Ghosts

Keewatin’s Mather Walls house has more than just heritage within its walls

The Queen Anne style Mather-Walls house, in the Keewatin neighbourhood of Kenora, may have a wonderful view of Portage Bay, but it’s also a house that can change the views of people who work there.

That is when it comes to the supernatural.

Built by Lake of the Woods Milling Company’s owner, John Mather, in 1889, it was one of three identical houses. The other two are still standing, but have undergone significant changes. The one that does still remain, according to the Ontario Heritage Trust, belonged to Mather’s son, David.

PHOTO COURTESY THE ONTARIO HERITAGE TRUST
The Mather-Walls house from the south side.

The 130-year-old house is under the purview of the Ontario Heritage Foundation and operated by the Lake of the Woods Historical Society.

At least one of its employees has had a few uncanny experiences of her own while working at the museum from 2016 to 2018.

Before starting to work at the Mather-Walls house, Bronwyn Bryan had a relatively agnostic view of paranormal phenomenon. The archaeology undergrad at Brigham Young University in Utah was working as a summer student in 2016 when she had a series of experiences she couldn’t explain.

“I grew up hearing ghost stories about the Mather-Walls House, (but) I didn’t know how much I believed them,” she said during a May phone interview. “I was definitely a little scared of being alone in the house.”

What unsettled her would be the sounds of footfalls along the stairs and the occasional corner-of-the-eye thing.

“It could have been an old house making those noises, but it definitely sounded more like footsteps,” she admitted. “Doors would open and close.

“How often it happened and how much it sounded like a person made me feel like there was something in the house.”

But there was one particular instance that dissolved her neutrality.

While at work, alone, she was in the music room.

In the corner of the room, there is a rocking chair that is original to the house. The windows in the room were closed and the air conditioning was turned off.

“The rocking chair just started to rock back and forth,” she said. “There is no way it would just start doing that with no breeze. It was very visibly moving.

“I was startled, and I screamed, and as soon as I screamed the rocking chair stopped.”

Now, when asked if Bryan’s scream was just a taken-aback gasp, she assured it was a very audible response.

“No, it was a pretty loud, outright scream. I was pretty startled by that,” she said.

The experience may have unsettled her, but she remains undeterred by the building’s notoriety. She plans on returning in the summer when she returns home from university.

There’s a certain charming draw the building has on its visitors. Though Bryan admitted that the basement unnerves her, Liz Visser is often baffled by the blanket of cold air that greets guest passing through the breezeway into the house’s kitchen.

Visser is the daughter of former caretaker and Lake of the Woods Historical Society president, Arend Visser.

Though she’s had a couple of run-ins with the resident spirits, her father, a resolute man of integrity, admitted after working at the Mather-Walls house that it was haunted.

“I should preface (my story) by saying my dad was the consummate skeptic of all things and he had a few experiences that left him scratching his head,” she admitted in an early May chat over the phone.

What made her dad change his tune? The piano in the music room playing by itself.

“He could find a reason for bumps and bangs, but the piano he could not figure out. He was scared, and he was not a man to get scared,” she recalled. “I think too, he found it really creepy because the piano was out of tune. I was happy it was him and not me.”

For the younger Visser, her experiences came in a similar fashion to Bryan’s. The usual footfalls along the stairs and upper floors.

One experience in particular was shared by Visser.

Back in 2003, a few years after her father took over management of the site, she volunteered to organize the upstairs office.

“I was in there organizing and filing and keeping everything in check. I heard thumps in the hallway,” she said, adding the office is at the end of a long stretch of hallway. “I could hear someone walking towards the office and I thought my dad was back. So, I was calling out to him and he didn’t answer. Then I heard another loud thump like someone was rummaging around.”

When her father returned to the Mather-Walls home, he admitted to locking Liz in. So, there was no chance she was in there with someone else.

“That was the first time I went, ‘Okay, maybe there’s something here’,” she admitted. “I did say in my head, maybe it was the wind, but they were pretty distinct footsteps.”

Another instance occurred when Visser and her friends fundraised for the building. In 2007 they held a sleepover on Halloween.

That night they heard someone humming, and plenty of footsteps running to and for on the second floor.

But she is clear to dispel one myth that has been allowed to grow. When the Walls family owned the home, the one son, James, unfortunately, committed suicide while in British Columbia. His room in the Mather-Walls house was subsequently boarded up.

Visser opened up about the Mather house’s role in the Keewatin community. Mather would often go up on the widow’s walk to see who was arriving for work at the mill. He would often ring the bell up there to let residents know when to go to work and when to leave.

The home only passed through the hands of two families before being taken over by the Heritage Foundation, thus the name. John Walls, a foreman at the mill, purchased the home in 1906 from the Mather family.

Edna Walls was the last resident who lived in the home. She resided there up until the Ontario Heritage Trust purchased the home in 1975, and Walls only utilized the main floor.

“As far as I know she was just getting older and she couldn’t get up the stairs as easily,” Bryan said. “She also wanted to cut down on the heating bill, so she only heated the bottom half.”

She also added that there was no connection to the boarded-up second floor and the death of her brother.

However, the heritage society did have a psychic visit the home in 2009 as part of a paranormal group investigation, Visser said. Though they are still trying to track down the report, the psychic alleged that there were the spirits of a young child and an older woman.

PHOTO COURTESY ONTARIO HERITAGE TRUST
The Mather-Walls house from Portage Bay in Keewatin, Ont.

Unfortunately, Liz’s father Arend passed away in April 2018. Her sister and Visser were considering taking on the role that their father had, but are hoping current president, Bonnie Gutknecht, and the board finds someone to fill the position.

Gutknecht took over from another past president, Paulette Grouda, who also passed away in August 2017.

Though Gutknecht is aware of the paranormal goings-on, she avoids any outright acknowledgment of it through the house’s Halloween tour.

 “I haven’t had the courage to go through with that,” she admitted, with a laugh, during a late winter phone conversation.

For the most part, the home hosts social gatherings, wedding receptions and more. Alcohol, however, is not allowed inside the house during such events. Nor are dogs.

“I can’t allow no liquor in the house because there is too much antique stuff in there,” she said.

The Mather-Walls house is a fixture of the community, and its builder also plays a key role in Canadian history, helping to develop Northwestern Ontario.

John Mather owned both the flour and lumber mills in Kenora and would spread his business into most of Manitoba. He also played a role in shaping the Manitoba Free Press with Clifford Sifton.

If you’re paying a visit to the Canadian Shield, be sure to drop in at the Mather-Walls house, and perhaps give a request to the piano player.

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