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Wednesday, July 17, 2024
Ghost stories and graveyard strolls at annual Jane’s Walk
Jo-Ann Fraser, left, and Kate Sullivan co-chair the annual Jane's Walk in Niagara-on-the-Lake. This year the walk went down Butler Street and into the trails toward Butler's Burial Ground. EVAN LOREE
Bob Highcock listens to some tall tales about the Steward House. EVAN LOREE
Elizabeth Pilzecki thinks the Steward House might have a few spooky Stewards wandering through its walls at night. EVAN LOREE
History buff Rick Meloen tells a couple stories about the times and family of Col. John Butler. EVAN LOREE
Jean Hampson talks about the importance of birds to the ecosystem and the types of environments they need to thrive. EVAN LOREE
Mary-Lyn Hopper, a master gardener, teaches people at the Jane's Walk about invasive plants. EVAN LOREE

A heritage home in Niagara-on-the-Lake may be a little bit haunted, if its resident is to be believed. 

Elizabeth Pilzecki, who lives at 507 Butler St. was one of four speakers at the third annual Jane’s Walk on Aug. 24 and she says her basement still scares her.

Communities all over the world host Jane’s Walks, inspired by famed urbanist Jane Jacobs.

The walks share unique histories and stories about neighbourhoods and the NOTL version is organized by residents Jo-Ann Fraser and Kate Sullivan.

This year’s walk took residents down Butler Street and began at Pilzecki’s historic home, the Steward House.

The little home was built by William and Susannah Steward, who were among NOTL’s earliest Black settlers. 

She said the house built by the Stewards is one of the few remaining buildings that once made up the “coloured village” of NOTL.

Pilzecki said when she first moved into the home in 2016, she asked a medium to cleanse it.

She said the psychic told her there was energy in the basement from the ghosts of fugitive slaves who settled in Niagara after escaping their bondage via the Underground Railroad. 

The crowd left Pilzecki’s home abuzz with wonder and joined Mary-Lyn Hopper a short distance down the road near some tall grasses. 

Hopper told her audience there was a need for greater diversity in the ecosystem. 

She pointed out that “vast expanses of lawns in urban areas” and the replacement of natural prairies and woodlands with “monoculture” crops, including lawns, had reduced that diversity.

“We must rethink and see ourselves as stewards of diversity,” she said.

Rather than “revamping” their yards, Hopper encouraged her listeners to start replacing some of the invasive plants in their gardens with native ones.

Building on Hopper’s presentation, Jean Hampson, who runs the Niagara Peninsula Field Naturalist Club with her partner Bob Highcock, touched on the impotence of birds in a diverse ecosystem.

“Birds kind of unite the entire world,” Hampson said, pointing out that some migrate from the Arctic all the way to the Antarctic each year.

Some birds who tend to live farther north will migrate to Niagara in the winter because the Niagara River flows all winter, while those up north tend to freeze.

Hampson said every bird has different needs from the ecosystem. 

“Not everybody nests in a tree. And not everybody needs a forest,” she said.

Some birds will make their nests in a field.

Hampson said trails like the one on Butler Street are great for birds that need to stop and rest while migrating.

The birds can’t stop though if everything is paved over.

In addition to planting native plants, Hampson recommended people add feeders and water features to their homes to help support migrating birds.

Resident history buff Rick Meloen wrapped up the walk with a trip to Butler’s Burial Ground, the resting place of Col. John Butler and his family. 

The small cemetery rests at the top of a hill at the end of the Butler Street trail.

Among those buried in the cemetery are Thomas Butler, second son to the famous Col. John Butler, and Thomas’ wife Ann.

Deborah Butler, John Butler’s only daughter, is also buried there with her husband James Muirhead.

Meloen said Muirhead served as a surgeon during the War of 1812 and administered smallpox vaccines to the poor for free.

Buried in a family tomb near the Butler family cemetery is William Claus, who served in the Department of Indian Affairs at the time.

Meloen said it was “curious” that they are buried there because the family “didn’t get along that well” with Col. Butler.

There is no headstone for the colonel in the cemetery.

Meloen thought this might be because his family was worried his grave could have been desecrated by the Americans if it were discovered during the war.

Among the crowd was Doug Gillard, a descendant of Col. Butler. He said Butler was his fifth great-grandfather.

After learning that Meloen was going to be speaking about his ancestor, Gillard decided to stop by NOTL with some family.

While he said he already knew most of what Meloen shared in his talk, it was “pretty cool” to revisit his ancestral burial ground.

Gillard lives nearby in St. Catharines and said he’s happy there are still a few markers of his ancestor’s life, including the memorial of Col. Butler’s homestead.

“I just can’t comprehend the hardships they went through,” he said.

The colonel and his family relocated from New York to Niagara during the American Revolution. 

He said the land his ancestors settled was mostly dense forest when they arrived.

He imagines the family had to construct a log cabin home “in no time at all,” so they would have a place to sleep. 

As the walk ended people were abuzz with conversation.

Fraser, looking around at her chatty neighbours, said the shared interest in community stories is important.

“That’s why we do Jane’s Walk,” she said.

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