Dickens and dinner by lamplight: a North Hastings treat

Awaiting the Christmas guests, Old Ormsby Schoolhouse

The tree is lit, the lamps are lit, the tables are festively set, and the Old Ormsby Schoolhouse awaits the guests to come and enjoy Dickens and Dinner by Lamplight.

Tonight, people, I want to tell you about a splendid Christmas event that takes place each year in tiny Ormsby (population 20) up in the northern reaches of Hastings County. Raymond and I had been wanting to attend it ever since we first heard about it, and this past weekend were fortunate enough finally to be able to do so. And guess what? If you are lucky enough to be able to snag a ticket, you can too, this coming weekend. (And if the tickets are gone, or your schedule doesn’t allow it, you can mark it in your calendar now for next year. It is most definitely worth planning an excursion around.)

Dickens and Dinner by Lamplight

The event in question is called Dickens and Dinner by Lamplight, and it takes place at the Old Ormsby Schoolhouse (oldormsbyschoolhouse.ca), a beautifully restored historic one-room schoolhouse that is now a tearoom/restaurant. Both the restoration and the running of the tearoom are the work of Ernie Pattison, who happens to be the twin brother of Gary Pattison – who, with his wife, Lillian Oakley Pattison, runs the Old Hastings Mercantile (oldhastingsgallery.ca) just over the brow of the hill from the Schoolhouse. I’ve written before (notably here) about the Mercantile, one of the most splendid gift shops you are ever likely to find. And the great thing is, when you visit the Schoolhouse Tearoom you can shop at the Mercantile, and when you shop at the Mercantile you can eat at the Schoolhouse. It’s a terrific setup.

A cheery fire blazes in the wood stove at the front of the schoolroom.

A cheery fire blazes in the wood stove at the front of the schoolroom.

So here’s the deal with Ernie Pattison’s Dickens and Dinner evenings: You take your seat at a seasonally set table lit with an old-fashioned hurricane lamp. You soak up the warmth coming from the blazing fire in the wood stove. If you’re a little early, you can poke around the schoolroom and take in all the interesting and fun artifacts Ernie has collected: old schoolroom maps (brought to you by the chocolate-bar companies, remember?); vintage textbooks; all the old chalkboard tools, including a protractor for that pesky geometry; and so on and so on. It’s fascinating! You can also leaf through meticulously kept photographic records of the project of restoring the schoolhouse.

Editions of A Christmas Carol at the Old Ormsby Schoolhouse

Ernie Pattison has amassed a collection of editions of A Christmas Carol, and at Christmastime they are displayed on the old wooden school desks.

Okay, so then you are served a wonderful turkey dinner: butternut-squash soup, then turkey and mashed potatoes and gravy and stuffing and veg and cranberry sauce and a light-as-a-feather homemade scone. And then comes the dessert plate, a beautifully presented collection of half a dozen sweet things. And as dessert is served, the lights are dimmed and the evening’s entertainment begins. That entertainment is an hour-long radio adaptation of Charles Dickens‘s beloved A Christmas Carol – first aired by CBS on Dec. 24, 1939, with narration by none other than Orson Welles and starring Lionel Barrymore as curmudgeon-turned-giant-hearted Ebenezer Scrooge. It is beyond delightful.

It’s quite magical to sit and listen to an entertainment, just as people did back in the days of radio and before television. You really do have to listen; which means you can’t be chatting amongst yourselves or doing something so foolish and trivial as sending texts on your phone. (Good luck with that anyway; Ormsby is far enough off the beaten track that there isn’t much of a cell signal.) And as you listen, your imagination conjures up the images for you.

Candelabra at the Old Ormsby Schoolhouse

The candelabra at the Old Ormsby Schoolhouse really does have candles, the light of which glows against the beautifully restored tin ceiling when the electric lights are turned off for the radio performance of A Christmas Carol. On the walls are oil-burning sconces.

As the roomful of us this past Sunday evening sat in happy silence, listening and enjoying the story (and digesting our excellent turkey dinner), I couldn’t help but think of how cozily old-fashioned it all was. There we were on a dark and cold winter’s night, gathered in a warm and lovely place around good food and a simple, charming entertainment. It was what people in small rural places used to do all the time – when going to “town” was a big deal and something not often done, and people created their own entertainments in community halls and churches, with songs and plays and pageants and recitations. Simpler times. Some would say: better times. I think I might be among those people.

Anyway, if you’d like to attend this wonderful event yourself (either this coming weekend or next year), here are the particulars:

Dickens dinner details

I urge you not to miss this old-fashioned celebration of Christmas in our very special part of the world.

Precious pieces of history – Queensborough women’s history

Hazzard's Church by Vera Burnside

“Hazzard’s Church,” by Vera Burnside. A wonderful drawing by a very talented local artist (more on that below), and especially important because it shows the long-gone old drive shed where the horses would have been parked during services in the church’s first century or so. (Am I dating myself if I tell you that I remember that drive shed? Oh well, what the heck.) This framed edition of the drawing belonged to Bobbie Sager, one of the brightest and most important lights Queensborough has ever seen, and a great friend of Vera. And now, thanks to a gift from Bobbie’s sister Barb, it hangs proudly in the kitchen of the Manse.

I received a truly wonderful Queensborough-themed gift a while back, one that moved me almost to tears. Actually, excise that “almost.” There were tears. And it is high time I told you about it.

In fact, it was more like a gift package, because there was more than one item. A bunch of stuff, actually, all of it delightful. But three of the items were, and are, particularly close to my heart, and I’ll tell you about them. Over the course of tonight’s post, and tomorrow’s.

But first let me tell you about the person who gave them to me. She is Barbara Martin, née Sager, a Queensborough-born girl and the younger sister of the late Bobbie Sager Ramsay, who ran one of our village’s two general stores and generally kept things in order here in Queensborough for years and years and years. I’ve written about Bobbie many times before, but here is a post that tells the story of Bobbie’s wedding, one of the classic Queensborough stories of all time. Not because of my telling of it, you understand, but because of Bobbie herself and how great she was, and how important to our community; and also of what a stunning surprise she pulled off when she decided to go and get married. In fact, just because I can, I am going to show you once again a wedding photo of Bobbie and her husband, Allan, just after they were married. Right here at the Manse:

Bobbie and Allan Ramsay wedding

The newly married Bobbie and Allan Ramsay, after a top-secret ceremony right here at the Manse. As I write this post I am not two feet away from where they were standing. And I was there for the great (top-secret) event! It gives me goosebumps sometimes, the history in this house.

Bobbie’s sister Barb is an absolutely lovely person who, though she now lives about an hour’s drive away, keeps close ties with Queensborough, is a go-to source of information about our hamlet’s history, and is kind enough to read and sometimes comment on my ramblings here at Meanwhile, at the Manse.

In fact, those ramblings kind of led to her gifts. For which I will forever be grateful.

The first came because I’d mentioned my love for a style of serving trays popular back in the 1950s and ’60s. Come on, you’ve seen them: black background and, against that, a design of big, colourful (usually pink and red) flowers. The ones I wrote about came in the form of TV trays; my maternal grandparents had those ever-so-useful TV trays, and I wish to goodness I still had them. After I wrote that post, another friend, Ernie Pattison – proprietor of the funky and great tearoom and restaurant The Old Omsby Schoolhouse up in northern Hastings County in the hamlet of Ormsby – presented me with a miniature version of such a tray; details here. (Ernie has a bunch of them, acquired at an antique store, and they’re used at The Old Schoolhouse when they bring you your check and then the change. A nice vintage touch in a lovely vintage place!)

Okay, so: one of the gifts I received from Barb was a full-sized version of such a tray. Here it is, and I think you will agree that it is beautiful:Barb's shower-gift tray

But when it comes to why this tray is meaningful for me, the fact that it’s beautiful pales in comparison to this: Barb received this tray as a shower gift before she was married, which just happens to be 54 years ago this very month. (Happy 54th anniversary, Barb and Don!) Those of you with good subtraction skills will have already figured out that that was 1960 – a very good year, if I do say so myself. (Perhaps, if you are a regular reader of Meanwhile, at the Manse, you can do your own math and guess why I say that.)

Anyway: where was the shower held? Why, Queensborough, of course; I’ve already mentioned that Barb was a Queensborough girl. And where, more specifically? Why, at the one-room schoolhouse; that historic (built 1901) building was (and is to this day) our community centre. It was where the Women’s Institute met, where euchre parties were held, where we have the annual spring pancake breakfast – it was at this past spring’s pancake breakfast that Barb passed on these treasures to me – and where community bridal and baby showers have taken place since … well, probably since 1901.

One time I wrote about the bridal-shower tradition in Queensborough as I remembered it from my childhood. That post is here, but the highlights from it are these:

  • All the women and girls from the community would come.
  • All the just-unwrapped gifts would be passed around the circle of attendees so that we could ooohh and aaahh over the tea towels and dishcloths and whatnot – hey, those were simpler times, and practical gifts were needed and welcomed!
  • And most importantly, the bows from all the gift wrapping were stitched to a paper plate by an able assistant sitting beside the bride-to-be, and at the end of the evening that blushing young woman would don the finished product and wear it as a colourful hat.

That, my friends, is fine old-fashioned community fun, all focused on (and enjoyed by) the women of the community. And I miss those days.

And I love to picture Barb – who is a very good-looking woman “of a certain age” now, and must have been a knockout as a young woman at the time of that bridal shower – wearing that made-for-her-from-the-gift-bows hat, and exclaiming over the gift of the very tray that now has pride of place at the Manse. Here is what Barb wrote me (in part) when I sent her a thank-you for the gifts:

“I was only too happy to pass the things on to someone who would really treasure them. The tray was a shower gift from Queensborough and we will be married 54 years this August so you know how old it is and if I ever find my book with the record of gifts in it, I would be able to tell you who gave it to me. I know Bobbie is up there thinking how wonderful for you to have the drawing and have it hanging in the old Manse. I so wish she had lived long enough to enjoy yours and Raymond’s company in the Village.”

Did I mention that this makes me cry? I just feel so honoured that Barb would not only pass on treasures from her own, and Queensborough’s, past, but also those kind words saying, basically, “Welcome (back) to Queensborough. You (and Raymond) belong here.”

Okay, on to “the drawing” that Barb mentions. It is a black-and-white sketch of Hazzard’s Corners United Church, a beautiful and historic old building just up the road from Queensborough that I have written about many a time; here and here are just two examples. The drawing is by the late Vera Burnside, a woman who in my view was, and is, like Bobbie (and Barb), a model of strength, beauty, brains, talent and resilience.

Vera, a schoolteacher by training, lived in the Hazzard’s area but, after that church closed in 1967, attended and was very active in St. Andrew’s United Church in Queensborough. She taught Sunday School (including brats like me), was active in the UCW, and just generally was busy doing useful and helpful things for church and community. And (to boot) was an accomplished artist! Here is my post about finding, and being fortunate enough to be able to purchase, a Vera Burnside original painting at an auction. That painting is not five feet away from me as I write this. It makes me happy, and happily reflective, every time I look at it. Which is many times a day.

As I write all of this, I am struck by how all the players and characters in the stories – Barb, Bobbie, Vera, the women and girls who took part in the bridal and baby showers at the schoolhouse, me – are female.

Yes, this is history. Community history. But also – it is women’s history. Women in tiny rural places like Queensborough. Their history – our history – often gets short shrift in the overall scheme of things. People, I think we are on to something, thanks to inspiration from my friend Barb and her wonderful gifts. Tomorrow, Part 2, and it’s a good one: the Queensboro Cook Book!

What is “North of 7”?

Highway 7

This photo of Highway 7, which I took this very afternoon, gives you a sense, I think, of what a geographical divide it is between “the fat south/with inches of soil on/earth’s round belly,” as the poet Al Purdy put it, and the “lakeland rockland hill country” of the Canadian Shield, as Purdy also said. Note the rock through which the highway had to be blasted.

If you’re a regular, or even occasional, reader of Meanwhile, at the Manse, you’ve probably noticed me using the phrase “north of 7” with some regularity. If you live in or are from the Queensborough area or quite a wide swath around it, you will be instantly familiar with the phrase and know what it means.

But I always keep in mind that it probably doesn’t mean a thing to readers from elsewhere, and so every time I use it I try to get in some kind of an ever-so-brief explanation – often something as simple as noting that “7” refers to Ontario Highway 7.

So I thought it might be useful, both for readers and perhaps especially for me, to try to give a once-and-for-all explanation so that every time I say “north of 7” in future posts I can just link back to this one (for those who are puzzled and want more information) and so that I won’t have to explain it every time.

Okay, so what is “north of 7”?

Well, to begin with – and the main reason why I use the term so often – it’s where Queensborough is, and thus by extension where the Manse is. Living here makes Raymond and me by definition north-of-7 people.

And yes, “7” is Highway 7, or, if you want to get all formal about it, “The King’s Highway 7” – though why ownership hasn’t been transferred to the current female monarch, who has, after all, been ruling for sixty-two years, is kind of beyond me. I have many times linked to the Highway 7 section of the very interesting website The King’s Highway (thekingshighway.ca) that is put together by Cameron Bevers, who has a vast interest in the geography and history of Ontario’s highways. If you’ve never gone to those links I urge you to check them out: go here to get not only some quick facts about Highway 7, but also an excellent recounting of its history, and here to see some great historical photos of it.

But why does being “north of 7” constitute a state of being that is so different from, say, “south of 7” (or, for that matter, “north of the 401,” or “north of Highway 2“)?

Well, I’m no expert in this stuff, but here’s my take on it. People, if you have information to add, or a different perspective on this locally important subject, please share your knowledge in the comments section!

Basically, in Hastings County, Highway 7 (which runs east-west) is the unofficial yet remarkably accurate demarcation between the rich (agriculturally speaking) lands to the south, down to Lake Ontario, and the Canadian Shield. North of 7 is where the soil thins out dramatically, where rocks and lakes and evergreen trees take over from wide-open fields and big, flourishing farms. Yes, there are pockets of reasonable soil and some nice farms north of 7; but they are relatively few and far between. For the most part, north of 7 is a different kind of country altogether.

It is the country that poet Al Purdy so memorably described in his poem The Country North of Belleville. (You can read all about that poem, and read the poem itself, in my post here). Except when Purdy was talking about “bush land scrub land … lakeland rockland and hill country” he really was describing “the country north of 7” more than “the country north of Belleville.” (I think the latter title just sounded better to him, and it is very possible that more of his potential readers would have twigged to “Belleville” in the title than to “7.”)

“This is the country of our defeat,” Purdy says, taking on the identity of one or all of the would-be farmers who tried to make a go of it in the land north of 7 after it was opened up in the 19th century. It is, he says,

… where Sisyphus rolls a big stone
year after year up the ancient hills
picknicking glaciers have left strewn
with centuries’ rubble
                backbreaking days
                in the sun and rain
when realization seeps slow in the mind
without grandeur or self-deception in
                noble struggle of being a fool…

As it happens, there is a just-published book on the very subject of Hastings County north of 7 being “the country of defeat” for early pioneers. It is called The Trail of Broken Hearts (you can read all about it here), and it is by Paul Kirby, a writer and publisher who has done an enormous amount to explore and share the history of Hastings County. The Trail of Broken Hearts of the book’s title is the Old Hastings Road, which I wrote about at length here and which is the perfect symbol for the tough times that people of past generations have dealt with in the land now known as “north of 7.”

Not that there was a Highway 7 in pioneer times, of course. As I wrote here, the local section of the highway was built during the Great Depression as an employment project. Here is a wonderful photo of that time, which I have thanks to Keith Millard, a descendent of an early family here in Elzevir Township, the Kleinsteubers:

Highway 7 under construction, 1932

Highway 7 (in the Actinolite area, a bit southeast of Queensborough) when it was under construction in 1932. (Photo courtesy of Keith Millard)

What is interesting is that when it came to constructing that roadway, the powers that be, whether consciously or unconsciously, did lay it out in a path that demarcated two different ways of living.

But I think it’s fair to say that “north of 7” isn’t just a geographical thing; it’s also a state of mind. Longtime residents have told me they remember the days when if you lived north of 7 – say in Queensborough, or Cooper, or Eldorado, or Bannockburn, or Millbridge, or Gilmour, or maybe way up north in Coe Hill or Ormsby or Bancroft (where the writer of the excellent blog Living North of 7 [livingnorthof7.com] is based) – some people from south of 7 would look down their noses at you. You might be considered the Canadian version of a hillbilly, in other words. And l think there is no doubt that over the years, some hillbilly types have chosen to live in these relatively remote and undisturbed parts. But so have people who just want to get away from it all; if you want to be left alone, this traditionally has been a pretty good place to do it.

I don’t know whether any misguided people south of 7 still look down their noses at those of us who choose to live north of 7. But I do know that times are changing, and areas that were once seen as remote and forbidding are becoming ever-more-sought-after by people – and I’m not talking hillbillies here – who want to live, even if only part of the time, in a place that is quiet and beautiful and unspoiled. Like this:

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So yeah, I think “quiet, beautiful and unspoiled” pretty much sums up north of 7. And I know I am far from the only person who is very proud indeed to call “north of 7” by another term. That would be: home.

Hymn singing that makes the rafters ring

Old Ormsby Heritage Church

The tiny, historic Old Ormsby Heritage Church. It ceased holding regular services two or three decades ago, but Gary and Lillian Pattison have restored it and organize lovely special services there. (And weddings sometimes take place in it too.)

Before we get too far away from it, I want to do a little post about the service Raymond and I attended this month at the Old Ormsby Heritage Church in the teeny-tiny hamlet of Ormsby, northern Hastings County. (I’ve written lots about Ormsby and the interesting goings-on there – a great old-fashioned general store and emporium, a wonderful tea room/restaurant, special events and the restoration of both heritage buildings and community spirit – here and here.)

Gary and Lillian Pattison and Ernie and Debbie Pattison (Gary and Ernie are twin brothers) are the driving forces behind Ormsby’s renaissance, and it is Gary and Lillian, who now own and have beautifully restored the sweet little building that was Ormsby’s Presbyterian Church, who are behind the special services that take place there from time to time (including a musical Christmas one that is by all accounts absolutely magical).

The service Gary had invited Raymond and me to was an anniversary, marking the building’s 109th year. We knew the church would fill up so we’d better get there early – and fill up it did. It’s a tiny building and doesn’t seat a lot of people in any case, but it was packed to the gills and standing room only.

The service itself was simple and unpretentious, and featured special music by Lillian (a marvellous singer), a brass section including Gary on French horn, and organist Sharon Adams playing a tiny yet very impressive pipe organ that had come to the church from George Beverly Shea – you know, the singer who performed at Billy Graham’s Crusades for decades and decades and decades. (Shea, who was a Canadian born in Winchester, Ont., died just this year, at the age of 104. How the organ he’d once owned and played came to be at the Old Ormsby Church is a charming story that I’ll save for another time – or perhaps let Gary and Lillian tell.)

Anniversary service at the Old Ormsby Church

People who attended the anniversary service mill about and chat afterward. I took this photo so you can see how beautifully restored the building is. And for that we have Gary Pattison (who’s in the blue shirt at left) and his wife, Lillian. Both of them also provided special music for the service.

But what I’ll remember most about the service was the congregation singing How Great Thou Art toward the end of it. Everyone there knew that one, as does everyone who’s ever set foot in a North American church (and many who haven’t). So we sang “lustily, with a good courage” (as John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, prescribes in his famous Rules for Singing; he goes on, “Beware of singing as if you were half dead, or half asleep; but lift up your voice with strength.”). And the sound practically raised the roof of the Old Ormsby Church, and it did my heart good. It brought back happy memories of the days when it was not uncommon for churches to be full to overflowing. And when a country church is full to overflowing, and you’ve got a good rousing hymn to sing (like How Great Thou Art, or any of the hundreds written by John Wesley’s brother Charles), and you’ve got good musical accompaniment (like in our case, George Beverly Shea’s pipe organ and a brass ensemble) – well, the sound is like no other. I wish I had an audio excerpt to play for you so you’d know what I mean.

Then again, those of you who lived through those days, like I did, don’t need an audio clip. You have your memories, and they will bring back for you the sound of the walls and rafters of an old country church resounding with that glorious singing. Lustily, and with a good courage.

In a tiny outpost, shopping, dining, and a warm welcome

Raymond on the front porch of the Old Hastings Mercantile. It was a grey and rainy day, but inside we received the warmest of welcomes and discovered a treasure trove of wonderful goods for sale.

Raymond on the front porch of the Old Hastings Mercantile. It was a grey and rainy day, but inside we received the warmest of welcomes and discovered a treasure trove of goods for sale.

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!

The Old Ormsby Heritage Church – and, in the rear, its church-styled outhouse! (A delightful touch by the Pattinsons.)

The Old Ormsby Heritage Church – and, in the rear at right, its church-styled outhouse. (A delightful touch by the Pattisons.)

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.

The Mercantile has room after themed room, but this one, the tiniest, is a jewel: the room under the stairs, filled with beautiful little things. Delightful!

The Mercantile has room after themed room, but this one, the tiniest, is a jewel: the room under the stairs, filled with beautiful little things. Delightful! (To see pictures of all the other rooms at the Mercantile, all packed with great stuff, check out the Theme Rooms link on its website, here.)

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?

The Old Ormsby Schoolhouse restaurant and tearoom, looking inviting on a damp, misty day in Ormsby.

The Old Ormsby Schoolhouse restaurant and tearoom, looking inviting on a damp, misty day in Ormsby.

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.

Our haul of retro candy from the Old Hastings Mercantile. Remember that tri-coloured taffy? And snowballs? And Thrills gum? (Which, as it proudly says on the box, still taste like soap!)

Our haul of retro candy from the Old Hastings Mercantile. Remember that tri-coloured taffy? And snowballs? And Thrills gum? (Which, as it proudly says on the box, still tastes like soap!) And there’s lots more to choose from at the Mercantile – including good old blackballs.

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!

Lillian Oakley Pattison, storekeeper extraordinaire, and Raymond with the gift that Lillian's husband, Gary, had made for us: It's THE MANSE with photos from my very own childhood. Lovely!

Lillian Oakley Pattison, storekeeper extraordinaire, and Raymond with the gift that Lillian’s husband, Gary, had made for us: It’s THE MANSE with photos from my very own childhood. Lovely! (And you can see from the surroundings just how much amazing stuff is for sale at the Old Hastings Mercantile. Every nook and cranny contains something interesting.)

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.)

Ernie Pattison at the beautifully restored Old Ormsby Schoolhouse – a wonderful place for lunch or afternoon tea or (on weekends) supper.

Ernie Pattison at the beautifully restored Old Ormsby Schoolhouse – a wonderful place for lunch or afternoon tea or (on weekends) supper. I apologize for my slightly out-of-focus photo – I get nervous when I take pictures, because I’m so bad at it! But hey, note the slate on the table in the foreground – that’s what’s used to take your order. And also the authentic pot-bellied stove!

A lovely gift from Ernie Pattison: a miniature version of the funky TV trays that my grandparents once had, together with the recipe for his absolutely splendid squash soup.

A lovely gift from Ernie Pattison: a miniature version of the funky TV trays that my grandparents once had, together with the recipe for his absolutely splendid squash soup.

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!

Raymond Brassard, saver of turtles

Our first turtle of the weekend, spotted crossing Hunt Club Road southwest of Queensborough.

Our first turtle of last weekend, spotted crossing Hunt Club Road southwest of Queensborough.

Raymond and I saw a lot of turtles on the highways and byways of Hastings County this past weekend. I don’t know if turtles have a “season,” but if they do, this must be it. Wherever we drove, sleepy back roads and busy highways, we had to be careful lest there be a turtle crossing  – or trying to, at least. Imagine yourself a little turtle and how hard it would be to safely cross a busy highway!

It’s amazing how determined the turtles seem to be to cross that highway. One wonders why they don’t just stay safely in the woodland or marshland off to either side, where the risk of getting struck by a fast-moving car or truck is nonexistent. Is it the sun-warmed pavement that attracts them, I wonder? Or just a sense of adventure? I’m all for a sense of adventure (just look how much fun Bilbo Baggins had when he left the safety of home), but not when it means risking life and limb with every passing second – and it takes a turtle many, many seconds to cross a highway.

It seems a lot of drivers in the Queensborough area are, like us, pretty aware of the possibility of encountering a turtle. One day last summer we were zipping along Highway 7 and met a car with its headlights flashing furiously at us. Of course we assumed it was because there was a police speed trap, but no: the driver was warning us of a huge and prehistoric-looking turtle crossing the highway just around the bend. I’m so glad we got the warning! The headlight-flashing thing is a good practice for us all to follow when we see a turtle, big or small. Turtles are happy and useful creatures, and they deserve a good life on whichever side of the road they choose to live it.

Raymond gets readily (admittedly rather gingerly) to pick up Mr. Hunt Club Road Turtle and move it to safety on the side of the road – the side it was heading for, of course! Wouldn't want to mess up its travel plans.

Raymond gets ready (admittedly rather gingerly) to pick up Mr. Hunt Club Road Turtle and move it to safety on the side of the road – the side it was heading for, of course. Wouldn’t want to mess up its travel plans.

Anyway, Raymond seems to have developed a special soft spot for turtles, thanks I suppose to meeting so many of them – half a dozen at least, and not all happily, but I’ll get to that in a minute – this past weekend. When we suddenly encountered the first one, as we were enjoying a drive along scenic Hunt Club Road from Highway 7 north to Queensborough, he took it upon himself (well, actually he tried to get me to do it, since I was out there on the road taking a photo of the turtle, but I was chicken) to help our slow-moving friend across. Which was just as well, since there was a bit of a hill just ahead, and it would have been so easy for a car to come zooming over it and hit the turtle before the driver could have even realized it was there. So one turtle saved – as long as it didn’t decide to turn around and go back once we’d driven on.

A couple of days and several turtles later, we were driving south from a great trip to Ormsby (I’ll tell you about that in a separate post soon) on Highway 62, when up ahead we spotted what looked like a turtle off on the shoulder of the road. As we got closer we realized the awful truth: it had been hit. “It didn’t make it,” Raymond said sadly. And then, clearly anguished: “It was still alive. I saw it move.” We were in heavy, fast-moving traffic; stopping and going back wasn’t really an option, and we wouldn’t have known what to do if we had. Could we have helped the turtle?

I remembered that I had read about a place somewhere in central Ontario that helps injured turtles, and made a mental note to look it up for future reference. We couldn’t help that poor, poor creature, but perhaps in future we can help another. Meanwhile, I was so touched by how moved my dear husband was about the turtle. I always knew Raymond was the kindest of kind souls, but that was the clincher.

Anyway, here are my final words to you all this evening, and I know Raymond will echo them heartily: if you are out driving in Hastings County, mind the turtles!

You just never know, or: happy surprises (updated)

I don't know about you, but I think this brown-and-white basin/ewer/etc. set that we found at Kim's Kollectibles in Madoc is very pretty indeed; and wouldn't the ewer (pitcher) look beautiful with a cluster of narcissus and/or daffodils in it?

I don’t know about you, but I think this brown-and-white china basin/ewer/etc. set that we found (on sale!) at Kim’s Kollectibles in Madoc over the long weekend is very pretty indeed; and wouldn’t the ewer (pitcher) look beautiful with a cluster of narcissus and/or daffodils in it?

Our blooming narcissus plant in the Manse's garden.

Our blooming narcissus plant in the Manse’s garden.

Good evening, readers! Tonight’s post is coming to you a tiny bit earlier than last night’s, when Raymond and I had been out for an absolutely delightful dinner with some friends from our church here in Montreal, the Church of St. Andrew and St. Paul. It was late when we got in so I did a quick post featuring little more than a snapshot of a narcissus plant that we practically watched go into bloom over the Victoria Day weekend at the Manse in Queensborough. (Remember those old slo-mo films of flowers bursting into bloom? On OECA – the Ontario Educational Communications Authority, now TVOntario? Yes you do. At least, you do if you are somewhere around my age and grew up in Ontario.)


As I said, that narcissus post was a quick one, just to get my (self-imposed) daily post requirement fulfilled before a late bedtime. But what a nice and surprising response I got to it! Which goes to prove this: you just never know.

The response came in the form of an email from Ernie Pattison, one-half of the Pattison-brother duo/trio (Ernie and Gary Pattison, and Gary’s wife, Lillian) behind the wonderful things (the Old Hastings Mercantile and the Old Omsby Schoolhouse “Educated Dining” and Tearoom ) that are happening in the tiny hamlet of Ormsby, 45 minutes or an hour northwest of Queensborough, in the heart of North Hastings County. I’ve written about all that here, so I won’t go over it again except to say that you must go visit the Old Hastings Mercantile and the Old Omsby Schoolhouse Tearoom (and “Educated Dining”) sometime soon.

What Ernie was writing about was narcissus. Actually, narcissus and closely related daffodils. In North Hastings. Read on (I don’t think Ernie will mind):

“In the early 1960s my neighbour at The Ridge [Katherine here: The Ridge is a small farming community near Coe Hill], Bob McGeachie (who passed away about 13 years ago), planted hundreds of daffodils and narcissus bulbs in a little roadside field across from our house. The narcissus are the last to bloom every May and there are hundreds of blooms on right now. The daffodils, about forty varieties, bloom through April and May every spring and are visited by many people each year. I cut back the sumac every year to allow the hundreds (thousands?) of bright, cheerful blooms to peek through the wild grass. I am sending a photo of a collection of the daffodils that I picked this year. There are some great colours including pink daffodils. We hand out little bouquets to all the moms at the Tea  Room on Mother’s Day.”

Isn’t that fantastic? A field of narcissus and daffodils, of all colours, blooming their heads off way up there in North Hastings County for all to see and admire, and all thanks to a good guy who just went and planted them.

I love that story.

Ernie sent along a lovely photo of some of this year’s crop of daffodils and narcissus in a makeshift vase that was in reality an old (like, really old), pretty china ewer (pitcher), which had been placed inside a matching wide, shallow china bowl that was doubtless the washbasin for a 19th-century family; the ewer was the source of the water poured into the washbasin. Unfortunately the format the photo came in means I can’t reproduce it here, but let me tell you this: it gave me an idea! Happy update: Today Ernie’s brother Gary sent me the photo in a different format, and here it is:

Daffodils picked for a frield at The Ridge, near Coe Hill. Don't they look beautiful in that vintage pitcher? (Photo courtesy of Ernie Pattison)

Daffodils picked from a field at The Ridge, near Coe Hill in North Hastings County. Don’t they look beautiful in that vintage pitcher? (Photo courtesy of Ernie Pattison)

As it happens, on the Victoria Day weekend Raymond and I – okay, I – purchased a really pretty old china basin/ewer/etc. set at half price from an antiques/collectibles store in Madoc that we like a lot (and that I’ve mentioned here before), Kim’s Kollectibles. (I had admired and been tempted by the set at full price a few months before, so when it was on sale at half price, how could I resist?)

And that set is the photo atop this post – which, admittedly, would be much nicer if there were narcissus and daffodil stems in the ewer. But I will leave it to your imagination, and I will feel happy that thanks to our new and not-yet-met-in-person friend Ernie Pattison we have an excellent idea for using that set.

Not to mention a great reason to head north of Queensborough – next spring and every spring after that – and go look at some stark yet beautiful countryside, where daffodils and narcissus bloom. Thanks to the late and thoughtful Bob McGeachie.

The Old Hastings Mercantile puts Ormsby back on the map

The Old Hastings Mercantile and Gallery: worth the drive to pretty little Ormsby! (Photo from Ontario's Highlands)

The Old Hastings Mercantile and Gallery: it’s worth the drive to pretty little Ormsby! (Photo from Ontario’s Highlands, ontarioshighlands.ca)

A couple of readers have pointed out that in yesterday’s post – about travelling north through the centre of Hastings County on the historic Old Hastings Road, and passing through the hamlet of Ormsby on the way home to Queensborough – I neglected to mention the very remarkable thing that is to be found in Ormsby: the Old Hastings Mercantile and Gallery, a wonderful (by all accounts) old-fashioned general store and – well, emporium seems like a good word to describe this sprawling, funky operation.

But there was a reason I didn’t mention it! It’s that Raymond and I haven’t had a chance to visit it yet, so we haven’t seen it for ourselves. (At least on the inside; we stopped and had a look at the outside on our Old Hastings Road drive, but it was a weekday and the store is only open on weekends until Victoria Day. Then it’s open seven days a week until Dec. 31, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Saturday, and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday.)

This is the former Presbyterian Church at Ormsby, now called the Old Ormsby Heritage Church. Isn't it beautiful? (Photo from oldhastingsgallery.ca)

This is the former Presbyterian Church at Ormsby, now called the Old Ormsby Heritage Church. Isn’t it beautiful? (Photo from oldhastingsgallery.ca)

Our not having been there yet is most certainly not for lack of interest. Ever since I read about the Mercantile a little over a year ago in an article in Country Roads magazine by our friend Lindi Pierce – you can read it here – I’ve been dying to check it out. The problem has been our always-limited time and perpetually long list of things that need doing at the Manse. But so many people in the Queensborough/Madoc/Hazzard’s Corners/Tweed/Eldorado area have mentioned Ormsby to us, and raved not only about the store but about the beautiful little church that the people who opened the store have restored (where a lovely Christmas service is held each year), and the restaurant/tearoom they have created in the village’s old schoolhouse. “You have to go!” they say. And I suspect they say it not just because it’s a great place to visit, but because they know that the folks behind the Ormsby renaissance are kindred spirits to Raymond and me.

That is: people who have lived and worked in the big city but have (like me with Queensborough) felt the call of Hastings County, and home.

That is something to celebrate and support. You can be sure that Raymond and I will be visiting the Old Hastings Mercantile (and The Old Schoolhouse restaurant/tearoom) very, very soon.

And I urge you to do so too!

The Old Hastings Road

Old Hastings Road

Since yesterday’s post had a north Hastings County theme – it was about a vintage shop in the Bancroft area called Revival Store – I thought I’d carry on in that vein and tell you about our drive up the Old Hastings Road.

It was a beautiful day at the Manse, and after Raymond and I had used up the morning and the early part of the afternoon on yard work, we decided that we should treat ourselves to a drive through parts unknown. And I suggested taking the Old Hastings Road north from the hamlet of Millbridge up to see Coe Hill, a village I have heard of all my life but – probably because it’s several miles west off Highway 62, Hastings County’s north-south thoroughfare – had never visited.

It seemed like a good idea. The Old Hastings Road is a historic one (as you can see from the photo atop this post of the commemorative plaque at the hamlet of Ormsby, between Coe Hill and Highway 62) that runs parallel to 62. In the years when I was a kid growing up at the Manse in Queensborough I’d passed signs for the Old Hastings Road hundreds of times on family trips up and down the highway on the way to and from the ancestral Sedgwick farm in Haliburton County. Why not check it out?

The sign for the Old Hastings Road off much-much-much-more-travelled Highway 62. (Photo from pinecone.on.ca, where you can read an excellent article about the history of the Old Hastings Road)

The sign for the Old Hastings Road off much-much-much-more-travelled Highway 62. (Photo from pinecone.on.ca, where you can read an excellent article about the history of the Old Hastings Road)

On our Eastern Ontario map, the Old Hastings Road looked like any other road. There was nothing to warn us of the reality, which is that it is not maintained at all in winter (and remember, we were making this drive in early spring) and, by the looks of things, gets very little in the way of maintenance the rest of the time. A few miles north of Millbridge (itself marked on the map as a ghost town, though people do live there) it started to get pretty rough. And then we passed the “not maintained in winter” sign. And came to the end of the hydro lines. And the houses. And the road got worse and worse. (To get a sense of it, check out even a short bit of this video, posted by a motorcyclist who obviously liked the challenge the rough road offered.)

And it was getting late.

And did I mention that our little Toyota was very low on gas?

Which prompted me to turn to my iPhone to try to find out if there was a gas station in Coe Hill. Ha! A cellphone signal? There, in the middle of nowhere? What was I, nuts?

So let’s just say we were awfully glad when the Old Hastings Road finally intersected with the (mercifully) paved North Steenburg Lake Road. We zoomed the final miles to Coe Hill – which does have a gas station, thank goodness – and discovered a charming little place, made more wealthy than one might have guessed by, I imagine, the property taxes paid by the many cottagers on nearby scenic Wollaston Lake. Coe Hill has a school and a sizeable grocery store, restaurants and shops, a gallery or two, an LCBO – all the comforts one could want. And, by the looks of the well-groomed fairgrounds, an impressive fall fair (Aug. 23 and 24 this year).

So all was well that ended well, and we made our way east to Highway 62 and then back south to Queensborough and a nice evening at the Manse. But not before stopping to photograph the Old Hastings Road historical plaque at Ormsby.

You don’t have to read too deeply between the lines of the text on that plaque to realize that the story of the Old Hastings Road is one of heartache and broken dreams. High hopes for the growth and settlement that the new road was supposed to bring turned into disappointment and worse when it was realized that the soil atop “the southern fringe of the Precambrian Shield” was too thin and poor to be farmed. (You can read all about the history of the road in an excellent article here.)

“The settlers abandoned their farms and the road fell into disuse,” the plaque’s text ends. Well, disused, but not entirely unused. As Raymond and I can attest.

The Tweed News, and the joys of an old-fashioned stationery store

The offices of the Tweed News on the main street of Tweed, Ont. The building serves not only as the newspaper offices but as a first-rate stationery store – the equivalent for me of a candy store.

The offices of the Tweed News on the main street of Tweed, Ont. The building serves not only as the newspaper offices but as a stationery store – the equivalent for me of a candy store.

Yesterday I wrote about how much I enjoy catching up on all the local news from Hastings and eastern Northumberland counties via the local weekly newspapers that we get in Queensborough. In a comment in response, our almost-neighbour Pauline made the very good point that one of those papers, the Tweed News, is one of a great (and, sadly, disappearing) breed: an independent newspaper. While the free weeklies are owned by big corporations – the Community Press is part of the Québecor empire and the EMC is a Torstar production via its Metroland division (as another reader, Gordon, pointed out in his own comment) – the Tweed News continues, as it has for a very long time, as a local family-run operation. You don’t find many of those any more, and when you do it is something to celebrate.

I suspect that one key reason why the Tweed News – which, unlike the EMC and the Community Press, is a newspaper you have to pay for – is able to keep going is that, in addition to the newspaper business, it’s also in the stationery business. Its office on the main street of Tweed has the newspaper’s tiny newsroom in the back, but in the front is a retail area, with shelves of books and cards and pens and file folders and coin rollers and pencils and pencil sharpeners and notepads and… perhaps from this you can tell that I adore stationery stores. They’re like candy stores to me. I always end up buying stationery supplies that I will never need, like pads for waitresses to write down restaurant orders, and receipt books and whatnot. So this stationery operation is yet another reason for me to love the Tweed News.

Well, that and the fact that when you go to pay for your big pile of stationery products, more than half of which (if you’re me) you don’t actually need, the person who greets you and gives you your change is none other than Rodger Hanna, publisher and editor of the Tweed News. It’s a real thrill!

In honour of my dad: a fresh package of carbon paper, on his old desk in the study of the Manse. Purchased at the Tweed News.

In honour of my dad: a fresh package of carbon paper, on his old (and well-worn) desk in the study of the Manse. Purchased at the Tweed News.

One wonderful thing I found in the store on a recent visit was a package of carbon paper. Carbon paper! Good lord – I couldn’t believe it still existed in this age of photocopiers and home printers. But exist it does, and so of course I bought it. And brought it back to the Manse to the old desk at which my dad used to work. Dad always used carbon paper to make copies of the letters he would type, and maybe his sermons and orders of service too. Sometimes he would make multiple copies with multiple sheets of carbon paper. Very cutting-edge technology at the time.

All of a sudden I’m hearing a silent thought from all readers below the age of 50: What the deuce is carbon paper?

Ask your parents. Or, if you’re younger than 30, maybe your grandparents.

Postscript: My thanks to my friend Lindi Piece (who does two splendid blogs, Ancestral Roofs and In Search of Al Purdy), who reminded me that there was an excellent article about the Tweed News in a recent issue of the very fine Hastings County magazine Country Roads. You can read the article here. (And while you’re on the Country Roads site, check out the beautiful cover photo on the most recent issue by our friend Len Holmes, of the Hazzard’s Corners area – scroll down to the bottom of the screen here to see it.) Also, I should have mentioned that the Tweed News was co-winner (with the Old Hastings Mercantile, a store and gallery in Ormsby that I am extremely eager to visit) of the 2012 Tourism Business of the Year Award at the Hastings County/Comfort Country tourism awards ceremony last fall. Congratulations to publisher and editor in chief Rodger Hanna and company!