It doesn’t  have an Ontario Heritage Act designation to save it from demolition, and it should have. This beautiful historical property can face demolition without any legal problems. There is nothing in place to protect it.

Heritage Burlington, a citizen’s advisory committee under the chairmanship of  James Clemens, has not attempted to designate this house historical. They boast that Heritage Burlington’s mandate is to preserve and conserve our cultural heritage, yet some of their decisions are totally opposite to their own mandate. Heritage Burlington reports to Burlington’s City Council. From some of their controversial past recommendations, Heritage Burlington appears more concerned to see how many true historical properties can be removed from the Heritage Registry, rather than adding them to the list.

I see this as their way to clear obstacles created by heritage buildings that appear to be standing in the way of new construction by developers. Even one of the Heritage Burlington committee members actually is a developer, owns a company that specializes in demolishing old and historical buildings and replacing them with “monster” homes. It’s unbelievable, but true. Does anyone see a conflict of interest here?

Another member of this committee (but does not have a vote) is Councillor Marianne Meed Ward who represents the City of Burlington.
Don’t count on Heritage Burlington for support to protect this historical house. Don’t look to your City Council for heritage support. Our Councillors as a group have a very disappointing track record when it comes to preserving our local heritage. Prepare yourself to see another piece of our incredible history meet the fate of the wrecker’s ball.

For residents living in Burlington, you have most likely driven by this historic treasure countless times, and never gave it a second thought. You should go see it now at 795 Brant Street, located on the southeast corner of Brant and Prospect Streets, before developers attempt to knock it down; probably with the blessing of your City Councillors.

Ghent Gillies Maple Lodge 1902

Maple Lodge was built in 1854 by the Bent brothers, Jabez a brick maker, George a mason, and James a carpenter. George Ghent and his family lived for many years at Maple Lodge. The non-designated 161 year old historic home is in jeopardy of potential demolition, due mostly in part to the intensification policy of the Ontario Government. Maple Lodge is located at 795 Brant Street on the south east corner. This is how the home looked in 1902. Today, it is a commercial property.

The Brant and Ghent Street corners are up for proposed re-development; the George Ghent house is also clearly in play with a developer assembling the land and getting ready to ask the city for a demolition permit.

This is the kind of damage caused by proposed intensification when it impacts your community. You can lose important parts of your local heritage, oh so very quickly. Once they are gone, they are gone forever!

On May 27, 2015 at the Performing Arts Centre, there will be the second of four public meetings on what the pubic is prepared to accept in the way of downtown development.  There will be an opportunity to talk about plans for the Brant and Ghent corners, plus the Lakeshore area of Burlington. You should make plans to attend.

Now is your chance to be heard, and express yourself. Let them know that you don’t want your local heritage continually threatened like this. It is that important.  Before you know it, we could all be living in the permanent shadows of hi-rise buildings, unless we speak up now.

Mark Gillies is a lifelong resident of Burlington, who grew up in Aldershot and developed as a local historian, researcher, master genealogist and writer who has a passionate interest and extensive knowledge of the many early pioneer families.

Return to the Front page
Print Friendly, PDF & Email

3 comments to Does the Ghent house on Brant Street at Ghent matter historically? Should it be saved and if it should how can a city do that?

  • Timothy J Davis

    Thanks- Trying to bridge the gap between my 5th great grandfather (William Alexander Davis UEL) and myself…. any renderings or picture sketches available?

  • Rob

    I agree that we must preserve our heritage. Burlington could easily fall into the trap of becoming another Toronto, a city with high rise condos and no life, no soul and no personality.

  • Thanks Mark for bringing these issues to light.

    Readers wishing to get involved in preserving our heritage can call up The Burlington Historical Society (always looking for volunteers on their leadership team). Or donate to the Freeman Station group currently installing a new roof on the railway station. Contribute @