Smiths Falls History & Mystery: The man behind the red brick

Saint Francis Hospital
Saint Francis Hospital. Photo credit: Ted Outerbridge
Posted on: September 15, 2021

In 1887, The Toronto Mail newspaper raved about the town of Smiths Falls. They wrote that “there were over one hundred buildings erected in Smiths Falls last year” and stated that “over 1,000,000 bricks were manufactured and used for building purposes in the town during the same period.” Meanwhile, the local press reported that “Ryan & Allen’s large brickyard is tried to the full this spring to supply all the orders coming in.”

Smiths Falls had recently become a Canadian Pacific Railway divisional centre while two of the town’s major employers had expanded. Frost & Wood had evolved into one of the largest manufacturers of farm implements in Canada, and the Malleable Castings factory was one of their primary suppliers. A construction boom was the result. Herbert Allen, a bricklayer and stonemason, formed a partnership with contractor Matthew Ryan in 1884. The 1884-5 Ontario Gazetteer and Business Directory confirms this with a listing for Ryan & Allen and describes them as “Brick Makers”. This was a brilliant business to be in at the time, as brick had replaced stone as the building material of choice for the well-to-do.

During my search for definitive proof regarding the various locations of the brickyard, the team at the Smiths Falls Heritage House Museum triumphed. Shirley Sommerville discovered an ad on the front page of an 1887 Rideau Record newspaper for a brickyard on Jason Island. It reads “BRICKS|BRICKS| We have improved and enlarged our facilities for Brick Making and are now prepared to fill all orders for Bricks on application. Leave your orders early to insure them being filled as the demand is very great, at the works on Jason Island. PRICES VERY LOW, RYAN & ALLAN.” It is interesting to note that Allen was spelled incorrectly in the ad.

In 1887, The Toronto Mail wrote that “Mr. Ryan is at present engaged in the erection of the roundhouses of the C.P.R. now in course of construction at this point, he having the contract for the wood work, while his partner in the brick yard, Herbert Allen is superintendent of the brick and mason work.” Allen was a highly skilled craftsman who combined the roles of architect, builder, craftsman, designer, and engineer with the simplest of tools to create some amazing structures. Allen’s list of creations include Saint Francis Hospital, Frost & Wood, Hotel Rideau, Malleable Foundry, and the Areno Block. In addition, he was involved in building many private homes. One of Allen’s finest engineering feats is the grand Moorish arch at the Keyhole House on Brockville Street. I have the privilege of being the current curator of this magnificent structure together with my wife Marion.

Although Allen ran the brickyard, Ryan received much of the credit. In 1929, The Rideau Record wrote “Ryan bricks really built Smiths Falls. Ryan bricks are in practically every building of this type in the town of Smiths Falls. His brickyard, it is conceded, resulted in the erection of many fireproof homes and incidentally in the lowering of local insurance rates.” 

Herbert Clarence Allen was born on December 13, 1856 in Eastons Corners, Ontario and learned his trade as a stonemason in Brockville. He was in his early twenties when he came to Smiths Falls. He and his wife Jessie Scott were Methodists and raised three children, Amos, Irene and Ethan. In the late 1910s, they moved to a farm on the edge of town.

His death certificate tells us that he broke his hip in an accident at home and died three weeks later of pneumonia on November 27, 1937. He was 81 years old and he died at St. Francis Hospital which he had built over 30 years prior. He is buried at Hillcrest Cemetery in Smiths Falls, Lanark County, Ontario. His funeral was held at 61 Russell Street East in Smiths Falls in a home built by Allen. Following his death, his wife Jessie Scott sold their farm and moved into this house.

His obituary describes him as “… a quiet and home loving man [who] possessed an honest and upright character, and his death is the cause of widespread regret.” It also refers to him as “… one of the town’s oldest and respected citizens.”

During my research for this article, I had the pleasure of meeting Allen’s great-great-grandson, Douglas McEwen. He advised me that his family described Allen as “strong in his convictions and possessing an extreme passion for creativity and design which is very much evident in his creations.” Much to my delight, Douglas shared a personal photograph with me of Herbert Allen himself!

Ted & Marion Outerbridge are currently restoring a Smiths Falls heritage home built by stonemason Herbert Allen in 1893. They are also being swept away by local history & mystery. You can follow them at The Keyhole House on Instagram & Facebook.

Column by Ted Outerbridge

Hometown News
Author: Hometown News

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