The McLean’s at Fernbank – Our People, Our Heritage

Robert McLean at Fernbank

The old brick house painstakingly constructed by hand in 1823 with every brick handmade on the land surrounding the dwelling was built by Robert McLean. Five generations lived in the house until 1933 when it was sold.

The story of the McLeans goes back to old Paisley in Scotland where Alexander McLean took his bride Ann Lang on August 3, 1763. Eleven years later, they set sail for the New World, following their beloved pastor, Rev. John Witherspoon, to America.

Their ship was the “Commerce”, a famous trans-Atlantic” sailing ship of the day. The McLeans settled in Harpersfield, N.Y., but they were soon rooted out by the American Revolutionary War. The McLeans remained loyal to the British Crown and were so harassed by their rebellious neighbours that they had to move on nine separate occasions in one year. Each time they lost their possessions, plundered by the rebels.

They were cultivating a small farm near Baleston Springs, NY in 1778 but were again driven out. In 1783, with the war over, The McLeans, father, mother and six children, made their way to Canada as U.E.L. refugees. They travelled by way of Lake Champlain to Montreal and thence up the St. Lawrence River by bateau to a point west of Brockville. Their boats were leaking badly and they decided to land on the heavily forested shore of the St. Lawrence near where the community of Fernbank is now located. Once ashore, the family of eight set to work felling trees and soon had a log cabin for a home.

The cabin reassured 18 by 20 feet, providing snug protection from the elements. The house was built by hand, for they had very few tools with which to work. The area at that time was still in the Province of Quebec. Division came in 1791. The log cabin endured nearly 40 years. In 1823, the family, having prospered through great toil and industry, built the present house, beam by beam, brick by brick.

The bricks were made by hand, using small moulds, at two brickyards on the homestead. One brickyard was located where No.2 highway passes Fernbank, in front of the house, while the other was situated in a pasture north of the farm.

Of the early days of the McLeans in Elizabethtown, Lillian Hogaboam, who later occupied the house had this to say: “ Here, alone in the forest without roads, neighbours, schools or doctors, they lived the early months on the new land. Other Loyalists and refugees came and a settlement known as Elizabethtown grew. The trees were cut and the stumps grubbed. Their land was cleared. Cattle and sheep were brought in. The women spun the sheep’s wool into material to keep them warm. Times became better, the family older and they had a better knowledge, as a great deal of time was spent reading books. One of the sons constructed a very good theodolite (a surveying instrument) thought he had never seen one. In the absence of a minister, the consolidations of religion were sought by assembling neighbours and reading a sermon weekly from a book.”

Alexander McLean, who was a silk weaver by trade, and Ann had four sons, Robert, John, Alexander and Archibald. Robert’s son Alexander, wed Catharine McCray. John had three sons, Charlie, William who became a minister and Frederick who married Eliza Wilson. Alexander born in 1770, whose wife’s name was Jane, had a son John born in 1803 and died in 1821, and a daughter Jane who became the wife of John Stephens and died March 14, 1871.

Archibald born in 1769, wed a girl named Ann. Their son James B. born in 1807 also married a girl named Ann and died March 22, 1880 aged 73 years.

Alexander and Catharine McCrady McLean were wed in 1820 and had a daughter Catharine born in 1835 and died unmarried in 1909, and a son John born in 1825 who died in 1850 in his 26th year.

John McLean born at Harpersfield, NY on October 9th 1775, came to Elizabethtown with his family being eight years of age when the McLean boats landed. He grew up on the homestead, and when the War of 1812 broke out, won a commission as a lieutenant in the 1st Regiment of Leeds. He took part in the Battle of Crysler Farm and later in the assault on Ogdensburg and capture of that American post by British troops who crossed the St. Lawrence ice at Prescott to attack the fort.

He subsequently was promoted to Captain and then to major, receiving large tracts of land for his service to the Crown. He died at McLean House July 17, 1861 aged 86.

The homestead of 228 acres was proved up by Alexander McLean on March 23, 1798. In 1810, it was willed to Robert McLean and on May 16th, 1818, it fell to Robert’s eldest son Alexander.

The adjoining farm, 114 acres of Lot 24 of the First Concession of Elizabethtown was owned by Alexander McLean who transferred the land in 1808 to Henry and Jane McLean.

Five generations of McLeans have lived in the brick house, the last of that name being Frederick J. McLean who died in 1931. The Hogagoams took possession on September 1, 1944 and lived there until selling out to Clarence Babcock of Brockville. The Johnstons later took over the home.

The McLeans are buried in the old cemetery at Younge Mills. In all the graves of 56 members of the family dating back to the sons of the original settler of Fernbank, Alexander McLean have been identified.


The Building of the McLean House and early life living there

The building of the McLean house was a Herculean effort by man and beast. Early in its history the McLean homestead was known as Pinehurst Farm. Construction of the brick house started in 1823 and the McLeans moved in two years later.

The house was built at a total cost of about $1,600. The red clay bricks, 65,000 in all, were made on the farm, with oxen stamping the clay and water mixture into a pliable condition. The bricks were then moulded by hand into brick size wooden containers.

The 12 inch thick beams were hewn by hand; the foundation was composed of stone and cemented by hand. The interior walls and partitions were made of solid brick and plaster. The interior woodwork and doors were made of red pine planking and all the flooring consisted of wide pine planking. All the interior doors were made in the “Bible” design, sometimes called “prayer doors”. The design had a white cross in the upper panel.

There are five fireplaces, three on the first floor and two on the second floor. The mantels are of red pine. The kitchen fireplace was equipped with a crane, from which the cooking pots were hung. At one side was the oven. It is believed that in baking, a wood fire was kindled in the oven, and when the fuel was reduced to coals, they were raked out and the freshly kneaded loaves of bread placed inside to bake.

As was the tradition of the times, two of the first floor rooms were reserved as bedrooms for the elders of the family.

The barns were built with high stone walls topped by lumber sawn from the trees felled to clear the land. The farm had stables for horses, barns for cattle and folds for sheep.

McLean house was the locale for husking bees, sugar making, quilting bees and dances, and headquarters for and barn raising bees in the area.

On Sunday, the McLeans walked to church, or in the winter rode sleighs. Buggies and wagons were the mode of travel for families, but the old saddle horse was the standby for the lone traveller having to go any distance.

(Recorder and Times- Darling Collection Book 3)