Woman who grew up in Prince Albert’s historic Keyhole Castle makes a return

Ellen Orchard admires the woodwork surrounding the livingroom fireplace during her visit to the Keyhole Castle, where she grew up, on Aug. 17, 2023. – Jayda Taylor/Daily Herald

It was Halloween night, 1951. Ellen Orchard, then seven years old, moved into a luxurious 24-room home with hand-carved mahogany, stained glass and doors upon doors that led to new nooks to explore.

That home is the Keyhole Castle in Prince Albert.

“I didn’t even pay attention much as a child, but as you get older, I think I was probably about 11 or 12, is when things just started to sink in,” said Orchard, now 80.

She described wanting to know the history behind its elegance – the distinguishable ballroom on the top floor, the pristine woodwork and gold etching throughout, and the small, but cozy, kitchen that her mother would use to host.

“Every nook and cranny, I’ve been all through it twice now,” she said.

Orchard’s parents, Ron and Irene Matthews, purchased the Keyhole Castle after her father was transferred to Prince Albert for work. Orchard’s younger sister, Lois Matthews, also lived there.

Orchard lived at the home until she was around 20 years old, eventually moving to Lethbridge, Alta., where she lives now.

The Keyhole Castle is a national historic site. Its owner, Denise Smith, operates the building as a bed and breakfast.

Since 2008, she and her husband, Jon Smith, had owned the castle together until he died in 2019. He successfully applied to have it designated a heritage home so it was protected for its historical significance, according to his obituary.

Smith also uses the ballroom, which has a capacity of 40 people, to host meetings, weddings, concerts and corporate events.

Orchard and her three daughters visited the home last week. Orchard said it’s been a goal of hers to show all of her children the home that she’s told them so much about.

(From left to right) Ellen Orchard and her daughters Jill Hyer, Joanie Schwartz and Catherine Orchard pose outside of the Keyhole Castle, located at 1925 First Ave E, on Aug. 17, 2023. — Jayda Taylor/Daily Herald

“We couldn’t appreciate it until we actually walked through the front door,” said Joanie Schwartz, who lives in Whitefish, Montana.

“The museum’s full of interesting facts about this home, too, but now we’re here live and we don’t want to leave. We just want to spend another night, which is incredible. It’s a bed and breakfast. We can actually sleep in our grandparents’ bedroom.”

Businessman Samuel McLeod built the Keyhole Castle between 1911 and 1913 for $43,000, according to the Prince Albert Historical Museum. McLeod also served Prince Albert as an alderman, then mayor in 1919 and 1920.

The Keyhole Castle’s website describes the city’s economic state leading up to its construction.

During the late 1890s and early 1900s, the City of Prince Albert anticipated a huge economic boom, with the construction of the La Colle Falls Dam and the CN rail line set to pass through Prince Albert to Edmonton.

The city spent over a million dollars on infrastructure in preparation for the influx.

That quickly plundered, though, with the abandonment of the dam and the rail line going through Saskatoon instead.

McLeod’s fortune wasn’t impacted too much, and he successfully completed the castle’s construction in 1913.

Samuel McLeod built the Keyhole Castle in the Queen Anne Revival style between 1911 and 1913. — Jayda Taylor/Daily Herald

The house was built in the Queen Anne Revival style, which is characterized by decorative elements, an irregular shape, large porch and textured surfaces. The Keyhole Castle, in particular, gets its name from the keyhole-shaped windows on the top floor.

Off of the ballroom, which has a circular shape, are four rooms. Orchard described them as two powder rooms, where the women would do their makeup, a maid’s room and a coat room.

Orchard said her family found rolls of blueprints upstairs, which they took when they moved out. She said her father asked her to return them after he died, so she did.

Those blueprints are displayed throughout the castle for guests.

An undated photo of sisters Ellen Orchard (left) and Lois Matthews (right) in front of the Keyhole Castle when they lived there. — Submitted by Catherine Orchard

“I was just running around all over the place,” recalled Orchard about her childhood. She remembered how she’d bring a group of her friends up to the ballroom to learn how to jive.

“I had a little record player up there plugged in and a whole stack of Elvis 45s, he was just producing. The latest one all the time we’d get and he played these jives,” said Orchard.

“We were the best dancers in Prince Albert,” she joked.

Orchard went to King George elementary school and then Prince Albert Collegiate Institute. Since her high school was within walking distance, she said she’d simply “hear the bell ring and run.”

A nearby convenience store called Pat’s Place was the hangout spot, she said.

“All of the teenie boppers went there for coke floats” she said, “just anybody would go to Pat’s Place.”

Orchard recalled having to eat everything on her plate before she was excused – even the peas, which she hated. Entertainment came without fancy technology, other than the TV with two channels.

Orchard’s memories of the Keyhole Castle continued when she got married in its livingroom.

About 50 people gathered in the home, she remembered, where the dining room table held the wedding cake and her bridesmaids wore red velvet dresses, holding bouquets of white flowers.

“My mother was class act to the max,” said Orchard.

“I’d come in, mother would have a few ladies in. They’d all be sitting with their legs crossed, smoking with a cigarette holder.”

Her dad was a gentleman, she said. Even though the pair hosted big names at their home, such as the prime minister, mayor and the penitentiary warden, they never bragged. They were humble.

A photo of Ellen Orchard’s parents, Ron and Irene Matthews, on their 50th anniversary. The couple purchased the Keyhole Castle in 1951. — Submitted by Catherine Orchard

The family moved away from Prince Albert after her dad’s work took them to Red Deer, Alta. Orchard’s dad lived with her after her mom passed away.

“She never suffered one breath,” she said.

Orchard’s dad died in 2000, and her mom in 1996. Both were 89 years old.

Although they passed away before the Keyhole Castle was designated a historic site, Orchard and her daughters said it would mean a lot to them to know that it’s being preserved as much as possible.

“We’re so appreciative because they are really appreciating the integrity and the history,” added Orchard’s daughter, Jill Hyer. “To know that this house is being well kept, maintained, and a heritage home, a bed and breakfast,” said Orchard, “My father would be over the moon.”

Ellen Orchard waves at her daughter standing on the porch of the Keyhole Castle on Aug. 17, 2023. — Jayda Taylor/Daily Herald
Ellen Orchard remembers her family spending Christmas mornings in the Keyhole Castle’s den. — Submitted by Catherine Orchard
Ellen Orchard’s daughter, Jill Hyer, looks through a keyhole window in the Keyhole Castle’s ballroom on Aug. 17, 2023. — Jayda Taylor/Daily Herald