Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

November 29, 2021
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Rambling Roads

Fall under the spell of the back roads and small towns of Ontario’s Grey-Bruce region

At first glance, the countryside along Route 6 in the Grey-Bruce region looks just like any other stretch of Ontario farmland — grazing horses, round bales of hay, patches of woods and winding streams. And so it does.

Once you leave the highway for the byway, there’s an endless grid of back roads leading past fields of grain, over narrow bridges, through 150-year-old hamlets and past old stone mills, cemeteries and swimming holes.

But that’s the whole idea. The pace of life here is slower, pretty much as it was two generations ago. The sky is wide, the air is clear, the summer greens are lush and the peaceful sounds of the country can be found anywhere you choose to stop.

The Ontario counties of Grey and Bruce are known as Saugeen Country because of the namesake river that drains this fertile valley. Bordering on two great bodies of water (Lake Huron and Georgian Bay) the region’s geographical oddity, the Bruce Peninsula, juts like a ragged dagger northward between them.

This region lies beyond the reach of Toronto’s growing urban sprawl, buffered by other pastoral counties. On a map, German names like Neustadt, Holstein and Bentinck could indicate a small town or simply a crossroads. Owen Sound is the region’s hub of business and culture; to the east are the cities of Barrie and Orillia. Wiarton Willie, the groundhog, also calls this area home.

Family Planning
I had taken two leisurely half days to drive there from Montreal with my wife and two little boys. Our destination was Desboro for a family reunion. The village is tucked deep in the country south of Owen Sound, so we had no choice but to follow the back roads. To paraphrase poet Robert Frost, we took the road less travelled, and that made all the difference.

We pulled over often, stopping at places off the beaten path. Southeast of Owen Sound at Walter’s Mill (no longer a town, just a gristmill along the river), the boys discovered a family of kittens peeking from an opening beneath the dripping waterwheel. A bit further west at an old wooden bridge, we watched butterflies sipping nectar and a fisherman casting his line.

The Grey-Bruce area still harbours the good old ways, and tourism here is about getting back to the land. Roadside stands supply berries, honey and tomatoes — whatever’s in season. Plus there are towns with outdoor markets where hundreds of local farmers set up shop. We found good deals, decent snacks and great junk at the flea market stand. Stop to smell the wildflowers, but watch your step southwest of Chatsworth, where horse-and-buggy traffic can be a hazard to your shoes.

Sleepy Hollow
Memories of the old days are part of the experience, and we heard our share of them at our reunion where 75 members of the clan had come from all corners of Canada. It’s a good thing that the journey is more important than the destination because Desboro’s picture should be in the dictionary beside “sleepy little town.”

Along the main street you’ve got the tavern, the farm-implements dealer, Memorial Hall, two churches and the feed mill. And don’t forget Cousin Donald’s garage: that’s where townspeople come to chat.

Barry Randall, manager of tourism for Owen Sound, loves to have lunch in Desboro’s classic tavern. He told us there had been others during the boom years of the early 1980s when the Bruce Nuclear Power Station was being built. “But since then,” he explained, “the local constabulary cracked down on drinking and driving, as they should, which hurt the little taverns.”

My father-in-law recalls when Chatsworth was the only pub between Toronto and Owen Sound. Everywhere else was dry “due to the Temperance people and the taxi drivers.” Apparently, taxi drivers made good business driving pub patrons.

When we were in the area, the Grey County Museum featured an exhibit on the Prohibition Movement of the 1930s, when many elections were won and lost over the question of keeping towns wet or dry. Owen Sound was Canada’s last city to become wet (that is to decriminalize alcohol) in 1972. Quite a change from the days before Prohibition when it was known as Corkscrew City, because the harbour and railroad meant liquor was readily available.

Another movement also has roots in the area. On Route 6 south of Chatsworth a stone commemorates the birthplace in 1873 of women’s rights activist Nellie McClung — as it happens she was also a staunch Temperance activist, part of the movement that led to Prohibition.

All in order
Since the 1950s, an Old Order Mennonite community (who resemble the Amish) has thrived here without the use of automobiles or electricity. They don’t allow photographs to be taken but they don’t mind tourists buying their farm-fresh eggs, home-baked bread or maple syrup. Community life is based around Christian beliefs so there are no Sunday sales. But on any other day, watch for the signs at farm gates and take the opportunity to drive up a lane for a glimpse of what life was like for everyone here a century ago.

Just south of Desboro, on the farm where my wife’s grandparents raised eight children, Old Order Mennonites now live without modern technology. This brings great delight to my 77-year-old father-in-law who never ceases to proclaim that nothing good has been invented since the horse-and-buggy.


He visited them one day, visited the apple trees his mother had planted in 1935, saw the windmill pumping water and came away with a gallon of maple syrup produced on the farm. His older sister, who lives in Owen Sound, commends the new owners on having spruced up their old place. “They don’t have Hydro, you know. I don’t know how they manage, but they do.”

In Owen Sound, she sees the Mennonites doing their weekly shopping. Some come to town in a minibus while others hitch their horses downtown. The Old Order families dress in black and drive black buggies, while the conservative Mennonites dress almost as we do and often drive cars — though most often black ones.

The whole clan
Back in Desboro, it was a hot Saturday afternoon outside Memorial Hall and the reunion picnic was in full swing. Old-timers chatted as children raced around; two fiddlers played the old country favorites under a shady maple.

I sat by as two of the elder men gazed out onto the main street. “Desboro isn’t getting any bigger,” I heard the first man say. “No, not too many houses going up,” agreed the other. “Just as well.”

“You know some folks commute from Owen Sound to Toronto,” volunteered the first. “Yes, I’ve been in rush hour,” the second man countered knowingly. “It’s like driving in a herd of cattle; back to the speed of horse-and-buggy days.”

Harvey Golem was one of the fiddlers at the party. He said there is still a lot of old-time country music around these days, but you have to look for it. His group, the Merry Music Makers, plays mostly at nursing homes. The second Tuesday of each month they are at Lee Manor Centre in Owen Sound, which also welcomes the public to its Friday night concerts for a nominal fee. The problem is that they don’t have any young people playing fiddles and banjos. “We’re pretty near all over 80 now. It’s just us old guys playing the old-time music.”

Though the area does get big-name acts, too. Maritime folksters Great Big Sea appear on July 13 and the 5th annual Celtic festival runs September 19 to 21.

Over hill, over dale
While most of the clan went for sun and sand at Sauble Beach, I struck off solo for the cliffs and caves of the Bruce Peninsula. With only a day to spare I knew I must forego the most spectacular rock formations, lighthouses and remote shores of the national park further north. I settled for a sunrise over Colpoys Bay just north of Wiarton and a hike on the Bruce Trail to the east.

This part of the peninsula is not heavily travelled so I had the roads and trails pretty much to myself. Some local residents even told me about dissolution caves (carved by the waves of prehistoric Lake Algonquin) on private land near Oxenden, but instead I decided to follow their directions to a rocky lookout over the islands in the bay.

I struck off along Cole’s Side Road, a single lane running through dense bush, crossing streams with no guardrail. I had no idea what I would have done if another vehicle had come from the other direction.

Finally I spotted the white cliffs of the mountains in the Colpoys Range. The dirt road climbed steeply, lined with a rail fence and big maples. Below, green pastures opened up with no sign of human presence save for a few of the farmer’s cows. It was scenery as superb as Switzerland, comparable to seaside mountains I had seen in Nova Scotia and New Zealand. I had finally found the New England of Ontario and, best of all, I had it all to myself.


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