BRANTFORD — One of the most interesting century homes in the city of Brantford lays nearly hidden on the steep slope between Dundas Street and the CNR train station.
When you break through the trees at the end of Buffalo Street and enter behind a black iron gate, it’s like you have taken a step back to the age of steam and railway moguls like Henry Rushton Yates, the builder of Wynarden, aka, Yates Castle.
Back in the days of the Yates railway fortune, there was not only the cost of building such a mansion, but the additional cost of its upkeep with servants, gardeners, coachmen, nannies and even school teachers, all on the payroll. It can be quite expensive to be rich as Yates found out when the bottom suddenly dropped out of the steam rail industry and even his lucrative patents on a number of steam related gadgets collapsed along with it. The steam age was over.
The old mansion remained in the Yates family until it became increasingly too heavy a burden in the family to bear as more distance came between the Yates family and their former wealth.
Henry Yates died in the early 1900’s, leaving his dwindling fortune to be divided among his surviving four sons and his wife.
“Lillian Yates, the wife of Herbert Yates, one of Henry’s sons, was the last Yates to live here,” says current owner Steve Talos. “She could not afford to maintain it anymore and left it, but nobody wanted to buy it.”
Enter, the Talos family.
“It goes back to 1926 when my grandfather Joseph Talos came over from a little village in Hungary,” says Steve Talos, a lifelong history buff and veteran history teacher. “He worked to get enough money to go back to Hungary and bring his wife, Mary, my grandmother, back.”
Mary worked cleaning houses and Joseph worked in a foundry and they saved enough to buy two farms. Then when Yates Castle went on the block for back taxes, Joseph bought it for $4,000, which was still a lot of money in those days. Equivilant value today would be $54,000. It has remained in the family since then.
“When she was in her 90’s my grandmother decided to turn the property over to my dad and myself, Talos recalls. “I am a history teacher by profession and I have always loved architecture and history, so I had delusions of grandeur I guess that I wanted to restore it back to its original state.”
Initially after buying Wynarden, aka Yates Castle, Steve’s grandparents “let Hungarian immigrants live it for years for nothing,” says Steve. “Back in those days people tried to help each other out. That was a philosophy of life.”
Practicality began to weigh heavy and in keeping a balanced bottom line, Steve and his brother convinced Rudy to convert the mansion into apartments, putting partition walls in to help pay for the restorations and the usual expenses.
“Actually, it is better than when it was built in a lot of ways,” Steve says about the upgrades the Talos’ have made over the years.
“Interest rates were going through the roof at 19.5% that time and we were a half step ahead of the bank,” as Steve recalls it.
“As it turns out, the recession we were going through at that time meant there were lots of craftsmen and builders out of work that could help restore the place at relatively low cost,” he recalls.
Craftsman who knew how to recreate a lot of the ornate woodwork not only on the outside, but to recreate the doors and interior woodwork that had been stripped by vandals and thieves while the home remained vacant for about seven years after Lillian, the last of the Yates family to call Wynarden home, moved out.
Upgrades in the heating system and a total rewiring and plumbing of the mansion were needed almost immediately.
Steve and his father Rudy would do the wreckers circuit and find parts and pieces salvaged from other mansion homes in the area being torn down, to refit for the Yates Castle restoration project and to replace the fireplaces which had all been either destroyed or taken. All but one original door was missing and ornate woodwork was either torn from the walls or damaged beyond repair.
Steve’s grandmother got into the project all the way from England. She found some stained glass windows from an old English estate and sent them for possible use during the restoration process, which they were.
Steven even employed tech students from BCI, where he taught History for more than 20 years, to weld and paint the ironwork fences that surround parts of the structure replicated using pictures of the estate when she was in her prime.
Rudy Talos passed away about six years ago and was predeceased by his wife, Steve’s mother. That left the enormous task of restoring the old Yates Castle and the Talos family heirloom.
Steve actually tried to sell it shortly after his father’s death, but only got one offer. At first he was resigned to get rid of the old mansion, but only got one offer. The papers were prepared and the sale was just about complete when Steve changed his mind, choosing instead to complete the restorations that he and his father has begun.
The never-ending upkeep needed to maintain her beauty and dignity was now up to Steve, his wife Dianne and their son Stewart. Dianne passed away earlier this year and now its up to Steve and Stewart to continue the ongoing restorations and upkeep in her name.
Most of the flowing gardens that encircle the east side of the estate were designed and maintained by Dianne until her passing. Steve, who also has a knack for gardening and farming, will be assuming those responsibilities.
Talos sold off the farm recently to focus his attention on Wynarden and will be moving into the main level residence. He hates to use the sword apartment and he does not like to be called the landlord either.
“No, I’m a resident here to,” he says.
There is an urban legend attached to the mansion that anyone who has heard of Yates Castle has kept alive for generations — a purported secret tunnel from the mansion under the railway tracks over to the train station.
Steve puts that rumour to rest by unequivocally stating on the record, there are no tunnels. That is, other than one that runs from the house to the servants quarters and school, built across some 40 feet across and under a small, shaded courtyard.
He shared two more secrets of the Castle as well. Being a life-long history buff it’s redundant to say Steve has extensively researched both the mansion and the Yates family.
Yates full name was Henry Rushton Yates, yet, conspicuously, the initials HEY are etched into the front stonework beside the year 1864, when the mansion was built.
Apparently that was a wish of Henry’s wife, Emily, that her initial appears beside his.
Also, older pictures of the mansion show only one tower, but more recent ones show a second tower added to the southwest side of the building.
Talos explained that the second tower was added when water closets, or toilets came into fashion. Since the building went up before the area of indoor plumbing, there was nowhere inconspicuous to run the water and sewer pipes. Yates overcame the problem buy building the second tower, hiding the plumbing in the walls for water closets on each floor.
Wynarden was built in 1864 on the foundations of an even older estate that was known as Marigold Villa.
The architect was John Turner, and the mansion was built by Bellhouse and Darge. Wynarden was declared “provincially significant” by Peter Stokes, a leading architectural historian.
When the first stage of restoration was near complete, and invitation was sent out to all remaining Yates family members who were somehow associated with the mansion.
“A lot of them didn’t realize this place was here,” Steve recalls.
To someone with no sense of history, the Talos’ could be accused of buying a 153 year-old money pit, but to Joseph and Mary Talos, and their son Rudy and his son Steve and grandson Stewart, this is a love story that just gets better with age.