If you’re an Adam Sandler fan, then you know the comedy classic Billy Madison. And if you’re from Durham Region, then you definitely know that the movie was filmed right here in Oshawa. Jet skis in the fountain? That was Parkwood Estate, home of Colonel Sam McLaughlin. Yes, it’s a totally awesome Hollywood claim-to-fame, and we would be remiss not to mention it and other productions like Murdoc Mysteries, Anne of Green Gables, and X-Men. But there is so much more to Parkwood than just a movie set. Within this grand estate’s walls is preserved heaps of local history (literally!) including stories, artifacts and archives, which paint a picture not only of the founder of General Motors Canada and his family, but also of how his life and legacy shaped the great city of Oshawa.
Parkwood Estate is a historic house museum which represents the life of Colonel Sam. “We represent specifically Mr. McLaughlin’s domestic life with his family and how an auto baron was able to live at that time,” says Samantha George, who has been Parkwood’s curator for almost two decades. “We particularly focus on the inter-war periods, from approximately 1918 to 1939.”
Parkwood offers guided tours of the house and grounds, and depending on what you’re interested in, there are different tours to take. For the general public, Samantha and her colleagues recommend the Auto Baron Experience. On this tour, your trained and knowledgeable guide will take you around Parkwood as if you were a guest. It is a ninety-minute tour, on which you will see the principal rooms of the first floor that guests would have had access to. “These are the areas that were created to impress,” Samantha says. “They were created to showcase the family’s wealth.”
From the Auto Baron Experience, visitors can upgrade their tour to view the family’s private spaces on the second floor. In the summer months there are tours of the grounds and gardens, which gives visitors a glimpse of the gardener’s life and work as well as an understanding of the evolution of the landscape in Parkwood’s fifty-five years as a home. And every August, Parkwood opens up the basement space for tours, which has been a popular event for many years.
There is also a new tour, developed within the last few months, that looks at Parkwood from the servants’ perspective. It includes the kitchens, the housekeeper’s quarters and the third floor which was reserved for the unmarried female residences. “That tour comes from my interest in social history,” says Samantha. “When Parkwood was at its height of the estate, there were forty servants working here, and each of those people has a story to tell.”
One of the unique things about Parkwood that is rare amongst historic house museums is that, when Sam McLaughlin died in 1972, the house opened to the public as a museum only six months later. This meant that many of the home’s items were left in situ, and are original artifacts to the family. These includes items in storage and about 15,000 archives—everything from purchase receipts, to letters, to family home movies—all of which help tell the story of the family and the house.
An important note to all who enter: Parkwood is not a perfect restoration of what the house would have been like when it was pristine and new. This is deliberate. “In the museum world, we use the word conservation,” Samantha explains. “Something that might be unsightly, like peeling wallpaper, is actually part of the house’s history. If a tub overflowed at some point and left water damage, we want to be able to tell that story.” This is why there is flaking paint in some of the rooms and the fabric on chairs may be torn or soiled. These items are not simply replicas meant to convey life at Parkwood—they are Parkwood.
A personal side to the auto baron and his family about which visitors to the house may not be aware, especially if it is their first time, is the McLaughlin philanthropy. After all, Colonel Sam McLaughlin infamously saw himself as the father of Oshawa, and took the responsibility seriously. Aside from the ribbon cuttings and photo ops, there are stories of servants being allowed to take their bedroom furniture with them when Mr. McLaughlin passed away. There are stories of factory workers, who fought in the second world war and returned unharmed, being gifted their own homes mortgage-free. There are also several areas of the house and grounds which were make-work projects for local men during the great depression.
“We have wonderful stories of people who knocked on the door and said they needed a winter coat, and the family would find jobs like chopping wood or doing handyman work so this person could be paid a bit of a wage,” Samantha says. “It’s these sorts of things that never would have been made public, that have been wonderful for us to discover over the years through the oral history. The stories that came from former servants.”
“But Mr. McLaughlin was a businessman,” she adds. “Part of what’s behind his philanthropy was the need to keep skilled labour local. He recognized that he would need these men when the depression was over and the factory was back to a fully-functioning state. Also, he was trying to keep his workers loyal. He was combating the move towards labour unions at the time. History tells us that he was not successful, because ultimately there was unionization in 1937. But that was a factor in his decision making.”
There is far more to learn about Parkwood, and the family which called the estate home. If you’re looking for something to do on the weekends, or if you want to seek out a little bit of culture, you don’t need to go into Toronto to find it. As Samantha George says, look in your own backyard. “Durham Region is rich with history,” she says. “And it’s not just Parkwood. There’s the Oshawa Museum, the Robert McLaughlin Gallery, the Canadian Automotive Museum. Start focusing on what’s happening locally. We’re here: Your undiscovered gem in your own city.” Parkwood is located at 270 Simcoe St. N. in Oshawa. Visit online at www.parkwoodestate.com for more information.
Story by Katherine Ryalen