The photographer and the bittern

Bittern by Lloyd Holmes 2

A stunning shot of an American Bittern, taken in the Queensborough area, by Lloyd Holmes. This is wildlife photography of the very first degree. (Photo courtesy of Lloyd Holmes)

The other day Raymond and I were in a newly opened local restaurant and, in casual discussion with the young woman who was our server, discovered that she had once lived in Queensborough. She had evidently loved her time in our little community, and had something to say about it that I thought was spot-on. I’m paraphrasing her, but the gist of it was: “There are so few people in Queensborough, and yet almost everybody does something cool and interesting.”

That’s something I’ve noticed too. It never ceases to amaze me how many people who live in or move to our area have remarkable gifts and talents: for painting, wood-carving, bookbinding, metalworking, gardening, music, photography, long-distance running, historical research, storytelling, cooking, graphic design, homebuilding, landscaping, chicken-raising, baking, kids’ programs, flower arranging, esthetics, pet grooming, maple-syrup-making, athletics, metal detecting, building restoration, and on and on and on.

Today I want to showcase the work of one of those people. And in doing so, I’m happy to say, I get to tell you a bit more about what seems to have become the unofficial bird of Meanwhile, at the Manse: the American Bittern.

https://atthemanse.wordpress.com/2012/10/12/i-identified-my-first-bird/

This was the best I could do to illustrate what I was talking about the first time I wrote about spotting a bittern in Queensborough – a photo of a page from our Audubon guide to birds. It makes you appreciate the quality of Lloyd Holmes’s photo that much more!

Longtime readers may recall that I first wrote about this bird five years ago, telling a story about spotting a very striking large, long-necked bird standing near a marsh area on the side of Queensborough Road. (That post, if you’re interested, is here.) At the time neither Raymond nor I had any idea what bird it was we’d seen, but we turned to our Audubon Guide to Birds of Eastern North America and soon learned that it was an American Bittern. “When an observer is nearby, it will often stretch its neck up, point its bill skyward,” the guide told us – and that was exactly the odd position we’d seen it in. Then about a year after that first sighting, we came across a baby bittern crossing a road as we were driving to Queensborough from Montreal, where we still owned a home. You can read that post, and see my terrible photos, here.

A final connection with the bittern is that until this year, one of them has inhabited a marshy area that’s more or less right in the centre of Queensborough. We’ve never seen that bird, but on many evenings we’ve heard it making its distinctive kitchen-sink-glug-type call. As I write this, however, I realize that we didn’t hear our bittern this past spring, and that makes me sad. I hope nothing has happened to him/her.

But on to the connection between the American Bittern and talented local people.

A little while ago, I received an email from Lloyd Holmes, who grew up in Cooper, the hamlet just north of Queensborough, and who now lives in the not-far-away community of Marmora. Lloyd’s been to quite a few Queensborough events recently – and believe me, there have been a lot of Queensborough events recently – and I featured some of his stunning photos of our annual kayaking event here.

“Have been enjoying some of the activities around Queensborough this past couple of months and check your blog occasionally to see what the latest has been,” Lloyd said in his email. He carried on with this delightful story: “I never check at any time without recalling memories of my childhood that included riding in the wagon behind the tractor while my father took a grist to John Thompson’s grist mill in Queensborough to have ground into a mix for hogs or dairy and then return home to Cooper.” Here, people, is the very mill (no longer in use, but nicely preserved) that Lloyd refers to; it is owned by John Thompson’s daughter, Elaine Kapusta, and her husband, Ludwick:

The Thompson mill

The historic Thompson mill in Queensborough that Lloyd Holmes refers to in his reminiscence. In the foreground you can see an old millwheel.

The email continued: “When we were young we almost snickered when our parents reminisced and said, ‘Those were the good old days,’ and now we say that same thing ourselves.”

Lloyd: I hear you, loud and clear.

But the best was yet to come: two amazing closeup photos of an American Bittern. The first is at the top of this post; here’s the second one:

Bittern by Lloyd Holmes 1

Now that, people, is what a bittern looks like. Light-years better than my photo of a photo from the Audubon guide, which itself was far inferior to Lloyd’s shot.

“(The) pictures were taken earlier this summer along the Cooper Road between Hazzard’s and Madoc,” Lloyd told me. “We don’t often see these birds and less often (are) close enough to get pictures of them. But even I get lucky once in a while.”

I happen to know that it was almost certainly patience, not luck, that allowed Lloyd to capture these amazing images. Here’s another story he told me after I’d replied to him, thanking him for the bittern photos and promising to share them here:

“I have a great time out there in nature trying to get these shots, and it is nice to have friends to share them with … One of the photos I will send you is of a female mink that I had found where she had a den of little ones and I spent a number of afternoons trying to get close enough to get some good pictures of her. I think it was the fourth or fifth day I was out there and had been there about 2½ hours and she was going out into Beaver Creek trying to catch some food for the den when, on her 11th or 12th attempt, she came back with a rock bass. I got pictures of her running through the rocks with the rock bass going back to the den. The most rewarding pictures are the ones you have to work the hardest to get.”

Let’s just say that I expect I am now not the only one eager to see those photos! As Lloyd says: “Some people like to see and read about our neighbours in the forest.” Count me in!

If you’d like to see more of Lloyd Holmes’s photos right away, please check out the website of the municipality of Marmora and Lake. Webmaster Jenn Bennett often posts his work there.  Click on the “Discover” link and then “Photos,” or just follow this shortcut here. There are some great ones of Marmora events; here, for example, is an excellent photo of the July 1 fireworks in Marmora:

Marmora fireworks by Lloyd Holmes

Fireworks marking Dominion Day (as I prefer to call it) 2017 in Marmora. (Photo by Lloyd Holmes)

And here’s a lovely one of the town’s Santa Claus parade last winter:

Marmora Santa Claus parade by Lloyd Holmes

(Photo by Lloyd Holmes via marmoraandlake.ca)

There are also more photos here of the kayakers in Queensborough.

But for me the highlight is what you see when you click on this link, which takes you to a gallery of Lloyd’s photos, primarily nature and wildlife scenes. I’m only going to show you one, and leave the thrill of discovering the others to you. But people, just look at this:

Red Fox and 5 pups Cordova by Lloyd Holmes

A stunning photo by Lloyd Holmes: a red fox and her five babies in the Cordova area north of Marmora. (Photo by Lloyd Holmes via marmoraandlake.ca)

Wow!

I think you will agree with me that Lloyd Holmes has a prime spot on the long list of Queensborough-area people who are cool, interesting – and extraordinarily talented.

A sweet little Blue Mountain find from the thrift shop

Blue Mountain teapot

My newest treasure from the local thrift shops: a sweet little Blue Mountain Pottery teapot, probably from the 1960s, with the original label still attached.

I found what I consider a real treasure this past weekend, when Raymond and I took advantage of the pleasant sunny weather to run errands in both Madoc and Tweed and engage in one of our favourite pastimes: scouting out the local thrift and used-book shops. As you can see from my photo, it is a cute little teapot. And not just any cute little teapot. It’s a vintage cute little teapot made by the no-longer-extant Blue Mountain Pottery company of Collingwood, Ont. With the tag still on it!

Of course you remember Blue Mountain pottery – or you do if you grew up in the middle part of the last century in Ontario, as I did right here at the Manse in Queensborough. I wrote a post about Blue Mountain a while back (it’s here, if you’re interested), looking a bit into its history and onetime ubiquity – as well as exclaiming over the wackiness of a Blue Mountain ashtray built for four smokers to use at once. And in another post, here, I reported on finding a Blue Mountain solution to the problem of what to do with bits and bobs of jewelry and whatnot on my bedside dresser.

As I reported in that first post, I’ve picked up a few pieces of Blue Mountain here and there at local yard sales since Raymond and I bought the Manse, not because I’m especially fond of it but because it gives me a nice nostalgic feeling. That four-person ashtray, for instance: if that isn’t a blast from the chain-smoking card-party past, I don’t know what is. Sometimes I’ve forked over a dime or a quarter for Blue Mountain pieces for the sheer kitsch factor. Take these two beauties, for example:

Blue Mountain boot and chuckwagon

I mean, how could I not buy a Blue Mountain cowboy boot that said “Trenton, Ont.” in flowing gold script? Or a Blue Mountain chuckwagon coin bank? You couldn’t have passed them up either, I’ll bet.

But my little teapot is really something special. It’s very nicely designed and proportioned, for one thing. It would be just the thing to make tea for one in, giving you maybe two cups’ worth. And best of all, it is in pristine condition. People, it came with the original label! And on the back of the original label was the original store tag! As you can see here:

Marmora Gift Shoppe label

I don’t remember The Gift Shoppe in Marmora (and as far as I can tell from a quick online search it hasn’t existed in a long time), but perhaps some readers do. But I am delighted by the idea that someone, probably 50-some years ago, crossed the shop’s threshold in search of a gift, and found my pretty little teapot. Perhaps it was for a young woman heading off to university or a job in the city, and an exciting life on her own. Perhaps it was for a favourite aunt or grandmother. Wouldn’t it be nice to know?

At any rate, when I spotted it in the glass case at the front counter where the good stuff is kept at the Hidden Treasures thrift shop in Tweed, I knew that I had to have it. And at four dollars, I am sure it was a bargain; I’ve since found some like it, not necessarily in such brand-new condition, for sale online (like here and here) for $40 and more.

I do like a cup of tea every now and then, but I think my little Blue Mountain teapot is too pretty and precious to use. After all, its original owner kept it in pristine shape, label and all; who am I to mess with a good thing?

An evening by old-fashioned lamplight

Kerosene lamp

It was nice to have an old-fashioned kerosene lamp lit at the Manse once again.

Well, there was some excitement in our neck of the woods tonight, let me tell you! Just after I walked in the front door of the Manse, home from work, the electric lights flickered and went out. And, unlike the past few times they’ve flickered and gone out, they failed to come back on again after a few seconds. Or a few minutes.

One’s first reaction is that a power outage is not what one needs after a long day of work and with supper to be cooked – on the electric stove. And of course there’s the fact that the temperature outside is supposed to go down to minus 20 or so overnight. Those are mighty chilly conditions in which to have no heat coming out of one’s electric-powered oil furnace.

One’s next reaction is that it is really time to get a wood stove installed, to ward off just such chill. And also a generator, which sensible people around here have and which Raymond and I have long talked about but so far failed to take action on.

But after you get over those inevitable thoughts, and while your husband is going about the house lighting candles and so on, things start to look a little brighter, not just literally but figuratively too. The best part was when Raymond brought out and lit one of the pair of kerosene lamps that we’ve had for ages and had never before used. (That’s what you see in the photo atop this post.) They are just like the pair that my family had when I was growing up in this old house, brought in from the back porch and lit whenever there was a power outage such as we had this evening. That was a nice thing to be reminded of.

And the light from the candles and the kerosene lamp was, while not terribly bright, very warm-feeling and nice. As was the quiet conversation Raymond and I had as we sat in our easy chairs on either side of the small table where the lamp burned – a conversation uninterrupted by any reference to any screen (laptop, iPad, phone or television) of any sort. It was downright old-fashioned! And I could suddenly see how nights like that would be very cozy and appealing when it’s a long, cold winter night. Conversation, or reading by lamplight, maybe doing some writing (by hand!): those are simpler and quieter pursuits than most of us enjoy on most of our evenings, and I do believe there is something to be said for those simple, quiet pursuits.

Then again, there was the fact that we couldn’t make supper, and there was the concern that it might get pretty cold in the house by morning.

red dial phone

Thank goodness for our vintage dial phone: it works even during a power outage!

We are spoiled, though; there was really nothing to worry about. The Hydro One app on my phone informed us that the outage – which I understand plunged the villages of Madoc and Marmora into darkness, along with Queensborough – was expected to be fixed no later than 9:15 p.m.; a phone call on our old rotary phone (and thank goodness for it, because the modern phones didn’t work without power and the iPhones were losing power and couldn’t be charged) provided the reassuring news that the village of Tweed still had power, and in Tweed there are restaurants; we had a nearly full tank of gas in the car; and so we were off to town and supper in surroundings that provided both heat and light.

As we were driving home, we saw the lights come on at the homes along Queensborough Road. The Manse was lit up and warm when we pulled in.

And here’s the best part (aside from the kerosene lamps being brought out and used): we had a phone message – on our old rotary phone – from a neighbour, wanting to make sure we were okay and offering to bring up a portable generator to power some heaters if need be.

What with that kind and neighbourly offer, and a long-ago memory of an evening by lamplight rekindled, I would say that this was a very successful power outage indeed.

Great community journalism: the North Hastings Review, 1971

North Hastings Review

The North Hastings Review issue of June 16, 1971. I don’t know if I’ve ever enjoyed reading a newspaper as much as I enjoyed reading this one.

A wondrous thing arrived in the mailbox here at the Manse the other day. It was a copy of a now-defunct weekly newspaper: the North Hastings Review, issue of June 16, 1971. Its arrival was easily the best thing that’s happened to me so far in 2015.

You’re thinking I’m addled, aren’t you? You’re wondering: How on earth could a 44-year-old copy of a tiny and long-gone newspaper be such a thrill to that Manse woman?

Well, I will tell you. But first let me tell you how this treasure – which I must emphasize is only on loan – came my way. Its sender was Ken Broad, who has been known to read and comment on my posts here at Meanwhile, at the Manse, and who, while he now lives elsewhere, is a native of the Queensborough area, having grown up on a farm just a bit west of here in Madoc Township. (Ken notably sent me a photo of his ticket to the 1971 Rock Acres Peace Festival, an incredible artifact of Queensborough’s version of Woodstock. More on that anon, as it happens, but if you’d like to see that photo, it’s here.)

Anyway, I am pretty sure that the reason Ken had held on to this particular copy of the North Hastings Review – which was published in nearby (to Queensborough, I mean) Madoc, and later became the Madoc Review before it became nothing at all (sometime in the late 1980s or early 1990s, I believe) – was that there was a story about him right there on the front page. He had just sold his fuel-delivery business to Tom Fox of Campbellford – a familiar name in this area – and there is a story about the change in ownership, and a photo of the two men, right there at top left of Page 1.

In a brief note he sent along with the paper, Ken said that his father (a remarkable person whom many people called “The Major” due to his distinguished service in both the First and Second World Wars – but that’s a whole other story, and a great one) used to call the North Hastings Review “the 7-7-7 paper: 7 days to print, 7 cents to buy and 7 seconds to read.” Oh lord – as the former editor of another small-town newspaper, the Port Hope (Ont.) Evening Guide, I am very familiar with readers’ joking comments about how one could throw our modest little daily paper up in the air and read it on the way down. But you know what? Behind the joking, people loved and (more to the point) needed that paper, that daily report on what was going on in their own community. And I am totally certain that The Major and all the other readers of the North Hastings Review also very much appreciated its community reporting, even while they made gentle jokes at its expense.

Anyway, I must tell you that, as I told Ken in my email of thanks to him, it took me a lot longer than seven seconds to read that paper. With the exception of the small print in some of the classified ads, I read every single word. And all of it was an utter joy.

Why? Two reasons.

North Hastings Review front page

This is a front page with a lot of local news. And so many of the names are familiar!

One: this was the local news from what I consider my time. On June 16, 1971, I was about to turn 11 years old. My family had been living at the Manse in Queensborough for seven years, and we would live there for four more. We were deeply embedded in the Queensborough-Madoc-Eldorado-Cooper area, and because my father was the local United Church minister, we had contacts and friendships with many, many families in that area. The people who are mentioned in the pages of this issue of the North Hastings Review are people I knew (and in some cases still know) – everyone from teachers and fellow students at Madoc Township Public School (where I would have just been finishing Grade 6 in June 1971) and Madoc Public School (where the following September I would start Grade 7), to players on the local minor-sports teams whose games are reported, to the ministers of the local churches cited in the long column of notices for church services, to the mother and father of the bride in a delightful report on a wedding that my father had conducted.

North Hastings Review church ads

Some of the church ads (people actually went to church in 1971!) in the North Hastings Review.

And two: This newspaper is great journalism. And no, I am not trying to be funny. The North Hastings Review is chock-full of local news, and providing local news is what local newspapers are supposed to do. When you’d finished reading it, you really knew what was going on in the local area – from who had dined with whom the previous Sunday in Cooper and who had visited whom in Bannockburn; to who was the winning pitcher (as it happens, the late Lorna Matthews, a wonderful person who was the church pianist at St. Andrew’s United Church in Queensborough for many years) when the Cooper women’s softball team defeated the “Madoc Ladies” 24 to 7; to who gave a demonstration on refinishing furniture at a meeting of the senior citizens’ club; to where local school groups had gone for their end-of-year excursions (Sainte-Marie Among the Hurons and the Shrine Circus in Peterborough; the reports, which appeared on the front page, were written by some of the students themselves, and I can only imagine how proud their parents must have been); to what was on sale that week at George West’s Men’s Wear.

North Hastings Review Rock Acres story

The major story of the week: the latest news on the Rock Acres Peace Festival, which had been planned for the Quinlan farm near Queensborough – or “Queensboro,” as the Review spelled it.

You got the big stories – an in-depth report on what at that point looked like the defeat of the plans to hold the aforementioned Rock Acres Peace Festival on the Quinlan farm outside of Queensborough; in fact, the Quinlan family later won the legal battle against the local authorities, the festival went ahead, and you can read all about that here and here and here and here.

North Hastings Review community news

Everything you might have needed to know that week about what was going on in the hamlets of Bannockburn and Gilmour. Good stuff!

And you got the small ones: the aforementioned who-visited-whom listings for the local hamlets, like Bannockburn, Cooper and Gilmour. You got full reports on the doings of three municipal councils; the police news; the meeting of Unit 3 of St. Andrew’s United Church Women; a birth notice (on the front page); and the new officers of the Kiwanis Club. And all of it, I have to tell you, is well-written and well-edited. I think I spotted maybe two typos in the whole affair; that is very impressive, and significantly better than any newspaper (or news website) can boast these days. (Kudos to its publisher, Maurice Goulah, and its editor, Carol Foley, for that.)

North Hastings Review Letters to the Editor

A letter to the editor from Grant Ketcheson, comparing the farming life in Scotland to that in the Madoc area. Good stuff!

But there’s more! There’s a letter to the editor from a young whippersnapper farmer from the Hazzard’s Corners area named Grant Ketcheson (still a great friend to this day), who was visiting Scotland on an agricultural scholarship and sent a lively report on farming practices (and weather) there as compared to the Madoc area. There’s the report on that wedding conducted by my father, complete with the extraordinarily detailed description of the wedding dress that those reports always had: “The bride was lovely in a full length taffeta gown highlighted with a dainty lace trim around the scoop neckline, down the full-length sleeves and around the full skirt. The bodice and sleeves also featured rose appliques and her long full train with matching lace trim was attached at the waist with a large bow. The three-tiered bouffant veil was gathered to a circle of dainty white orange blossoms and seed pearls, leaving the centre open for flocks of curls. She carried a cascade bouquet of yellow daisies.” (And if you want to know what the mother of the bride and the mother of the groom wore at the reception, you’ll just have to get you hands on your own copy of the paper.) There’s a column by Bill Smiley, who was omnipresent in small Canadian weekly newspapers back in those days. It was delightful to see the late Mr. Smiley’s byline again after all these years.

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And there are the ads for businesses that bring back such good memories: George West’s, as I mentioned; Wilson’s (which only recently closed down after many years in business; I wrote about that here); Johnston’s Pharmacy (still going after all these years; that too is reported on in this post); the long-gone and much-missed Plaza cinema in Marmora (I saw my very first movie there!); and (ta-da!) the Cash & Carry! Which was having a sale that week on wood panelling. I’d almost be willing to bet my bottom dollar that the wood panelling that got put up in the Manse kitchen during my family’s tenure here – about which we were so excited at the time, because wood panelling was so fashionable; and which Raymond and I are now very keen to get rid of, because, let’s face it, it’s awful – might have come from that very sale at the Cash & Carry down there on St. Lawrence Street East in downtown Madoc.

It is community journalism at its very best.

I know that Ken Broad knew I would appreciate having a chance to go through that paper, but I bet he didn’t guess just how much I’d appreciate it. Such wonderful, wonderful memories, all thanks to a terrific community newspaper. And a person who had the excellent good sense to preserve it – and the kindness to share it.

History preserved and shared, in bang-up style

Marmora Historical Foundation websiteJust the other day, dear readers, I was telling you about something unfortunate that is happening in the very pretty and very historic nearby village of Marmora – to wit, the planned closure (unless the TD Canada Trust powers that be come to their senses) of Marmora’s only bank. But tonight I want to tell you a gazillion-times happier Marmora story, a real success story. It is about a new and stunningly great website, marmorahistory.ca (find it right here) put together by the Marmora Historical Foundation. Click on it and you’ll start by seeing some great photos like the one at the top of the post; to whet your appetite, here are a few more:

I learned about the project to build the website thanks to an article in a recent issue of the Central Hastings News. You can read the full article here, and so I won’t repeat all the details, but in essence it’s the story of a group of dedicated community people who have harnessed technology to make a community’s archives and history accessible to everyone. (I would also like to note out that one of the people who’s been a driving force behind the project is a Queensborough cottager, so there’s a connection to my little hamlet too.)

Archives the Cat

Archives the Cat, your tour guide at the website of the Marmora Historical Foundation.

The website is just amazing, especially for such a small enterprise. It is extremely well-designed, the text is well-written, and it’s just packed with great photos and interesting tidbits. A very brief browse this evening tempted me with links to: a tour of the old schools of the villages of Marmora and Deloro; the 1955 Marmora bank robbery; the story of a 1940s Marmora milliner named Violet Deacon (complete with photos of some of the great hats she created); information on the image of the miners used in the foundation’s logo – very interestingly, it comes from a sketch done by none other than Susanna Moodie, one of the all-time most important chroniclers of pioneer days in Hastings County and area; and speaking of miners, of course there is the story of the great Marmoraton iron mine. And that’s just a tiny sampling of all that you can find. Oh yes, and there’s also a place where you can buy gorgeous vintage Christmas cards. And an introduction to Archives the cat, who is your host on the site.

Really, this project is absolutely wonderful. It is an inspiration for every group interested in preserving and sharing local history. Huge congratulations to the Marmora Historical Foundation, and – I look forward to spending a lot of time with Archives, as he guides me through the wonderful stories of Marmora!

Some small-town good news.

New Aron Theatre, Campbellford

The restored Aron Theatre, a great small-town cinema if ever there was one – and the reason why Raymond and I recently spent a very pleasant afternoon and evening in the town of Campbellford.

In last night’s post, I told you about some bad news that’s hit Marmora, a small town in our part of Hastings County where the only bank in town is going to shutter its doors. (And I added in a few choice thoughts about what a rotten move this is by TD Canada Trust.)

Tonight, on a much happier note, I’d like to tell you about some really positive and encouraging signs of healthy small-town Eastern Ontario life that Raymond and I spotted not too long ago. As I mentioned in last night’s post, seeing small towns do well is something dear to my heart, so our late-summer experience in not-far-away Campbellford was a happy one indeed. And, I hope, might offer some ideas for our local towns, which are Madoc and Tweed.

We were in Campbellford – a town with a population of about 3,500 in eastern Northumberland County, which borders the southern half of our own county, Hastings – for a night at the movies. And that fact alone tells you something about Campbellford that distinguishes it from so many other small towns: it still has a movie theatre!

The movie theatre in question is the Aron (or, as we called it back in the day, the New Aron), which I visited many times in my teenage years – because, you see, my family moved to Campbellford in 1975, when I was in high school. (So 1975 was the end of my childhood here at the Manse, and it took a heck of a long time for me to find my way back here.) Our visit to Campbellford and a screening of Guardians of the Galaxy at the New Aron was, therefore, a bit of a nostalgic one for me. (Particularly since the New Aron was where in 1977 I first saw, and loved, a predecessor of Guardians of the Galaxy, a little number called Star Wars.)

The Aron was privately owned and operated back in the ’70s, but a while back it was taken over (and doubtless saved) by a non-profit collective formed for just that purpose. It’s called the Aron Theatre Co-operative, and these folks have done a marvellous job of restoring the Aron and bringing great films (and other special events) to the people of Campbellford and area. They deserve a huge round of applause, and while you’re clapping I’ll show you a few photos of this coolest of small-town cinemas:

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Raymond and I did a couple of other things while we were in Campbellford (which is about a 50-minute drive from Queensborough): we enjoyed a really nice meal at a restaurant that we were most impressed with, called The Bridge; and we explored the downtown. That exploration partly entailed me seeking out signs of the retail Campbellford that I remembered from those long-ago teenage years, like the original sign for Rabethge’s Jewellers that you can find hiding behind the current modern awning:

Rabethge's old sign

But it also meant we had to do some shopping! And that’s what I mostly want to tell you about. We visited several great little shops (and were particularly impressed by Kerr’s Corner Books, a fine small-town bookstore that Campbellford is fortunate to have), but I fell in love with one modest-but-cool (or is that cool-but-modest?) store that was in many ways not much changed from when my family lived just a couple of blocks away from it:

O'Briens' Stedmans store, CampbellfordIt is a Stedmans store; do you remember Stedmans, fellow small-town Ontarians? It was/is a chain (though with fairly individual franchises, like the Campbellford one, in my experience), with an interesting history that you can read here. Your typical Stedmans store is an old-fashioned kind of place: basically, it’s a small-town department store. Kind of like the dry-goods stores that those of us of a certain age remember – stores like Stickwood’s of Madoc – in that it really does carry a lot of “dry goods” like clothing, shoes and materials for people who knit, sew and crochet (think “notions“). But the Stedman’s store run by the O’Brien family – now, just as back in the days when the O’Brien kids were in high school with my siblings and me – sells so many other things! Toys and lawn chairs and books and kitchenware and giftware and stationery and on and on and on. Why, there were even plastic decorative things to put on gravestones! Here’s my little photo gallery:

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So yeah, that’s what I loved about this store: it sells things that ordinary people in an ordinary small town actually need. At reasonable prices. It’s not high-end stuff; there aren’t designer labels. But if you need some extra dinner plates, or a measuring cup, or a wedding-shower or baby-shower gift, or toys for Christmas gifts, or a T-shirt, or some casual shoes, or some yarn to make a sweater with, or a tote bag, or … well, it’s all there.

People, that is the kind of store that will save your small-town downtown. It offers humans things that they need and want, and that they don’t have to drive three-quarters of an hour to a stupid Walmart (I hate Walmart) to get. It’s run by friendly folks who know their customers by name. And the names of their customers’ parents. And those of their children.

And it’s also not a dollar store, which is the closest equivalent that many small towns have. Now, I’m not saying that dollar stores don’t provide a useful retail service, because they do. But the O’Briens’ store is a nice step up from that, with better-quality goods (most of them brand names) and a more pleasant and satisfying retail experience.

Raymond and I had more fun than anything looking around that store. I took some pictures, and bought children’s books (some classic Golden Books like The Poky Little Puppy) and a beautiful pair of leather moccasins for Raymond. And felt very glad, in making those purchases, to be contributing to the success of a retail operation that is in its own turn contributing to the overall success of the town it is in.

We left Campbellford that evening having had a nice meal, watched a fun movie in a great vintage theatre, and enjoyed an excellent shopping experience. And feeling like there was a lot of hope for small-town Eastern Ontario, if other towns follow some of the examples that Campbellford and its arts, food and retail communities are setting.

Some small-town bad news

Marmora TD Bank

The TD Canada Trust branch in Marmora, slated to close in mid-2015 – bad news for Marmora residents. (Photo by Margriet Kitchen, Central Hastings News)

As a fairly newly arrived – or, more accurately, returned – resident of Queensborough (in particular) and rural Eastern Ontario (in general), I find myself observing and thinking a fair bit about the state of the local small towns. Much more than I did in my years as a resident of Montreal, though I’ve always had an interest in smaller places – and so, whenever Raymond and I would travel, I liked to analyze what made some small towns prosperous and attractive and others depressing and sad. I long ago reached the conclusion that a flourishing arts community and an interest in heritage preservation are two key factors in boosting a town’s fortunes and all-round economic health – well, that, and a willingness by local residents to support local businesses.

But speaking of local businesses, tonight I want to tell you about an unfortunate situation in the small town of Marmora, which is about 18 miles southwest of Queensborough (not far from the border with Peterborough County) out on Highway 7. Marmora’s similar in size and temperament to Madoc and Tweed, which are the other two towns right smack in the centre of tall, narrow Hastings County, and obviously every resident of this central Hastings area has a vested interest in seeing all three of those pretty and historic little towns do well.

But one of Canada’s big banks is not doing its part on that front, at least when it comes to Marmora. TD Canada Trust, the only bank in Marmora – where it has been operating for more than 60 years, right at the main intersection downtown – announced a short while ago that it is going to close the branch and merge it with one in Havelock, a town of similar size about 11 miles west across the Hastings-Peterborough county line. You can read the full story by Margriet Kitchen, the Central Hastings News‘s Marmora reporter, here.

So this development will mean that Marmora will have no bank at all. And a town without a bank is – well, it’s not a good situation. Not good at all. I understand that Marmora’s politicians are protesting the closure vehemently, as well they should. I hope they make a big stink about it and get everyone in town involved, and will shame TD into reversing its decision.

Now, I say that with sadness, because I myself have banked at TD all of my adult life and have always found it to be a well-run and consumer-friendly operation. The folks at the little TD branch in our town, Madoc, couldn’t be friendlier or more helpful, and it’s a pleasure to go in there. (Though I usually do my banking online or through the branch’s two ATMs.) But I have to say that this decision by TD corporate – I am dead certain it wasn’t the people at the Marmora branch itself who decided to close it – is a genuinely terrible one, and gives the bank a big black eye.

I mean, what will people who don’t have cars do if they need to visit a bank? As Margriet Kitchen’s article notes, there are a couple of ATMs in Marmora, but neither of them is TD-affiliated, so TD customers who use them to deposit or withdraw cash have to pay extra fees. And besides – the people who need, or at least prefer, to do their banking face-to-face with a teller are, let’s face it, usually older and less willing or able to use ATMs, let alone do telephone or online banking. And it’s just those more vulnerable people that this great big bank is punishing by trying to save a small amount of money in closing one little branch.

And what about business-owners in Marmora? Will they have to drive to Havelock or Madoc at the end of a long day of work in order to make their deposits? Apparently they will. Which will be a disincentive to anyone who might be considering starting up a shop, restaurant or office in that town. Why would you set up a business to a place that doesn’t even have a bank?

For shame, TD. It is to all Canadians’ benefit that our small towns not only survive, but flourish. You should be doing your part.

Ah, but: tomorrow I will have some small-town good news.