Smiths Falls History & Mystery: Benjamin Byram

Byram Family & Home
Photo credits: Lesley Thorn
Posted on: June 20, 2022

Building the future

The year was 1883, and Benjamin Glover Byram (1862-1943) left his fiancée, Louisa Marion Dean (1861-1936) in England with a promise. He told her that he would establish himself in Canada, build a house there, and then invite her to join him. The twenty-one-year-old boarded a ship and left the country with nothing but a dream and his skills as a joiner and wheelwright. His older siblings, James and Emma, and his parents James and Sabrena Byram remained in England. Upon his arrival in Canada, Benjamin made the journey to Smiths Falls, Ontario by train, where he found employment with the thriving Frost & Wood Company. They were one of the largest manufacturers of farm implements in Canada, and the largest employer in town. In 1886, the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway yards in Smiths Falls created a building boom. Benjamin’s carpentry skills stood him in good stead, and he was recruited by local contractor Matthew Ryan to build countless structures, including the Keyhole House on Brockville Street. By 1887, Benjamin had saved enough money to purchase lot 23, west of Brockville Street, and began to erect his own house for his future family. The Byram house at 11 Alfred Street is a testament to his exceptional woodworking abilities.

Benjamin kept his promise to Louisa. In 1888 he sent for her, and the two Methodists were married immediately upon her arrival in Quebec. An unmarried couple traveling together would have created a scandal during the Victorian era. Kathleen (1889-1926) was born a year later followed by Hazel Dean (1890-1975), Winnifred Gladys (1892-1973), and Arthur Tennyson (1897-1943). In 1891, the Independent Order of Odd Fellows (I.O.O.F.) Chambers were built on the east side of Beckwith Street between Main and William Streets. Benjamin began a fifty-two-year relationship with this organization when he joined Rideau Lodge number 241. His love for music and acting drove him to the stage, where he performed in local choir and theatre productions.

In 1906, with four children between the ages of nine and seventeen, the family relocated to a handsome red brick house at 312 Quebec Avenue in West York, Toronto. Benjamin continued to work as a carpenter for the rest of his active years, despite falling from the roof of a construction site and injuring his hip and back. Kathleen, the eldest child, had a career as a teacher. Hazel inherited her father’s passion for music and toured extensively across North America as a professional violinist. After over a decade on the road, she married William Raymond McLarty. They had one son, Kenneth Byram McLarty (1925-2022). Winnifred married a claims agent by the name of James L. Madigan (1892-1982). Arthur married his sister’s best friend, Avey Berkett (Clarke) Byram (1898-1990) on August 31, 1923. At the time, Arthur was a civil engineer and Avey was a pianist and the daughter of a Toronto Symphony Orchestra clarinet player. Avey had become friends with Hazel while touring with Chautauqua Tours together. When they married, Avey retired from touring and began a long, illustrious teaching career at the Royal Conservatory of Music of Toronto. Benjamin’s grandchildren referred to him as Gandy.

Fond memories of the Byram family’s time in Smiths Falls have been passed down from generation to generation. In addition, Benjamin documented his legacy by leaving various notes at the properties he built. The current owners of the original Byram family home in Smiths Falls discovered his ledger and receipts for building materials in the attic. These records document his seven-year construction project.

Benjamin made multiple apparitions during recent restoration efforts at the Keyhole House. He first materialized in the form of a note which he had hidden in a door jamb over one hundred years ago. It fell onto the pine floorboards as a door frame was removed from a closet, in what used to be the servants’ quarters. The brittle scrap of paper is dated June 1892 and reads “This day for God & Queen have we pledged ourselves to live a life of soberness & love”. The document is signed by three people, Benj Byram, Joe Boynton, and Bill Rogers. Benjamin and Joe were both carpenters and Bill was the liveryman. Not long afterwards, Benjamin’s signature appeared again, this time scribed in pencil, on the back of an ancient piece of moulding. It read “Benj Byram, Carpenter, Smiths Falls”. While the house was being rewired, floorboards in the attic were lifted for the first time since the house was built. A screwdriver with a well-worn wooden handle was discovered. Did it belong to Benjamin? Our fun-loving carpenter even showed up across town at 69 Chambers Street where a small scrap of paper signed Byram and dated 1895 was discovered in a hollow front porch column.Louisa died in 1936, and Benjamin followed seven years later when he died of pneumonia at the age of 80, on February 11, 1943. Benjamin, Louisa, and their four children are all buried at Park Lawn Cemetery in Toronto. Benjamin’s most recent apparition at the Keyhole House was in the form of a photograph of the bushy-moustached, British woodworker attached to an email from his great-granddaughter.

Ted & Marion Outerbridge are currently restoring a Smiths Falls heritage home built in 1893. They are also being swept away by local history & mystery. You can follow them on Instagram, Facebook, and TikTok @thekeyholehouse or email ted@tedouterbridge.com.

Column by Ted Outerbrige

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