Special to The Lake Report
The Wilderness, as it’s been known for over a century, is 5.5 acres of land at 407 King St., opposite the Commons, in Niagara-on-the-Lake.
Bordered by King, Mary, Regent and Centre streets, The Wilderness is in a residential area and bordered by single-family houses on the east and west sides. One Mile Creek traverses the property.
Most people walking past the overgrown, deteriorating streetscape on either King or Regent streets would be unaware of this remarkable property with tremendous local and national significance.
But while the value of The Wilderness may be hidden from view, the significance of this land is rooted deeply in the natural, Indigenous, military, political and horticultural history that make this town unique and distinctive.
The Wilderness is a still-intact, privately owned plot of first-growth Carolinian woods that holds great significance to Indigenous and settler history.
In 1799, the four contiguous lots were presented by the chiefs of the Six Nations to Ann (Nancy) Johnson Claus in recognition of her family’s “many deeds of kindness.”
Ann’s father, Sir William Johnson, as northern superintendent of Indian Affairs had negotiated with 24 First Nations, the significant Treaties of Niagara in 1764. Ann’s son, William Claus, built the first house on the property.
It was wantonly destroyed during the War of 1812 by occupying American troops – a pregnant mother with three young children survived the winter of 1813 in a root cellar on the property.
William and his wife Catherine began construction of the present Regency cottage in 1816 and planted extensive gardens surrounding the house and a later carriage house – all carefully recorded in diaries that amazingly have survived to this day.
The property, which for some time was called “Geale’s Grove,” remained in the Claus family until the 1880s only to be reoccupied by a family member for a decade early in the 20th century. The name “The Wilderness” apparently emerged at this time.
In the late 1940s, Mrs. Mary Austin Parker, who had spent part of her youth on the property, purchased The Wilderness. Later joined by her daughters, Mrs. Parker was determined to preserve the property for future generations of the public to enjoy and appreciate.
Their dedicated and inspirational advocacy to maintain the property intact with its unique natural and built heritage has been truly remarkable.
The Town of Niagara-on-the-Lake designated The Wilderness a heritage property in 1994. This designation applies both to the heavily wooded land as well as the entire exterior and interior of the house on the site, as well as the carriage house and the archeological remains.
The house was built in 1816. A creek that meanders through the property is protected by a conservation easement.
The Ontario Heritage Trust has strongly encouraged the preservation of this property.
The Wilderness Today
The Niagara Foundation has a claim to a half interest in The Wilderness through the will of Ruth Parker, who died in 2013.
The executor of Ruth’s estate determined the foundation was the organization to respect her wishes that the heritage elements of The Wilderness be preserved and maintained for the benefit of the public.
The remaining half-interest is controlled by Ken Reid, the former husband of Kea Reid, who was the daughter of Fran MacKay, Ruth Parker’s sister.
Both Ken and Kea Reid resided at The Wilderness until Kea died in 2016. Ken Reid, best known to Niagara-on-the-Lake residents as the town’s former canine control officer, still lives on the property.
Over the past decade, the property has fallen into a state of disrepair with several signs of deferred maintenance. Several large trees have come down and several more require attention.
An inspection of the buildings by JK Jouppien Heritage Resource Consultant Inc. in August 2018 uncovered several basic maintenance issues ranging from the need to replace the roof to moisture problems throughout the building.
Jouppien stated in his report, prepared for the Niagara Foundation, that “… the property has not had the benefit of consistent and well-managed stewardship.”
Shortly after Kea’s death, Ken Reid initiated legal proceedings to gain control of the entire Wilderness property and sell the land for residential development.
The foundation has responded by proposing to purchase Mr. Reid’s half-interest at an appraised value that considers both the heritage and environmental restrictions, to prevent the sale and redevelopment of this heritage asset and remain true to Ruth Parker’s wishes. The matter is now before the courts.
Mr. Reid appears to be focused on maximizing value through a development exit. The Niagara Foundation, on the other hand, is fully committed to securing ownership in order to respect Ruth Parker’s wishes of preservation for the benefit of the public.
Lyle Hall is president of the Niagara Foundation.