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Revisiting Mother Barnes’ Plum Hollow Log Cabin

Posted by Lori Ann Sanche on

The Renowned 19th Century Clairvoyant’s Historic Home and a Restored Heritage Property in Leeds County, Eastern Ontario

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Watch our first HPOC Show about Mother Barnes' cabin! 

An Enduring Log Cabin

Mother Barnes’ bucolic early 19th century hewn log cabin, located on what is now called Mother Barnes Road near the rural community of Plum Hollow in Eastern Ontario, is a superbly restored testament to a renowned clairvoyant’s prolonged life and work in this region. Elizabeth Barnes, known locally as Mother Barnes and more widely after her death by the specious title of “The Witch of Plum Hollow”, bought her cabin in the late 1850s or early 1860s, and stayed there until her death in 1891, providing reportedly accurate tea-leaf readings daily to the large numbers of enthralled patrons who came to see her from all over Canada and the USA.

From an article “The Wise Woman of Plum Hollow”, W. Clyde Bell recounts an anecdote by Mrs. Buchanan, who was a granddaughter of Mother Barnes:

The house in which she lived was a whitewashed log cabin with a flagged walk leading up to it, and a lonely woods behind it. Inside was a small waiting room where the walls were carved with hundreds of names of people who had waited there before going up the narrow stairs to sit by the table with a black teapot and a cup into which the fortune teller poured tea with plenty of leaves with which she told fortunes. As her fame grew, people came from not only the surrounding district, but from every part of the United States and Canada to have her peer into the future.[1]

Mother Barnes’ home would have likely been around fifty years old by the time she purchased it in the mid-1800s. Her 1-1/2 storey cabin, with rough-hewn cedar or pine log construction and keyed corners, is a perfect example of typical settler cabins of the early 1800s, which were usually vacated once a newer home was built following a family’s establishment through farming or other early industry. The book Rural Ontario indicates that the term “log cabin” was not in general use until around 1800 and “The first houses were probably small and roughly built, for their builders hoped to replace them as soon as possible… Almost no log buildings have survived from before 1800. An exception is the Scadding cabin, now in the grounds of the Canadian National Exhibition at Toronto.”[2]

According to an article “Log Houses” by William C. Wonders in The Canadian Encyclopedia:

Log Houses are associated with pioneer settlement, past and present, and Canada's forests provided ready building material. West Coast Indians used log frames for their large plank houses long before the arrival of European settlers.

A wide variety of size and complexity in log houses characterized southern Ontario settlements. Loyalist settlers introduced "Pennsylvanian" or "American" log houses, with horizontal logs interlocked at the house corners by a variety of techniques, a style originating with 17th-century Swedish-Finnish colonists on the Delaware River, refined by later German settlers and adopted by far-ranging Scots-Irish pioneers. Although most log houses were later replaced by houses constructed of other materials, many are still occupied as residences.[3]

Also, further details regarding the style of construction can be found in an Ontario Architecture website article Log House (1750 to 1990):

Ontario historical societies have done a remarkable job in preserving historical buildings. Nowhere is this more evident than in the area of the log house, a vernacular building style that could easily have slipped away over time.

This term applies to both local styles and local materials. A building can be of a grand style in vernacular materials - for example a Georgian building made of field stone - or it can be a vernacular type of building such as an igloo or a mud hut. Vernacular buildings are built to suit the local climate and conditions. Not surprisingly, the log house was the first building style erected by European settlers in Ontario, but few remain outside the site designated for preservation.

A close look at the corners of log houses will tell you who the builders were, or at least what country they came from. This corner detail shows that the end of each piece of wood was beveled or “keyed” before it was placed. This means that a wedge shape was carved into the receiving log while a point was carved into the log that was to be placed in it. The ends were secured by a mixture of lime mortar with small bits of wood in it; a method called “chinking”.

This “keying” made for a tighter fit and a less draughty corner. The method of keying corners was brought over to Canada through the United States by the Swedes, thus it is referred to as Swedish Keying. Swedish Keying was first seen in Pennsylvania in 1650. It was found in Canada shortly thereafter.[4]

Note: Priced in USD


Set on a two-acre backdrop of trim green lawn framed by massive maple, apple and elm trees and a cedar rail fence, Mother Barnes’ former home is a picturesque historic cabin that was saved from a dilapidated condition by Ottawa resident Eloda Mae Wachsmuth in 2005.[5]  The cabin was a source of fascination and a concern for preservation by Mother Barnes’ descendants, prior to its purchase by Ms. Wachsmuth. Following is an excerpt from an article on the website of Ottawa author and columnist Linda Seccaspina, indicating its state in 1982, which would have been much more pronounced by the time Eloda restored it:

“…near the shore of nearby Lake Eloida, the derelict abode of the Witch of Plum Hollow sits empty, ravaged by time and vandals. However for three generations of Joynt women, descendants of Mother Barnes, a visit to the tiny cabin shortly before Halloween proved a sentimental journey of sorts.

Lera Joynt, daughter Carol, 11-year-old Susan Joynt and Lisa Joynt, 14, had varied reactions to the forlorn cottage. “I recall Grandpa Samuel Barnes telling of hitching up the horses for the long ride from Smiths Falls to Plum Hollow,” Lera reminisced. Sam, one of Barnes’ nine children, was a blacksmith and mayor of Smiths Falls in 1906. Her daughter Carol felt a strong bond with her famous ancestor. Mother Barnes ‘gift’ to foresee the future appeared in every generation, she said. Lisa and Susan, daughters of well-known farmer and auctioneer John Joynt, were fascinated. With visions of bats, broomsticks and black cats racing through their heads, they gingerly tip-toed through the debris.

“There’s an old piece of wood in here that’s marked made in 1805,” Susan called out excitedly. Lisa reported with disappointment the rickety old stairs were gone. “I’ll come back in my old clothes and climb up there,” she told her grandmother. “I want to see the room where Mother Barnes read the tea leaves for all those people.”

Lera Joynt disapproves of the dubious title of witch applied to her ancestor. “We don’t like it at all. Her kindly advice and honest predictions helped countless numbers of people.”…

Lera Joynt and other family members felt the same. Some years ago, they purchased the two acres with its original cabin, its apple trees, tumble-down barn and abandoned well. Lera and husband Percy re-shingled the roof and cleaned up the grounds when they took over the property but it hasn’t weathered the years very well. Weeds have taken over, the roof sinks in and vandals have removed the original pine doors and smashed the windows.”[6]

The Setting: Plum Hollow, Ontario

An excellent overview of settlement in the Leeds County area is provided in the book “The Heritage of Upper Canadian Furniture”:

In 1791, the Imperial Parliament in London created the provinces of Upper and Lower Canada… Upper Canada was an incredibly large area of virgin forests and lakes which, only a decade or so earlier, had been peopled by a scattered Indian population and a few hundred French Canadians, the only settlements a few isolated military and fur-trading outposts. The new province was created in response to the arrival in 1783 and 1784 of just over six thousand refugees from the turmoil of the American Revolution.

These refugees, who had either fought for the British or suffered losses as a result of their sympathies for the Crown, were known as Loyalists… As a group, they encompassed a wide variety of cultural elements. Many, as might be expected, were of English, Scottish and Irish origin, but there were also Dutch, Swedes, Swiss, Danes, French Huguenots, Spaniards, Germans and Indians. Some came from military and government backgrounds, but the greater part was made up of farmers and all manner of tradespeople … they were excellent settlers, having an understanding of the wilderness of North America and the skills required to tame it based on the experience of a generation or more in the American colonies…[7]

The first European settler who arrived in Plum Hollow, Upper Canada, was Abel Stevens in the early 1790s. It was a vast and abundant valley set amongst rolling hills, with flowering plum trees nestled in the hollow, hence the ensuing obvious and appropriate name for the newly established community.

According to Cathy Livingston from the Rideau Lakes Municipal Heritage Advisory Committee:

…Elder Abel Stevens … arrived from Vermont in the early 1790s. In 1794, he was granted land where he finally settled and named the community Stevenstown, now known as Delta.

It has been noted that prior to arriving and settling in Stevenstown, he travelled through what is now the historic settlement of Plum Hollow. Following the Plum Hollow Creek, which at the time flowed into two smaller lakes, one a bit higher than the other, causing a small rapids, Stevens was able to construct his first wooden mill.

After building a small dam, the water flooded the land, combining the two lakes into what is now called the Upper Beverley Lake.

One can only imagine what Abel Stevens first saw when he came to the crest of the Plum Hollow hill overlooking “a beautiful fertile valley surrounded by hills covered with sugar bushes” (Phyllis Tackaberry). Quoting Anna Greenhorn [local historian and Director of the Delta Mill Society]: “I can remember Phyllis saying the old story was that the first [settler] in Plum Hollow arrived in the spring when all those plum trees were in bloom in the valley below, as seen from the top of the hill where the old cheese factory used to be. Immediately they gasped at the beauty of this new land (it really must have been impressive) and called it Plum Hollow”.[8]

An article from The Ottawa Journal, Harry Walker writes: “The immediate area was settled by United Empire Loyalists, the majority of them being Quakers. In that Puritan atmosphere lived mysterious Mother Barnes, of supposedly Spanish origin and with her uncanny powers of divination.[9]

The Recorder and Times, June 7, 1958, adds to the descriptions of the area: “Plum Hollow is just a little place, located on the township line of Bastard and Kitley, in a north-easterly direction from Athens. Actually, “all roads lead to Plum Hollow!” The village itself is nestled at the foot of a hill, driving north from Athens; or at the top of a hill, driving east from Delta; or just around the corner, driving west from Frankville.”[10]

At this time, nearby Lake Eloida was called Lake Loyada (see map below). Visitors would travel the distance using horse-drawn carriages, regularly from Brockville, Smiths Falls, Perth and nearby Farmersville (later renamed Athens).

1862 Atlas indicating location of Mother Barnes south of Lake Loyada (today known as Lake Eloida), Township of Yonge in the County of Leeds

The Canadian County Atlas Digital Project

Jane Elizabeth Martin

Elizabeth Barnes, née Jane Elizabeth Martin in either Ireland or Spain on Nov. 5, 1800[11], was reputed to be the seventh daughter of a seventh daughter (although some sources contradict that claim), which supposedly gave her access to the clairvoyant talents for which she later became famous. “According to the 1851 and 1861 census records for Leeds and Grenville counties, she was born in the County of Cork in Southern Ireland. However, the 1871 census records her as being born in Spain,” writes Eleanor Glenn, whose 1990s essay "Breaking the Spell: a Feminist Perspective of Elizabeth Barnes" is excerpted in an article clipping on Linda Seccaspina’s website, in one of her many informative blogs about Mother Barnes.[12]

Ms. Glenn continues: Elizabeth’s father was a wealthy Irish landowner of English descent, who achieved the rank of colonel in the British army. Her mother is believed to have been an Irish woman of Spanish gypsy descent, who may have accompanied her husband on a military campaign against Napoleon in Spain. This could have led to the discrepancy surrounding Elizabeth’s birthplace.”[13] That she may actually have been born in Spain is corroborated in an article from The Kingston Whig Standard, June 9, 1888, which was an interview conducted with her at the age of 88.

In Ireland, Jane Elizabeth lived the comfortable life of a daughter of a well-to-do family. Ms. Glenn indicates in her essay: “Because of her father’s wealth, Elizabeth’s younger years were filled with privilege and prestige and she received a good education. Lera Joynt recounted family stories about her great-grandmother’s writings as being quite poetic, almost in verse.”[14]

One obituary for Mother Barnes from Qu'Appelle Progress, Feb 26, 1891, mentions that she “claimed to have exercised her alleged occult powers since she was seven years of age…. Her father held a commission in the English army under George IV and for her divining power was christened the “Star of Connaught” by King William IV, who presented her with a gold medal.”[15]

** The remainder of this article will be posted very soon,
until then, please click here for a PDF version.**



[1] The Wise Woman of Plum Hollow”, W. Clyde Bell – article post 1968, from The Athens and Area Heritage Museum files.

[2] pp. 15, 17, Rural Ontario, book by Verschoyle Benson Blake and Ralph Greenhill, University of Toronto Press, 1969.

[3] Feb. 7, 2006 article “Log Houses” by William C. Wonders in The Canadian Encyclopedia   

[4] Ontario Architecture website article Log House (1750 to 1990)  

[5]The mother of all fortune tellers” article from The Recorder & Times, June 18, 2005.

[6] Sept. 14, 2020 post “The Plum Hollow Witch 101 – Mother Barnes”, Linda Seccaspina on Wordpress. Weekly columnist for the Sherbrooke Record, documents history every single day and has over 7800 blogs about Lanark County and Ottawa.

[7] pp. 17-18, The Heritage of Upper Canadian Furniture, book by Howard Pain, published by Van Nostrand Reinhold Ltd., 1978.

[8] Cathy Livingston, Rideau Lakes Municipal Heritage Advisory Committee.    

[9] The Ottawa Journal - Tales of the Valley (32) (~1968), from the Athens and Area Heritage Society and Museum collection).

[10] The Recorder and Times, June 7, 1958.

[11] Eleanor Glenn – “Breaking the Spell: a Feminist Perspective of Elizabeth Barnes”, an excerpt of her essay posted in a blog about Mother Barnes posted on Linda Seccaspina’s website:]

[12] Ibid

[13] Ibid

[14] Ibid

[15] Qu'Appelle Progress, Feb 26, 1891 – note that this is the only reference found to this potential event in her childhood, so this claim requires substantiation.



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