October 29, 2010 at 1:00 am

Farmington couple's Ontario farmhouse has a long legacy

Couple's Ontario country house stretches back nine generations

Kathy Dowling, along with husband Jim, spends her time between a home in Farmington and this historic farmhouse near Colchester, Ontario. She loves to entertain in the kitchen, where the antique walnut table, made by a third-generation ancestor, seats 14 guests. (Photo by Robin Buckson / The Detroit News)

When your family homestead stretches back nine generations, it's not surprising that a ghost would figure into the picture somewhere along the way.

But the legend of the stern-faced, 18th-century spirit is just one chapter in the long-running saga of Hempstead on Erie, Jim and Kathy Dowling's country cottage near Colchester, Ontario, on the northern Lake Erie shore east of Amherstburg.

The couple divide their time between the history-rich Canadian retreat — an 1813 limestone and log farmhouse on land that's been in the family since 1798 — and their Farmington home about an hour's drive away, across the Ambassador Bridge.

Their 15-acre Ontario property, which they share with a cousin, includes what the family has long called the "old house" and the recently completed "new barn" — a weathered-looking barnlike structure with a modern, cathedral-ceiling.

Built to replace a barn torn down 55 years ago, it's custom-designed with two-bedrooms and two-bathrooms, two skylights, a sewing room, laundry room and garage workshop.

The Dowlings, both retired, spend much of the summer in Colchester, where they entertain family and friends, visit local wineries and work on hobbies, including restoring the farmhouse.

Now they plan to spend even more time there in winter too. "I love the view from here," says Kathy Dowling, former assistant director of the Birmingham Bloomfield Art Association. Adds Dowling: "We're so lucky — we're having the time of our life."

The intriguing tale of their homestead began in the late 1700s in Bucks County, Pa., where Kathy Dowling's ancestors were German pacifists who immigrated to the United States from England, according to Dowling, a former human resources vice president who enjoys genealogy research and is a volunteer docent at Henry Ford Estate in Dearborn.

When the Revolutionary War began, the relatives refused to take up arms against the king of England. This allegiance made them "Empire Loyalists" and they came to Canada via Grosse Ile in the 1780s, he says.

For their loyalty to the crown, King George III granted the farm to John Snider, the great, great, great, great, great, great grandfather of the Dowlings' two grandsons, Liam, 4, and Collin, 1, the ninth-generation to enjoy the property on visits with their parents, Bill and Allison Dowling of Northville.

With 2-foot thick limestone walls on the lower level and 1-foot square walnut logs forming the log cabin-like upper level, it's the oldest continuously lived-in house in Essex County, Dowling says. He notes that the original two-story house with attic has a two-story front addition that dates to 1890.

Pointing to a framed document hanging on a wall of the farmhouse, he says proudly: "We still have John Snider's original deed, dated March 6, 1798, and initialed by the King."

The yellowed deed had been kept in a bandana for more than two centuries, Dowling says, before he took it to a paper conservator at the University of Michigan for restoration.

Fascinated by the history of their Canadian home, the Dowlings have done extensive research and found letters about it in the Burton Historical Collection at the Detroit Public Library.

"One letter talks about them hearing the cannons from the Battle of Lake Erie when they were putting the roof on the house," Dowling says of the pivotal 1813 battle that forced the British to abandon Detroit.

Another chatty missive tells how a little boy fell down the narrow, wooden spiral staircase that's still in use today.

The Dowlings also learned that the large walnut dining table they still use for dinner parties was built by a third-generation relative and violin-maker, Daniel Snider, for a grandson's wedding.

The oldest piece of furniture in the house is a circa-1830 Canadian white pine pie safe. As they have for generations, visitors to the farmhouse expect to find a pie waiting for them, which Kathy Dowling obliges using fresh fruit from neighboring Ontario farms.

"Our pies don't sit there long enough to need safekeeping," Dowling says.

As she bakes, Kathy Dowling likes to think back to how her distant ancestors used the room, with its original hand-hewn walnut ceiling beams, for making butter, drying fruits and other typical pioneer chores.

Through the farmhouse window, she looks out on adjoining fields, rented these days to a farmer who grows, alternately, corn and soybeans.

The Dowlings have put considerable elbow grease over the years into restoring the house and decorating it with period pieces they've found antique-hunting.

Dowling taught himself how to install clapboard siding on the farmhouse and, on the inside, restored some of the existing wood and stone walls and original horsehair plaster.

For the new barn, a five-year project, Kathy Dowling learned how to use a variety of power saws and installed all the laminate flooring.

Along the way, the yellowed property deed is not the only hidden treasure the couple discovered — which leads us, this Halloween weekend, to the tale of the stern-faced ghost named Mary.

Not unexpectedly in a dwelling that old, family members for generations have reported strange, unexplained noises and even a few sightings — to the point, Kathy Dowling says, that she was afraid for many years to sleep there alone.

"About 25 years ago, a clairvoyant told us that the person haunting the house was a middle-aged, unhappy woman but not dangerous," Jim Dowling says, adding that the noises continued even after they hired an exorcist.

"I don't believe any of that, but it makes for a good story and people really enjoy ghost stories," he says.

Yet it's interesting to note that one day, as Dowling disassembled an old frame he'd found in the attic, he discovered a portrait of an unhappy-looking older woman hidden underneath a picture of a pretty young woman.

"We think it was Mary, the wife of Adam Snider, the second generation residents," Dowling says. "And once I freed her from being trapped inside that frame and hung her portrait in the main room, we never heard from the ghost again."


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Jim Dowling, a self-taught do-it-yourselfer and genealogy buff, shows off ... (Photo by Robin Buckson / The Detroit News)
This is the exterior of the new live-in barn on the property where the ... (Photo by Robin Buckson / The Detroit News)
The 1813 limestone-and-log farmhouse sits on 15 acres of land on the north ... (Photo by Robin Buckson / The Detroit News)
Fresh-baked pies have been welcoming visitors to the house on Erie for ... (Photo by Robin Buckson / The Detroit News)
The ghost of this stern-faced, 19th-century ancestor in the portrait was ... (Photo by Robin Buckson / The Detroit News)
Jim Dowling inspects the original yellowed deed, initialed by the king of ... (Photo by Robin Buckson / The Detroit News)
The Dowlings spent five years building the new barn, with its contemporary ...