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Woodcester Villa – Gravenhurst’s historic octagonal home

August 2020

On a hill, overlooking the Muskoka River in Bracebridge, Ontario, sits the historic octagon house built in 1882 by wool manufacturer Henry J. Bird.

Known both as Woodchester Villa and The Bird House, the house has 16 inch-thick walls, each section of which alternates between 14 feet 8 inches and 16 feet 5 inches.

The octagonal shape of the house was certainly out of the ordinary, since homes were usually box shaped, perhaps with a turret at one or two ends on homes of the wealthy. It was believed to promote good health, as advocated by Orson Squire Fowler, a 19th century American phrenologist (a pseudoscience) and lecturer, who developed the style in the 1850s.

The design was considered easier to heat and cooler in the summer because of the reduced outer walls, and it was claimed to allow more natural light inside the house.

Woodchester Villa was one of the first octagonal homes in Ontario, where once there were over 100, and is now one of around 18 historic homes that still remain standing in Ontario. Others can be found in places like Lowville, Huttonville, Maple, Picton, Calabogie and Hawkesbury.

A major drawback to the octagonal design was that it was harder to build and to arrange furniture, which is rectangular, in triangle-shaped rooms. This problem is one reason why the design didn’t endure.

The Bracebridge Rotary Club bought the house in 1977 from the descendants of Bird, restoring it and then turning it over to the Town of Bracebridge in 1980 for use as a local history museum.

The museum officially opened on 22 June 1980.

Additional restorations and upgrades to the property were undertaken in 2012, after the house was damaged in a winter storm three years earlier, causing the museum to close down.

Since re-opening in June 2018, the house can also be used for meetings, private functions and events.

The Bird Woolen Mill

The Bird family was well known in the textile industry, both in Gloucestershire, England, Europe and in British North America, for their fine textured cloth. Henry Bird opened his first Woollen Mill in 1869 in Ontario in Glen Allen, north of Berlin (now Kitchener), but this closed two years later as a result of two floods.

Bird made plans to re-locate his family to 237 miles north-west to Bracebridge, where he would establish a new mill. Tragically, his wife Sarah, his three year old daughter Elizabeth and six month old son, all died from tuberculosis shortly before the move.

Bird married his second wife, Mary, on 4 June 1873, and the couple initially lived in an apartment above his new mill. With the growing success of the Bracebridge mill, more and more space in the building was needed for business use.

By 1882, the family re-located to the newly built Woodchester Villa, situated on top of a hill on the south side of the Muskoka River, overlooking the mill on the north side.

Bird’s new Bracebridge mill proved to be so successful that in 1888, stone and brick warehouses were added in order to store the Muskoka wool he obtained from local farmers. The warehouse would twice be replaced, with the final one being erected in 1911.

One of Bird’s most famous products was the Mackinaw jacket, a jacket that traces its roots to the coats made by white and Metis women in 1811. This durable jacket became popular with lumberjacks for its water resistance, leading to its more common name of the “Lumber Jacket” or colloquially in Ontario, the “Keswick Dinner Jacket.”

During the Great War, Bird’s mill devoted about 90 percent of its production towards the war effort. The mill produced service blankets, heavy grey coat material for the army and the air force, and finer finished khaki for the soldiers’ uniforms.

After reaching its peak in the 1930s, the Bird Woollen Mill was shut out from supplying textiles to the Canadian military during World War II. Bird never lived to see this disrespectful act, as he passed away on 7 January 1936, at the ripe old age of 94, but the Bird family, who were still running the mill, certainly did.

Coupled with the lowering of tariffs on English imports of textiles by the Mackenzie King government and the introduction of synthetic materials such as nylon and polyester, this led to the end of the Bird Woollen Mill in 1953. The machinery in Bird’s mill was old and slow, and the company didn’t have the financial resources to upgrade their equipment.

Most of the mill buildings were demolished to create a new parking lot. The last remaining building of the Bird Woollen Mill sits right beside Muskoka District Road 16, where it crosses the Muskoka River, at the top of the falls.

Renovated in 1993, the stucco-covered building houses the Bracebridge Chamber of Commerce, the Visitor Information Centre and the Riverwalk Restaurant.

Henry Bird’s impact of Bracebridge

In addition to running a successful woollen mill, Bird was a driving force in getting piped water in Bracebridge for domestic use and for fire fighting. Bird served as captain of the first fire company in Bracebridge in 1876, and he arranged for the water pumps used at mill to give the town water mains added water pressure for fighting fires.

Bird also played an important role in introducing the electrical system in Bracebridge in 1894, along with serving on the village council in 1878, and after Bracebridge attained town status, as a Town Councillor in 1901, 1903, 1904, 1906 and 1907. 

Henry J. Bird is long-gone, but his legacy lives on in Bracebridge, as well as the distinctive monument to him that is Woodchester Villa.

Sources: https://www.bracebridge.ca/en/explore/woodchester-.aspx, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Woodchester_Villa, https://www.bracebridge.ca/en/explore/the-bird-woollen-mill.aspx?mid=2364, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mackinaw_cloth, https://www.bracebridge.ca/en/explore/the-bird-family.aspx.

About the author

Bruce Forsyth

Bruce Forsyth served in the Royal Canadian Navy Reserve for 13 years (1987-2000). He served with units in Toronto, Hamilton & Windsor and worked or trained at CFB Esquimalt, CFB Halifax, CFB Petawawa, CFB Kingston, CFB Toronto, Camp Borden, The Burwash Training Area and LFCA Training Centre Meaford.

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