Smiths Falls History & Mystery: Call the doctor

Dr. McCallum Medical Hall
Dr. J. S. McCallum, Medical Hall, northeast corner of Beckwith & Main Street. Photo credit: Smiths Falls Heritage House Museum.
Posted on: April 24, 2023

Agnes woke up in pitch black darkness—she was shivering uncontrollably and drenched in sweat. By morning she was coughing to the point of choking. The 60-year-old could no longer ignore the inevitable. Agnes picked up the telephone receiver and cranked the handle. “Operator, it’s Agnes Lamb, please connect me with 114,” she requested. This was the phone number for Dr. J. S. McCallum who lived a few minutes away, at 110 Brockville Street. His magnificent stone Italianate villa had been built on a five-acre estate by John B. Ward in the 1870s. John’s father was the first Smiths Falls settler, Abel Russell Ward. Today many people know the property as the Davidson House.

The Doctor had only three short blocks to walk before he was welcomed into the Keyhole House, his doctor’s bag in hand. Agnes lived at this prestigious address with her mother, Catherine. A brief examination revealed that Agnes was suffering from consumption, or as it is known today, tuberculosis. Agnes was a wealthy woman. She had received a substantial inheritance from her uncle, Alexander Wood. She had been her uncle’s “trusted companion and housekeeper” for twenty years, according to The Record News.  As a member of the social elite, she could afford the finest medical treatment available. Sadly, in 1903, there was no cure for tuberculosis. It was the leading cause of death among adults. Symptoms included loss of appetite and fatigue, fever, hacking, bloody coughs, and debilitating pain in the lungs. The disease gradually destroyed the patient.

Dr. McCallum would have prescribed bed rest, a healthy diet, and lots of fresh air. In addition, Agnes would have been provided with an ample supply of attractive bottles embossed with “Dr. J. S. McCallum, Medical Hall, Smiths Falls”. These gorgeous vessels were available in a variety of sizes and contained pain medication such as laudanum, a highly addictive tincture of opium which was also a cough suppressant.

Agnes died following 11 weeks of treatment on August 11, 1903. Dr. McCallum would have placed a call to 71w, the phone number for J. J. Marsh, local Funeral Director & Embalmer—and private ambulance service and a “Dealer in all kinds of Furniture.” Agnes was entombed at the Wood Mausoleum and Cemetery. The property is located on “Vault Hill” just outside of Smiths Falls in the Township of Rideau Lakes. It was built as a spectacular show of wealth, and was reserved for Wood family and friends only.

Several visitors to the Keyhole House have claimed that they can sense the spirit of Agnes Lamb in the house. There is a theory that Agnes was sitting in a chair in a second floor bedroom when she left this world.

John Sangster McCallum was born on November 6, 1847, and was a 31-year-old physician when he married 21-year-old Janet Clark on February 4, 1879. They lived on Main Street before moving to 110 Brockville Street in the 1880s. They had a daughter and five sons. Three of their sons served in World War I including Lieutenant John S. McCallum who received the Military Cross for distinguished conduct on the firing line. He was also a McGill University graduate of the 1909 class of medicine.

An 1884 business directory listing for Dr. McCallum describes him as a “Physician and Surgeon, Coroner for the County of Lanark, also Druggist and Stationer. A Complete Stock of Pure Drugs, Dye Stuffs and Chemicals, Medical Hall.”

The McCallum Drug Store or Medical Hall was located on the northeast corner of Beckwith and Main Street. It was part of the J. S. McCallum commercial block consisting of three stores on Beckwith Street. Designed by architect George Thomas Martin, it was built in 1891. Martin was the same architect who designed the Keyhole House where Agnes Lamb lived. At one point there was an awning with “CIGARS” printed on it over the drug store entrance. Drug stores in 1891 were a bit different from what we know as a drug store today. They sold drugs such as morphine and heroin without a prescription. Today these are considered illegal or controlled substances. In addition, one could find a huge range of products from lipstick, candy, and toys to soap, sodas, and cigars.

McCallum was an avid curler and was involved in the first matches played on the Rideau River near the Frost & Wood factory in the 1870s. They used massive, crudely shaped rocks weighing close to ninety pounds.

In 1884 McCallum became the first to own a telephone in Smiths Falls with a line connecting his house on Brockville Street to his McCallum Drug Store. The telephone line consisted of a heavy iron telegraph wire which ran over houses and treetops. One year later a switchboard was installed in the R.W. Steacy Jewelry store. By 1886 the telephone exchange consisted of 17 members as documented in The Eastern Ontario Directory.

On a very cold January 20, 1887, George Frederick McKimm published his first edition of The Rideau Record newspaper. It was printed on a hand turned printing press, in a small room, on the second floor above the McCallum Drug Store.

In the late 1890s, McCallum was one of a group of ambitious volunteers who formed a horticultural society and proceeded to lease and transform an uncultivated pasture into a magnificent park. This public paradise featured varieties of ornamental trees, manicured gardens, and winding pathways. A weed infested ditch was cleaned and lined with stones, to become the picturesque Matheson’s Creek which fed into a pool. The town council provided funds to build a grandstand, and the park was named in honour of Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee in 1897. Victoria Park is located on the South side of the Rideau Canal basin in Smiths Falls.

McCallum was a town councillor for many years and in 1910 he was elected Mayor of Smiths Falls. The temperance movement was in full force that year and one of his duties included suspending police Chief Charles Edwards on the grounds that he had been intoxicated.In 1935 when Dr. John S. McCallum was suffering from senility and a fracture of his right hip, it was his turn to call the doctor. He picked up the telephone receiver and asked the operator to connect him to 60, the phone number for Dr. J. T. Hogan. McCallum died at his home on February 12, 1935, at the age of 88. He is buried at Maple Vale Cemetery.

Ted & Marion Outerbridge are currently restoring the Keyhole House, 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

Column by Ted Outerbridge

Hometown News
Author: Hometown News