A field of dreams – and tractors, plows, farm talk and food

Skies over the plowing-match site

A sunbeam shines down through the fluffy clouds on the ever-growing tent city at the site of the Hastings County Plowing Match and Farm Show at Cornervue Farms on Queensborough Road.

Remember how a few months ago I told you that the agricultural event of the year was coming to Queensborough? And explained that the agricultural event in question was the Hastings County Plowing Match and Farm Show? Well, guess what, people? The Plowing Match is upon us! And here in Queensborough and environs, we are braced for a huge influx of people and lots of excitement. Why, it’s almost certainly the biggest thing to hit our corner of the world since the Rock Acres Peace Festival way back in 1971!

Hastings County Plowing Match 2016

More than 20,000 people – 20,000! – are expected for the Plowing Match, which takes place this coming Wednesday and Thursday, Aug. 24 and 25, at the McKinnon family’s Cornervue Farms, 2431 Queensborough Rd., just west of Queensborough proper. (And just northeast of Hazzards Corners, which in turn is due north of Madoc. Consider yourself oriented.)

I’m pretty sure I speak for everyone in Queensborough when I say we’ve been watching with great interest over the past few days as tents and signs started going up, tractors and other farm machinery arrived at the site, and the first of what will doubtless be many portapotties was installed:

Plowing-match site 2

The first of the tents (and the first of the portapotties) set up toward the western edge of the large plowing-match site on Queensborough Road late last week. (Photo courtesy of Marykay York-Pronk)

Plowing-match poster from 1966The Hastings County Plowing Match in its current incarnation has been going on since 1989 – although similar events were held well before that, as you can tell from the photo at right, a picture of a picture that appeared in a Plowing Match special edition published by the folks behind one of our local weekly papers, the Central Hastings/Trent Hills News. It shows the event’s publicity chairman, Jim Haggerty, with a poster advertising a plowing match in central Hastings County back in 1966.

Hastings County

As you can see, there’s a lot more of Hastings County north of Highway 7 – the yellow line running east-west through Marmora and Madoc – than there is south of it. Not too much of that land is good for farming, however – with some happy exceptions.

While I tend to think of 1989 as yesterday, it was in fact a while back – 27 years, to be exact. And in all that time, people, the Plowing Match has never until now been held North of 7! (That’s Highway 7, for those uninitiated with the phrase, which I explain in detail here.) This might seem odd, given that there’s a lot more square miles of Hastings County north of 7 than there are south of it. But Highway 7 is the east-west dividing line between fertile farmland and rolling hills and fields (to the south) and the thin and rocky soil atop the Canadian Shield (to the north). North of 7 country is where pioneers’ dreams were dashed, when they tried and utterly failed to establish farms on soil that just wasn’t good enough. The whole story of the Old Hastings Road a bit north of Queensborough is about that.

However – and this is very important: that doesn’t mean there aren’t areas of good soil, and very successful farms, north of 7. The McKinnon operation just west of Queensborough is one excellent example. Angus McKinnon – my contemporary and former schoolmate at Madoc Township Public School and Centre Hastings Secondary School, back in the years when I was growing up in Queensborough – now operates the farm with his father, Don, a very active nonagenarian. As Angus said in an interview published in that Plowing Match publication I referred to earlier, Don “has been here all his life, and his father and his father.” The McKinnon family settled the farm back in the 19th century, and has operated it successfully in all the generations since.

We’re all so happy for the McKinnons’ operation to be in the agricultural spotlight in this way. And so excited about the week ahead!

So what goes on at a plowing match, anyway? Well, let’s have a gander at the schedule:

Plowing Match schedule

So there’s plowing, of course: competitions in many different classes in which, to quote the event’s website, participants “are judged or scored in five different areas, including the opening split, the crown and the finish. And covering any green matter is mandatory in all classes, whether it is plowing in grain stubble or sod.” (I confess I really do not know what any of this means, but I hope that after watching some live plowing this week I will.) The classes include tractors, horses, antique tractors, walking plows, young people, and Queen of the Furrow (more on that shortly) – as well as one for local politicians, and even one for the media. (Do reporters and heavy farm equipment mix? I guess we’ll find out!) And all of that’s a big deal.

Vintage tractor at the Plowing Match

A great old Allis-Chalmers, one of the many antique tractors that will be on display at the show.

But there’s also the farm-show part, which at least as big a deal. As the publicity materials say: “300 exhibitors of agricultural technology and services, woodlot info and demos, crafts, family program, antiques, Queen of the Furrow and entertainment.” Not bad! (Okay, what’s Queen of the Furrow? Not a beauty contest, organizers stress. It’s a competition to be named a young ambassador for Hastings County agriculture – and yes, you do have to demonstrate plowing skills, as well as public-speaking skills and whatnot. I do find it a bit retro that the title is “queen” of the furrow. Surely young men could be agriculture ambassadors too?)

The number of tents and displays set up – I got an advance look when I was out at the site this morning – is astounding. It seems like anything you could ever want to look at in the way of farm equipment will be there, all shiny and new for you to admire.There was a steady stream of big trucks like this bringing in equipment this morning:

Incoming equipment

I leafed through the ads in that Plowing Match publication to get a sense of other equipment and services that would be on display, and here’s just some of what I found: milking systems for tie stall, parlour and robotics (Greek to me, but dairy farmers will understand); generators; custom manure spreading; chainsaws; fuels; seeds; farm insurance; trailers; wood stoves; bush hogs; roofing; farm sheds; feed suppliers – and on and on and on.

But if farm equipment and services aren’t your thing, there’s always the Family Tent, with a variety of speakers and events. Its schedule was just published today on the farm show’s Facebook page, and here it is:

Family Tent Schedule

Freddy Vette, a hugely popular musician and DJ on good old CJBQ radio out of Belleville, should be a big draw. Fashion shows featuring ordinary humans from the local area as models are always fun. The Hidden Goldmine Bakery in Madoc is insanely great (as I’ve written before), and it will be interesting to hear from its proprietors, Cheryl and Brad Freeman. And I am delighted that Queensborough’s own Elaine Kapusta has been invited to speak about “Historic Queensboro” (love the vintage spelling)!

Queensborough stuff for sale

Queensborough caps, mugs and cutting boards will be for sale at the Queensborough Community Centre tent.

Hey, speaking of Elaine and “Historic Queensboro” – the organization that Elaine will be representing, and that Raymond and I are also volunteers with, will have a tent at the farm show. Please stop by the Queensborough Community Centre tent to say hello, learn more about Queensborough, and maybe buy one of our nifty items for sale: Queensborough walking/driving-tour booklets, and caps, mugs and locally made cutting boards all featuring the Queensborough logo. What a great memento of the farm show – and in buying them you’ll be contributing to the work that the QCC does in promoting our little hamlet, preserving its heritage, and providing community programs and events.

Three United Churches banner

The main focus for Raymond and me at the Plowing Match will be helping out at the food tent that volunteers from three local United churches – ours (St. Andrew’s in Queensborough), Bethesda in White Lake and St. John’s in Tweed – will be operating. About 25 of us were out at the Plowing Match site this morning getting things set up. I have a few photos of this very pleasant few hours:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

As is always the case, many hands made light work, and there was a lot of laughter along the way. We’re going to be working awfully hard on Wednesday and Thursday to feed those long lineups of hungry farm-show visitors, but we know the experience will also be a whole of fun.

So listen: your mission for this week is to come visit the Plowing Match! Enjoy the plowing, the equipment displays, the special events, and the food. (Ours will be the tent at the northwest corner of the site – and did I mention there’ll be homemade pie?) Enjoy the company of lots of good farm folk and their urban neighbours out for a day in the country. And most of all, enjoy the beautiful surroundings of the McKinnon Farm and Queensborough – which is, as we say around here, a little bit of heaven north of 7.

A historic country church, and a commitment to the future

Roofing and painting at Hazzards Church

Hazzards Corners Church on a blazing-hot day this past week with the new shingles having been installed on the west side of its roof (and roofers working away at the east side, which you can’t see in my photo), and the louvers on the steeple being painted. How wonderful to see this major project being done, just in time for the annual summer service there!

Every year around this time I like to alert – and invite – you readers to a happy event that takes place just up the road from Queensborough: the annual summer service at historic Hazzards Corners Church. This year is no different – or … wait. Actually, it is different.

Because this post (unlike the ones I’ve done here and here and here, the last of which rather incidentally features a pretty great recording of the Carter Family singing Church in the Wildwood) is not just to inform you of the event this coming Sunday (Aug. 21, 2016). It’s more to pay tribute to a group of community volunteers who are doing an outstanding job of preserving that lovely little country church so that it may be enjoyed by you and me at events like the summer service.

Hazzards Church sign 2

Built as a Methodist church in the pioneer days of 1857, Hazzards has been a local landmark ever since. Its graceful architecture even earned it a place in a coffee-table book called Rural Ontario that was published in 1969 by the University of Toronto Press. In it, the authors (historian Verschoyle Benson Blake and photographer Ralph Greenhill) write: “The builder has managed with very simple means to produce a building of great charm, slightly suggesting the Gothic style, but with a doorway that is purely Neo-classic … The church tower proportions are, for some reason, particularly satisfying … The whole effect seems reminiscent of New England, though it is hard to say why this is so.”

Pretty much everything you would ever want to know about the history of Hazzards Church is contained in a book called Pilgrimage of Faith. It’s a history of all the churches in Madoc and Madoc Township (and a few adjacent areas, including Queensborough, which is in Elzevir Township) that was published in 1974. I treasure my own copy, inscribed by the authors – three amazing women, now all deceased, whom I remember with fondness and admiration:

Title page and dedication, Pilgrimage of Faith

Perhaps I should also note that in my father, The Rev. Wendell Sedgwick, was the minister at Hazzards Corners Church – which became part of the United Church of Canada when the national church was formed in 1925 – during my childhood here at the Manse. He wrote the introduction to Pilgrimage of Faith:

Introduction to Pilgrimage of Faith

The authors provide all kinds of interesting information about the founding of Hazzards Church, and stories about church life through the years. Re-reading it this evening, I was struck by how many of the names of the church founders way back in the 19th century are still very much associated with the local area today – names like Ketcheson, Harris, Burnside, Moorcroft, Broad, Blair, Love, Kincaid and McCoy.

Hazzards Church by Vera Burnside

A sketch of Hazzards Church by the late Vera Burnside (once my Sunday School teacher, and a truly great woman – and you’ll note her family name, which harks back to the church’s founders) showing the old drive shed for the horses and buggies that was still beside the church in my youth. If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to buy note cards featuring this drawing at Sunday’s service.

And I loved some of the tidbits about the church building. Like: that the division down the middle of the long pews in the centre aisle was to separate the men and the women (the authors speculate that this may have been a Quaker influence carried over to the Methodists).

Hazzards Church interior

The interior of Hazzards Church, showing the old pews (not terribly comfortable, I can tell you from childhood experience) and many original finishes.

And that the original pews (which are still there) show “the mark of the adze used in smoothing the wood” when they were built.

And that “the pulpit, plain and unadorned, has had the lectern raised to accommodate taller ministers in more recent years” – my dad was quite tall, as was the minister who immediately preceded him, The Rev. George Ambury.

Hazzards Church facing rear

The clock on the back wall of the church, impossible for the minister in the pulpit not to see. Better not let those sermons run on too long…

And also that the clock on the back wall – facing the minister dead-on as he stood in the pulpit – was a gift from a female parishioner “wishing to be helpful to the minister, who possibly was allowing his sermon to be a bit over long.”

There is also a nicely written bit about the old windows. Until 1953, when most of them were replaced, we read, they were

“20-pane double-hung sashes (that is, forty small panes in each window, which were well blessed by the women each time cleaning day came!)”

Here is one of those old 40-pane windows still in place at the front of the church:

Window, Hazzards Church

The book’s section on the windows also points out that the glass was clear (rather than colourfully stained, as in most churches), and goes on to quote a poem that I did not know before tonight:

No stained-glass windows hide the world from view,
And it is well. The world is lovely there,
Beyond clear panes, where branch-scrolled skies look through,
And fields and hills, in morning hours of prayer.

Thanks to the internet I discovered that the lines are from a poem called A Country Church, and that the poet is Violet Alleyn Storey. Oddly, and sadly, I could discover little about Violet Alleyn Storey, save that she must once have been a poet of some renown because several of her pieces were published in Harper’s magazine in the 1920s. But leaving that aside, the words and images also delighted me because they reminded me of something my friend Doris – whose family roots in the Hazzards area run very, very deep, and whom I hope to see at this Sunday’s service – said in a recent comment here at Meanwhile, at the Manse. I did a post that mentioned the lovely springtime blossoms on the trees in the vicinity of the old church, and wondered what those trees were. As she shared the knowledge that they are Black Locusts, Doris said: “I remember looking at them through the window [of the church] when I should have been listening to the sermon.” Just like Violet Alleyn Storey said: “The world is lovely there/Beyond clear panes.”

Okay, so that’s a lot about the history (and the interior) of Hazzards Corners Church, and the only other thing I’ll say on that front is that copies of Pilgrimage of Faith will be on sale before and after the Aug. 21 service. Pick one up and you’ll not only get to enjoy this history for yourself, but you’ll be supporting the work of the people who keep Hazzards Corners Church maintained and preserved and ready to welcome people like you and me for special services a couple of times a year. (You can read a bit about the annual Christmas candlelight service, which always takes place the evening of Dec. 23, here.)

And that’s a good segue into what I want to tell you about.

Hazzards Corners Church was closed as a United Church of Canada place of worship in 1967. The decision was made by the central church, not locally; it came at a time when many small country churches were being closed and consolidated as the number of Canadians attending church regularly began to show a major decline. It was a very painful thing for people to see the church that they had attended all their lives, that their parents and grandparents had attended all their lives, shut down. Those were sad times in many country churches and pastoral charges.

Often when a church is closed, it is sold into private hands. Occasionally buyers turn the historic buildings into something attractive – a funky house or an interesting business operation. But you’ve all seen the sad sight of pretty old churches that have become run-down places – sometimes lived in, sometimes boarded up and empty – that are more an eyesore than anything else. I think of the former Eldorado United Church, where my dad was also the minister after Hazzards closed. It’s now in private hands and sits looking forlorn, weedy and semi-decrepit:

Former Eldorado United Church

And sometimes when churches are closed they are just torn down. Not very far from Hazzards Corners there was, until 1962, a  small church at the intersection of Hart’s and Tannery roads, Hart’s United Church. When you drive by there today, all you see is a plaque marking the spot (and thank goodness for the community supporters who had it erected):

Hart's United Church plaque

When you look at the site as a whole, however, it’s pretty hard to imagine a church there. Nature has taken it back, as nature always does:

Site of Hart's United Church

Here’s another place, right in the centre of Queensborough, where once a church stood, though you’d be hard-pressed to guess it now:

Stairs to former Queensborough Methodist Church

And here’s what that building, the Queensborough Methodist Church, looked like:

Queensborough Methodist Church, 1912

Are our communities better places for historic former churches being torn down, or neglected until they’re run down? I think not.

Hazzards Church is one fantastic exception to this too-frequent fate. Somehow or other, the Hazzards Corners community managed to get the central United Church to keep its hands off the property. Their church may have been closed, but by God those people weren’t going to see it disappear. And ever since, thanks to dedication and a lot of hard work, and financial support from the community at large at those twice-yearly services (and through other gifts, such as in-memoriam donations), Hazzards has kept on keeping on. One recent project was a new metal sign over the adjacent cemetery, made by Queensborough metalsmith (metal wizard is more like it) Jos Pronk of Pronk Canada Inc.:

Sign over Hazzards Cemetery

At last year’s summer service, Grant Ketcheson, whose family back in the day was among the founders of Hazzards Church and whose family today continues to work very hard to preserve it, told the gathering before the offering was taken up that the church was going to need some major work very soon.

Grant speaks to the bus tour

Grant Ketcheson, a tireless volunteer at Hazzards Corners Church, talks about the building’s history to an audience of people on a bus tour organized by the Hastings County Historical Society this past June.

Grant has a winning and humorous way with words, and in the nicest possible way he was telling us to dig deep into our pockets if we want to continue to enjoy events like the summer service and the Christmas service, and to see this landmark building maintained. And I’m sure many, probably most, of the people in those hand-hewn pews did dig deep.

But a new roof and exterior painting of an old building are expensive propositions. And so over the past year, the Hazzards Church volunteers did a thing that many community groups would like to do but that is hard to do well and successfully: they applied for a grant. And they got it! From the Belleville-based John M. and Bernice Parrott Foundation, a fund that has helped so many good causes in Hastings and Prince Edward counties (and probably beyond) over the years. “Our prayers have been answered!” the group reported on the Hazzard’s Church Facebook page back in April of this year.

And now the work is taking place. This past week, in heat and humidity that almost defied description – sweltering, to put it mildly – a crew was busy replacing the worn-out roof tiles with new ones that will last a very long time. When I stopped by to take some photos of the work a week ago, the louvers on the steeple were also being repainted; and I understand that the rest of the building is to be painted this coming week. Very exciting!

It is a wonderful thing to see this small group of committed people keeping alive the stories, the history, and of course the actual structure of Hazzards Corners Church for all of us, and for those who come after us, to appreciate and enjoy. And good for them for moving into the social-media era and keeping us informed of what’s going on (even including photos of the very cute fox who’s taken up residence under the church) via Facebook. Smart move.

Their dedication inspires others. A few years ago, the children of the late Everett and Pearl Moorcroft, Hazzards parishioners, contributed the money to build what is very probably the world’s cutest church outhouse:

Hazzards outhouse

As you can imagine, at Hazzards events there always are a lot of photo ops outside that outhouse!

At the risk of being a little over-churchy for non-churchy readers, I thought I’d start drawing this post to a close with the full text of Violet Alleyn Storey’s A Country Church. I think its words are rather perfect in the context of this particular country church at Hazzards Corners. Here it is, and if it’s too much for you, just skip on to the end.

A Country Church

I think God seeks this house, serenely white,
Upon this hushed, elm-bordered street, as one
With many mansions seeks, in calm delight,
A boyhood cottage intimate with sun.

I think God feels Himself the Owner here,
Not just rich Host to some self-seeking throng,
But Friend of village folk who want Him near
And offer Him simplicity and song.

No stained-glass windows hide the world from view,
And it is well. The world is lovely there,
Beyond clear panes, where branch-scrolled skies look through,
And fields and hills, in morning hours of prayer.

God spent His youth with field and hill and tree,
And Christ grew up in rural Galilee.

– Violet Alleyn Storey

For those who, like me, are moved by this evocation of God’s presence in a place of “simplicity and song”; and also for those who may rarely attend church but who appreciate historic buildings and maybe even belting out some old familiar hymns – the service this coming Sunday afternoon at Hazzards is for us all. Here are the details:

Hazzards Summer Service 2016 poster

At this past year’s Christmas service, Hazzards Church was packed. Every pew spot was filled, as was every chair that could be rounded up and placed in the aisles. A whole bunch of people stood against the back wall through the whole service, just to be part of that meaningful event in that lovely old place.

What does that tell you about this coming Sunday? This: come early if you want to get a seat! And hey – if Grant tells you to dig deep, please do. Let’s keep this good thing going.

Meet the new bike – same (almost) as the old bike

us six at the Manse

I’ve showed you this photo before; I love it because it’s the only picture I have of my whole family (my dad, The Rev. Wendell Sedgwick; my mum, Lorna; and, from left, me, Melanie, John and Ken) from the days when I was growing up at the Manse in Queensborough in the 1960s. However, I’m showing it to you today because it is ALSO the only known photo of my very first bike. It’s the sweet little blue CCM that you can see parked on the Manse’s front porch behind us. Dad always made me park it on the porch to keep it out of the sun that might fade its paint – and I haven’t forgotten the lesson. (Photo probably by my grandfather, J.A.S. Keay)

People, I have got myself a bike! It’s something I’ve been wanting pretty much since Raymond and I bought the Manse four years ago – a way to get around Queensborough (and a little beyond) when I want to go quicker than on foot but without burning fossil fuels.

My dream, much scoffed at by people who are more serious cyclists than I am (which is pretty much the entire world), was an old-fashioned bike with no gears to work, no cables running from handlebars to wheels, and brakes that you’d apply by cycling backwards. Also: a bike with a comfortable seat and that allowed you to sit up straight rather than hunkering down over the handlebars.

A bike, in short, very like my first one. Which was the best gift ever from my parents, The Rev. Wendell and Lorna Sedgwick, when I was perhaps eight years old and growing up right here at the Manse in Queensborough.

I remember that bike well. It was a little CCM, just the right size for a small girl of eight or so, and it was a lovely light blue, with a white seat and handlebars and fenders. I didn’t yet know how to ride a bike when I received it, but I remember my dad patiently holding me steady and upright as I wobbled a few times around the Manse’s front yard – and how then, suddenly, magically (as always happens when people figure out bike-riding), I got the hang of it and took off to ride on my own around the block that is “downtown” Queensborough. And from there, I could go anywhere on my bike! The best was riding up to the top of the hill at the western edge of our village, past the former one-room school and the former St. Henry’s Roman Catholic church, and just whizzing down it at what felt like the speed of sound, whistling down the wind. (When I came back to Queensborough many years later, I was startled at how un-steep that hill, so challenging and fun in my childhood, turned out to be; but I have decided that it must have been levelled down a bit in the interim. Either that or it’s yet one more case of things being so much larger and more impressive when seen through a kid’s eyes.)

Anyway: my dream of having a bike in my Manse adulthood that’s like the bike I had in my Manse childhood has come true! And here it is:

Me with my new bike

Same house, same porch, and a delightfully similar bike! Me smiling about my new wheels as Raymond and our friend Lauraine look on from the porch. (Photo by Paul Woods)

I gasped when I saw this bike in the bike section of the Target store in Biddeford, Maine, during the recent seacoast vacation that Raymond and I took. It was perfect! Retro styling, no gears, brake by pedalling backwards, a comfortable seat – and it was turquoise! (Which is a very resonant colour for me here at the Manse, as longtime readers will know from posts like this and this and this.)

It is a Schwinn Cruiser, and while it looks (in my opinion) like a million bucks, the price was stunningly low. People, this gorgeous bike cost only $139! Now, granted, that’s $139 U.S., which at the current horrible exchange rate is about $3,500 Canadian – no, no, I’m kidding. The exchange rate is horrible, but still, I got this great-looking bike for considerably less than $200 Cdn. You can’t beat that with a stick.

I had to laugh at myself as I wobbled around the Manse’s front yard a few times when I first got on it – just like the first time I got on that little CCM back in about 1968. (And don’t think I wasn’t missing my dad being there to keep me upright.) It had, I realized, been a long time since I’d been on a bike. But I got the hang of it once again, and have zipped around the block a few times since. I need to get a basket so that I can cart stuff – like a dozen farm-fresh eggs from Debbie the Queensborough egg lady, or bulletins to be delivered for the Sunday service at St. Andrew’s United Church – while I’m riding around on my retro turquoise two-wheeled wonder. But aside from that, I’m thrilled about my bike and the possibilities.

Now I just have to work up the nerve to climb up that hill on the western edge of the village – and whip down it once again, after all these years. I hope the wind still whistles.

I want to know: Will we ever see the rain?

Honey and Bunny and Sadie nodel our dried-up lawn

Sadie (left) and Honey Bunny – allowed outside only on condition that they be harnessed (because of traffic and other dangers) – model our dry-as-a-bone and crispy lawn.

Readers of my vintage will instantly recognize the musical reference in the title of this blog post. It is, of course, to a Creedence Clearwater Revival song from 1971, Have You Ever Seen the Rain? (Which you may listen to here, if you’d like to hear that classic all over again.) Now, I fully realize that in it John Fogerty is talking about something altogether different than drought – though having studied the lyrics a bit just now, I have to admit I’m not at all clear on what he is on about. Nevertheless, I have not been able to get my variant on the words of his chorus out of my head since about this time yesterday, when Raymond and I arrived back home at the Manse after a three-week vacation on the coast of Maine.

Summer 2016 had been hot and worrisomely dry well before we left on July 10; I first mentioned our area’s low-water worries in a post in late June. So every single day Raymond and I were away, I would check the weather forecast for Queensborough on my iPhone, desperately hoping to see some rain in it somewhere. Sadly, it always looked just like it does right now:

Queensborough weather forecast

You will of course note the discouraging lack of a symbol of a cloud with rain coming from it in this eight-day forecast. Yes, there is one image suggesting thunderstorms on Friday, and that brings some hope; such images showed up from time to time when I was checking the forecast from 600 miles away. But then the next time I would check, they had disappeared, to be replaced with full sun and a projected high temperature of 30 or 31 or 32 or even 33 degrees. And what the forecasts said turned out to be true, we found out upon our return yesterday. While areas around and not far from us – Belleville to the south, Haliburton County to the north, even nearby Madoc – have had at least a bit of rain, every dark cloud and every bit of moisture has skirted Queensborough. We seem to be our own little heat dome – well, make that drought dome.

We drove in yesterday to find our lawn not just shades of brown and yellow, but downright crispy to walk on. You’ve already seen the front yard in my photo at the top of this post; here’s a shot of the normally verdant back yard:

Parched back yard

And here’s just one example of how most of the perennials are looking:

Parched hosta

And here, to cheer things up a bit, is a closer look at two of our three cats, to show you just how cute they are.

Honey Bunny and Sadie up close

Everyone in the Queensborough area is worried about the drought. It’s terrible for the farmers; I hate to think what the prospects are for this year’s corn crop. It’s terrible for the groundwater situation, and thus for household wells. Everyone I’ve talked to since we got home says (with cautious relief) that their well is holding out so far, but everyone is also being very, very careful with water usage – and lamenting the fact that you really can’t tell what the level in your well is, which means you can’t know whether household disaster (the well running dry) is imminent, or whether you’re in relatively good shape.

How bad is it? A recent story in the Belleville Intelligencer – written, I am proud so say, by a brand-new graduate of the journalism program in which I teach at Loyalist College – says that the local conservation authority expects it will have to issue a Level 3 low-water warning for the first time in its history. (We are currently at an already-worrisome Level 2.)

Basically, nobody has ever seen anything like this before. Well, actually, not quite; yesterday I was chatting with a nonagenarian retired farmer from the nearby hamlet of Cooper. Had he ever seen anything like this before? Yes he had: the summer of ’49. (That’s 67 years ago, people! Not many of us can say we remember weather details from that far back.) There was no hay to harvest that year, and no hay to harvest means nothing to feed the cattle. He said the farmers got through the following winter by helping each other, handing over a couple of bales whenever they could spare them to someone even more in need than they were. “By the end of that winter, my cattle weren’t looking too good,” he concluded.

But let’s jump ahead 67 years and return to the drought of 2016. Raymond and I are coping like everyone else whose household is on a well – being very sparing with water use, planning to do laundry at the laundromat in town, and resigning ourselves to having a crispy brown lawn. And despite the drought, we found there were good things happening on the Manse’s modest acreage when we returned from our trip. For one, there are lots of little tomatoes on our heirloom tomato plants:

Tomatoes on the tomato plants

And my beloved phlox, which get a fair bid of shade, are looking not too bad:

Healthy-looking phlox

And wonder of wonders (and thanks to a little bit of watering help from our neighbour Ed), the new shade garden that I put so much sweat and even blood into creating is not only not dead, but looking kind of okay!

Shade garden, Aug. 1, 2016

And those are all good things. Plants can be hardy, through drought and other trials. And you know, so can people. Here is one more story out of my conversation yesterday with the farmer from Cooper that I think kind of says a lot. Believe it or not (given that we’re talking about heat and drought), it has to do with a hockey arena.

The Cooper arena has been closed for some time now and is used only for equipment storage. But when I was a kid growing up here at the Manse, it was a hot spot for local hockey games and skating parties all winter long. That is, if you can call a building that was the coldest place I have ever known – invariably colder inside it than it was outside, except for the dressing rooms where there were blazing wood-burning stoves – a “hot spot.” Here’s a picture of the old place that I took a while back:

Cooper Arena

The old Cooper arena. On the winter nights of my childhood, there was no colder spot to be found than the stands of that place.

I well remember being in that arena with lots of other local people, cheering on two teams – maybe from Cooper? Queensborough? Eldorado? Tweed? Madoc? There were lots of local hockey teams then – as they battled it out on the ice and we shivered in the stands. There were some great players in those days, and some great rivalries. If the walls of that old barn of a place could talk, I’m sure they could tell some great stories.

But the story my Cooper friend told was this: that it was because of the great drought of 1949 that the arena got built in the first place. The men of Cooper got together to put it up that summer because – well, because there was nothing else to do. No crops to harvest, that’s for sure.

What do we take away from this story? Well, not only is it a great tidbit of local history, but to my mind it is further proof, if any were needed, that people in rural communities will always make the best of a bad situation.

The rain will come, eventually. It will be glorious. “Shining down like water,” like John Fogerty wrote. It may not come in time to save the crops and lawns this year. But we will make do.

And in the meantime, maybe we should just get together and build something.

I made a garden!

Shade garden after 1

My new shade garden, featuring hostas and impatiens, after two sweltering days of hard, hard work. I hope it survives!

Did you know that gardening can be a contact sport? No? Well, then you’ve never tried to create a garden north of 7, where fertile soil meets Canadian Shield and the latter generally wins.

A little over a week ago I plunged into a garden project I’d been wanting to tackle for a long time, to wit: turning the southwest corner of the Manse’s fairly expansive yard into a shade garden. (It has to be a shade garden because it’s under two very large evergreen trees that, I am embarrassed to admit, I have yet to identify. Tamaracks? I’ll figure it out one of these days.) This particular plot of land was, when Raymond and I bought the Manse, a repository of some years of compostable junk; the raking involved in my first yard cleanup turned up hundreds and hundreds of evergreen cones, along with assorted other things. Having cleaned out that stuff, I enjoyed seeing what subsequently happened in the shady patch, notably a rhubarb plant emerging.

But this past spring and summer, the shady corner plot turned up less (translation: zero) rhubarb and instead a ton of high-growing weeds. Which I was itching to get at and replace with shade plants, a project I finally got to once my rather demanding year of being a college instructor ended. Here is what that plot looked like just a couple of weeks ago:

Shade garden before 1

My shade garden when it was not a shade garden but a large patch of weeds.

In theory, my gardening project was easy: transplant several of the more-than-enough hosta plants that populate the perennial gardens in front of the Manse; and add in some bargain-priced (because it was late in the plant-selling season) impatiens, everybody’s favourite colourful shade bloom.

In practice: not so much.

What I found when I started digging that corner of land was roots, roots, roots and more roots. That’s pretty much what I find whenever I start digging anywhere around the Manse: this land is old, and the trees on it are too – and thus rooty; and the soil is thin and rocky. It is good for roots. And weeds. And rocks. And maybe rhubarb. Or blueberries. And not much else.

Creating my small shade garden turned out to be a very intensive two-day project, on both days of which I got dirtier and sweatier (the temperature was above 30C throughout, and it was humid) than you can probably imagine. In retrospect, I really wish I’d taken a selfie when I finally came in on one or the other of those days to collapse into the shower; the combination of sweat and soil on my face (not to mention the rest of me) would have done an early settler of our corner of central Hastings County proud. Plus it would have shocked Raymond! (Who wasn’t there at the moment, and is fond of neatness, tidiness, and cleanliness. He would have been horrified.)

What I did manage to do, however, is get a photo that sort of captures the contact-sport thing I was mentioning at the start of this post. Raymond was back by the time I’d showered the second evening, but while the grime and sweat were gone, the marks from the roots and thorns kind of going after me were still quite evident. I am rather proud of my gardening scars, and here are a few of them:

Gardening is a contact sport

You don’t spend two days wrestling with the old roots of Hastings County and come out unscarred. (Photo by Raymond Brassard)

After pulling all the weeds and pulling and/or cutting (with my trusty Fiskars) all the roots that I could find on the surface of my garden-to-be on Day 1, and feeling like I might have got the better of the rootiness, I proceeded on Day 2 to try to dig small holes in which to plant the hostas and impatiens. At which point I learned that there are more old roots in a small patch of north-of-7 land than you or I have ever dreamed of.

And you know, you can’t do everything. At least, not all at once. So as I tried to plant my wee plants and found little but roots as I dug, I made the executive decision to take my chances with planting the impatiens and the hostas among the roots. I mean, there is some soil there; and, given that the weeds had been absolutely flourishing a short time before, maybe the roots would also cut my new shade plants some slack and let them do their thing too.

We shall see. I have since decided that I may need to look into mulch, something I know nothing about but that I understand may help suppress weeds and encourage the plants I am trying to grow. (I hope veteran gardeners will not be laughing at me. Remember, I am new at this.)

Regardless, I am proud of my efforts. Proud enough to show them off to all of you. Here once again are some before-and-after shots.

Before: weediness!

Shade garden before 2

After: a garden! (Rudimentary, but still – a garden.)

Shade garden after 2

Time will tell whether the victor in this project will be the roots, or me and my shade garden. But I am a determined person, and I’ve already put a lot of sweat equity into this project. I’m betting on me. And the hostas.

The best-smelling tree around

Basswood bloom at the Manse

The sweet-smelling basswood flowers that our friend and neighbour Ed brought over to the Manse the other day. Lovely!

It didn’t take very long after Raymond and I bought the Manse four years ago for us to figure out that we’d be learning a lot about the natural world around us here in Queensborough. What with raccoon families and porcupines and turtles on the roads, a deer visiting the village, an American bittern by the roadside and also in the marsh that’s right across the way from our house, busy wood-pecking woodpeckers, colourful blue jays, the whippoorwill that I delight to hear on summer evenings, the gorgeous leaves in autumn, and on and on and on – well, let’s just say that our Audubon guides to birds, trees, weeds and so on are getting a workout.

Thanks to eagle-eyed readers, I recently learned about Black Locust trees. I had taken a photo of their amazing blooms one early-June morning as I drove through the crossroads of Hazzards Corners, posted it here with a query about what this striking-looking tree was, and before you can say Jack Robinson I was enlightened. “Those are probably Black Locust trees in blossom. There have been some around Hazzards Church for many years. I remember looking at them through the window when I should have been listening to the sermon,” said reader Doris in a comment. Another reader, Lindi, added: “Yes, definitely, Katherine. Locust trees, with their intoxicating perfume. We had a clump of them in the dooryard of my childhood farm home. The smell of almost-the-end-of-school for the summer!” About all this I have just this to say (as I often have before): Meanwhile, at the Manse readers are the best.

Anyway: a couple of days ago, thanks to our Queensborough friend and neighbour Ed, I learned about another tree that has lovely blossoms and an even lovelier scent.

“Here,” Ed said as he handed me a small blossom he’d picked as he walked toward the Manse. “It comes from the ornamental basswood over there,” angling his head to indicate a tree that’s pretty much right across the street from the Manse. I took the little twiggy thing from him, and inhaled, and the smell was heavenly. Who knew?

The basswood tree at King Street and Bosley Road

The basswood tree that’s right across the road from us, bringing us a lovely scent – and lots of bees doing important pollination work.

As we continued to discuss this tree – immediately adjacent to the striking Tree of Life that Raymond and I admire every single day while (until now) ignoring its interesting neighbour – Ed also informed us that if you stand right under its branches while it’s in bloom you’ll be awed by the sounds of hundreds, if not thousands, of bees buzzing around gathering the nectar from those sweet blossoms. People, I tried that standing-under-the-basswood thing, and it is true: there is just a chorus of bees up there. All doing great work on behalf of Mother Nature.

Looking up at the basswood blooms

I wish I could share with you the sound of the bees that I heard when I looked up into the basswood and took this photo. Pleas try to imagine that happy chorus combined with a lovely smell from the blossoms!

I turned to my friend the internet and looked up “Ornamental Basswood Ontario,” and here is the helpful site I found. And that bees thing was confirmed, because here is what it says: “Bees love basswood flowers because they bloom in midsummer, when few other trees are in bloom.”

Anyway, I want to say thanks not only to Ed for sharing his basswood knowledge, but to all those people – like Doris, and Lindi, and so many others – who have helped me learn about the plants and birds and trees and animals that we see around us every day out here North of 7. Where I am beginning to think Mother Nature is at her best.

A stylish and elegant birthday gift, from down on the (local) farm

KS with Enright Cattle Company bag

Me with my beautiful new Enright Cattle Company leather bag. While I may look a little dusty and the worse for wear from a day spent weeding the garden under a hot sun, I think you’ll have to agree that the bag is gorgeous. (Photo by Raymond Brassard)

Happy birthday to me, people! Well, actually, it is not my birthday quite yet. But today, as we also mark Independence Day by flying the Stars and Stripes here at the Manse in honour of our neighbours south of the border…

Fourth of July 2016

… I received an absolutely wonderful early birthday gift from Raymond. And since Mondays are Meanwhile, at the Manse days, but more particularly because the gift is a gorgeous, high-quality product produced by a local operation that is not 15 miles from us here in Queensborough, I thought I would share it with you all. It’s a celebration both of a lovely gift and of a local business that is doing amazing things – and that I think you too might be interested in supporting.

But let’s start this tale with the birthday card. Raymond couldn’t have found a better one for a cat-lover like me. Singing cats, complete with bling!

Then came the gift. My eyes lit up as soon as I saw the attractive cotton bag it came in:

Enright Cattle Company bags for bags

Why did they light up? Because I knew what would be inside. And no, it wasn’t several packages of great steaks (though the Enright Cattle Company of Hunt Road, Tweed, produces those too). It was a product from the Enright folks’ newest venture: gorgeous handcrafted leather bags.

Raymond and I met Kara Enright not long after we bought the Manse in 2012. Early that fall I was seeking out a fresh local farm turkey for Thanksgiving, and tracked her down by phone from Montreal through the website of the excellent local organization Harvest Hastings. Kara told me she no longer raised turkeys, but put me on to her neighbours, Tim, Dorothy and Gary Hunt, from whom we got a first-rate one. Not long after, we visited the beef farm Kara runs with her husband, Darold (and young son Corben and baby daughter Evelyn), to pick up tickets for a special dinner featuring local farm products. (I wrote about that delicious repast here.) It was interesting to see their Simmental cattle, a breed I had not known about until then, and to listen to Kara talk about their operation. I came away totally impressed by her dedication and her enthusiasm for, as the Enright Cattle Company website puts it “the preservation of rural life and the improvement of agriculture.”

Since those first encounters, I’ve watched with interest as the reputation of the Enright Cattle Company has grown. Their beef products are being served in a wide array of top-flight restaurants in Eastern Ontario and beyond, generally with the source of the meat proudly listed on the menu. That is very cool.

But then a few months ago I learned that Kara had embarked on a new venture: fashion! Here is the video that I found thanks to my Queensborough friend Lisa sharing it on Facebook – a news report from the launch in Kingston, Ont., of the company’s line of handbags and other leather products.

“Part of our philosophy has always been to utilize as much of the carcass as possible,” Kara explains in the video. “We work with the finest tannery in Ontario to produce this really amazing, very soft leather from our hides, and then we have a really awesome leather maker. He hand crafts each bag – so it’s all done on a bench, hand cut and stitched. And he makes these amazing handbags that now are branded with our farm brand and made right from our own hides.”

Isn’t that something? Good chefs and butchers these days are doing their best to show respect to the animals that give their lives so that we can have meat, through what’s known as “nose to tail” cooking and eating. But what Kara and Darold are doing takes the process another step: using the hides of the animals they raise – with so much care for their well-being, and for the environment – to make of them one final product that will be loved and treasured.

So back to my birthday gift!

Here is the bag Raymond picked up from Kara at the farm this very morning:

Enright Cattle Company bag

And here is Part 2 of the gift! It’s designed to be a case for glasses (i.e. the reading glasses that I lose about 75 times a day), but Kara says (and I agree) that it could also be a great change purse:

Enright Cattle Company glasses pouch

And here is the whole shebang displayed on one of our Solair chairs on the Manse’s front porch – great Canadian design meets great Canadian design!

Birthday gift from Raymond

As you can tell, I am absolutely thrilled about my birthday gift. It is something beautiful, and something local. Thank you to Raymond, to Kara and Darold (and Corben and Evelyn), and to a Simmental cow who, I know, lived a good life on the Enrights’ farm (where maybe I saw her on our visit four years ago), and who is the creature ultimately responsible for this lovely bag.

Local gifts are the best!