Backhouse Homestead up for designation

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Norfolk County wants to make official what Port Rowan residents have long known – the Backhouse Homestead is a heritage gem.

The county has advertised its intention to bestow the official municipal designation. The first step is notifying the public.

“The present day Backhouse Homestead — circa mid-1850s — sits on the hill above Spring Creek overlooking the Backhouse Grist mill (1795), (which was) designated a National Historic Site of Canada, in the Backhouse historic site, formerly the family farm,” the notice says.

“It is the second home built on the site by the Backhouse family, where they lived until about 1956, when the entire property was sold to the former Big Creek Conservation Authority. In 1971, the BCCA became the Long Point Region Conservation Authority.”

Visitors to Backus also know the homestead as the Pioneer Village. The first thing visitors see when they ascend the hill is the old Backhouse mansion, which serves as a museum showcase for how Norfolk’s founding families lived.

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Many years ago, the mansion also served as an office for Bird Studies Canada of Port Rowan, which was recently renamed Birds Canada.

The sprawling, rolling property is dotted with old buildings of the kind that would have been common on the Norfolk landscape in the 19th century.

This includes the old, eight-sided Cherry Valley school house that was once located on a concession road south of Waterford. Nearly 30 years ago, it was relocated brick-by-brick to the conservation area and rebuilt.

Like most every public facility in Ontario and elsewhere this summer, the Backus conservation area has seen much less traffic due to the COVID-19 pandemic alert.

Nonetheless, the facility continues to host weekly gatherings of weavers and spinners belonging to the Norfolk Fibre Arts Guild. Members agreed Wednesday that a heritage designation could be a good thing, especially if it helps persuade the province to increase funding for events and the care and upkeep of Backus.

“We always felt this was an untapped jewel,” says guild member Wendy McHale, of Port Rowan. “We’ve always wondered what could be done here to help realize its potential.”

Backus is a must-see for guests and relatives when they drop in to see guild member Beatrice Kerr of St. Williams. Kerr has come to learn that the bucolic facility is guaranteed to please.

“I hope it gets the designation and it gets the funding,” Kerr said. “We’re from out west, and we always bring visitors here. They love it. It’s a special place.”

The Backhouse family moved to what became Norfolk County in the early 1790s. Family patriarch John Backhouse began a mill operation at this location north of Port Rowan and served as an officer in the British army in the War of 1812. The family later shortened its name to Backus.

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