THEY CAME ON ‘THE ARK’ And settled in Ancaster
For more than 150 years, generations of the Farmer family in Ancaster have shaped the community and been players in world history. Now a commemorative exhibit recalls their colourful lives in a building that was once a family homestead.
IN 1834, WILLIAM FARMER of Shropshire, in the West Midlands of England, told legislators they could stuff their new tax on the number of windows in a home.
He, his wife Eleanor and their seven children were leaving — for good.
But Farmer, who actually was a farmer, a wealthy aristocratic one, didn’t stop there. He hired a sailing ship and crew and — along with 50 head of livestock and other worldly possessions — brought 10 other families from the village for an epic 51-day voyage to the new world.
They called the vessel “the Ark,” which is also the name of a fascinating exhibit at Fieldcote Museum that looks at the Farmer family that has spent seven generations in Ancaster.
One of the items in the collection is a reproduction of a journal entry from the voyage by one of Farmer’s sons that lists the animals on board that were held in slings suspended from cross beams in the ship.
“The livestock consisted of a dark grey mottled Clydesdale stallion called ‘Briton,’ and Briton’s mother ‘Jenny,’ a grey Clydesdale mare,” he wrote.
“There were also an iron-grey mare ‘Smiler,’ two Durham bulls, two Hereford bulls, six cows (Durham, Hereford and Highland Scottish), two Southdown rams and fourteen ewes, one Leicester ram, thirteen Leicester ewes, one Berkshire boar, one Shropshire boar, nine sows and ten dogs (pointers, bull terriers, and a fox terrier), beside a number of game cocks and hens.”
They first settled in the Gatineau area with the family going into the lumbering business. That didn’t work out. So after hearing about a place called Ancaster, they headed there in 1850.
Daryl MacTavish, program co-ordinator at Fieldcote, says it’s not clear how the family came to decide on Ancaster.
“It was probably the availability of land or maybe a family member was familiar with the town. No one knows for sure.”
But once they made it to the village, the family prospered and a solid foundation was built for future generations.
Several farmers became doctors. One served as director general of medical services for the Canadian Army during the Second World War. He’s even in a photo with Churchill. Another, Dr. G.D. Farmer, brought the first automobile to Ancaster in 1902.
Florence (Flossie) Farmer, a granddaughter of William, became a nurse and travelled the world serving with the American Red Cross. During the First World War she found herself in Russia and led an expedition to take 780 children to safety. At the age of 92, she travelled to Alaska because it was one of the few places she had never been.
Thomas Farmer, who died in November, 1976, was editor-in-chief of The Hamilton Spectator in the late 1960s. His widow Doris Farmer donated the couple’s home and 2.8 hectares of land to the town of Ancaster and it became Fieldcote Memorial Park and Museum when it officially opened in 1988.
This year it all comes full circle with the exhibit about the family at Fieldcote.
The exhibit features everything from a major collection of china and a medical chest both carried on the Atlantic journey, to wedding dresses, military items, to the printing plate from the front page of The Spectator’s Hamilton Centennial edition in 1946. Thomas apparently scooped that at some point.
And there are all kinds of photos including one of George Devey Farmer and his 1902 Pope automobile, the first car in Ancaster.
The exhibit is also a celebration of Canada’s 150th anniversary through the looking glass of a pioneering family in the third oldest community in Ontario.
“We’re hoping that people will learn a little more about the history of this community. The family is fascinating with a number of fascinating characters that show you aspects of Canada’s history as well,” said Lois Corey, Fieldcote’s curator.
MacTavish says “They were here before Canada became a country. You could see how their lives changed from candle light to gas light to electric light. They went from letter to telegraph to telephone.
“And they didn’t just stay in Ancaster. They travelled the world and brought back stories.”
Nell Spicer, a sixth generation member of the Farmer family, says another thing that helped bring the exhibit to life was the sale of her parents’ home last year.
“They had been there for 54 years and the house was a repository of family heirlooms and historical artifacts. It was amazing that so much stuff was kept and preserved. There was a lot we could not include. We could have done a whole other exhibit based on what came out of that house.”
MacTavish says, “They saved everything. They saved their journals and their letters and their photos and their objects. It was so easy to discover who they were.”
Spicer says the experience of putting the exhibit together made it more clear to her that Fieldcote needs far more space to effectively showcase Ancaster’s history.
A fundraising campaign is ongoing to do just that. So far $400,000 has been raised toward a $1.5-million goal. Organizers of the campaign hope to raise $500,000 and to receive government grants for the rest.
People wishing to donate are asked to contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Nell Spicer with memorabilia from her family history on display at the Fieldcote Museum in Ancaster. Spicer’s ancestors, the Farmer family, go back several generations.
A selection of family heirlooms and historic Farmer family photos.
An Iroquois (Six Nations) pottery retirement gift from staff at Chedoke Hospital to Richard J.D. Farmer. A similar piece resides at Buckingham Palace.
Fieldcote Museum in Ancaster.
G.R.D. Farmer, back row, second from the right, in Germany in 1945 with group including Prime Minister Winston Churchill, Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery and Canadian generals Harry Crerar and Guy Simmonds.
Dr G.D. Farmer brought the first auto to Ancaster, a Pope automobile in 1902.
An oil painting of William Yates Farmer by the artist, Carrie Hillyard from Oakville, completed in about 1900.
William and Eleanor Farmer, who came to Canada in 1834 and Ancaster in 1850.