Stirling butter, found in all the best places

Stirling Butter

So there Raymond and I were, in a hipper-than-hip butcher shop in Toronto’s Kensington Market called Sanagan’s Meat Locker, and what do I find but a splendid display of Stirling butter, made right here in central Hastings County!

When I was growing up here in Queensborough, my mum always bought Stirling butter because, well, it was the local butter. So did pretty much everybody else. And we never thought too much about it.

Vintage Stirling whey butter wrapper

Here’s something funky the internet just coughed up: a vintage wrapper from when the Stirling Creamery produced whey butter under the name Hastings (rather than Stirling). This takes me back to my childhood days!

When I returned to this area a little less than three years ago, I was delighted to learn that the Stirling Creamery was very much still in business in the pretty little central Hastings County village of Stirling and that it was still – sorry; I can’t help myself – churning it out.

One of the first issues that Raymond and I picked up of the excellent Country Roads magazine featured an article (by a local writer and blogger who was subsequently to become a good friend, Lindi Pierce) on the storied past and successful present of the Stirling Creamery. (Unfortunately that article doesn’t seem to be available online, so I can’t share it with you.) Raymond and I have been faithfully buying Stirling butter ever since our arrival at the Manse, and we have often remarked upon how good it is.

And we aren’t the only ones! In the past couple of weeks, I’ve spotted Stirling butter for sale in the trendiest of trendy Toronto food shops, at the St. Lawrence Market and in Kensington Market. Not, mind you, as one of several kinds of high-end butters for sale: as the only butter for sale to the foodie connoisseurs. That is pretty impressive.

Need more convincing of how great our local butter is? Check out this article from the Toronto Star that notes (among other things) that a while back Saveur magazine named Stirling one of the world’s top 30 butters.

Oh, and I would also like to point out that the gorgeous new packaging that Stirling butter came out with just a few years ago (which you can admire in my photo at the top of this post, and even more here) was designed by our friend Mimi Maxwell, a Toronto designer with a strong connection to the Queensborough area. Isn’t that cool?

Stirling Creamery

Here’s a nice photo of the Stirling Creamery, right in the heart of the pretty village of Stirling. The photo comes from a brilliant blog I’ve just discovered called Seasonal Ontario Food (, which is filled with recipes to help you eat locally and well.

Now, lest you dare to say (as I probably would have in my childhood here, when my mum was first buying Stirling butter) “But it’s only butter!” – let me tell you about my days living in France. The French are positively reverent about their butter, I learned; often they will visit a high-end cheese shop to purchase freshly made salted or unsalted butter, rather than buy it in a supermarket. Half of a good baguette sliced horizontally and slathered with top-notch butter is considered a treat. And with good reason! I learned while living there how good butter can be – and have had a taste for the good stuff ever since.

A taste that, I am delighted to say, is fulfilled in world-class style by our friendly local creamery. Aren’t we lucky?

Sleuthing out some Queensborough history

Queensborough Anglican Church sketch

A sketch from 1974 showing one historic Queensborough building that still stands – St. Peter’s Anglican Church – and two that no longer do. A great find by someone with a strong interest in Queensborough history! (Photo courtesy of Bob and Charlene McKeown)

Regular readers will know that for the past several posts I’ve been focusing on various aspects of the history of Queensborough, the pretty little hamlet where the Manse is and that Raymond and I now call home. This focus is because of the big event that’s happening here this Sunday (Sept. 7, 2014), Historic Queensborough Day. (All details on that grand event are here and here and here. You won’t want to miss it!)

Anway, tonight I want to share with you the story of a superb bit of sleuthing work carried out on behalf of the general cause of Queensborough historical knowledge. The sleuth in question is reader Bob McKeown, who lives in not-far-away Stirling (a very nice village here in central Hastings County) and whom Raymond and I have had the pleasure to meet at a couple of local events. Bob has an interest in Queensborough’s history because his wife, Charlene, is a descendant of one of the very early and prominent families here, the Wiggins family.

Okay, I’ll let Bob tell the story of his discovery in his own words:

I was recently in the Belleville hospital and see this drawing in the hall on the fifth floor. It is in a dilapidated frame, not matching anything else on the walls. I looked at it and thought, “Hey! That looks just like the Anglican Church in Queensboro – what???”

Then on further study I see the house and barn that I believe were built, owned and occupied by my wife’s great-great grandparents, William Wiggins and his wife, Nancy Cooper.

The drawing is dated 1974, by Jerry Stapley, Stirling, died about five years ago.

I have seen a blurred photo of this house when it belonged to someone in the ’60s, I think – photo was in [Times to Remember in Elzevir Township], or something similar. I think the same Elzevir book (or info I got somewhere else) states that William Wiggins donated land for the Anglican Church (then built the church), donated land for the Presbyterian Church (did not have lowest builder’s bid, so did not build), and did build the Methodist Church on their land. He was a farmer and carpenter, so it is very probable he built his home and barns. These buildings must have burned or fallen down?

Not certain of copyright of pictures etc., but hospital staff allowed my wife to take the pics you see attached.

Okay, Bob, just to say: you and Charlene are brilliant for spotting that sketch off in an obscure corner of Belleville General Hospital, recognizing it for what it is, getting some photos of it, and sharing it with fellow Queensborough history buffs. Thank you!

(And in case readers are interested: Bob’s further sleuthing – that is, checking out the back of the picture – uncovered that the drawing seems to have been sold at an auction, or maybe silent auction, that was perhaps a fundraiser for the Belleville hospital. And then maybe donated back to the hospital? Here’s the evidence:

Queensborough sketch artist

Sketch sold

The Anglican Church – St. Peter’s Anglican, Queensborough’s first church, built in 1871 – is still standing and is (in my humble opinion) one of the prettiest buildings in town. The house in the sketch was still standing, and lived in, during my 1960s and ’70s childhood here, at the time by the Leslie family. It was a really nice house that, sadly, was destroyed in a fire, I think in the 1980s. (I did a post a while back – it’s here – about my reminiscences of that part of town, brought on by walking along the old cracked sidewalk that runs in front of where that house used to be.) But yes, as Bob says, it was in the 19th century the home of the Wiggins family, and William Wiggins was absolutely instrumental in getting Queensborough’s Protestant churches – the Anglican (actually “Church of England” at the time), Methodist and Presbyterian – erected. (The one that was the Presbyterian church is now St. Andrew’s United Church, still going. The service there on Historic Queensborough Day is at 11 a.m. – and all are welcome!)

The barn in the background was clearly part of the Wiggins farm originally. In my childhood, it was part of the farm operation of John Thompson, who also owned and operated the old grist mill around which the village of Queensborough grew up a century before. The barn is, again, gone – though every time I walk by where it used to be I still picture it in my mind’s eye.

It was maybe because of all those memories I have that it was so nice to see the sketch that Bob and Charlene found, showing all three buildings as they once were. I expect that seeing it here in my post will bring back similar good memories to other Queensborough people.

But let me give the last word to Bob again, who at the end of his email to me about his find, and the history of the scene it shows, asks a great question for anyone interested in history – because we always know there’s more history out there to share:

Anyone have anything to add?

In my love for funky old things, I am not alone


Do you know instantly what this is? If so, you might be as interested as I am in the Facebook group I grew up in Peterborough Ontario (70’s and 80’s). This picture of some awesome Spirograph work was posted there by Michelle Walke Swan. Thanks for the memories, Michelle!

A big shoutout tonight to reader Bob McKeown of beautiful Stirling, who recently put me on to a Facebook group that – well, maybe it won’t change my life, but it sure makes me feel like I am not alone when it comes to a fondness for relics from midcentury central/south/eastern Ontario, where I grew up.

The Facebook group is called I grew up in Peterborough Ontario (70’s and 80’s) and you can find it here. (There is a separate group called I Grew Up In Peterborough Ontario 50s and 60s, which is, let us say, also not irrelevant to my past.) Now, I didn’t grow up in Peterborough (and neither did Bob), but my maternal grandparents moved there from Toronto in 1969, and over the years I spent a lot of time in that pleasant little city that’s only about an hour away from Queensborough. And, as Bob pointed out in his email to me, you don’t need to have grown up in Peterborough to appreciate the site’s posts harking back to fun stuff from the past, and the comments on them.

Rather than going into great detail, I’ll let those who are interested check out the Facebook groups for themselves. But perhaps I can whet your appetite with a few photos from the ’70s/’80s group, all of them posted by Kirb Scott, who clearly has a great eye for timeless stuff:

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Hey, if those don’t take you back, you must have grown up in a galaxy far, far away from mine!

Apparently even I could grow lavender. Or could I?

Doris's lavender

A gorgeous lavender bush in front of the home of our Belleville friend Doris. It got me wildly excited about the possibility of growing lavender at the Manse – excitement that I now strongly suspect was premature.

I haven’t written much about our garden lately, primarily because it is in a shameful state of weediness that I don’t like to think about (or broadcast, though here I am doing exactly that). I find it amusing, though not in a particularly good way, that I seemed to have more time to weed the garden in the two previous summers, when Raymond and I were only able to get to the Manse on the occasional weekend, than this summer when, theoretically at least, we are in full-time residence. The problem is this: we went and planned so much activity (including travel) for this summer that I can’t find any time to experience what I once called the zen of weeding. What I desperately need is one long, sunny, warm-but-not-too-hot-and-not-too-buggy day with nothing else to do, so I can spend it on hands and knees getting those same hands and knees gloriously dirty, pulling out the weeds that are trying to suck the life from our perennials.

But it hasn’t happened yet. Still, even though my garden is weedy, I can continue to dream garden dreams – can’t I?

My latest dream is about having lavender, although I am far from sure that this is a realistic dream.

I was inspired by a recent visit to our friend Doris, who lives in Belleville. Thinking I had discovered something exotic (for southeastern Ontario), I brought Doris a little bouquet of lavender that I discovered for sale at the farmers’ market in Stirling on the way (the long way) to Belleville from our home in Queensborough. I’ve always loved lavender, perhaps partially because of its deep association with beautiful Provence (where Raymond and I spent part of our honeymoon). I am so interested that it is now being successfully grown in some parts of Quebec (notably at the large Bleu Lavande operation in the Eastern Townships) and Ontario – including, obviously, somewhere close enough to Stirling for the product to be sold at the farmers’ market there. It seemed so pleasantly foreign, and so that’s why I picked some up as a little gift for Doris.

So what did Raymond and I see as we pulled into Doris’s driveway? A gloriously healthy lavender bush right there in her front garden!

Of course I felt dopey about bringing something as a gift that she already had in plenty, but I also used the occasion to try to learn something about growing lavender here in our part of the world. Doris told us that the lavender she has success with is the English kind, and she mentioned two varieties, Munstead and Hidcote. When I expressed surprise that they could be grown here, she said it was not a problem at all in Zone 5b. (Do you know about growing zones? Neither do I, particularly, but they are explained here.)

Spot for lavender

I love these big tall bushes of yellow flowers because they happen effortlessly (for me) – but since there is a bit of a surfeit of them, I think some could be removed to make this prominent corner of the Manse’s perennial garden just the spot for lavender. That is, if it’ll grow here.

Okay, so far so good. By the time Raymond and I got back to the Manse we had already decided where we wanted to plant our lavender. I was very excited!

However … it turns out (and I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised by this) that Queensborough, in its north-of-Highway 7 location, is not in Zone 5b, as Belleville, on the shore of Lake Ontario, is. According to this map from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, it isn’t even in Zone 5a, the next-colder one that takes over a bit north of Belleville.

No, once one gets just a bit north of 7, one is in Zone 4b, where winters are colder still; and it looks rather doubtful that lavender would survive that.

Maybe it would, though; the entry on Munstead lavender on this gardening-company site says that it is their most hardy version, and while it lists its growing zones as 5a to 11, it also says that is is “cold-tolerant to Zone 4.” It doesn’t look like Hidcote lavender is a possibility; that one is listed as being in only in Zones 5a-5b for hardiness.

So this is the juncture where I would like to ask my Queensborough-area gardening friends (you know who you are): What are my chances of successfully growing lavender in the Manse’s garden?

Once I get the weeds out, that is.

Those Tannery girls played some darn good softball

Tannery Road

Tannery Road and Hart’s Road – which I believe would be considered the epicentre of the community once known (in local sports circles, at least) as “The Tannery.”

Last night I posted what I think is kind of a haunting picture of an old abandoned house on Tannery Road, which is between Madoc and Hazzard’s Corners. And thanks to some interesting information provided by readers in the comments (here), I now find that house more haunting than ever, though still beautiful in its decrepitude.

Tonight I want to tell you the other thing I know about Tannery Road: that once upon a time (and not all that long ago, in the overall scheme of things), it was quite famous for its sports teams. Particularly its girls’ softball teams.

Now, this is something that I only rediscovered thanks to the Madoc/Madoc Township history book Way Back When…, a gold mine of local information, long out of print and very hard to find, which I chanced upon a while back at a yard sale in Madoc. (And instantly pounced on, of course.) In the chapter entitled Community Life, there is a comprehensive section about local sports. And there I discovered a sub-sub-section entitled “The History of Tannery Baseball,” by Earl Sexsmith. It brought back memories that would otherwise have been buried forever: memories of how, when I was a kid growing up at the Manse here in Queensborough, the words “The Tannery” (in reference to a sports team) would (whether people would admit it or not) strike fear into the hearts of sports teams from other local hamlets, like Cooper or Eldorado or, yes, Queensborough. Because “The Tannery” were very good, and very, very determined to win.

(People, if I’ve got any of this wrong, please feel free to correct me. These memories are from many decades ago, after all. But sometimes something buried deep down can be very true. And that frisson I get [as a Queensborough girl] when I think of “The Tannery” doesn’t come from nowhere.)

Earl Sexsmith’s report in Way Back When… tells us about how “the first of the many Tannery ball teams” (a boys’ team) was organized in 1948: “The boys and I went to see Mr. Tom Walsh about putting up a backstop and making a playing field on his place just above the fair grounds.” (Tannery Road is not far from the grounds where the Madoc Fair is held every September.)

“The boys would play against their fathers which made a great evening of fun. Not to be left out, the girls started playing too. A few exhibition games were played with Cooper, Eldorado and Queensborough. These areas boasted great experience, and our boys took some awful beatings, but the boys were never discouraged. As they made mistakes, they were learning … With the schedule drawn up we started to play. We were beaten badly every game but the team never quit. At home games, the area was packed with spectators.”

You might guess where this is going. The Tannery teams kept at it, and got better and better – and started to win. (And meantime, a girls’ team was organized and started playing exhibition games. But back to the boys.)

“The first set of playoffs, they met Queensborough whom they eliminated in the first round. At the same time, Eldorado had eliminated Cooper. This matched the Tannery against Eldorado for the trophy.

“Each team had won their home games and the series was deadlocked at two and two. It was decided that the fifth game would be taken to Tweed and played under the lights. One of the biggest crowds ever at the Tweed Ball Park saw the Tannery come up with a convincing 8-3 win.

“As a final climax, the boys were brought back to Madoc for a celebration. For these young boys this triumph was as great as the Yankees winning the World Series.”

Of that I have no doubt. But I think Mr. Sexsmith should have said (because I am certain it was true) that the triumph was felt not just by the boys, but by their families and the whole Tannery community. (Even though the Tannery is not, and as far as I know never really was, a community per se, i.e. had no stores or community centre; it was just a few homes and farms along and near Tannery Road.) Because those were the days when little communities like Queensborough and Cooper and Eldorado – and the Tannery – invested enormous amounts of pride in, and support for, their local amateur sports teams. Here is a photo I took a couple of summers ago of Queensborough’s old ball diamond, which hasn’t been used in many a year but still evokes memories for some of us:

Queensborough ball diamond

The days when diamonds like that were busy and popular places were the days of rural life at its best, if you ask me. Anyway, back to our story.

Mr. Sexsmith recounts that the Tannery boys’ teams had many more victories and championships, but then interest and activity in softball faded throughout the area for some years. Ah, but then: “The game of ball came alive again when a bush league was formed consisting of Cooper, Eldorado, Bannockburn, Queensborough and Tannery, in the middle of the sixties.” People, we have come to the era of my childhood in Queensborough, and thus the source of my Tannery memories! And that is when the Tannery girls’ softball teams became a force to be reckoned with.

At first, Mr. Sexmith tells us, the girls lost a lot, just as the newly formed Tannery boys’ team from two decades earlier had: “The first year… we never won a game and many a time were humiliated by the score. The girls were young, 14 and 15 years of age, playing against much older and more experienced women.”

But then a separate local league for women’s softball was formed, and the story began to change.

“In 1969, a league was formed of Madoc, Cooper and Tannery. Many hard-fought games were played through the season, when the Tannery girls, who were thought of as the underdogs, came out as the league champions.

“The playoffs then began with the Tannery girls facing the Cooper ladies. When Tannery was down two games to none, the remainder of the series was shifted to Madoc and played under the lights. (Apparently you always knew when things were getting dramatic, because the games were moved to a larger centre and played “under the lights.”) The Tannery girls made a great comeback, tying the series at two each and setting the stage for that big fifth game.

“During the fifth and final game, in the bottom of the seventh inning, with two out, a home run was hit and it was the winning run for the Tannery girls.”

(People, they make movies out of this kind of thing!)

Success bred success. “With the start of the seventies, and a title of ‘CHAMPIONS’ to defend, the Tannery girls decided to go into a higher league which included Stirling, Marmora, Frankford, and Madoc-Cooper Combines.” Stirling, Marmora, etc., were big places compared to Tannery Road, let me tell you.

Anyway, we learn that at the end of the regular season, the Tannery girls stood in second place. In the quarter-finals of the playoffs, Tannery beat Stirling and Madoc-Cooper beat Frankford; the Tannery girls then met Cooper-Madoc in the semi-finals. They eliminated their old rivals in three straight games.

“This put Tannery into the finals with Marmora who had been taking it fairly easy as they had a bye for the quarter- and semifinals … The series was the best four out of seven; the games were hard-fought battles.

And now, the thrilling climax:

 “It was a cold Saturday night, the last Saturday in September, that finally saw the last game of the season. The Tannery girls had done it again; they became champions and once again walked off the field bearing the trophy proudly. Along with this trophy, they took great pride in knowing that they had won this trophy by eliminating three teams and in ten straight wins, not to be beaten during the entire playoffs.”

Did I mention that they make movies about this kind of thing?

Tannery girls team

A photo of “The Tannery Girls Team” (it doesn’t say whether it’s the winning ’69 team or the winning ’70 team) from the book Way Back When… I remember Eileen Brooks (“manager”) as a great athlete and coach. And her kids (some of whom are in this photo) were great athletes too.

Mr. Sexmith tells us how, after that never-to-be-forgotten season, softball died down in the Tannery. The young men and women were growing up and moving on to careers;  and though he doesn’t say this, I think it is possible that the big late-midcentury migration of people from rural areas like Tannery Road to towns and cities had begun, and there might well not have been enough young people around to make up successor teams.

But they were good times while they lasted, were they not? Times when every little community had its own softball team – maybe even both a men’s and a women’s team – and when crowds would turn out to cheer for every game, despite the mosquitoes and the lack of lights. (Unless, of course, the team was in a thrilling playoff match and the game got moved “under the lights.”)

Do you miss those days? I sure do.

Test your rural roots: Do you know what this is?

Milk shed

Okay, quick now: what is this? Do you know?

I came upon what you see in the photo above on a lovely, relaxing afternoon drive through central Hastings County (north-northeast from Stirling on the backroads up to Highway 62 just south of Madoc) a week ago. Of course its rustic prettiness caught my eye, which is one reason why I decided to take a picture. But the thing that really stopped me in my tracks was the realization that people passing by would either know immediately what it was, or… not have a clue. And the difference between whether you know and recognize it, or don’t, is just this: either you grew up in a rural area in a certain time (sometime before the middle 1960s), or – you didn’t.

So do you know what it is?

If you don’t, I will tell you. Because I do.

It is a milk shed. Or at least, I think that’s the technical name for it. Truth be told, milk sheds were no longer in use by the time I was growing up in rural Hastings County in the mid-1960s. But one saw them a lot, and even as a small child I knew what they were. It was the place where dairy farmers left their big milk cans full of fresh milk for the truck (cart?) to come by, pick them up, and take them to the local cheese factory. (This was of course before the big refrigerated tanker trucks that one sees on the roads of Hastings County and other rural areas now, operated under the auspices of the Ontario Milk Marketing Board [oops, sorry, now called the “Dairy Farmers of Ontario,” marketing boards having become rather controversial in recent years], travelling from farm to farm to pick up the fresh milk.) See how the platform in front is about three to four feet off the ground? That’s so that the full milk cans were at the level of the wagon/cart/truck that was collecting them. I believe that as the full cans were picked up, empty ones would be dropped off.

And the reason for the milk shed having a roof over it would have been to protect the product from getting too much sun and heat.

It is a rustic method of sending raw materials to be processed, but from everything I’ve heard, it worked perfectly well. And I think it is just lovely that there are still some of those old sheds around to remind us of those simpler times.

Off the beaten path: a tearoom – and donkeys

donkeys at Black River Farm

Wouldn’t you be surprised if you happened on this collection of donkeys while travelling the back roads of Hastings County? I know I was.

You just never know what you’re going to find in Hastings County, people. Like, maybe: donkeys. While you’re sipping tea.

One day a while back Raymond and I were out for an exploratory drive (as we often are) in the Queensborough area and found ourselves on the portion of a small gravel road called Black River Road that is south of Highway 7. The road follows along the scenic Black River and there are several tidy, mostly modern houses there. All quite pretty, but nothing too strange or startling. Until – “Wait a minute!” I exclaimed to Raymond. “I think I just saw a donkey! In the door of that barn back there!” (To appreciate my excitement you must understand that I had never actually seen a donkey before. Let alone a donkey on tiny Black River Road in one of the ruralest parts of rural Hastings County. Where donkeys are not exactly common.) Anyway, we drove on rather than turning back, and until this weekend I’d been wondering whether I was hallucinating when I saw (or thought I saw) that donkey.

donkeys at Black River Farm

Some of the donkeys at the Black River Farm. Aren’t they sweet?

But I was not! As we discovered when we took part in this past weekend’s Heart of Hastings Studio Tour. We spent most of the tour – which covered a large part of central and southern Hastings County – in the pretty village of Stirling, where we visited half a dozen shops filled with the kinds of antiques and collectibles that we love. But before heading home to the Manse, we decided to visit another tour stop, which was “Black River Farm and Green Donkey Tea Room”  – incorrectly described in the tour literature as being on Black River Road north of Highway 7. When we figured out that this place at which we’d planned to have lunch was in reality south of Highway 7, and in fact was on the road that Raymond and I had visited a few months earlier, the “donkey” in its name suddenly made sense to me.

And sure enough: at the Green Donkey Tea Room at the Black River Farm, owners Al and Elsie Lafreniere house donkeys rescued from bad situations. They use the profits from their lovely little tearoom, and their business selling fine teas, homemade jams and jellies and other fine foods (including tourtière, yum), as well as handmade soaps and whatnot, to pay the costs of looking after these gentle creatures.

It is a lovely setting, and a neat little business. And quietly successful: this year Canadian Living magazine named the Green Donkey Tea Room one of the best places for afternoon tea in the whole country! (Al and Elsie have the feature article framed on the wall of the tearoom, but unfortunately Canadian Living doesn’t have it on its website so I can’t steer you there. You will have to take my word for it, which I trust you will do.)

So anyway, we had a delicious lunch (with great tea), and afterward went down to have a look at the donkeys, who are utterly charming.

And I have two things to say about all of this.

One: you just never know what you’ll find off in the remote corners of Hastings County. As I believe I have mentioned before.

And two: if you’re in the area, you should check out the Green Donkey Tea Room! It’s not open all that often, but events coming up include a Harvest Soup Lunch Weekend Nov. 23 and 24 (reservations suggested) and Christmas High Tea Nov. 30 and Dec. 1, 7, 8, 14 and 15 (reservations required). The number to call is (613) 478-2852.

And I don’t think Al and Elsie will mind a bit if you stop by and say hey to the Black River Farm donkeys.