An old soul moves house and home to Niles Corners
On a nasty winter day, rife with weather warnings – the kind where the locals take the back roads rather than being part of a parking lot on the 401, Chris Braney isn’t thinking of snow. He’s Canadian, so of course, the requisite weather conversation occurs, along with questions about the road conditions, and polite concerns about traffic and caution, but his mind is on music and friends and his newly adopted Hillier community, where he knows in his heart he has always belonged.
Growing up in the small neighbourhood of Highland Creek, he found solace in the rural community between Scarborough and Pickering. Working in an apple orchard when he was eight, he quickly recognized a tendency toward farms, falling in love with old barns.
“I’m an old soul,” Chris admitted. “I seek and appreciate the simplicity of life and connect with the land.” In his mid-teens, two pivotal events occurred. The federal government was expropriating land in advance of a planned local airport, and more importantly, Chris met Silvia when he was 16.
The young couple spent dates exploring the charming abandoned farm buildings, and he fell in love with the architecture, the details, the feeling. He fell harder for Silvia, whom he credits with always encouraging him to follow his dreams. High school sweethearts, they married and are parents to Erin, 17 and Madeline, 20.
In his 20s, Chris was elected as a school board trustee. He is currently the Vice Chair of the Durham District School Board. Silvia is a teacher with a neighbouring board. During this time, Chris became passionate about wine and started looking for a way to bring these interests together. In the late1990s, he headed east, looking around Port Hope and Grafton, seeking the perfect soil, the perfect farm. He looked for several years without connecting with the right property.
After a while, a friend mentioned Prince Edward County’s excellent soil and weather, so conducive to a vineyard. The County was still a well-kept secret, so the response can be forgiven. “Where’s Prince Edward County,” Chris asked his friend. “I’d never heard of it.”
Off he went, following a new lead. It took one drive down Danforth Road to seal his fate. “I saw the barns and fell in love. I had a dream and vision of trying to save something. Silvia tells me I’m the champion of lost causes, but I knew this one wasn’t lost. It spoke to me, and then I saw the sale sign. I was holding the peg to the barn door and I promised the barn I would bring it back.”
Chris bought the Niles Corners property before Silvia had a chance to see it, with her full encouragement. It included a large barn and another smaller barn, but no residence. Chris hoped to be able to build a new home in the style of the area’s original houses, or preferably, move a house that was already part of the community.
That first year was for the barn and the land. Chris estimates the barn was built in 1892, and he was determined to save it. Protected with a new roof, he sought advice from County legend Ernie Margetson on how best to proceed. While those discussions ensued, Chris turned his attention to the land.
“I knew what I was looking for in terms of soil,” he explained. “I wanted a nice slope, because pinot noir varietals like that for air flow and disease resistance. This has the north-south exposure, a gentle slope, and the soil is absolutely perfect.”
When the contractor came to plant the first vines, he arrived at dusk, and told Chris the soil was so good he’d take 10 truckloads back to Niagara if he could. “It was such a relief,” laughed Chris. “I was so happy. I called my Dad to tell him. When he and my father-in-law first saw the farm, they questioned my sanity. The soil was horrible. Unless you’re planning to grow pinot noir. This is probably the only place in the New World identical to the Burgundian soil. It’s a magical spot. We have a true offering of Burgundian Chardonnay.”
It would be a while before Chris could enjoy that first vintage. He spent the first year reclaiming the property, getting it back to workable land. He exposed the topography around the barn and delighted in the discoveries. “I found an abandoned rail fence and used it at the front. The rails were more than 100 years old, and when I cut into them, the red cedar was vivid, just waiting.”
He planted sugar maples and burr oaks, agreeing when his neighbour noted Chris was planting them for his grandchildren to enjoy. “That’s the point,” he smiled. “The farm is important to the community and I wanted a gathering place to continue for generations in the family. I want our daughters to experience the rural life and small-town living. The farm is a legacy.”
Early in this project, Chris felt a reaction from the community. “We have terrific friends and neighbours, and they were happy I was preserving the heritage of the property. I didn’t come to the County with the intention of changing it; I came to embrace the values I cherish. This is the kind of place where neighbours mean something. We help each other. It reminds me so much of growing up in Highland Creek.”
The draw deepened. Friendships were forged, music was made, more vines were planted, including three more acres of pinot noir. Chris admits he doesn’t want to be a winemaker; he just loves growing things – grapes, friendships, legacies. He sells his grapes to Jonas Newman at nearby Hinterland Wine Company, who uses them for his sparkling rosé.
The grapes are grown with typical Braney flair, soothed and coaxed by the old jazz and Sinatra Chris plays over the vineyards. “Jonas tells me the vines love Sinatra,” assured Chris.
Music is vital and natural to Chris, developed through centuries of family history and lore. Chris’ great grandparents settled in Lanark County, Ontario, immigrating from Ireland. They were known far and wide as the Marks Brothers Repertoire Kings, Vaudeville performers in the late 1800s and early 1900s. “People came from miles around to sit on their porch and listen to them perform.”
Chris is part of a band at home – What the Funk – and it wasn’t long before the Niles Corners Band formed, with Ernie Margetson, Drew Dick, Steve Spicer, Geoff Heinricks (author of the County classic A Fool and Forty Acres) and CQL’s own Daniel Vaughan. Once in a while they are joined by Juno award winning Justin Rutledge, who shot a video at the barn. Each year, Chris hosts a corn roast, and he and the band perform for friends, family, and neighbours.
His Irish roots run deep. One day, Chris decided, without any experience, to build a drystone wall. “It came naturally to me,” he recalled, with surprise. “I’ve always loved limestone, I’ve always been drawn to Ireland, and I started one morning. It was like I was in a trance; I felt like I’d been doing it all my life, yet there was no sense of time. When Silvia called me for dinner, I wasn’t aware I’d been at it the entire day. When we finally visited Ireland, I felt such an attachment.”
Even with the vineyards, the restored barn, the repurposed fence, and new wall, there was still a large element missing from the property. Cold Creek Vineyards was well underway, but the Braneys were still living in a converted shed when they visited. The property needed a house.
Ernie and Chris talked over the years, and early on, Ernie asked Chris what style he wanted. Chris was adamant it fit the community and complement the property. They were standing at the top of the rise, and Chris pointed to the old Christ Church parsonage about 200 yards away, across the road. “That’s exactly what I want,” he said. Ernie, renowned in the area for his expertise with heritage homes and known for saving seemingly lost buildings, and moving more than a few, was looking for candidates, eventually finding a suitable building in Consecon.
Before that was finalized, Lee Nurse moved in next door and introductions were quick. Chris soon learned the Nurse family needed to remove the old parsonage to grow their robotic dairy farm. Lee asked if Chris had an interest. He did. “The exact house I’d wanted for seven years was now available. I called Ernie, who came over right away.”
Ernie recalled how it all came together. “It was good karma, fate worked in our favour,” adding he was baptized in the former Christ Church, which was now part of Closson Chase, just up the road. Ernie had helped move it, making it accommodations for the workers. “We moved the church in five pieces, and we oriented it the same way, with the stained glass catching the sunrise.”
“In the past, buildings were moved with much greater frequency. There were no utility lines in the way, they didn’t need permits and police escorts. They’d just lift and roll it down the road. Moving this one was almost as easy, because it was such a short distance.”
The parsonage was built circa 1850. Chris places it around 1857, and Ernie thinks it’s a bit older. An engineer with a degree in architecture, Ernie sees elements of an earlier design. “The Gothic gable was a post-1850 fad in vernacular architecture, but there are hints of Regency architecture. There were large garden doors at the front, going right to the floor, and lots of openings to the outside. It probably had a veranda at one point,” he mused, suggesting perhaps it was built in the 1840s, and may not have been originally owned by the church.
It is a proud house, 30 by 40 feet of timber frame construction in almost pristine condition. It boasted beautiful original detail, although some elements were missing. Ernie lauded the various owners over the years for their restraint. “The fenestration hadn’t been dramatically altered, and fortunately no one had modernized it to any significant degree.”
The architectural salvage Chris accumulated over the years suddenly came into play. A large Gothic window had been removed, and finding an original would be challenging and expensive, except Chris had one in his collection. It fit. Exactly.
The house had beautiful trim, but some was missing. Finding an exact match would require a good deal of luck, and having it replicated would be expensive. Chris has some in his collection. On a whim, he tried it. It was a match. Exactly.
It is a regal home, and livable, but it Chris promised it more. With Ernie’s help, it found its new home, and the neighbours say it looks happier there, its exterior painted Hawthorne yellow from the period, its presence overlooking the vineyards. “The story of saving it, keeping it close to its origins, looking out the front door to where it used to be. There is a narrative there that will go on,” noted Ernie.
The interior restoration is well underway, with help from Drew Dick, who like Ernie has become one of Chris’ closest County friends. Typical to the story, things fell into place, quite literally. Chris and Drew were removing plaster and lathe from the ceiling, and hundreds of newspapers fell. A few days later, Drew went back on his own to continue the job, and more papers fell, including one that drifted right to his feet. Staring up at him, from the cover, was Drew’s father, accepting an award when he was 17.
This history, these connections, are integral to Chris. He is the first to say he has always been fortunate, surrounded by great family and friends, but his voice suggests something extra special is happening in Niles Corners.
“The farm is a way to turn down the taps, to spend more time with family and community,” he said. “The more time I’m there, the more stories I hear about how the community embraced and supported each other during tough times. Even with all the changes in the County, it is still a small community.”
Each year, Christ Church hosts a commemoration at the cemetery. Chris attended last year and spoke with many people, including the church historian. “He gave me copies of great old photos, including one of the first family to ever live in the house. They’re smiling in the photo. That’s rare for a picture of that era. Maybe it’s the house. After that, more people came by, sharing their connections with the parsonage.”
The old home is invigorated, and the property is following suit. Last year, Chris planted 100 apple trees for cider production – 25 each of Empire, Spy, Golden Russet, and Spartan. “I grew up in apple country and I love the look of the orchard when it blossoms in the spring.”
Neighbours have become used to Chris making a run to Wellington for supplies in his 1966 GMC, bought after he watched The Bridges of Madison County and fell in love with Clint Eastwood’s truck. When he learned it was a model from his birth year, he knew he had to find one. It goes well with his Royal Enfield motorcycle, similar to Steve McQueen’s in The Great Escape.
Life in the County is a work in progress, with a solid five-year plan. Chris is still very committed to his work on the school board. “It’s like motherhood and apple pie,” he stressed. “I see my success and the things I have as a direct result of my public education. Schools are the last safety net we have across Canada.” While he hasn’t decided if he’ll run for re-election this year, he acknowledges Silvia has five years left to retirement, and then the family will move full time to the farm.
“We want to be part of the community, not just live there. The sense of belonging, the warm welcome, the acceptance is more than I envisioned, more than anyone could ask. My heart and soul are already part of Prince Edward County,” smiled Chris.
Photography by Daniel Vaughan