THE SIFTON COOK HERITAGE CENTRE  - An historical review by Catherine Milne

A detailed analysis of the origins of the building known as the "Barracks".
Why it does not have military origins.

The Sifton Cook Heritage Centre aka " the barracks" is located on lot 18, concession B, at the corner of Orr and Durham Streets, southwest of the centre of the town of Cobourg. The limestone building has become derelict over the years and been in the process of restoration since 1999. There are plans to turn this mysterious and fascinating building into a museum. [This has since happened]

Early Cobourg

Lakeshore concession B, also termed the Broken Front on early maps as its southern border consists of the irregular Lake Ontario shore, terminates just west of Factory Creek ( now known as Cobourg Creek) at lot 20, near Tremaine Street. The northern border of the concession follows partly along present King Street in Cobourg and in 1799 the area to the south was a cedar swamp. Lake Ontario was higher than it is today, creeks were much larger and teeming with fish, and it is said that once one could paddle up Midtown Creek as far as James Street.

There was only a blazed trail a mile or so north according to historian Edwin Guillet. Although Elias Jones is said to have built a store on King St. in 1802 most of the road was reported to be a "founderous morass". In her reminiscences Katherine (Chrysler) White says she saw only three houses when she landed at the small wharf in 1813 and only a rough corduroy road to the lake. Katherine Chrysler had come to Hamilton Township as the bride of Josiah Charles White, one of the first grantees of land in the area, who had established a mill on the upper reaches of Factory Creek.

Due to its swampy terrain most of the early houses in the area were built, not at the lakeshore, but on the higher outskirts and near the courthouse at Amherst, located in the north west section of present Cobourg. Amherst was the centre of business activity until after the War of 1812. But by 1819 the village on the lakeshore had been named Cobourg and the business centre moved from Amherst to Cobourg. By 1825 it was slowly becoming a town and two streets, Division and George leading to the lakeshore, had been laid out.

The town eventually grew until it occupied lots eleven at the east to twenty-two at the west and stretched north including part of concessions B and A, up to present highway 401 where it crosses concession one. The town continues to spread east and west as subdivisions proliferate.

Nathan Williams, first settler

Nathan Williams and his sons, John ,William, Joshua, Ebenezer and Richard are listed in Percy Climo's research (available at the Cobourg Library), as occupying lot 18, concessions B and A, in the first census of 1804. Nathan William's grant application for lot 18, concession B, was approved in 1820. There is no evidence Williams was an United Empire Loyalist or a military man. Ordinary settlers had to pay patent and surveys fees and were required to perform settlement duties before their grants were approved. These involved building a log cabin, cutting down enough trees to make five large brush heaps and paying twenty five dollars for the deed. The settler had to swear before a magistrate that these had been done before a grant was approved. Because of the many applications grant approval was often delayed for many years.

The War of 1812

It was improbable there were any military buildings in existence on lot 18, concession B, in 1810 because the land along the lakeshore was a swampy wilderness. Any army land movement during the War of 1812 was to the north along the Danforth Road constructed in 1800 through Hamilton Township. Highway two was not built until 1817.

Zaccheus and Asa Burnham emigrated from New Hampshire c.1798 and were acquiring extensive properties in both concessions one and two in the Amherst area by 1801. Zaccheus built a distillery and inn there that he operated until the war began. He was appointed officer in charge of transportation during the War of 1812-14. Edwin Guillet wrote in The Pioneer Farmer and Backwoodsman, "Mr. Burnham's farm was the only one along the road where supplies could be obtained and the troops of the line quartered there". Niram Burnham, a relative of Zaccheus, first worked, and later purchased, the farm owned by Zaccheus on lot 18, concession two. This farm was located on the Danforth Road near Ontario Street. A broken tombstone was ploughed up in a field on the property saying "In memory of two infant sons of Niram and Mary Burnham who died 1812". Also there is a tradition that Halfway House on the Danforth Road, lot 4, concession one, was used by General Sheaffe and the British Army after the burning of York in 1813.

In the census of 1804 there were over 40 names listed as resident in Hamilton Township, which included the fledgling settlement on the lakeshore. But only half a dozen of these appear on the Militia Roll Call of 1812. Another half dozen, at least, have been left off. Any veteran of the 1812 war received $20 annually from the government.

No record has been found of any military building on the swampy lakeshore. There is a letter in existence at the Ottawa Archives dated 11th of September, 1814, written from Cramahe (Township) by Lt. Col. John Peters, the Commanding Officer of the 1st Regiment Northumberland Milita, that states in part "the stationing of a Sergeant and twelve men at John's creek, Hamilton as there is a quantity of flour at the Mill and a Depot of provisions near for the servicing of the troops". It is speculated that John's Creek (perhaps a misspelling of the name of Elias Jones who owned large tracts of land on both sides of the creek), is Cobourg Brook* but there is nothing to say the men were stationed at its mouth. * aka Factory Creek , Cobourg Creek

Asa Burnham operated a sawmill at that site as early as 1801 but there was no grist mill there until Robert Henry, a new arrival, built a large flour mill in 1817. Ebenezer Perry, a veteran of the 1812 war, built his stone mill in 1815 at what is now known as Pratt's Pond. Josiah White was the earliest miller in the area and he built his grist mill c. 1812 further up Cobourg Creek, west of present Hull's Corners. Zaccheus Burnham of neighbouring Amherst was involved with supplies for the troops so it is most likely that White's mill is the one in question. The nearest military post was at Carrying Place near Belleville.

map 1878 cobourgA portion of a map of Hamilton Township as it was in 1878.There are a number of letters concerning the War of 1812-14 on file at the Ottawa Archives and officers often mentioned connected with Hamilton Township were: Captain Zaccheus Burnham, Major Elias Jones and Major David Rogers, who owned Halfway House on the Danforth Road. The inn where the troops had meals was that of James Williams, located at present Elgin and Division Streets. It appears that any military activity was near the Amherst area and further north on the Danforth. Researchers should remember that the town of Cobourg did not exist during the War of 1812 and it is a disservice to other researchers to use the name in connection with the war. Letters concerning military matters to and from the area were simply addressed "Hamilton".

The Rev. Anson Green, Methodist Circuit Rider

It was recorded in his diary, The Life and Times of Anson Green (1877), that he was present in 1825 when Peter's Robinson's first contingent of Irish settlers, bound for Peterborough, arrived in Cobourg: "I saw the beach west of Division Street covered with small white tents filled with Irish immigrants. There was no wharf in Cobourg then, and the landing was somewhat difficult. These tents presented a beautiful and attractive appearance, They stretched along on the sand beach lying between the lake and a forest of small cedars which covered the worst part of the swampy ground east of Ham's mills".

Actually at that time the grist mills at lot 20, on the west side of Factory Creek, were owned by Robert Henry. In 1830 a Mr. Ham of Bath, England, purchased Henry's mills and estate for 6000 pounds. Note that Nathan Williams owned 18 to the east. Anson Green mentioned no buildings being present on the swampy lots east of Cobourg Creek in 1825.

Ebenezer Perry

Records show that after receiving his grant Nathan Williams disposed of lot 18 and farmed in other locations. There was no action on the property until 1826 when Ebenezer Perry appeared on assessment rolls. Perry would have probably spent the next five years clearing, draining and filling swampy lot 18 preparing it for sale or lease. He paid the taxes on lot 18 for some years and had extensive holdings in the town, in lots 15 and 16, as well. He is listed on assessment rolls on concession B, lot 18, until 1837.

Ebenezer Perry (1788-1876) was a U.E.L descendant, born in Ernesttown, who served in the War of 1812, probably at Fort Henry, Kingston, only a few miles way. He was a prominent Methodist, merchant and miller. After the war he came to the Amherst area and his stone mill, built in 1815 on present Pratt's pond, burned down in the 1850s and was re-erected in brick. It also burned in 1942 and only the exterior was saved. The mill has recently been restored and is now a restaurant. Perry also built a brick store with a stone facade in 1832 on King Street in Cobourg. Perry had his finger in most of the enterprises around early Cobourg. He was on the building committee of Victoria College in 1832 and first president of the Board of Police in 1837. He was involved in both Cobourg railway enterprises and, it is said, a strong supporter of the Reform movement of 1837. Perry later served in the Legislative Assembly and was a senator there until his death. In early days Cobourg was at one time called "Hardscrabble", and according to Senator Perry, "hard scrabbling it was".

James Calcutt Sr., first brewer

The Cobourg Star of Aug. 1, 1832, noted the arrival of James Calcutt and his family in Cobourg on the William IV. He had been a brewer in Mountmelick, Ireland, since the age of fourteen but fled from enemies there, said to be the Whiteboys. It is reported he had prospered in Ireland and was well supplied with cash and in the market for a property on which to erect a brewery in Cobourg. He chose to locate on Ebenezer Perry's lot 18. On Dec. 10, 1832, he ran the following advertisement in the Cobourg Star:


The undersigned begs to inform the Inhabitants of Cobourg that he has the above establishment now at full work, and has ready for delivery, Beer and Ale of excellent quality and also good fresh Yeast. James Calcutt

N.B.- Wanted, 5,000 bushels of good malt barley for which the highest cash price will be paid on delivery.

Calcutt was open for business four months after his arrival in Canada. Calcutt's Ale and Malt became known all over the country and he was active in many Cobourg affairs.. He was one of the first to pay for grain in cash instead of vouchers and his workers every Saturday night. By 1835 Calcutt had acquired three acres comprising Hibernia, Durham and Orr Streets and advertised a distillery:

February 25, 1835

The subscriber having erected a distillery on the Irish and Scotch plan, in connection with his Brewery, and which he has now in full work begs to offer to his Friends and the Public: Pure Copper Distilled Malt Whisky of superior strength and flavour and which he will sell on such terms as will ensure him a share of their patronage. Superior Ale for Bottling and draught Ale on hand, as well.

James Calcutt, Cobourg Brewery and Distillery.

Calcutt's home, "Lakehurst", is located on Durham Street just south of the Heritage Centre.

It is improbable that Calcutt would have built the imposing brick house in 1832, the year he arrived in Cobourg. Assessment rolls show he and his large family were living elsewhere in town while his house was being built. It was 1841 before Calcutt was assessed as paying taxes on town lot 18.

One of Calcutt's sons, Kingsley, carried on the brewery but had financial difficulties in the late 1850s like others at the time. James Calcutt was forced to sell his home, Lakehurst, and the brewery, which sat idle for some years. The Calcutts moved to Port Hope in 1859.

James Calcutt Sr. (1792- 1869) was buried at St. Peter's Anglican Church Cemetery, Cobourg. Here in part is his obituary printed in the Cobourg Sentinel: "In all his dealings he was scrupulously honest, from the largest to the smallest transactions, and he endeavoured as a leading citizen to give a tone of fairness to every important event in our municipal history."

Henry Calcutt, young entrepreneur

Henry Calcutt, the fifth of James' eleven children from his three marriages, began brewing on his own in the Peterborough area at the age of eighteen, having learned the business from his father. At first he leased premises but after eight years he built his own stone brewery in 1865, located in Ashburnham, where the ill-fated Cobourg-Peterborough railway had a turn-around. It is said he was involved in the railway. He might have had stock but was not the founder and owner, nor responsible for its failure, as one writer erroneously states. Henry Calcutt invented a method of cooling beer quickly that is still used today. He was granted the patent in 1895.

Dubbed "Commodore" Henry Calcutt, he was involved in steamboats starting in the 1870s and had several built and operating on Rice Lake, besides several hotels around the shore. Transportation to and from Gore's Landing and picnic excursions to Peterborough were popular around the turn of the last century. The "Calcutt's Steamers" , mentioned in a Cobourg World news item, refers to the Commodore's steamboats, not a steam mill at Calcutt's brewery in Cobourg, as another writer speculates.

The New Brewery

Charles Mackechnie, one of three Scottish brothers, bought the Calcutt property in 1863 and opened the "Victoria Brewery". A scribe for the Cobourg Sentinel of February 13, 1864, was very impressed with the "New Brewery" and devoted a whole article to its superiority, claiming, "It is as far removed from the old fashioned style of brewing as the steam engine is removed from the old oak ship. In capacity his malt house alone would make a large brewery."

He enthused that the new building being erected was nearly as capacious as the old one, intended for a malt floor and kiln. The kiln was 25 by 25 feet, with a barley loft on the same flat, 6 tubs containing 15,000 gallons each, a 20 horse-power boiler, coolers, a newly patented refrigerator and a mash tub big enough to mash 100 bushels at a time, being fitted up with new mashing and sparging machines. There were also 5 fermenting tubs kept at regular temperatures by a constant volume of steam. The beer cellar was lined with about 4,000 gallons and the stock cellar contained 6,000 gallons. Mr. T. Duncan from Edinburgh was the superintendent of the brewery and distillery. The old limestone building was probably used for storage. The Cobourg Sentinel writer was told the New Brewery could produce 1000 pure, unadulterated, wholesome gallons of beverage a day and he urged hotel keepers to buy locally rather than from Toronto or Kingston.

Facts and Fancies

The "barracks" name originated in 1930 when someone writing in the Cobourg Star put forth the unfounded story it could have erected for an army barracks and that myth has been perpetuated to this day. Even in 1930 there was no evidence presented of military use but since then some have become enamoured of the story, speculating that the limestone building had something to do with the War of 1812. Seduced by this romantic idea they have tried to manipulate the facts to fit. Others have refuted the "barracks" story as a fairytale for children. But much of what has been written about the early history of the Calcutt brewery site has no foundation in fact and is not backed by research.

Malting houseThe building bears no resemblance to an early military shed but looks like a small malting house (like the one at right in Mountmellick, Ireland). Stone buildings were common in Ireland, from whence Calcutt emigrated. If there were such an unlikely building on the premises in 1832 why would Calcutt not have used it rather than build a new one? It was certainly large enough to have accommodated a malting house immediately.

The brewing of beer requires a fair amount of space and the size of the original building, number of windows, and the chimneys at both ends denotes a far more important usage than just as a storage shed for grain. The 90'x 20' limestone building has five 6 over 6 windows and two doors all on the south wall with a brick chimney at each end of the roof. It has been suggested that Calcutt wanted the building facing his house so he could keep watch on the premises. There is a long rectangular opening high in the west wall; it apparently was an access door to a loft. There are bricks in the east wall that appear to be repairs to a crack. Archaeologist Dr. Laurence Jackson has found no evidence of fireplaces and discovered the remains of burned coal. In pioneer days in Upper Canada buildings were heated with fireplaces so the use of stoves points to a later date than 1810. Stoves were necessary because the brewing process required steam.

One thing that has always been puzzling about the building are the large holes on the end walls, surrounded with bricks laid in a fan pattern, just below each chimney at either end of the roof. The west one has been filled in with bricks. It has been suggested that the holes were meant for owls, presumably to catch rats, or even that the "owl holes" were punched in later.

MaltinghouseThere is a far more prosaic explanation: Matt Howell, a master brewer, explained to this writer that breweries must have ventilation due to heat and gases generated during the malting process and the temperature needs to be kept fairly constant all year round. Early malting houses had louvered vents or large chimneys.

There is an old malting house in Hertfordshire, England, (photo at right) that is very similar to the Cobourg building. Although it is much larger and constructed of brick, it has the same shed roof, a number of windows and a round aperture under the eaves.

That would account for the so-called "owl holes" and the presence of stoves and chimneys in the primitive first building and the bricks appear to have been included during its construction. There were no brickyards reported to be operating in Cobourg before 1830. Certainly there were none in 1810. It is said that Calcutt's house was the first in Cobourg to be built of brick.

When the McKechnies bought the brewery property in 1863 and constructed "a new building nearly as capacious as the old" the Cobourg newspaper contrasted the primitive, old brewing operation with the new modern machinery and fittings. That lends even more credence to the premise that James Calcutt built the original stone malting house. It does not make sense there would be three large malting houses built on the same property and there has never been a description of the exteriors of any of the buildings.

There is a story that there was an old stone windmill in the vicinity of Calcutt's property and that the stone from that demolished windmill was used to build his malting house. Apparently there is also a basement nearby built of the same stone. The building material is thought to be local limestone from the lakeshore. There were few granite boulders in swampy Cobourg but the limestone walls could have been constructed by either bricklayers or stonemasons.

There is another possibility: Fort Henry in Kingston was built 1812-14. The old fort was constructed of timber and earth and faced with limestone. In 1832-37 it was demolished and replaced with the fort that still stands in Kingston today. It is said the new fort bore no resemblance to the old one and that it was constructed of limestone blocks. It is possible that in the summer of 1832 Calcutt had limestone transported from Fort Henry to Cobourg by boat. There was a great deal of traffic on Lake Ontario between the two towns. The material would probably be of the same composition as Cobourg limestone and the time period is right. Then there is Calcutt's connection with Ebenezer Perry, a veteran from Fort Henry, who sold him the property. Perry built a store on King Street with a stone facade that same year. Possibly, too, this could be the origin of the persistent barracks legend and the connection to the War of 1812 .

Dr. Jackson never found any evidence of buttons or coins to support the barracks myth nor of early human habitation upon excavating portions of the building's present sandy floor. He did discover some artifacts from later in the 19th century such as animal bones, china, toys etc. and that the original floor and a later one had been constructed of wood. He found evidence of a stable and it is said that the Amours, later owners of Lakehurst, used the building for stabling their horses. It is known that a blacksmith once had a forge at the east end and that at one time there was a laundry operation there. Within living memory items from demolished buildings were sold from the premises.


One must remember 1832 was still very early in the development of commerce and business in Upper Canada. When one discounts the improbable "barracks" story, there can be no other conclusion than that the primitive limestone building was built for Calcutt during the four months after his arrival. Why not use brick in the beginning? No doubt a stone building would have been more familiar to an Irishman, more secure from fire and rodents than frame and perhaps cheaper to build than brick. Thirty years later his son, Henry, also built his brewery of stone in the Peterborough area.

One writer states that in 1901 the brewery burned to the ground in a "mysterious fire" and that the limestone building survived but had the roof damaged. That makes a dramatic ending to the brewery saga but there is no confirmation of a 1901 fire. After 1899 the ownership of the brewery property is lost in a sea of mortgages until the Cobourg Museum Foundation took over the building one hundred years later.

By the process of elimination and taking all the present evidence into consideration, there can be no doubt the limestone building was constructed by James Calcutt in 1832. A more appropriate name than the "barracks" would be "The Old Brewery".

Whatever its age it remains a fascinating building and it is a miracle that Calcutt's old limestone brewery has avoided fire or demolition and is still standing. Kudos to those who, with vision and hard work, are endeavouring to restore the building and planning a future museum. A suggestion has been made that a display of early brewing methods and artifacts, even some hops growing around the entrance, would be interesting.

Historical facts gleaned from Edwin Guillet in Cobourg 1798-1948, assessment rolls 1804-1845, internet articles on breweries, Fort Henry, James and Henry Calcutt, newspaper files at the Cobourg Library, Burnham family history, Gore's Landing and the Rice Lake Plains by Martin, Milne and McGillis.