Box 15-002 HAMILTON SPECTATOR ARTICLE: "Anne tells of life as McQuestens' Cook."
Feb 17 2006
By Paul Wilson
Seventy years ago an 18-year-old girl arrived at a mansion in downtown Hamilton, put on a black uniform with white apron, and started works as the cook. She stayed 22 years.
Tomorrow, as part of the Hamilton Heritage Fair, she returns to that big house, and you're invited to come talk to her. She'll have her hair done, as always, and she'll answer all your questions.
"I may be old," Anne O'Neill says, "but I still have my memory."
Her last name was Vallesi when she arrived at the McQuesten home, now known as Whitehern, beside City Hall.
It was halfway through the 1930s, the Great Depression. The McQuesten family fortunes had faded, but there was enough left to carry on a life far grander than for most in this city.
At that point there were four McQuestens left- two sisters, two brothers, all unmarried, all aging. To Anne, they were Miss Hilda ("She treated me like a daughter."); Miss Mary ("She was the one who always went to market."); Mr. Calvin, ("He was the black sheep."); and Mr. Tom ("They were all proud of him."). He was Ontario's minister of highways and father of the Queen Elizabeth Way.
Anne was a farm girl. The family had a spread at the top of Sydenham Hill where they raised Holsteins.
"So I was used to the quiet life," she says.
And it was quiet in that grand house. Guests were rare. Anne lived at the back, behind the kitchen. She had a bedroom and a sitting room and Readers' Digest and a radio that played country music.
Each morning at 8, she served the McQuestens breakfast in the dining room. The four had their assigned seats. Mr. Tom, there only on weekends, had the head of the table, beneath the mounted elk.
On blue-rimmed china with peacocks, Anne served porridge, soft-boiled eggs, pancakes, scones.
Dinner was at noon. That meant roast chicken, lobster, veal. And 5 o'clock was lighter: soup and sandwich.
Anne's duties were to cook meals, wash dishes, answer the door. Mrs. Randles came in weekly to clean the silver and the floors.
Doing the beds each day was up te the McQuestens themselves. Did her employers ever just leave those beds unmade? "Heavenly days, no."
Anne did not live a nun's life at the McQuesten house. She went dancing most every weekend. She met a fellow, and he became her fiancee. She was 24 when he was electrocuted on the job in Niagara Falls.
She then stayed at the McQuestens for another 16 years. They valued her work. One summer they sent her to the luxurious Clevelands House in Muskoka for a week. Another summer they sent her to Banff for a month.
And when she finally did marry, the McQuestens gave her $2,600. Even now, she gets $50 every month in an annuity set up by the family.
The city opened Whitehern to the public 1971. About 20 years ago, Anne visited with friends. She did speak to the curator of the day, but he didn't seem particularly interested. He ended up sending Anne on her way. "I was so put out by that man that I never came back again."
But Ken Heaman is the curator these days. And when he heard talk of this long-ago cook out there, a search was launched and Anne O'Neill was brought back home.
The people at Whitehern had plans to restore an upstairs bathroom, but that changed when Anne showed up. They're now restoring her quarters instead, because she can tell them the right way to do it.
Heaman took her down to storage and she said, "That's my bed. That's my dresser." Then she showed him right where to put them. They're working on wallpaper now.
Anne looks at Heaman's work and approves. "You're doing all right kid," she tells him. "You make me feel at home."
Anne will be at Whitehern tomorrow from 1 to 4 p.m. Admission is free.
And while you're there, wish her a Happy Birthday. On Tuesday she turns 89.