Author’s Note: When I visited the Castle Kilbride grounds in Baden this summer, everything was closed due to COVID. As of August 2020, the only photos of my own are from the outside. Inside guided tours restarted today. Once I take a guided tour of the interior, I will update this post with even more tidbits.
KW folk, who would have thought you have a castle in your backyard, eh? While it may not be a proper castle (spoiler alert), there’s no denying the beauty and historical flair it brings to the town of Baden, Ontario. Curious to know who built Waterloo Region’s castle? Read on to learn more about the 5th of 160 Unusual Sites in Ontario I visited!
History of Ontario’s Castle Kilbride in Baden
The Industrial Age was a booming time. Newcomers to Canada dove headfirst into the opportunity to create prosperous lives through hard work and perseverance. One such ambitious immigrant was the Scotsman James Livingston. At 16, he and his brother John moved in 1854 to Canada. Their father was a farmer, so the brothers were no stranger to hard work. In Ontario, Livingston worked on a flax mill. The experience he gained there would soon help to grow his own empire.
When he was 26 years old, James and his older brother rented a flax mill in Wellesley, Ontario. Within 3 years they built their own flax mill in Baden, along with a linseed oil mill, “J & J Livingston Linseed Oil Copmany” where they employed women as well as men. At the time, linseed oil was a smart business to be in. Paint and soap were high in demand for the quickly growing villages of the young country. In fact, the brothers came to own several mills around Ontario. Not only did they own several mills, but they owned and ran each aspect of the process. From farming flax to manufacturing, distributing, and creating and selling other flax products was a brilliant move. By 1877, Livingston was “Canada’s Flax and Oil King”. With a title like that, why wouldn’t you build a castle?
In 1877, construction began on the Italianate belvedere-style mansion. As a nod to his roots, Livingston named the castle after his hometown of Scotland’s East Kilbride. At first glance, the exterior is beautiful. However, it was (and still is) the fantastical interior that drew the most attention. Local artist Henry Scharstein painted the walls, ceilings, hallway columns, statues, and vases in the famous trompe l‘œil style. These 3D murals decorate the library as well.
1877 – 1988: The Livingston Family Legacy
James and Louise (Liersch), his wife of 43 years, had 12 children together. Louise died in 1904 and James passed at the age of 82 from pneumonia and cardiac arrest in 1920. One of their sons, John Peter or J.P.., took over the family business, then known as the Dominion Linseed Oil Company. J.P., his wife Laura (Holwell), and their only child, Laura Louise, moved into Castle Kilbride. After J.P. and Laura died, Laura Louise and her family of 4 (eventually 5) moved into the castle. This amazing home stayed in the Livingston family for 3 generations, from 1877 all the way until 1988.
1988 – Today: Castle Kilbride in Modern Times
In 1988, Laura Louise and her husband, Harris Veitch, made the difficult decision to sell their family home and the 300 acre plot to a developer as they downsized to Ayr, Ontario. Unfortunately, many items inside were also auctioned off. Baden residents and local history enthusiasts were quite disgruntled that an important historical landmark might be lost. The Township of Wilmot stepped up, and with the financial support of municipal, provincial, and federal governments, bought and restored the property which had begun to deteriorate under the ownership of the developers. The township even organized a celebrity auction to recover some of the castle’s original contents, including old toys!
In addition to restoring Castle Kilbride and recovering its artefacts, municipal offices were added to the back of the building, as well as a gift shop and washroom to service the new museum. In 1995, Parks Canada declared Castle Kilbride a National Historic Site.
What Does “trompe l‘œil” Mean?
As a linguist and nerd, I love digging into the origin of words and phrases. “Trompe l’œil” originates from French and translated literally means “to deceive the eye”. According to etymology.com, the verb “tromper” is a mystery in and of itself and is “a verb of uncertain origin and the subject of many theories”. Intriguing!
In the art world, “trompe l’œil” refers to paintings that trick people into thinking the images are real. In other words, they’re optical illusions. While searching for examples to share with you, I found these wild bus designs on creativebloq.com. Pretty funky, eh!
Author’s Note: Check back soon for pictures of the interior!
- In the 1940s, J.P. Livingston purchased a hardware store on Foundry Street. In 1967 the shop became Attics and Things Antique which his son-in-law Harris ran. It turns out that much of the store’s stock was actually Livingston family heirlooms! Then, in the 70s, a former employee named Jim Miller purchased the shop, renamed it, and continued to sell antiques. In the late 80s when the castle went up for sale, Miller acquired and sold a lot of Livingston household objects through his antique store. Life came full circle when the Township of Wilmot purchased the castle. Miller was the guy who recovered items he sold from his shop by contacting purchasers and asking them to donate the items back to the museum.
- James Livingston was the reeve (mayor) of Baden for several years. He was also elected to the Ontario Legislature for South Waterloo as a Liberal party member in 1879.
- J.P. Livingston was a member of the Kitchener Chamber of Commerce, the KW Rotary Club, and the Livingston Presbyterian Church, which was named after his family because of their financial support.
- Laura Louise played the organ at Livingston Presbyterian Church.
- You can still find an outhouse on the Castle Kilbride property.
Castle Kilbride is on Regional Road 1 in Baden, 18km west of Kitchener, Ontario. There’s a large free parking lot behind the museum. To the side of the parking lot is a simple park area.
Typically Castle Kilbride is a happening place. It hosts various community and private events such as Christmas at the Castle, weddings, exhibits, the Summer Concert Series, and different school programs. Due to COVID-19, the visitor centre and museum were closed when I visited, however they reopened on August 29th! Tickets for tours must be purchased in advance. More information is available here.
How to Get There
- Highway 401 W
- Exit 278 for ON-8 W
- Take the exit for ON-7 / ON-8 W Stratford
- First exit onto Dickie Settlement Road in roundabout
- Exit onto Regional Road 51 / Foundry Street toward Baden
- Take a left onto Regional Road 51 / Foundry Street
- Turn left onto Snyder’s Road W / Waterloo Regional Road 1
- Turn right at Mill Street
- Your final destination is Castle Kilbride, 60 Snyder’s Road W, Baden, Ontario
Ontario’s 160 Unusual Places Adventure Continues!
Castle Kilbride marks stop #5 on my mission to visit Ron Brown’s 160 unusual things to see in Ontario. Next up is a uniquely designed church, a plane crash site, and a ghost mansion! If you’re on Instagram, hop on over to follow along. To check out the first adventure in the series, visit the blog post on Waterloo’s Pioneer Memorial Tower. For more local reading, see Ontario’s last wooden covered bridge. It’s so romantic it was featured in the horror film “It”! Happy reading, fellow adventurers!
Sources and Further Reading
- Castle Kilbride Museum
- New Hamburg Independent “1864: Baden becomes hub of Livingston’s growing linseed oil empire”
- Waterloo Region Generations – James Livingston
- New Hamburg Independent “Castle Kilbride Celebrates Laura Louise’s 100th Birthday”
- Waterloo Region Generations – John Peter Livingston
- KW Record “Flash from the Past: Foundry Street Buildings Recalls Baden’s Bygone Days”
- Waterloo Region Generations – Laura Louise Barbara Livingston
- Castle Kilbride’s Facebook Page
- Baden Outlook – Sept 2019 Edition