Description of Historic Place
The MacKeen-Smith House, better known as “Clayton Farm,” is located just outside the village of Mabou, Cape Breton, NS, in an area of wide fields not far from the Mabou inlet and surrounding hills. Set well back from the road, it is surrounded by agricultural fields and linden and chestnuts trees which were planted when the house was new. The municipal designation includes the house and property surrounding it.
This house is significant not only because it is one of the oldest houses in the area and has retained many original features, but for its association with one of the most prominent families in the area.
William MacKeen (1789-1865) was born in Truro of Scots-Irish ancestry. His father brought the family from New Hampshire to settle in the Truro area in 1761 as part of a large migration of Ulster Scots to Colchester County. His mother, Ann Archibald, came from another Ulster Scots family who settled in this area. Despite humble roots, William MacKeen came to Mabou in 1814 as an entrepreneur in the early years of its settlement, establishing a very successful mercantile business and contributing to the economy of Inverness County. He served as the first Custos Rotulorum for the county and was elected to the Nova Scotia House of Assembly in 1847. He built stores in Mabou, in nearby Hillsborough and in Port Hood where he also operated a grist mill for a several years. After his first wife died in 1834, he married Christiana Smith from Hillsborough (a grand-daughter of the first settler at Port Hood - Captain David Smith) and built a new house for her on this property shortly after their marriage in 1835. According to family tradition, Christiana was engaged to William’s eldest son, but after the death of his wife, William courted Christiana and she agreed to marry him. The eldest son left Mabou, never to return. A curse was supposed to have been put on the property; however the house and farm remain in the family and is one of the most productive farms in the region.
William MacKeen’s second son from his second marriage - David MacKeen (1839-1916) was born at Clayton Farm and distinguished himself in Cape Breton as a surveyor and mining entrepreneur in the Glace Bay area. He entered politics and was elected as a federal Conservative from Glace Bay serving from 1887-1891. Resigning his seat to allow fellow Nova Scotian Charles Tupper to obtain a seat in Parliament, he was then appointed to the Senate. He later served as lieutenant-governor of Nova Scotia in 1915 until his death. His son, Henry Poole MacKeen (1892-1971), who was born in Glace Bay, became a lawyer, served with distinction in the First and Second World Wars, and followed in his father’s footsteps as lieutenant-governor of Nova Scotia from 1963-1968.
The MacKeen-Smith House reflects the status of a very successful merchant, farmer and politician in its broad dimensions and elegant classical details. The main part of the house (the kitchen ell burned in 1920 and was replaced) sits on the original cut stone foundation. While Georgian in lay out, the exterior exhibits some Greek Revival details such as a modified architrave and projecting cornice over the main entrance, sidelights and mouldings over the windows. The three bay façade of the house has unusual tripartite windows on either side of the main entrance which give it an added look of importance. Another tripartite window in the Palladian style is located above the entrance in the central dormer. While the windows have been updated over the years, the large transom with its diamond panes above the original door and sidelights date from the 1830’s as does one window in the sitting room. In the main part of the house, the front hall stairway with its handsome newel post and all the door and window trim are original. The very high baseboards in all the lower rooms are typical of this period. The most unique feature of the interior are the built-in alcoves to accommodate heating stoves which would have been the latest in heating technology at the time. While not in use today, these alcoves and other built in cupboards give the house a note of refinement and comfort indicative of a prosperous country gentleman.
Source: Municipality of the County of Inverness, Municipal Heritage Files, MacKeen-Smith House
Exterior character-defining elements MacKeen-Smith House relate to its Greek Revival style and include:
- wood frame one-and-one-half-storey house on original cut stone foundation;
- large, almost square, massing of main house;
- central dormer above main entrance with Palladian style tripartite window;
- three-bay façade with unique tripartite windows on either side of front door;
- impressive main entrance door with architrave and cornice above large transom with original diamond shaped glass panes;
- pilasters on either side of door with inset panels below sidelights;
- corner eave returns under;
- clapboard siding.
Interior character-defining elements of the MacKeen-Smith House include:
- Georgian layout of interior with central hallway and reception rooms on either side of hall;
- original trim around doors and windows with very high baseboards;
- original stairway with large newel post and spindles;
- built-in alcoves in the rooms (which originally accommodated stoves and pipes);
- original front door with hardware and key;
- one original window in parlour has unique glass panes in upper sash.