Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Clues from the Past

Our region has hundreds of kilometers of well groomed walking trails that I explore several times a week. The Walter Bean Trail is 73.5 km long and follows the Grand River from West Montrose to Cambridge. Signs at the various access points offer information on the history and geography of each trail section. The section I walk most often is near the hospital because I have an hour off at lunch time, or am able take a stroll to unwind at the end of the workday.

Last week I featured the Bloodroot in the Friday Flowers feature. I had found a large patch of these flowers near the hospital and Mon@rch suggested that this may have been an intentional planting. This got me thinking about the history of the land that the trails cut through today.

This area was settled by Mennonite farmers in the beginning of the 19th century as they came by covered wagon from Lancaster and Bucks Counties in Pennsylvania, north to Ontario. Most of the early settlements were along the Grand River and other rivers in the watershed. The Shantz family settled and farmed near the river at Freeport.

In the late 19th century, tuberculosis was widespread, often affecting several members of the same family. In 1908, a local chapter of the Canadian Association for the Prevention of Tuberculosis was formed and there was a drive to have a sanatorium built in the area. One of the main leaders of the anti-tuberculosis movement was Reverend F.E. Oberlander, a man who had lost eight member of his family to this disease. It was difficult to find a suitable spot for the proposed hospital as there was a "not in my backyard" mentality in the community.

Windflowers (Anemone Blanda)

Finally the Shantz family's offer to sell 15 acres of their farm along with the large stone farmhouse for the sanatorium was accepted. The farm house was renovated in 1916 and was the first building of many built on the property as the facility grew in size. The staff, including the superintending physician lived on site. The daughter of one of the physicians wrote,

"I remember a big apple orchard by the river. The apples were given to the patients. There were cows to give fresh milk and hens whose eggs were also for the hospital."

The apple trees are still by the river, overgrown and neglected beside the trail. I imagine there would have been gardens for vegetables and flowers. After all, patients often stayed here for two to four years being treated with fresh air and good, nutritious food. Their beds were on porches with windows on three sides. At night the windows were opened in all seasons, and the patients wore hats and mittens to bed in the cold weather.

The hospital property is large and there are sections of bush with areas of naturalized vegetation near the old and sadly decaying houses that once were used as staff homes. I found chives, peonies and iris poking through the ground last week, and plenty of wildflowers, violets, bloodroot and trout lilies. I took photos of two different blue flowers and could not find then in any wildflower book. After thinking about the history of the farm and sanatorium, I looked in a garden book and discovered the names of these intentional plantings.

Siberian Squill (Scilla Siberica)

When I am walking I will not assume that every flower or tree is a natural feature. There will surely be signs of previous human settlement that I have missed in the past, perhaps a well, or a landing, an orchard or a garden. One area of the trail has the best black raspberries growing wild in July. When I pick a few to eat, I will remember the people who planted them and picked them to live.


  1. I'm always curious about the past history of an area.-I find flowers in my yard that were planted years ago and fogotten about.-Pansies are supposed to be anuals arond here-yet it keeps coming up every year.-I'm going to keep my eyes open for flowers in natural areas that they may have been planted by someone in the past.

  2. That's amazing, Ruth. You never completely know the origin of plants and flowers. I've seen some of the same in deserted homesites near train tracks - lilies, azaleas, and wonder who planted them and what life was like for them.

  3. How interesting! I love finding out about an area's past. We're quick to forget such things in America.

  4. Anonymous5:12 am GMT-4

    Now I'm wondering about large patches of bloodroot and dutchman's breeches that I found at Long Point State Park in Western NY. And I'm curious about its history! Thanks for sparking an interest!

  5. I would not be surprised if some of the Mennonites who traveled north from Pennsylvania included some of my distant relatives. I have mentioned before that my grandfather grew up in Ontario, near Stevensville. Our family story was that the original family member came from Germany pre-Revolutionary War, then went to Canada after US independence.
    A very enjoyable post--thanks.

  6. What a lovely story about the past of an area Ruth. Thanks for sharing it.

  7. Ruth - I found this so evocative of Frost's "The need of Being Versed In Country Things" in which the poet recounts the fire that took the old homestead and is observing the Phoebes who are tending their nest in the remaining abandoned barn. He comments:

    'Yet for them the lilac renewed its leaf,
    And the aged elm - though touched with fire . ."

    There is something so poignant about the life that endures and renews around deserted dwellings.

  8. Larry- I saw the pansies on your post tonight. Actually, violas look like small pansies, but are perennials.

    Mary- Lifestyles sure have changed phenomenally in the past century. I like thinking about simpler times.

    Bunnygirl- We all forget our history so quickly. It is so interesting to discover history than to read about it in a book.

    Jennifer- I am sure your area has an interesting past as well. Keep us posted! I would like to find a large patch of Dutchman's Breeches.

    KGMom- I am sure you do have some ancestors that settled here. The Waterloo and Pennsylvania Mennonites remain fairly close.Your family followed the same migration pattern of many that ended up in Ontario. You will have to email me some surnames sometime.

    Jayne- You are welcome. I learn so much from my older patients who love to have a listening ear.

    Cathy- What a lovely comment! I will have to look up that poem.


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