Museum History

An historical account of Erchless Estate and Oakville's founding family.

Historic buildings of Erchless Estate and Lakeside Park

Oakville was a thriving port of entry for merchants and sailors. Set on the eastern side of the Oakville Harbour and the shores of Lake Ontario, sailors and ship merchants would enter into the outpost of British North America in the early 1800s.

During this time Oakville was also a terminus for the Underground Railroad, and signified freedom for many African-Americans who fled to Canada.

William Chisholm completed work on Oakville’s harbour in 1828. The port was soon successfully handling trade between Hamilton, Toronto and foreign cities. In 1834, Oakville was declared a Port of Entry into Canada, with William Chisholm serving as customs inspector. The Custom House was built in 1856 by William Chisholm’s son, Robert Kerr Chisholm (1819-1899) as an office for the customs service. The Bank of Toronto occupied one room of the building.

The Custom House served Oakville until 1910 when the building was boarded up. It remained unused until it was reopened and renovated as a family home by Hazel Chisholm Hart Mathews (William’s great-granddaughter) in the 1930s. With support from the provincial and municipal governments and through the efforts of the Oakville Historical Society, the Custom House was restored and opened to the public in 1983.

The Coach House was constructed for Allan Chisholm circa 1899 as part of large landscaping renovation project of the Erchless Estate. It was designed by Dick and Wickson, a leading Toronto architectural firm. Firm partner Frank Wickson served as president of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada and was responsible for high-profile commissions such as the Timothy Eaton Memorial Church and the original Toronto Reference Library. 

Built in the Shingle Style, popular around the turn of the 20th century, this style is noted for its extensive use of wood shingles, hence the name. This general architectural style is also known as the Arts and Craft style. Other Victorian styles of the period were quite ornate but the shingle-style was simple in form and detailing. The Coach House is the best preserved example of this style within Oakville.

The Coach House was used as a carriage house, garage, residence and even housed the pediatrics practice of Dr. Juliet Chisholm in the middle of the 20th century. In recent history, it was used as artifact storage for the Oakville Museum. The Coach House has since been renovated for public use as a community gathering space. Find out how to rent the Coach House for your next event.

Erchless was home to six generations of the Chisholm family over a period of 130 years. The home was completed by Robert Kerr Chisholm in 1858 and named after the Chisholm clan seat in Inverness-shire, Scotland. Robert Kerr and his son Allan (1866-1918) made extensive improvements to the home and grounds, adding gardens, a tennis court, gardener’s cottage and stables, and a stately carriage path. 

Erchless remained in the Chisholm family until the 1960s when it was sold and further divided into apartments. The Town of Oakville purchased the home in 1977 and the final tenants moved out in 1989. The Erchless family home was opened to the public on May 18, 1991.

Gardens and grounds

The Erchless Estate gardens have been carefully restored to their historic appearance from photographs taken in the early 1900s. A stunning rock garden that was originally designed and built for Emelda Beeler Chisholm (1873-1951) in the 1920s continues to be enjoyed by visitors today.

Visitors can stroll through the grounds and explore the many points of historical interest while enjoying picturesque lakeside views. The grounds are beautifully maintained by the Town of Oakville’s Parks and Open Space department.

Oakville’s first post office was built in 1835 and William Chisholm served as the first postmaster. The building originally stood on the southwest corner of Colborne (Lakeshore Road) and Navy Street. Through the efforts of William Chisholm’s great-granddaughter, Hazel Chisholm Hart Mathews, the building was moved to Lakeside Park in 1952 where it became Oakville’s first museum.

Today, the Old Post Office is open during the summer months for tours and hands-on postal-related activities including writing with a quill pen and creating wax seals.

Built in 1829 as the original home of the Merrick Thomas family, the Thomas House is operated by the Oakville Historical Society. It is furnished and presented as a pioneer home with many original family items on display. The house was moved to its present location in Lakeside Park in 1955 as a result of the efforts of Hazel Chisholm Mathews and the Oakville Historical Society. It is open for tours in the summer months.

Oakville's founding family

Colonel William Chisholm (1788–1842)

In 1827, William Chisholm purchased 960 acres of land from the Crown at the mouth of Sixteen Mile Creek and planned out the Town of Oakville and Oakville harbour. The first brick building on site was erected c.1835, and served as a storehouse and possibly an early Custom House. The Custom House was later converted into the Chisholm family home now known as Erchless Estate. William developed the harbour and invested heavily in shipping and shipbuilding. He spent his final years in the family estate, living with his son, Robert Kerr. Despite his dreams and determination, William declared bankruptcy in 1842, dying shortly after at the age of 54. William is buried in Oakville St. Mary's Cemetery.

Robert Kerr Chisholm (1819–1899)

Robert Kerr (R.K.) followed his father into shipping and business, becoming deputy collector of customs when he was 19. After his father's death in 1842, he became responsible for the port and postal operations. R.K. completed construction of the Custom House in 1856 and added a second addition to the Erchless family home in 1858. He purchased surrounding properties and continued to expand the estate until his death in 1899.

Flora Matilda (Lewis) Chisholm (1835–1918)

Flora was 19 years old when she became engaged to then 38 year-old Robert Kerr. She lived in Erchless after their marriage in 1858. Flora and R.K had six children. The eldest of their three sons moved to the United States. Their fourth son, Allan Stuart, remained at Erchless with the family. After her husband's death in 1899, Flora became the owner of Erchless and held on to the property until she passed away in 1918, leaving it to Allan Stuart.

Allan Stuart Chisholm (1866–1918)

Allan was Robert Kerr and Flora's youngest son. With Allan's improvements to the gardens and grounds of Erchless, the estate became the elegant property it remains today. Allan added the coach house, carriage path, tennis courts and the ornamental gate that still stands at the north entrance to the property. Flora willed the property to Allan on her death in 1918, and Allan died shortly afterwards, leaving the estate to his siblings. His siblings sold the estate to their cousin's wife, Emelda Beeler Chisholm.

Emelda Beeler Chisholm (1873-1951)

Emelda married John Alexander Chisholm Jr. (grandson of the founder William Chisholm) in 1896. John was a prosperous inventor and entrepreneur who established the Chisholm-Scott Company of Niagara Falls. After their marriage, John and Emelda purchased a summer home called Mount Vernon adjacent to Erchless (present-day Lakeside Park). John died of typhoid fever in 1903, leaving Emelda to raise their two daughters, Hazel and Juliet.

When Erchless was put up for sale by the family of Allan Chisholm in 1919, Emelda sold Mount Vernon and purchased Erchless, not wanting to see the home pass out of the family. In the 1920s, Emelda made extensive renovations to the grounds and interior of the family home. The blueprints from these renovations formed the foundation for the restoration work of the museum in 1991. Emelda used Erchless as her summer home. Upon her death in 1951, the estate passed to her two children, Hazel and Juliet.

Hazel Chisholm Hart Mathews (1897-1978)

Hazel was born and lived much of her life in Oakville. She was married twice, first to Montgomery Hart (with whom she had three children, Montgomery, John and Nancy), and later to Webster Mathews.

In the 1930s, Hazel restored the previously boarded-up Custom House. The building became the permanent home of Hazel and her children. When her mother died in 1951, Hazel became co-owner of Erchless with her sister, Juliet.

Hazel had a deep interest in local history. She was instrumental in moving the Old Post Office to its present site in Lakeside Park in order to found Oakville's first museum on land she and Juliet deeded to the Town of Oakville. Hazel was also a founding member of the Oakville Historical Society.

Hazel is probably best known locally for writing Oakville and the Sixteen, the History of an Ontario Port, published in 1953. Her other books include The Mark of Honour, Frontier Spies and British West Florida and the Illinois Country. Hazel spent her final days in Shelburne, Nova Scotia, with her daughter Nancy. She died in 1978.

Grace Juliet Chisholm Turney (1902–1964)

Juliet had a wide range of interests. She studied fine arts in Paris in the 1920s, becoming an accomplished painter and illustrator. After a brief marriage, Juliet changed careers and studied medicine at McGill University, earning her M.D. in 1940. Juliet served as a captain overseas during World War II and later in China with the United Nations. She went on to get her degree in pediatrics.

Juliet lived at Erchless for much of her later life, practicing medicine from the estate and at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto. When Juliet died in 1964, ownership of the Erchless Estate had already been transferred to Hazel's son Monty and his wife Margo, who purchased the Estate through the Gift Tax.

Montgomery (Monty) Hart (1920–2004) m. Ruby Margaret (Margo) Harbun (1923–2011)

Monty spent much of his childhood at Erchless, first summering in his grandmother Emelda's home and later moving into Erchless with his mother Hazel when she opened the Custom House as her primary residence. Montgomery Hart was a member of the town council during the amalgamation of Oakville and Trafalgar. He was also instrumental in the creation of the Oakville Centre for the Performing Arts.

Monty, his wife Margo and their four children were the sixth (and last) generation of the Chisholm family to live in Erchless. Erchless was sold in the 1960s and the Town of Oakville purchased it in 1977. Erchless has served as a community museum since the 1980s and has been operated by the Town of Oakville since 1991.

Margo was an invaluable resource in providing detailed descriptions of the early appearance of the house and acted as an "on-call" consultant for the ongoing interior restoration work. She donated many original furnishings that were in the home during the 1920s and contributed photographs and legal documents pertaining to the Chisholm family history.

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