The History of Bell Rock

An often-heard comment from first time visitors to the Art Gallery of Sudbury is "Isn't it a shame that the original interior of this home has been destroyed?" In reality, all that remains original to the home is the exterior stone structure and parts of the small sunroom. The rest was destroyed by a devastating fire, which occurred on December 3, 1955. The original owners and the events that led up to the Gallery's current use are uniquely tied to Sudbury's history.

"The City of Sudbury was founded in 1883 at a point on the railway known as Sudbury Junction, where the branch line to Algoma Mills joined the main line of the CPR. Prior to the establishment of the mining industry, (which occurred around 1900), Sudbury's stability and growth depended both on the railway and on the lumbering industry. The lumber business attracted the original builders of what is now the Art Gallery of Sudbury, William Joseph Bell and his wife, Katherine, to Sudbury.

Bell purchased a large tract of land, approximately 155 acres, which stretched down to the shore and around Lake Ramsey to a position close to the current site of Science North. The purchase was finalized in 1908, from the estate of Robert S. Henderson at a total cost of $301.

For his home on the property, W. J. Bell selected a height of land overlooking Lake Ramsey, separated from the town proper by the CPR tracks. Prior to Bell's purchase, the site was the location of "Deacon's Castle," a small hand built rock and log outlook inhabited by a local recluse who was thought to be a British army veteran.

At the time of construction of the Bell home, Sudbury had a population of approximately 4000 people. The community had sewer, water, telephone services and fire protection, as well as electricity.

A bridge over the railway tracks (referred to as the old Iron Bridge, now replaced by the current pedestrian bridge) allowed access to the site at Nelson Street. Nelson Street led directly to the stone and iron gates marking the residence of the Bells.

Obviously these gates and the estate announced the presence of a family of stature and importance in the community. But who were the Bells? He began his career in the lumber industry, at age 18, as a scaler and lumberjack with a firm in Kipawa, Quebec. He became bookkeeper and paymaster for the E.B. Eddy Company in 1881. In 1889, he left for the East Coast where he worked on the construction of docks and harbour installations in Nova Scotia.

William Joseph Bell, also known as Willie Joe, was born July 29, 1858 in Pembroke, Ontario. He was the son of Joseph Bell and Elizabeth (Kennedy) Bell and the brother of Henry, Elizabeth and Mary.

W.J. Bell moved to Northern Ontario in 1896 with the Hale & Booth Lumber Company. By the turn of the century, he had become the manager f the Sable and Spanish River Boom and Slide Company. In 1901, he became the Vice-President and General Manager for the Spanish River Lumber Company. The President of this company was William Benjamin Arnold, of Albany, New York. These two formed a partnership, Arnold & Bell, which operated along the North Shore. According to Bell's obituary in the Sudbury Star, Arnold & Bell was the largest of 36 firms that operated timber, boom and bush operations along the Spanish concession.

After the company was absorbed by the Spanish Lumber Company, Bell rose rapidly through the ranks, soon becoming President. In 1924, he purchased the Spanish River Lumber Company and retained the position of President until he sold to the Poupore family in 1932.

He had also expanded his business interests into other fields. He was a Director and, in 1920, President of Cochrane-Dunlop Hardware Company, and President and Director of National Grocers Ltd. He was known as a staunch supporter of the Conservative Party, a respected member of the United Church, serving as Secretary/Treasurer for St. Andrew's United Church, and a member of the Masonic Order. He was affiliated with the Sudbury Hockey Club and active in the formation of the Idylwylde Golf Club.

As a member of the Sudbury Parks Board, he promoted the creation of city parks Bell Park and Bell Grove are named in his honour. In 1926, Mr. Bell transferred 110 acres along Lake Ramsey, which were used to create these municipal recreation areas. He also had an interest in the properties that were used to develop Memorial Park. In 1942, Mr. Bell's Benefactions and good works were honoured by the City of Sudbury, and his portrait, painted by C.A. McGregor, OSA, was hung in the City of Sudbury's Council Chambers. W.J. Bell died on January 12, 1945 at the age of 87 and is buried in the family plot in Pembroke.

William and Katherine Bell were married in 1886. She moved to Sudbury to join her husband shortly after the turn of the century. Born in Ottawa in 1864, she was the daughter of Senator and Mrs. James Skead. After her marriage to William Bell, she travelled extensively with him.

In her obituary in the Sudbury Star, it is noted: "Mrs. Bell will be long remembered in Sudbury for her generous nature and philanthropic works, her activities with St. Andrew's United Church, her efforts and success in bringing the VON to Sudbury, her organization of the Sudbury Horticultural Society, and her love of people and animals."

Still known for her great love of animals, it was through her efforts that the Humane Society investigated cruelty to horses in lumber camps throughout northern Ontario.

According to her gardener/chauffeur, Peter Henderson, she was not persuaded to use the family car until the last 10 years of her life. She loved horses and didn't have much use for cars claiming they "went far too fast for anyone to enjoy the passerby and things to be seen along the street." Indeed, the most often heard stories about Mrs. Bell relate to her and her horse, Laddy.

Mrs. Bell encouraged the VON to come to Sudbury when she noticed a need by many families for home nursing and assistance with home births. She was also an active patron of the YMCA, the Children's Aid Society, the Canadian Red Cross and Sudbury Public Library.

Katherine Bell died at her home at the age of 90 on January 9, 1954, and was buried beside her husband in the family plot in Pembroke.

The Bells never had children. At the time of Mrs. Bell's death, there were few relatives, other than a niece and nephew in Montreal. In both wills, they continued the good deeds of their lifetimes. W.J. Bell's estate included a bequest of $125,000 to the Salvation Army. These monies, along with a public subscription, were used to build the Salvation Army's Men's Social Centre on Larch Street in downtown Sudbury.

Mrs. Bell's will directed donations as follows: $5,000 to the Pembroke Cottage Hospital; $5,000 to St. Andrew's United Church; $5,000 to the VON; $2,000 to the Children's Aid Society; $1,000 to the Canadian Red Cross in Sudbury; $1,000 to the Calvin United Church in Pembroke; and $5,000 to the United Church of Canada Pension Capital Fund. Certain funds and items were given to faithful staff, friends and relatives and the remaining assets of her estate went to the Sudbury District Hospital.

During their lifetimes, the Bells were involved in much of the cultural, political, business and social activities in Sudbury and the Bell home was a central focus for many of those activities.

As mentioned, the original Bell property encompassed some 155 acres surrounding Lake Ramsey. Three of the buildings on the home site remain today; the mansion; the coach house, originally detached; and a stone out-building on John Street, originally used for storage and laundry facilities. Other buildings on the site once included a barn, located on the site to the current parking lot, and a combination gazebo/greenhouse on the lake side.
Mr. and Mrs. Bell took great pride in the landscaping and gardens any employed a gardener throughout their residency. Stone walls defined the gradual slope to the lake. The original vegetable gardens were at the lower level on the site of 483 Elizabeth Street. Pathways were covered in white stone.

Originally, the site appears to have been quire barren. W.J. Bell is often referred to as having said that it took fifty teams of horses six weeks to bring the soil for landscaping. Extensive tree planting, gardens and bridges completed the plan.

The original architect is unknown. Under the direction of John James, stone mason, tons of local stone were cut and used for the buildings and walls. Although the exact source of the stone has not been identified, the main home is built of coursed cut stone as opposed to the coach house, which is of coursed rubble stone. It was and perhaps still is the most imposing home in Sudbury.

To formally visit the Bells, one could enter the property at either John Street or Ramsey Road via large, 6-foot iron gates mounted on stone pillars. The main entrance of the home faced south over Lake Ramsey and the view from the front door and large veranda was stunning.

The home was based on a centre hall plan. The main foyer contained a sweeping staircase to the second floor. According to Dorothy Forster, Mrs. Bell's neighbour, a Victorian-style beaded peacock lorded over the front foyer from its resting place on the banister.

The home had three floors plus the basement. According to Jeanette Gauthier, who worked for the Bells from 1940 to 1954, the main staircase was set at the very end of the front foyer. An office was located on the right and a large living room on the left, through which the conservatory or solarium was accessed. In addition to the office and living room on the first floor, the kitchen was located at the back of the house. Off the kitchen was a butler's pantry, which contained a back entrance to upstairs. The "very elegant" dining room included a bay window, which still exists.

The second floor contained four bedrooms and a bathroom. The third floor was used primarily for storage, at the time of her employ, although it contained a large billiard table.

John McAdam and Campbell Girdwood made and installed the rich panelling that graced the interiors of the first floor and portions of the second floor. Wood panelling (sometimes alternating with a grass-type wallpaper) ran ¾'s of the way up the wall. This was capped by a plate rail running around the room.

The interior finishing reflected the residual styles of the Arts and Crafts movement and Art Nouveau period, often found in the more well-to-do homes at the turn of the century. Stained glass windows in the dining room reinforced the linear style of the panelling. By today's standards, the interiors would be considered heavy, dark and oppressive, but at the time, the house distinguished the rank of its owners. Fireplaces were located in several of the rooms.
The interior decorating was a mélange of styles, perhaps reflecting the variety of family items which may have been brought from the Ottawa area by Mrs. Bell. The entry had a Chippendale-style grandfather clock, gaming table and chair. Other furnishings throughout the house reflect a number of styles, including Sheraton, Empire and Rococo Revival. Throughout the house, Oriental-style area rugs were laid on the wood floors, and paintings and watercolours mounted on the walls. Silver, glass and ceramic decorative items again reflect several periods, no doubt mirroring the accumulation of items that Mrs. Bell must have acquired throughout her 90 years.

The coach house remained in its original state until 1980. Lines with tongue and groove pine and pine moldings, the building had its own chimney, perhaps to accommodate a wood stove. The horse stalls were located on the main floor, with an interior access to the second floor hay storage and the basement. The basement still retains its original animal stalls and a floor typical of many Sudbury basements -- the natural rock. A home of this nature obviously required staff. As mentioned, in the 1940's, the Bells employed a chauffeur/driver, Peter Henderson, (who worked for them for 35 years), and Jeanette Gauthier as receptionist/housekeeper. There was a laundress/charwoman who came twice a week, a full-time nurse in the last years of Mr. and Mrs. Bell's lives, and an extra man in the summer.

According to Jeanette Gauthier, she "enjoyed working there very much. They were good living people... I lived in. I had a nice room, very good accommodation -- no complaints. I had a half day a week -- Thursday afternoon -- off. Sunday I worked all day, but I had to go to church. She was very kind to me. When I had to go to church at 7:30 in the evening, she even washed the dishes for me -- that will surprise many people. They were very tidy people. I would never come home to a sink full of dishes."

Even through the early 1950's, the estate was self-sustaining with a horse, two cows, and chickens. Jeanette Gauthier made the butter -- every Thursday morning was churning day.

Another employee was Percy Gardner who later founded Gardener Motors of Sudbury. Soon after this arrival from England, circa 1907, Percy Gardner first worked for Mr. Bell looking after his horses.

He was rehired by Bell in 1911, who intended to import the first new car to Sudbury from Detroit and he needed a chauffeur. Percy Gardner didn't know the first thing about driving or maintaining a car. Bell sent him for 8 weeks of training, 6 in Detroit and 2 in Toronto. As a result, in 1911, Gardner was proud to have driven the first new automobile that ever arrived in Sudbury. There were no roads to get in or out of Sudbury and the car was only for local usage. At the end of each October, the car was set up on blocks and the battery sent to Toronto.

Gardner said, "The car cost $6,500. It was a four cylinder car, the first to drive west of Copper Cliff to Massey." More gruelling than anticipated , the trip to Massey took them 11 hours.

In 1915, Gardner wanted to go to war. Eventually, Bell relented and let him go. He was always grateful to Bell for later intervening on his behalf to ensure that he went overseas and for maintaining the mortgage payments on his house while he was in the service. Later, Gardner was able to purchase the site for his home on Elizabeth Street, originally Mrs. Bell's vegetable garden.

At Mrs. Bell's death, the family home, property and most of the contents were left to the Memorial Hospital. The furniture and other household items were sold during the summer at an outdoor sale on the property by the IODE. Until the fire on December 3, 1955, the building was used as a staff residence.

After the fire, the building remained in a sorry state until the Nickel Lodge of the Masonic Order undertook its preliminary renovations as a site for their headquarters. Due to zoning problems, they were unable to proceed and in 1966 the property was purchased by the Centennial Committee of the Chamber of Commerce.

It was this Centennial project which converted the building to its present usage. The Centre was officially transferred to Laurentian University in 1968 to be operated for the people of the Sudbury and district area.

Although neither the Bell name nor much of the original interiors still grace this facility, we are grateful for the pioneering spirit and generosity of W.J. and Katherine Bell, which will always be associated with this site."

© Laurentian University Museum and Art Centre 1990

Art Gallery of Sudbury
251 John Street, Sudbury ON (705-675-4871), P3E 1P9
art gallery of sudbury / galerie d'art de sudbury