It wasn’t very long at all after Raymond and I bought the Manse in Queensborough that people in the area starting telling us we had to go visit Ormsby. My first reaction: where and what is Ormsby? Despite having grown up in Hastings County, I’d never heard of it. But these folks were eager to tell us about the fantastic gallery/general store there, the Old Hastings Mercantile. And the restaurant/tearoom, the Old Ormsby Schoolhouse. And the tiny historic church, the Old Ormsby Heritage Church, where, we were told, an unforgettable evening Christmas service is held by the light of oil lamps and with wonderful music. All this in tiny Ormsby, population 20!
We learned that Ormsby is in the north part of Hastings County, about a 20-minute drive southwest of Bancroft and something less than 10 minutes east of Coe Hill. And then we learned a lot more about the cool things going on there thanks to an article about the general stores of Hastings County in the excellent Country Roads magazine by our friend Lindi Pierce (the Belleville-based writer and literary/heritage enthusiast behind the wonderful blogs Ancestral Roofs and In Search of Al Purdy).
But for more than a year – despite people constantly telling us “You have to go visit Ormsby!” – we weren’t able to find the time, on our all-too-brief visits to Queensborough, to actually make the trek. Last weekend, however, we finally did – and what a wonderful discovery it was, and what a great day we had!
I am pretty sure that one of the reasons so many people urged us to make the visit was that they sensed that in the proprietors of the Ormsby operation we had kindred spirits. Twin brothers Gary and Ernie Pattison, both top-flight professional orchestral musicians, have family roots in the area of Ormsby, specifically the nearby farming community called The Ridge. Despite busy musical careers in Toronto (and sometimes other cities, including Montreal), they were drawn back to the place, and together with Gary’s wife, Lillian, and Ernie’s wife, Debbie (both of them also musicians, which is very cool), they have created a remarkable, welcoming “destination” in a tiny place that some would say is close to being in the middle of nowhere.
Gary and Lillian are the proprietors of the Old Hastings Mercantile, a general store and gallery that you really have to see to believe. It is packed to the rafters with amazing stuff: jewelry, pottery, kitchenware, soaps, candles, clothing, books, Christmas items, music, greeting cards, games and toys, gardening items – and really, that’s just a start! Oh, and did I mention vintage candy? Which is displayed in an old-fashioned candy counter that, if you’re lucky like me and grew up in a tiny place with a general store (or two) will take you right straight back to that childhood. Blackballs, anyone?
Meanwhile, just over the hill from the Mercantile, Ernie runs the Old Ormsby Schoolhouse (“Educated Dining” is its slogan) and Tearoom. As you can guess, it is located in a former one-room schoolhouse, which Ernie and Debbie have beautifully restored: there is gorgeous wooden wainscotting, and patterned tin walls and ceilings, and a warming pot-bellied stove, and the original blackboards, and some of those old display maps made by candy-bar companies – remember those from the classrooms of your childhood, people of a certain age? The wooden tables and chairs are all vintage, the tables are set with tablecloths, and beautiful real (vintage) china cups and saucers adorn them. You feel like you have stepped back in time.
Even though it was our first visit to the Mercantile and the Schoolhouse, Raymond and I felt like we already knew the place thanks to all we’d heard and read about it – and also because both Gary and Ernie read and sometimes comment on my ramblings here at Meanwhile, at the Manse. Thanks to those communications, it has felt even more like they in Ormsby and Raymond and I in Queensborough really are kindred spirits, with a lot of shared interests.
Raymond and I began our Ormsby visit at the Mercantile, spending a long time poking through all the rooms full of wonderful stuff, and coming away with several books (gee, there’s a surprise), a lovely glass hummingbird feeder, some wild-rose seeds, and a few other items. Oh, and did I mention the vintage candy? (Yes, I know I did.) We could not resist a selection from the candy counter – which even included Necco wafers, candy Raymond grew up with (Necco stands for the New England Confectionary Company).
As we were paying and getting ready to head over to the Schoolhouse for lunch, Lillian pulled out a wonderful surprise that Gary (who was in Toronto, playing with the National Ballet of Canada Orchestra) had prepared for us: a frame that contains photos of the Manse, and of my family when I was growing up there – which I had posted right here on the blog – that show through cutouts in the matting that form the words “THE MANSE.” I was dumbfounded – and absolutely thrilled. What a nice thing to do!
At the Old Ormsby Schoolhouse, meanwhile, Ernie was there to greet us and answer our (many) questions about his and Debbie’s restoration of the building (it turns out it’s the third or fourth old schoolhouse that they have been involved in restoring in rural Hastings County!), and of their beautiful old farmhouse at The Ridge, and about the operation generally. And we had a wonderful lunch; mine was the amazing house special squash soup (for which Ernie kindly gave me the recipe) and tea sandwiches – you know, crustless ones cut into shapes, with cucumbers and egg salad and good stuff like that in them. Yum! All washed down with perfectly made tea served in a china teapot and the aformentioned china cups. If there is anything better than tea sandwiches and properly-made tea served in china teacups, I don’t know what it is. (Except maybe Ernie’s carrot cake for dessert.)
I came away from the Schoolhouse with yet another lovely gift (in addition to the squash soup recipe). Ernie had a twinkle in his eye as he showed me the little trays they use to deliver the check to the tables. They are tiny versions of the TV trays (a mid-20th-century staple, those of a certain age will know) that I remember from my childhood, and that I wrote about once here. In that post I lamented the fact that I have not yet been able to get my hands on a set of TV trays like the ones my maternal grandparents had, which featured big, brightly coloured flowers on a black background. Lo and behold, the little trays for the checks at the Schoolhouse are just like that. Adorable! (Ernie told us he had come across them in an antique store – now that is a find.) And he presented me with one to keep. I was thrilled!
Raymond and I already have plans to go back to Ormsby. In a couple of weeks, the anniversary service will be held at the Old Ormsby Heritage Church, a wee former Presbyterian church that Gary and Lillian own and that is used for weddings and special services. We’ll be there!
And while Christmas seems like a long time in the future, we are already looking forward to an annual special event at the Old Ormsby Schoolhouse. It is an evening when the electric lights are turned off and the whole place is lit by the oil lamps on the walls and tables. Dinner is served, after which the entertainment is a 1939 radio broadcast (on a vintage radio) of Charles Dickens‘s A Christmas Carol, featuring Orson Welles and Lionel Barrymore. I cannot imagine anything more magical.
In fact, magic might be the best word to describe the entirety of what Gary and Lillian and Ernie and Debbie have done at Ormsby. Restoring an old general store, schoolhouse and church; bringing new life to a former ghost town on the Old Hastings Road; and creating a true destination, a place that people travel from near and far to visit and enjoy themselves and eat and shop – all in tiny out-of-the-way Ormsby.
There is something to be learned for Queensborough in all of this!