Above: Hillary House, The Koffler Museum of Medicine. Image Property of the Aurora Historical Society
The year is 1901 and you have a splitting headache. After spending the day at the market, the sun is setting in the Town of Aurora, and your head is spinning. Luckily, you know a place that can offer a remedy.
Past a white fence and some black walnut trees, an impressive looking house with Gothic Revival Architecture sits just off of Yonge Street. Taking the front walkway, you approach pointed archways, French doors, and louvered windows. A sharp ringing of the doorbell can be heard echoing through the whole house, and in your own ears. When the large green door swings open, you realize that the inside of the home is just as striking as its outside. Victorian carpets, chandeliers, and a grand staircase catch your eye. Even the gentle sound of a piano can be heard coming from the upstairs. Entering the foyer, you are greeted by a fish calmly swimming in its bowl, and thankfully, you hear the welcoming voice of a man you recognize as Dr. Robert Michael Hillary.
Built in 1862, “Hillary House, the Koffler Museum of Medicine” is a historic home previously owned by four different doctors. Initially, Hillary House was owned by Dr. Geike, the Dean of Trinity Medical College, and he later sold the house to Dr. Strange and his family. Doubling as both a doctor’s office and a private residence, Hillary House certainly experienced its fair share of wear and tear throughout the years, including massive renovations, births, deaths, and patient surgeries. In 1876, Dr. Robert William Hillary and his wife Annie moved into the home, where they raised seven children. Among those children, eldest son Robert Michael followed in his father’s footsteps and became a doctor. Upon graduating from medical school, he returned to Hillary House to work alongside his father, and eventually took ownership of the house and medical practice in 1894. Robert Michael married Edith Mussen and they had nine children together. By 1975, the home earned the title of a National Historic Site, and descents of the Hillary’s wanted to see the house preserved. In 1981, the Aurora Historical Society purchased the home to maintain and share the family’s legacy. Nora Hillary, the daughter of Robert and Edith, was the last resident of the home and lived as “Resident Curator” for nearly 12 years, before moving to a nursing home in 1992.
Today, Hillary House is preserved as the home and doctor’s office of the Hillary family. Filled with their possessions and their memories, the Hillary family’s legacy brings visitors from all over York Region and beyond for a tour of the two-acre property. If the beautiful architecture, lovely gardens, and grass tennis court were not enough to attract visitors, then the stories of the Hillary family might spark interest.
Dr. Robert Michael Hillary was a physician and surgeon, who often made house calls, taking his horse and carriage to treat residents around the neighbourhood. His medical tools and supplies can be found in the Consulting Room and the Dispensary, laid out as if he just left for a quick lunch break. His doctor’s bag is kept safe behind a glass display case, as well as some of the medicines he prescribed to patients. However, routine was disrupted for Dr. Hillary at the start of the First World War. Joining the war effort as a medical officer, he exchanged many letters with his wife about the frustrations and tragedies he experienced while deployed. If one could eventually decipher his dreadful handwriting, Dr. Hillary never fails to share the latest news and write about how much he misses his family. The field amputation kit on display at Hillary House hints at some of these horrors mentioned in his letters. Additionally, Dr. Hillary lost his son to the war, and also suffered injuries while overseas, so he retired from his practice soon after he returned home from the war. Shelves of medical books on display demonstrate Dr. Hillary’s lifetime of knowledge and one can only guess the countless people that he treated throughout the years.
Edith Mussen was the lady of the house, and mother of nine Hillary children. The Nursery and Master Bedroom act as evidence of her presence. Elegant textiles and décor found throughout historic home reflect Edith’s own taste and character. Considered as a beauty in the family, her daughters often praised Edith’s photographs, saying how they always turned out so well. Even Edith’s letters are written in a handwriting so clean and rounded that any reader would feel at ease and comforted, as if receiving a letter from their own mother. During the First World War, Edith and Hillary House served as the family’s communication hub. She was always the first to receive news, and she would be the one to pass on correspondences to the others. Running the house and raising the children were two great accomplishments credited to Edith. Whether she was purchasing a warm coat for her youngest, or paying for the horse’s shoe repairs, Edith took responsibility for Hillary House and its residing family. Upon her husband’s death, Edith would inherit the property for many years, before passing it on to her daughter.
Dr. Hillary and Edith’s eldest child, Robert Stuart, is often mentioned during tours at Hillary House. His letters and photos reveal him to be a friendly and good-looking young man. Unlike his father and grandfather before him, Stuart had decided not to become another Hillary doctor, and was eager to pursue a different career path. However, soon after graduating from Newmarket High School, Stuart was also deployed in the First World War. A photo of Stuart in military uniform can be found sitting above the fireplace mantle in the Master Bedroom. He wrote many letters while overseas. One letter includes strict instructions to his mother on how to care for the aviary on the Hillary property – a passion project of the young gunner. Much like his mother, Stuart’s handwriting prettily fills the page with exciting details of his time in the military, relaying stories with great enthusiasm. Unfortunately, and as a great shock to the family, Stuart was seriously wounded days before the Battle of Vimy Ridge, and died in France. His name can be found in many Aurora publications, and his possessions are scattered in all corners of Hillary House.
To entice readers to learn more about the Hillary family, we can conclude with some highlights on Dr. Hillary and Edith’s two eldest daughters. Dorothy and Beatrice Hillary, born just two years apart, certainly lived a full and long life. The Drawing Room at Hillary House, painted in pastel colours and brightened by large windows, contains many clues of their presence. In the windowsill, a replica of the Venus de Milo statue on display catches the eye of many visitors, which was made by Beatrice herself while attending art school in Toronto. Meanwhile, Dorothy worked as a teller at the Bank of Montreal. After marrying, she raised a family and helped on her husband’s family farm. Photos of the sisters decorate the Drawing Room writing desk, and much of their heirlooms can be found by the square piano. Visitors are often pleased to hear that both sisters got married at the same time, and on Hillary property. There are many photographs of the brides and their respective husbands, wearing the latest 1920s styles. Within the collection, hundreds of calling cards from friends and family congratulate the two sisters and wish them a happy future. Recently, curators at Hillary House found one calling card addressed to Dorothy during the time of her first pregnancy. The note writes something similar to “Not another boy?” and was sent to Dorothy from her playful younger sister, Nora. The sisters were always corresponding, whether it was about throwing birthday garden parties, meeting the latest acquaintances, or simply struggling through French lessons. Visitors are invited to explore Hillary House and see how the sisters lived in their younger years.
Whether you were just passing by Hillary House, or if you planned for a short visit, staff and volunteers welcome you to the property. Tours are available for those who wish to learn more about the Hillary family and see the many other rooms in the house. Guides are also knowledgeable of the history of the two previous owners, Dr. Geike and Dr. Strange, as well as the vast medical collection. Enjoy the gardens and play on the grass tennis court, or participate in one of the many programming events. For those who choose to hear it, Hillary House has many more stories to tell.
Hillary House is currently open with new COVID-19 protocols in place. Book a tour or learn more about upcoming events by calling (905) 727-8991, or checking the Aurora Historical Society’s website, https://aurorahs.com/.
* * *
Selin recently completed a summer employment contract with the Aurora Historical Society, where she was the Assistant Curator at Hillary House. In June of 2020, she graduated with a dual degree from the University of Toronto, earning her a Master of Museum Studies and a Master of Information. These days, she is job hunting for a permanent position in museums or archives collections management. When she chooses to relax, Selin can be found oil painting at her home, or taking brisk walks around her neighbourhood.