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The Jane & Keeler Families
Simon L. Jayne was born in 1872, a descendant of United Empire Loyalists who had come to Upper Canada almost a century before. His father, David Jayne, owned a farm at Lot 29 and 30 on the second concession. Although Simon signed his name as Jayne, the surname is shown as Jaynes on some documents. His relatives still living in this area now have the surname Jaynes.
In 1901, Simon bought the land that had been Edward Massey’s property. About this same time, he married Nora L. Tinney who was twenty years his junior. He built a red-brick farmhouse near the road on the west half of Lot 23. The wooden addition, to the rear of the house, has old hand-hewn timbers and may have been built with materials salvaged from Edward Massey’s former house. In 1907, it was Simon Jayne who bought Sunnyside and its 75 acres from Samuel’s daughters. From all reports, Simon and Nora lived in the redbrick farmhouse. There is no record of who lived at Sunnyside during the years it belonged to Simon Jayne, although Elizabeth Massey may have lived there for some of the time.
Twin sons were born to Simon and Nora in 1911. They died as infants. The Jaynes had no other children.
Simon sold the west portion of his land to Ernest Joice in 1917. At that time, Simon bought land on the Danforth Road, east of Cobourg. Simon and Nora lived there until Nora’s death in 1935. Simon then moved back to his family’s home, where he lived with his bachelor brother, Norman, and his unmarried sisters, Laura and Mary.
Simon had sold Sunnyside to William Keeler in 1919.
William Keeler was also a descendant of United Empire Loyalists, some of the earliest to settle in this area. He bought Sunnyside in 1919 and he and his wife, Elizabeth, farmed there for several years.
The Keeler family were devout members of their church and often provided room and board for young Baptist ministers-in-training who were serving temporarily in area churches. One of the Keelers’ sons, Alvin, became a Baptist minister.
Their other son, Bill, lived with his parents and helped his father operate the farm. Bill and his wife, Fern, converted the front two rooms on the east side of the main floor into an apartment for themselves and their daughter, Barbara. Electricity became available in Grafton in 1925, but farms outside the village did not have eletrical services until much later.
In 1929, the stock market crash started a depression that inflicted hardships on everyone. Farmers could, at least, grow food for survival, but selling crops to raise cash for mortgage payments or taxes was hardly possible. The situation became so desperate for so many that, in 1934, the municipality adopted a policy which allowed taxpayers to trade labour on road work for up to one third of their property tax bill.
By 1939, faltering farms and family businesses were still struggling to recover as the Great Depression was ending and the Second World War was beginning.
The Blaffer Family
Robert Lee Blaffer of Houston, Texas, was a wealthy, influential man, who made his fortune in the oil business. He started out drilling for oil with his own hands and went on to become one of the founders of Humble Oil, which later affiliated with Standard Oil and eventually became part of Exxon.
His wife, Sarah Campbell Blaffer, was the daughter of William Thomas Campbell who had also got his start drilling his own oil wells. He later became one of the signers of the original charter for the Texas Company—Texaco.
Mr. and Mrs. Blaffer had four children: John, Jane, Cecil and Joyce. The family would normally have spent their summer vacation in Europe but, in 1939, the war prevented them. Instead, they visited Canada.
When Mrs. Blaffer passed by the Keeler farm, she was captivated by the breathtaking view. She made arrangements to purchase the property and engaged the Keelers to stay on for a time as caretakers.
A few weeks later, Mrs. Blaffer also purchased the farm to the west which was owned by Ernest Joice. The Joice family stayed in the house until the following spring when the Keelers took up residence there. The Joice’s red-brick home (built by Simon Jayne) is now part of Ste. Anne’s Inn—known as the Farmhouse and the Gables.
By the fall of 1939, Mrs. Blaffer was already making plans to transform the stone house built by Samuel Massey into her family’s summer home. She wanted a comfortable, relaxed environment, large enough to accommodate her family, live-in staff, and other visitors. Her concept was to create a house which would resemble the old stone cottages she had seen and admired in the Cotswold district of England. She hired an architect to help her design the additions. The architect was Mr. Abbott from New York, who also had a summer house in nearby Cobourg. He told the Blaffers he believed the original house was the work of a Scottish stonemason because of the large, squared stones used and the construction technique. Therefore, a Scottish stonemason—Mr. Skillen—was found to oversee the construction of the additions.
Mrs. Blaffer wanted to match the uniquely-coloured pink of the original house if possible. Men were dispatched to canvas the neighbourhood for suitable stones. Area farmers happily offered them from their fields and fence lines, but used stones, already cut, were preferred. Therefore, stones from abandoned foundations of former houses and barns were collected. The stones of the original Academy Hill School, long abandoned, were purchased for the construction of the additions.
That school had been replaced years earlier by the red-brick building at the top of the hill, which is now also part of Ste. Anne’s Inn and known as Haldimand East and Haldimand West. However, the quantity of used stones or boulders massive enough to be worked into two-foot squares could not be found. The additions were built with timber framing and finished in random stone. In some of the later additions, the stones are so small the result resembles cobblestone.
Very likely, before construction even began it was the talk of the surrounding area. “What ever are they going to build with all those stones?” By the time the structure was completed, the neighbourhood regarded it with such amazement that it was given a nickname. Mrs. Blaffer’s stone cottage became known as the Grafton Castle. The Blaffers gave their summer home its true name, the name it still carries today—Ste. Anne’s. Mrs. Blaffer’s daughter, Jane Owen, explained why this name was chosen. She said, “Our family believes in divine healing and in the protection of our saints.” It was she who suggested honouring the patron saint of Canada—Sainte Anne de Beaupré.
Construction proceeded through the winter of 1939-40. Mrs. Blaffer visited to see the progress and spent an enjoyable day driving over the whole property in a horse-drawn sleigh.
Ethel Winter, Ernest Joice’s daughter, grew up in the red-brick farmhouse to the west. A few years after the main additions were completed, she worked for Mrs. Blaffer as a housekeeper for three summers. During the winter of ’39, she and her family still lived next door. She provided this account:
“The marble floor [for the dining room] was brought up from the States in the winter of 1939/40. The truck became stuck in the snow, and my father and a couple of neighbours took the horses and sleds, and brought the slabs up to the farm. The marble was heavy, and the snow was deep, and it was quite a chore.”
The addition to the west had bedrooms on the upper floor. The main floor contained the dining room, with its black and white marble-tile floor, a fireplace, and French doors onto the north courtyard. Beyond the dining room was a butler’s pantry and the kitchen. To the east, a library was built and connected to the original house by a stone arch. This grand archway had a very practical purpose. It provided a shady spot that was always breezy on hot summer afternoons. The family often gathered there to shell fresh peas for supper.
The original house also was renovated. Rooms that previously had only wood stoves were given fireplaces. These, and the existing fireplaces, were fitted with refined, hand-carved mantelpieces brought from Pennsylvania. The front door was replaced with a six-panel door also brought from Pennsylvania. Sometime later, that doorway was altered to the bowed style and doubleglass doors still present. Electrical wiring and plumbing were installed and the house had indoor bathrooms for the first time.
The back section, which had been kitchen and dining area for the Keelers, became Mrs. Blaffer’s sitting room. The walls, floor, and ceiling were all painted yellow and a fireplace was added. What had been the living room became Mrs. Blaffer’s bedroom. It had a French door which looked out into the walled garden. One room across the hall was converted to a bathroom. The other room across the hall served as private quarters for Mademoiselle Glemet. Mademoiselle had been governess for the Blaffer children but, as they grew to adulthood, she stayed on with the family in the position of “household chatelaine”.
Jane Owen recalls that one of the upstairs rooms, the one at the back, required some extra work. Its doorway had to be knocked out and enlarged. The room had a very narrow entrance and Mr. Abbott explained that this was not uncommon. Many early Ontario homes had rooms designed to be an easily-fortified hiding place in case of Indian raids. (These rooms were usually concealed areas in the basement, accessed by trap doors. This precaution was more a response to stories about the Indian wars in the States than to any actual danger in Canada.)
When construction was completed, the walls were hung with mirrors and many paintings. Mrs. Blaffer was well known as a patron of the arts. However, the house was furnished sparingly in keeping with its purpose as a relaxing summer retreat. Many pieces of simple, sturdy Habitant furniture, in butternut or pine, were purchased from Quebec. The library, painted salmon pink, had tall bookcases in its corners. Leather chairs and a large, circular gateleg table sat in the middle of the room.
Ethel Winter remembers that Mrs. Blaffer’s bedroom had a four-poster bed and a long writing table with green leather inlay, banded in brass. She recalls being especially impressed by a desk in the sitting room which was green with gilt trim. It was eighteenthcentury pine and had been brought from Quebec.
The north courtyard was enclosed with a high stone wall which added to the impression that Ste. Anne’s was a convent or monastery. The walled garden, like the cottage-styled additions, was typically English. Mrs. Blaffer had the wall topped with clay pots of pink petunias and hollyhocks and delphiniums grew at the base. In summer, the terrace facing Lake Ontario blazed with the colours of portulaca growing in the cracks between the flagstones. The wall gave the courtyard a secluded feeling and sheltered the garden’s flowers from harsh winds.
When the wall was being built, a special stone was fitted facing onto the courtyard. The stone is carved with the Latin words Sol lucet omnibus. Thus, the farm once called Sunnyside was given a broader meaning: The sun shines for everyone.
The construction at Ste. Anne’s continued for several years and provided work for many in the area. A garage was built to the west of the house. Beyond that, there was a vegetable garden and orchard. Southwest of the garden, a stable housed two milk cows and some chickens, along with a small herd of cattle. There were sheep on the farm at one time, too.
The stable was the bottom level of what had been Mr. Joice’s hiproof barn. The tall barn interfered with the view, so Mrs. Blaffer had the top level removed and a roof put over the foundation. A new well was drilled in the low area to the south of the house, finally tapping Ste. Anne’s hidden treasure—abundant, pure water, deep underground. Enclosed in the original stone pump house, that well is still in use today and provides all the water for the inn, including the swimming pool.
The swimming pool, amazingly, was installed by Mrs. Blaffer almost sixty years ago. She loved to swim and was often observed walking across the lawn in a long, flowing robe, which she slipped off just before diving into the pool. Mr. Blaffer retired in 1941. That same year, preparations were made for daughter Jane’s marriage to Kenneth Owen of Indiana. An addition was built on the east end of the house. Called the Wedding Room by the Blaffers, it is now known as the East Suite. When it was built, it had a fieldstone floor to accommodate dancing after the wedding. Mrs. Blaffer planned the details so carefully she even timed the planting of buckwheat. The day of the wedding, the fields surrounding Ste. Anne’s were snow white. The ceremony took place outdoors and was conducted by Reverend Nind from St. George’s Church in Grafton. The bridesmaids wore chiffon dresses in shades of pink, lavender and white, echoing the colours of the petunias in the garden.
Members of the Royal Norwegian Air Force, exiled from their country during the war, were always welcome guests at the Blaffer’s summer house. As a tribute to the newlyweds, they flew in “V” formation over Ste. Anne’s, dropping messages of goodwill.
Many guests to the wedding came from far away, but all the farmers from the neighbourhood were also invited. Mr. Waldie, who raised ducks and geese on his farm across the road, presented the couple with an eiderdown quilt which Mrs. Owen has to this day.
The following summer, Jane Owen was visiting her parents at Ste. Anne’s when her daughter Janie was born. Just three weeks later, they were preparing to return to their home in the States. Mr. Blaffer wanted to do something special for his daughter and new granddaughter. He went to Toronto to exchange their regular train ticket for a private coach so they could travel more comfortably. Sadly, he suffered a heart attack while he was there and died. Mrs. Blaffer continued to spend her summers at Ste. Anne’s and her children came to be with her. Jane Owen’s second daughter also was born there. Mrs. Blaffer was never happier than when her grandchildren came to visit. She had a playhouse built for them to the east of the main house. The design for this circular stone house was taken from a French dovecote, called a pigeonnier. For symmetry, a matching stone building was added to the west side of the house. It held the laundry facilities.
The winter of 1943, Mrs. Blaffer arranged for a local family to stay in the home. She was apparently concerned that struggling back and forth through the snow to check on the building would be too taxing for Mr. Keeler. (The family who stayed to take care of the house was Lawrence Jaynes, his wife and four youngest daughters, relatives of the former owner, Simon Jaynes.)
Mr. and Mrs. Keeler decided it was time to retire in 1945. Harold Winter (brotherin-law to Ethel) and his wife, Ada, moved into the red-brick farmhouse and became caretakers for Ste. Anne’s and its farmland, duties they were to carry out for over thirty years. Harold Winter managed many of the farm duties, but Lawrence Jaynes and his son, Clarence, often were hired to cultivate and harvest.
Mrs. Blaffer’s appreciation for Mr. and Mrs. Winter’s service continued after her death. Her estate provided a pension for them and, even after they retired, ensured lifelong accommodations. Mrs. Blaffer became friends with many people in the area, and over the years there were many guests at Ste. Anne’s. She enjoyed entertaining her company with fine dinners followed by concerts or evenings of song.
A famous painter, Milton Avery, and his wife, Sally, visited Ste. Anne’s in 1947. The Averys were on their way to a vacation out west and stopped by only to deliver a painting Mrs. Blaffer had purchased from him. She persuaded them to stay three weeks and sent her chauffeur to Toronto to get additional art supplies. Mr. Avery painted scenes in and around Ste. Anne’s and many of his paintings and drawings are attributed to this time. His painting of a white capon, done at Ste. Anne’s, hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art.
Other well-known visitors included Vincent Massey, (Governor General of Canada from 1952 to 1959) who paid a visit to Ste. Anne’s with his daughter in the late 1950s. Vincent Massey was the great-grandson of Daniel Massey Jr. who was Samuel’s uncle. While visiting the area, Mr. Massey observed that the Academy Hill Cemetery, where so many of his relatives were buried, had fallen into a neglected state. Stones had been damaged, toppled, and displaced. He had the cemetery restored and thestones were arranged as they are today. After 1967, Mrs. Blaffer’s failing health prevented her from visiting Ste. Anne’s. The summer house was closed and the paintings were removed to a gallery in Cobourg for safekeeping. Even so, the original bell from the stone wall was stolen and break-ins and vandalism were always a concern. Harold Winter began sleeping overnight in the big, empty, old house to prevent further damage. Sarah Campbell Blaffer died at age ninety-one. She left many legacies to be enjoyed by everyone. Her impressive art collection, works of the masters and of American abstract expressionists, was exhibited throughout the States. In Canada, she left at Ste. Anne’s, her own work of art, as an example of her desire to preserve the best of the past.
In July 1975, a few months after her mother’s death, Jane Owen visited Ste. Anne’s for the first time in eight years. She was interviewed by a reporter from the Cobourg Star during that visit. Mrs. Owen spoke about many happy memories of her family’s summer house. She said then that she was hoping to revive Ste. Anne’s and encourage her relatives to begin visiting again. That did not happen. The family had summer houses elsewhere and Jane Owen began concentrating her energies on the restoration of a small town in Indiana—New Harmony—which her husband’s ancestor, Robert Owen, had purchased in 1825.
Ste. Anne’s stood empty for six years more.
The Corcoran Family
In the spring of 1981, a newspaper ad offered a castle for sale in the Northumberland Hills. A castle? Carl Corcoran was intrigued. His wife, Nan, drove out to take a look at the place. Harold Winter took Nan through the old stone house…by flashlight. It did not show well and it smelled of mould and mildew. Nan returned home and said, “Forget it!”
Carl had to see for himself. He drove out to look a few days later, and agreed, “It’s too far gone.” But they were smitten and drove out several more times to look it over, all the while laughing at themselves for even considering such a huge commitment of time and energy. They were already busy enough. While Carl had been climbing the corporate ladder at IBM, from salesman to president, work often kept him away from home. Nan saw to the day-to-day details of raising their seven children and running the family farm near Kleinburg where they raised Charolais cattle. Carl and Nan kept thinking about the property, though, and mentioning “the castle” to their friends. Carl liked the idea that the family could work on the restoration together. When it was complete, a big house and all that land offered unlimited possibilities for retirement projects.
Nan was drawn to Ste. Anne’s by something less tangible. She sensed a spirit there, a nurturing spirit. Certainly, there was the name of the place to associate with divine healing and the structure itself contained quartz, believed to have healing properties. Also, Nan observed that healing herbs persisted in the long-neglected gardens. Nan’s impression was later confirmed by a family friend, Jay Rawlings, who is well known as a gifted prophet. When he visited Ste. Anne’s, he received and conveyed a prophecy: “I have chosen this beautiful garden, where I will send many people to be healed.”
Carl’s father, Jim Corcoran, had owned and operated a hotel, the Clifton Inn, in Niagara Falls, Ontario. Nan’s father, William Priddle, was a doctor in Toronto. Perhaps it was inevitable that their offspring would combine the two vocations. In June 1981, the Corcorans bought Ste. Anne’s. Since then, all but the eldest of their seven children have been involved in the enterprises there. That first year, their son, Jim, brought a friend out to spend the summer at Ste. Anne’s. They expected to do some cleaning up and make repairs and maybe do some painting. Another son, John, and his fiancée, Nancy Rayburn, came out to help. Jim remembers that they started to restore the swimming pool that summer in order to have a place to cool off and refresh themselves after the grueling work on the house. The pool was more like a cement pond complete with lily pads. The Blaffers apparently had never used chlorine and the pool had to be sandblasted before it could be used. They pumped water from the well to refill the pool, but at the time they were unsure of the well’s capacity, so they were cautious. The 130,000 gallons required to fill the pool caused no problem with the water supply. John recalls saying, “This is pretty fantastic.” However, the idea to bottle the water came years later.
The Corcoran family soon realized that restoring Ste. Anne’s would take a lot more than cleaning and painting. Years of freezing and thawing had taken their toll. The structure was damaged and the interior had to be rebuilt, room by room. However, the oldest part of the building, the section built in 1858, was in the best shape of all and actually required very little work.
What followed was two years of construction with a crew of sixteen workers, nine of whom lived on the site during the week. Nan says, “It was like a work camp for two years.”
Just before his parents bought Ste. Anne’s, Jim dropped out of York University where he had been studying law and political science, reasoning that he could learn more about politics performing his duties as a school trustee. In 1981, he was in the middle of his third term as trustee with the York Regional Public School Board, a position he had first been elected to while still in high school.
Jim took on the task of overseeing the renovation. Young as he was, he already had considerable experience negotiating building contracts. As a trustee, he had served for a time as chairman of the planning and building committee for the board and had been involved in selecting contractors for new school construction. By the fall of 1981 Jim made the difficult decision to resign his seat on the school board and devote all his time and energy to the work at Ste. Anne’s.
Meanwhile, the family had moved to Ste. Anne’s, cows and all. Their furniture was stored in the sitting room. Everyone slept on mattresses on the bare floors, while bats came down through holes in the ceiling and flew overhead at night.
Each morning, Nan cooked for her family as well as the nine extra workers amid the chaos and mess. Carl often left for his office in Toronto wearing a thin layer of plaster dust.
Everyone soon realized, as it got to be very cold, that the heating system was woefully inadequate. Ste. Anne’s had been a summer house, after all. The two existing furnaces could barely take the chill from a fall night, never mind heat the place for winter. Before the new boiler system could be installed, one of the pipes in the sitting room ceiling burst, soaking the stored furniture. The plaster walls in the additions were removed so the electrical wiring and plumbing could be replaced throughout and so insulation could be installed. Layers of paint were stripped from the floors.
When the false ceiling in the room above the library had to be torn down, the beautiful cathedral roof was discovered. It was left exposed in the guest room now called the Cathedral Suite. Jim devoted two years to the renovations and to completing the basic shell. He says, “I took a great deal of pleasure in getting it to that state.”
Carl says the idea to start a bed and breakfast operation at Ste. Anne’s actually grew out of the keen interest area residents showed in the progress of the renovations. “It was almost magic,” he says. “People came and asked if they could see through the house. They brought their friends, and some even asked if it would be possible to stay in the house overnight. It was apparent,” he adds, “that in a way they felt it was theirs.”
As the renovation neared completion, Nan searched through local antique shops and auctions. She furnished the rooms in a mixture of styles and periods reflecting the way an old house’s furnishings would have evolved over the years. Even the light fixtures had been removed because of vandalism and appropriate replacements were found. A few pieces of the Blaffers’ furniture had been left with the house: the tall cupboards in the library, some bentwood chairs and a cherrywood butler’s pantry. In May of 1983, John and Nancy were married in Grafton. The wedding reception was held at Ste. Anne’s, literally the moment renovations were completed. The bride-to-be was helping complete the final touches, staining the floor in the East Wing where the dancing would take place, just hours before her wedding.
For the reception, a tent was set up in the courtyard to accommodate 300 guests. The attendants wore shades of peach, while daisies and other local spring flowers provided the decorating theme.
John and Nancy also had been busy renovating the farmhouse next door where they would live after their return from a honeymoon in Bermuda. (Harold and Ada Winter had moved to a house in Colborne.)
Nan and Nancy began operating a typical B&B operation at Ste. Anne’s in 1983; however, they soon decided to add some spa treatment options. Nan and Carl’s daughter, Cindy, had recently completed her training as a Registered Massage Therapist and she inspired the change.
Cindy’s interest in massage therapy had first been sparked when she attended a workshop in Detroit a few years earlier. There she learned that massage therapy is a highly respected part of the health system in Europe, used to treat serious conditions. “It is based in science,” she says. “Practitioners must know anatomy and physiology.”
Massage therapy did not become available at Ste. Anne’s until years later but, with Cindy’s help, Nan and Nancy did bring together some qualified assistants so that guests could book three or four-day spa packages which included aromatherapy, “detox” baths, natural facials and exercise classes.
It was during this time that Margaret Pearson, a great-granddaughter of Samuel Massey, visited Ste. Anne’s. She was pleased to see the restoration to her family’s former home and presented the Corcorans with a Massey family heirloom quilt, which is now displayed in the centre hall of the original part of the home.
At first, the Corcorans expected farming to be the main purpose for the property. John had been studying animal husbandry and crop science in Guelph, but when Carl had trouble finding a suitable manager for the farm, John dropped out of university to take over. Carl credits John for the quality that developed in the Charolais herd at Ste. Anne’s. John, in turn, credits Joe Rye, who became farm manager but now works with John in the water business. With Joe’s guidance, John brought bloodlines from out west into the herd at Ste. Anne’s. One of the Corcorans’ bulls was judged Grand Champion at the Royal Winter Fair. “Joe,” John says, “has a judge’s eye.”
Over the years, more surrounding farmland was purchased. The former Scott farm became home for awhile, to fallow deer imported from New Zealand. Then there were other changes to the farming aspect at Ste. Anne’s. “It’s all very well to win prizes,” Carl says. “That’s not necessarily the place to put your money.” The Charolais cattle were replaced by a herd of 500 elk, bred for their antlers which are made into a health-food supplement. But as the emphasis for the use of the property shifted, the livestock operations were phased out.
In 1985, Carl’s job took him to Japan for three years. Nan, and their youngest daughter, Marijo, accompanied him. John and Nancy moved into the stone house and Nancy continued to operate the B&B. She had students to help part-time, and her “right hand,” she says, was Sheila Bryan who is still a member of the housekeeping staff at Ste. Anne’s. Even with the help, Nancy had to discontinue the spa options. Most of the guests at that time were regulars who returned often. “It was like having friends visit. We’d invite them to have supper with us, and everyone felt like part of the family,” Nancy says.
In 1985, the old wooden garages to the west of the house were torn down and a new wing was added. This addition contained an extra guest room with a conference room (now treatment area) below.
The water bottling business was started around this time, in a small way at first. When guests continually commented on the great-tasting coffee and teas they were served, John began bottling water for them to take home.
Carl and Nan returned from Japan in 1988 and Carl retired from IBM. The former Kidd farm adjoining Ste. Anne’s had been purchased and Carl and Nan moved into the oldest house on the property which had been renovated for their return.
Marijo had already returned to Canada after only six months in Japan. Her eldest brother, Bill, and brother-in-law, David Storey (Cindy’s husband), helped her get a job in the film business in Toronto. David still works in the film industry there, and Bill is a director, working mostly in B.C. and Los Angeles. Marijo started out sweeping floors, but worked her way up to camera assistant.
Marijo’s marriage to Stani Veselinovic was held at Ste. Anne’s in August, 1989. The groom’s relatives came from Yugoslavia. The Serbian Orthodox ceremony took place outdoors in the archway. The only attendants were threeyear-olds—a niece and a nephew—in old-fashioned costumes. “It was quite lovely,” Marijo says. “The hydrangias were in full bloom.”
Marijo was a teenager still in high school when the Corcorans moved to Ste. Anne’s, and so she had worked at various jobs around the inn when she was younger. In addition to her career in the film business, she trained in aromatherapy, which fueled her interest in natural healing. She is back on staff at Ste. Anne’s and, for the past three years, in charge of marketing and promotions. With her help, the inn has become so well known and popular that guests usually have to make reservations weeks in advance. Marijo is also very proud of the role she plays in ensuring that the products and processes used at Ste. Anne’s are good for the environment as well as the guests.
By 1990, Carl was seriously considering selling or leasing the rambling stone house. The B&B operation was doing well but Nancy, who now had two youngsters, needed more time for her family, and John wanted to focus on developing the bottling business. The popularity of the water sparked the development of a small bottling business. John, in partnership with his brother-in-law, Jim Abernethy (Cathy’s husband) trucked water from Ste. Anne’s to a facility in Oshawa where they bottled and then distributed it in the local area.
The demand for the water kept growing and the operation eventually had to be divided. Jim and Cathy took over the distribution of bottles of Ste. Anne’s pure spring water, and John focused on bottling.
John had a new building constructed on site with commercial-grade wells and a completely closed system of holding tanks and air filtration to ensure quality control. “The number of gallons drawn from the aquifer is based entirely on the recovery rate,” John explains, “which means we are not mining the resource.”
The size of the aquifer from which the great-tasting water is drawn cannot been determined. It is considered unconfined and the upper limit is unknown.
CJC Bottling Ltd., now a major enterprise of which John is president, did not create its own brand name, and bottles for other labels.
Jim had moved to Toronto when the renovations at Ste. Anne’s were completed and, by 1990, had been working there for Computerland for eight years. One weekend, he was visiting Ste. Anne’s and travelled to Prince Edward County, an area of thriving B&B businesses, to distribute brochures. He was thinking about the possibility that his family’s own B&B operation might be closing. While crossing a street in Wellington, he says, a strong feeling came over him. “It was a significant event.” Jim believes he had “a calling” that day, and suddenly knew that he should be returning to Ste. Anne’s.
He asked his father to let him take over the innkeeping business, but Carl discouraged the idea. Jim had a good job and was making a good living. Carl did not want him to risk losing that. Jim persisted. Using the latest software, he drew up a business plan and a financial forecast which impressed his father enough to change his mind.
Jim took over in the fall of 1990 and began expanding the business his parents and John and Nancy had started. When John and Nancy and their children moved to a newer house on the former Kidd farm, Jim was able to convert their living quarters to guest rooms. Jim lived in a small room above the kitchen which had been maid’s quarters in the Blaffers’ days. A second living room for guests was converted into what is now the Parlour Suite. Thus, the inn’s accommodations grew from seven to ten rooms.
At Christmas of that year, Jim’s sister, Anne Harris, her husband Paul and their children visited Ste. Anne’s and helped redecorate the Cathedral Suite. Over the years, whenever they visited they enjoyed pitching in to help with any ongoing projects, so Jim proposed that the Harris family move to Ste. Anne’s to help him run the inn. The following June, they moved from their Connecticut home into the farmhouse next door to the inn. It was vacant by then because the cattle had been sold and the farm manager had moved.
Anne helped Jim operate the inn, while Paul worked in the water business, developing sales routes. Anne is responsible, Jim says, for much of the decorating which gives Ste. Anne’s the authentic “country inn” atmosphere the guests admire.
Anne and her family are now back in Connecticut, but during the four years she and Jim worked together, Ste. Anne’s started to flourish and expand. Jim and Anne continued the tradition of inviting regular weekend guests for dinner. However, as the inn became busier, the dinners became harder to manage. For awhile, they had meals catered by a local restaurant, then hired a chef. This led to other changes. The kitchen had always been set up as a family kitchen and informal gathering place. As meal preparation became more professional, traffic through the area caused problems.
Jim decided to build an addition to the front of the (then) dining room, to connect the east and west wings without going through the kitchen.
That was December of 1991, just a little more than a year after Jim took over the operation. Business was picking up but he felt like he was taking a big chance spending that much money. He did not realize it at the time, but it was to be the first of many additions, each carefully designed to blend with the existing structure and add to the efficiency of the inn. That first addition became the regular dining room, and later was transformed to the front desk area.
Jim began looking for ways to market the inn’s accommodations. He attended a forum of country inn operators who were trying to form a B&B organization for Ontario. (Up to that time, there were no B&B organizations.) Since, as Jim puts it, “I was not shy to state my point of view,” he was appointed to a steering committee to determine the potential of forming an organization. It was a struggle to bring varied and sometimes conflicting interests together, but eventually bylaws for membership were drafted. When the Innkeeper’s Association of Ontario became official, Jim was elected to serve as its first president for a term of two years.
From the start, Jim tried various innovative marketing strategies. At one time, he arranged for Ste. Anne’s to host a series of artist-in-residence workshops where guests could study and paint with favourite new artists. At about the same time, temporary spa treatment areas were set up, and his sister Cindy began offering treatments to weekend guests.
Cindy was living in Toronto and providing massage therapy for the staff at Ray Civello’s salon. Ray was the pioneer for introducing Aveda products to Canada. Cindy and other staff members from Ray’s salon came to Ste. Anne’s on weekends to offer treatments to guests. Jim says it was immediately apparent to everyone at Ste. Anne’s that the guests who signed up for a massage or facial and were there for two nights rather than one, were much more relaxed at check-out time.
As the benefit to guests became more and more obvious, Jim realized that the Ste. Anne’s experience was incomplete without the spa component, and that soon became a mandatory part of the stay.
The seldom-used conference area in the west wing was converted to treatment rooms, and a gift shop was set up nearby where guests could purchase Aveda products for home use.
Jim began to search for permanent staff for the spa. Unusual circumstances surrounded the hiring of two people who were recruited around that time are among the magical coincidences that occur at Ste. Anne’s.
Nancy Burns had just completed a course in aromatherapy when someone from the inn approached her to consider taking a position at Ste. Anne’s. When Nancy came to the interview she had not heard the name Corcoran and did not meet any of the family, who happened to be away on vacation. She almost did not accept the job because it was a long drive from her home. The inn called a second and then a third time. Finally, Nancy decided that Ste. Anne’s would be a beautiful place to work and “the drive was not so bad.” Nancy had been working at the inn for about two weeks when she saw Anne for the first time. “My stomach gave a lurch,” she says. “Anne looked a lot like my mother.” Nancy did a little checking and learned that Carl Corcoran was one of the owners of the property, and that he had worked for IBM. She realized he was her Uncle Carl, half-brother to her mother. “We had lost touch for years,” she says, “and to be reunited in that way was a gift.”
Nancy worked as an esthetician and was Spa Director for a time. Now she is in charge of the gift shop; and it was Nancy who convinced Jim to move the shop from a cubbyhole in the basement to its present location in the former Blaffer dining room.
Rebecca Ryan believes that she was meant to be a part of Ste. Anne’s, too. In 1995, Rebecca had been working as a Registered Massage Therapist for four years. She treated many patients suffering from chronic pain, often the result of bad traffic accidents. She found that she was doing more paperwork than therapy, filling in insurance forms and testifying in court cases. She was ready for a major life change.
About four months prior to receiving a recruitment letter from Ste. Anne’s, Rebecca had a dream about working at an old stone building under renovation. “It was a vivid dream,” she says. “I kept it tucked away in my mind.”
While touring Ste. Anne’s during her interview, Rebecca realized it was the stone house from her dream. She immediately accepted a position as Massage Therapist at the inn, then returned home to close her practice and sell her house. Over the years at Ste. Anne’s, Rebecca has been Manager of Massage Therapy, Spa Director, General Manager, and is currently Director of Product Development. “We’ve really made a transformation from an inn,” she says with satisfaction. “It is now considered a destination spa.”
As the healing effects of the spa treatments became the most compelling feature of Ste. Anne’s, more additions to the structure were required.
When the fitness pavilion was built in 1996, it was dedicated to Nan’s father, Dr. William Priddle, who had worked as a specialist in internal medicine into his eighties. He had also been a pioneer in the field of geriatric medicine. Nan’s father and mother were frequent visitors to Ste. Anne’s. In fact, it was Agatha Priddle who first encountered the ghosts. After all, what self-respecting castle would be without a ghost or two! Two ladies in long black dresses and dark cloaks were first seen by Mrs. Priddle, and a few other guests have also spotted them, though not recently. Several years ago, a neighbour told Nan quite nonchalantly that the two ladies “have been there forever.”
When the excavation for the larger dining area was underway, the top portion of the Massey’s stone well was carefully removed and placed as a “wishing well” on the south lawn.
As this work continued, the backhoe tapped through a section of the foundation at the rear of the old building. Jim then decided to dig out the crawl space connecting all the basement areas, which created more area for treatment rooms. The Blaffers’ dining room, with its black and white marble floor, became the gift shop.
In 1994, a large addition was made to the circular playhouse to serve as the innkeeper’s residence, but Jim found himself moving out so often to accommodate extra guests, it is now an additional suite.
A stone grotto with a hot tub, plunge pool and lap pool was added to the west side of the inn in 1998.
The character and the style of each addition to Ste. Anne’s complements the original structure. The architect who helped Jim design most of the additions was Hugh Taylor of Cobourg. Frank and Jim Guest, owners of Kawartha Stone Masters, can be credited for the construction and are still involved in regular maintenance and future expansion plans.
There are ten guest suites at the inn itself and a total of twenty-five treatment rooms. The inn’s accommodations also include some off-site suites. The farmhouse next door, built by Simon Jayne, has been renovated into two suites: the Farmhouse and the Gables.
The brick schoolhouse at the top of Academy Hill had been converted to a private residence years ago. When it became available, it was purchased and renovated into Haldimand East and Haldimand West. Jim says that renovation job was one of the worst encountered and cost more than the purchase price.
As other properties became available, the Corcorans added to Ste. Anne’s holdings. Many of the houses are used for staff accommodation or administration.
Bill Corcoran, Nan and Carl’s eldest, was already working and moved away from home when his parents bought Ste. Anne’s. Although he jokes that he “escaped the renovations”, he did stay and help out for about a week that first year. His film work takes him to many exotic locations, but he visits Ste. Anne’s as much as possible and has a special feeling for the place. “The house told us what it wanted to be. It guided the restoration. It brings out the best in people. We all really feel a wonderful healing process that happens at Ste. Anne’s,” he says.
When Bill and his wife, Julie, were married in September of 1997, they chose to have the wedding in Grafton so the reception could be held at Ste. Anne’s. They hired a quintet for the church which came back to Ste. Anne’s to play before dinner. Later, a band set up in the Fitness Pavilion and played 40s and 50s dance music.
Bill and Julie arranged to take over the whole inn for the weekend and kept the staff on so their guests could have full spa services. People came from California, Texas, and Connecticut and “many had never had spa treatments before”, Bill says. “We felt like we were giving a gift back to our guests.”
The healing effects of the spa treatments and the atmosphere at Ste. Anne’s are a source of great satisfaction for the Corcoran family. Carl points out that over the years they have received “a constant stream of wonderful thankyou letters. The scenery and everything here is like a different world. Guests walk through the archway into the walled courtyard and feel protected, enveloped. That’s a big satisfaction for us and for the staff—the effect it has. It’s like a hospital where everyone is cured.”
The old stone building’s transformation is set to continue—from wilderness homestead to destination spa to world-class resort. Jim has a major and innovative expansion planned for Ste. Anne’s. The plan includes individual, self-contained spa resorts on the 560-acre property. When completed, this expansion will make Ste. Anne’s one of the most unique resort complexes in North America and will increase the inn’s accommodations to 250 rooms.
Throughout its history, a series of hardworking, dedicated families—people who were pioneers of their time—have been drawn to this place. The stone house built by Samuel Massey was fine but not unique. It was the setting that captivated Mrs. Blaffer and inspired her to create a “castle” here. The Corcoran family came, intending to farm, but the size of the building and the local pride in the “castle” led them to develop an inn which has evolved into a spa.
Before the therapists were present, Nan Corcoran sensed a healing spirit here. Before the treatment areas were created, a prophecy foretold their purpose. Many cultures attribute sacred significance to lands where waters flow underground. Long before people left their mark on this land, arranged its stones into structures, and named it Ste. Anne’s, this was a special place.
Inside Ste. Anne’s
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