The family legacy behind Hamilton’s Whitehern house

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When the historic house known as Whitehern was handed over to the City of Hamilton in 1968, there was much more to the bequest than most people realized.

Built in 1848, the two-storey home on Jackson Street was a wonderful example of a mid-19th century urban estate.

But more interesting, among all the Victorian antiques, rare books, paintings and photographs, was a meticulously kept collection of 10,000 pages of letters and other documents connected to the three generations of McQuestens that lived in the house for nearly 120 years.

Since then, all kinds of people, from rumpled historians to curious tourists, have gone through the assemblage of Whitehern trying to understand the enigmatic family that resided there.

But no one has looked more deeply, and produced so much from it, than kind-hearted Mary Anderson who recently died in her 90th year. On June 30, the family announced her passing in a short death notice. She is survived by her son Mark and daughter Janelle.

Anderson, who earned a PhD from McMaster University from her research into the McQuestens, wrote three books and led theatrical productions about the family as well as spearheading a comprehensive Whitehern Museum Archives website at whitehern.ca maintained by the Hamilton Public Library.

The McQuestens were huge players in the history of Hamilton. Dr. Calvin McQuesten (1801-1885) made a fortune running a local foundry that helped establish Hamilton as an industrial powerhouse. His grandson Thomas McQuesten (1882-1948) went into city and provincial politics and helped bring McMaster University to Hamilton as well as overseeing the creation of the Royal Botanical Gardens, Gage Park and the Queen Elizabeth Way, among many other major landmarks across the province.

And the accomplishments of Calvin and Thomas were just two of the stories from the family’s saga.

The McQuestens were movers and shakers but liked to hold on to things. And by the mid-1900s it became clear they needed to focus on succession planning. The last generation of six brothers and sisters who grew up in the house and lingered on with varying attachments to it as adults, never married and had no children.

So, in 1959 a deal was struck. Three aging survivors of the family — Mary Baldwin, Rev. Calvin and Hilda — agreed to bequeath the house and all its contents to the city once they had passed on. In return, the municipality would free them from paying property taxes and maintain the home while they were living.