Story and photos by Ron Duquette
When Joseph Silverthorn - a United Empire Loyalist - built his palatial family home in 1822 on Lot No.11, one of Peel’s earliest land grants on Dundas Highway in the Township of Toronto, the population of Ontario (or Upper Canada as it was known then) was a mere 397,484 souls. Little did he know that 194 years later, his surrounding community would grow to twice that size and become Mississauga, the 6th largest city in Canada. At that time, the area was nothing but rugged wilderness. Much history has passed through the doors of this homestead, the oldest in Peel Region. Joseph and Jane would have twelve children here: nine daughters and three sons. He called the home “Cherry Hill” for the cherry tree orchard he planted that stretched for a mile behind the house and brought a bountiful annual harvest of delicious fruit for the family, neighbours and buyers alike. The home was a colonial style designed much like the New England homes where he had been born.
Joseph had served as a militiaman during the War of 1812 before emigrating to Upper Canada through Queenston. He was a farmer and operated a saw mill on part of the property, a business that would contribute to making him one of Peel’s wealthiest and most successful and productive farmers.
As pioneers, early life in a new land was difficult for the Silverthorns and they endured many hardships. But they possessed an adventurous and courageous spirit. The first winter they lived here, there were 13 camps of Indians surrounding the home. They were from the Ojibway Nation (or Chippewas). When the snow came, Joseph needed to go to Queenston in Niagara Falls for supplies and was gone for 6 weeks. Rabba’s Fine Foods on every street corner was still decades into the future. However, his wife Jane felt very safe with the neighbourhood tribes. They were very friendly and exchanged venison for turnips and other things they wanted. The Silverthorn children grew up with First Nations children as playmates.
When Joseph, aged 94 and Jane, at age 88 both died in 1879, they left behind 86 grandchildren, 79 great grandchildren and 2 great great grandchildren. Both are buried in unmarked graves, common for the period, in the Dixie Union Church cemetery, just east of their homestead on the north-east side of Cawthra Rd and Dundas St. A large memorial commemorating their descendants remains there today.
Through the decades, several generations of the family would occupy “Cherry Hill.” Of the immediate members, their last child Augusta would pass away in December 1908. The home was left to her favourite nephew, William Stanislas Romain, who enjoyed an illustrious career as a Shakespearean actor on the stages of London and New York, working with many prominent stars of the Victorian era including Mary Pickford and Sarah Bernhardt. During his heyday, Romain was introduced to a prominent family from London, Ontario. The Lindsays, who he thought would be ideal people to look after “Cherry Hill” during his long stints away from home. For an arrangement of $22 per month, he allowed them to rent the house with the stipulation that so long as a member of the family was alive, they could remain in “Cherry Hill.” Romain died in 1951 at age 84 while away from home.
When I first became associated with the Cherry Hill House in the early 70's it was owned by local developer Bruce McLaughlin who I worked for at the time. Surrounded by heavy bush and trees, it was very difficult to see the old home from any direction. It was occupied by an elderly woman, Daisy Anne Lindsay, who was the last person to reside in what was Peel County’s oldest remaining homestead. She was known as “the witch in the woods” by local youngsters who would invade her privacy occasionally in search of thrills, believing full well that if caught, they might be boiled in oil, never to be seen again. “Cherry Hill” epitomized the perfect haunted house. By now, it was decrepit, enclosed in a forest of thick trees and brush, visible only by the local inquisitive ghostbusters if they dared to enter. Had these urchins known of the historical significance of the property they might have acted more kindly to the eccentric, reclusive tenant who rarely left the property and was known to chase anyone away with broom in hand should they appear. Miss Lindsay suddenly disappeared in May, 1972 and it was heard had relocated to a relative’s home in London, Ontario and lived to the ripe old age of 93.
Shortly after, on my first visit, I discovered the home had been significantly vandalized and I suspect, several historical pieces of furniture had been stolen. However, there remained a spinning wheel, several rope beds and a number of other pieces of period furniture made by Joseph Silverthorn himself, along with old magazines strewn throughout the two floors of the building. The home was certainly in disrepair and unsafe for human habitation. Mr. McLaughlin immediately had the doors and windows boarded up and placed a 24-hour guard on the house. The city were planning a road re-alignment at the corner of Dundas and Cawthra Rd. and the land had been expropriated for this purpose. The plans had the new road running right through the living room of “Cherry Hill.”
Many local historians mourned the potential loss of “Cherry Hill” and searched desperately without success for ways and means to save it. Bruce McLaughlin was quick to acknowledge the importance of the historic building and asked me to coordinate an assessment of the project. An ardent history buff, I was delighted with the challenge presented. Engineers were called in who quickly established the excellent quality of the structure. Plans were completed to build a road and in late June of 1973, “Cherry Hill” was moved on a flatbed truck 400 yards north of its original site to the corner of Silvercreek Blvd. and Lolita Gardens in a small convenience plaza. Save for a few falling chimney bricks, the journey went without incident to the delight of many locals who followed its path. On December 7th, 1984, the Cherry Hill house was designated an heritage building under the Ontario Heritage Act.
After the move and restoration, “Cherry Hill” was opened as a restaurant and English pub for many years. The home is currently undergoing some minor repairs and will become a casual fine dining establishment called Penny’s Favorites this summer. You might want to check it out and experience an important part of our history. For a more in-depth version of the family and the home, visit your local library and look for “The Life and Times of The Silverthorns of Cherry Hill” authored by Kathleen Hicks. It is a fascinating read for history buffs. In the book’s epilogue, she writes, “Landmarks of the past are symbols left by the pioneers that allow us never to forget our vital heritage. It is up to us to preserve the past and carry it forward for all who come after us.”