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What's Campbellford's Secret Sauce?

author: Meghan Sheffield  photos: Laura Berman  

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This town of 4,000 on the Trent River has a renowned music festival, an exploding food culture, an award-winning microbrewery and a high school jazz program that wins national awards every year. How come Campbellford is such a vibrant cultural hub?

NO MATTER WHAT DIRECTION YOU APPROACH IT FROM, Campbellford comes as a surprise. Just when it seems the tree-lined fields and rolling hills will go on forever, signs of habitation begin to hint at what’s to come – advertisements for spray insulation and a sign for the upcoming Incredible Edibles food festival. The road curves, the river bends and suddenly you’re there. Set right at the centre of the amalgamated Municipality of Trent Hills, Campbellford is two hours from Toronto (with no VIA Rail link), three hours from Ottawa and 50 minutes from Peterborough. It’s an island, a crossroads farming town, with one of those roads actually being a river. That river’s shallow depth and calm waters are favourable to crossing here, a boon both for the Indigenous people who called this place home for the last few thousand years, as well as the mostly-British settlers who began building a settlement here in the 19th century.

Originally named Campbell’s Ford for two brothers who were granted property along the Trent, the town is still a key stop along the Trent-Severn Waterway, the historic route that connects Lake Ontario and Lake Huron.

Campbellford is both the quintessential small town – and an unlikely cultural hub. Here, in a town of 4,000, tucked away in the northeastern corner of Northumberland County, you’ll find a world-class classical music venue and cultural centre, a farm-to-table festival celebrating local food, a cooperatively owned classic cinema, an unparalleled high school jazz program, a prize-winning traditional cheese-making business (Empire), a jazz fringe festival, an award-winning microbrewery, live music five nights a week, a provincial park, a vibrant community garden and even regular poetry readings.

What’s going on here?

Mayor Hector Macmillan has something to do with it. A cancer survivor who has taken Ontario’s health system to court for its denial of his health care costs, he’s known as a straight-shooter, one who will mockingly retweet Donald Trump on Twitter. Recently, the entire Downtown Business Improvement Area board resigned as a result of comments he made at a public meeting.

He arrives at our appointment in the municipality’s board room, having walked up a pine-tree-lined path from his home across the street. Tall and rake thin – the effect of his years-long experience with pancreatic cancer – he wears jeans and a black hoodie with the sleeves pushed up to his elbows. Another surprise. Mayor Hec, as he calls himself, was born and raised in Campbellford, and has spent most of his 58 years here. He’s been on the council as Mayor since 2003, and is a second-generation mayor: his father died in the third year of his third mayoralty term. Amiable, but not overly familiar, he speaks slowly and thoughtfully.

“I’ll take credit for a little bit of it,” he says of the town’s growing reputation as a cultural hub. Mayor Hec is a practical man, having spent much of his life working with his hands and running businesses – a gas station and auto shop, and now the town’s five-pin bowling alley. He sees both the vision he inherited from his father and the key to a thriving and creative culture firmly rooted in infrastructure. Whether it’s determining which roads to pave, or the contentious second bridge project he’s been championing for 14 years (which was just approved in July), he considers his role as one of a facilitator of the basic operations of the municipality, so that the people who live here can follow their own passions and interests. He gives the example of the community’s process for a wellness centre – a proposed multi-use recreation facility, which is still in the planning phases.

“The community needs to dream,” he says. “I stepped back and let the community see what they could come up with. And we now have a design the community is willing to live with.” The facility will include both an arena and an indoor aquatic centre, though the location is yet to be confirmed. The Campbellford/Seymour Community Foundation has been an important partner on that recreation centre project. The Community Foundation was created in 2000, when proceeds from the sale of the local public utility, over $6 million, were put into an endowment, mandated to finance programs that benefit the “common good” for the residents of Campbellford and the surrounding area. Since that time, the Foundation has granted over $4 million to the community, with the original endowment still intact. That money – whether investing in bonds at the Aron Theatre, funding staff at Westben, creating gardens and an outdoor classroom at local elementary schools or purchasing a lawnmower for the Lawn Bowling Club – has a big impact in a small community.

“It’s a long-term vision, to have that endowment – it’s invested in perpetuity,” is how Martha Murphy, the Community Foundation’s Executive Director, puts it. “Through these grants, we enhance the lifestyle here.”

The Mayor believes that a lot of the community’s vibrancy comes because those who live here feel committed to, and invested in, Campbellford. “It’s home. Even people who move here and truly embrace our rural way of life have told me they never felt so at home,” he says. “There’s a place for everyone.” At Church-Key Brewing, brewmaster John Graham is up a stepladder in the back, mopping out the inside of a kettle. He takes a break to chat, drying his hands and offering a beer. Graham is an approachable redhead with a long beard, who was born and raised in King City, north of Toronto. He came here when starting a family had him looking for a more rural life. He was interested in developing his own brewery after a career at Amsterdam Brewery, and thought the ideal setting was a church or school between Toronto and Ottawa. Eighteen years ago, he was surprised to find an 1878 Methodist church just north of Campbellford, almost equidistant from the two cities. He moved up his young family and opened Church-Key Brewing Company, which continually produces award-winning craft beers.

John says Campbellford is just far enough away from even the nearest larger centres – Belleville, Peter borough, Cobourg – to have a cohesive community feel. “We complain about the bridge, but we’re here without big city traffic, and yet we have all of the amenities. We have a hospital, we have a great theatre, we have restaurants, we have great things to do,” he says. “It’s the perfect storm of that little bit of geography and some of the right people encouraging it.”

For John, the “right people” is a blend of the ancestral families who measure their time in Campbellford in generations and those like himself, who have arrived more recently, bringing ideas, energy and passion with them.

One of those ancestral families is named Bennett, whose legacy is fine furniture and music. In the midst of an international career as a soprano, Donna Bennett literally came home to Campbellford. She had grown up on a nearby farm, while her parents ran the family business downtown – the still-thriving Bennett’s Home Furnishings – and was first introduced to Gilbert and Sullivan’s operettas by a high school music teacher when she was 15. She went on to study voice at the University of Toronto, where she met her future husband, pianist Brian Finley. Donna sang in the Canadian Opera Company and performed for three years in London, England, while Brian toured and competed as a concert pianist. Then, in 1990, with the impending birth of their first child, they decided to return to Campbellford and stay for six months or so.

Surprise, they never left!

Brian began playing organ at a local church, Donna taught voice and piano and they toured the country as a duo. Their first big performances closer to home happened in 1997, when a production of Jesus Christ Superstar at their church sold 2,000 tickets. The Sound of Music sold 2,000 more tickets the following year. That was enough encouragement to think of founding their own festival, and 1999 saw the birth of Westben Arts Festival Theatre on the 50- acre Bennett family farm. This past summer, Westben celebrated its 18th season, presenting 50 diverse concerts in the acoustically designed barn – from celebrated pianists Angela Hewitt and Jan Lisiecki, to the Arrogant Worms and Everything Fitz!

There’s no telling how much of Westben’s success is due to being near Campbellford, but Bennett feels the rural setting – the barn doors are left wide open through performances, to allow for views of nature to add to the experience – and the local population have been an integral part of their longevity. “Brian and I couldn’t have done it without this community, to be sure,” Donna says.

The venue has 200 volunteers, 220 members and 21 sponsors and grantors, including the Community Foundation. Some of them have been supporting the festival since before the barn was even built in 2000. “Music’s really powerful and I think they see that, and see that it’s healthy for the wellbeing of the community,” says Donna.

In 2015, Westben partnered with the municipality to create the Clock Tower Cultural Centre – a makeover of the old Campbellford town hall – offering year-round office and rehearsal space for Westben and a home for music lessons, children’s choirs and a series of lunch-hour talks. Bennett’s work at Westben offers a way for her to give back to her community, and perpetuates the connection to music that her music teacher passed on to her. “What I’ve always wanted for Westben is to introduce music to people,” she says. “I had no training or background in opera but I liked it immediately when I heard it. That’s what I want, to introduce all kinds of music to people, just so they can choose for themselves if they’d like to pursue it.”

For today’s music students in Campbellford, the inspiration continues with the energy and enthusiasm of Dave Noble. A Toronto native, Dave arrived in 1993, an eager young teacher looking to introduce an effective music program at a small high school. In the years since he was hired at Campbellford District High School, Dave and his wife Michelle, the school’s other music teacher for many years (now working as a literacy specialist in the school), have created large-scale musicals and impressive big band and vocal jazz groups.

Since those early days, Noble has led the Junior and Senior Jazz Ensembles to win the Gold Standard at the Musicfest Canada Nationals more than 30 times. At an invitation-only competition of more than 10,000 students, drawn from across Canada, Campbellford District High School has repeatedly won the highest national achievement there is for a high school jazz band. Even the highest level judges are surprised at the school’s success. “We’ve performed at national festivals, and adjudicators will say, ‘Is there something in the water in Campbellford?’ Year after year we’ve had that comment,” Noble says.

He attributes a lot to the fun, family atmosphere that the band members pass on from year to year, and also credits the solid pride and work ethic. “A lot of time they aspire to be as good as the groups have been in the past.” In talking to him, it’s clear that though just five years away from retirement, Mr. Noble himself has the age-defying youthful energy and genuine interest that is a natural draw for students. There are also substantial perks that make the band a respected and desirable extracurricular: performances with professional musicians in quality venues like Westben and the Stirling Festival Theatre, a highly selective TD Bank-sponsored weekend in Picton and, of course, the annual pilgrimage to the Nationals.

Noble is also quick to credit the band’s volunteer sound tech, Dave Hirst, and dedicated parents like Rob and Deb Harley, who have invested in the band with hundreds of volunteer hours behind the scenes. The Harleys have two children, now in their late 20s, both of whom parlayed their experiences in the CDHS bands into professional music opportunities as adults. During those years when their kids were in the band, the Harleys volunteered as chaperones and fundraisers, and hosted band parties at their farm.

“We got involved because music was such an integral part of our lives, my wife and I are both musicians, we’ve had a lot of fun and enjoyment from music,” Rob Harley says of the family’s motivations in getting involved. “And the other thing was that Dave Noble was such a positive influence on kids’ lives. He shows them a better way to live their life. He’s a very positive person, so that’s what drew us into the program. It was Dave in the first place.” Running a band is an expensive operation and the community’s financial support has been key – contributions from the Community Foundation, Scott Drummond GM and other local businesses make all the difference. “There’s been this enthusiastic encouragement that I’ve always felt from many people in the community. We got support that I don’t think we would have gotten in a bigger centre,” says Noble. “We benefit from being the only game in town.”

From Rob Harley’s perspective, it’s the town that benefits from calling Dave Noble one of their own. According to Rob, the thing that sets Campbellford’s band apart is that each student gets one-on-one rehearsal and coaching time with Noble. “That’s time he spends on his own – he’s not getting paid for it,” Rob notes. “When students feel the instructor is invested in the program, they invest in it too.” In the time that Dave Noble has worked at the school, its population has dwindled to about half of what it was when he started, to around 500 students. Despite the drop in numbers, the CDHS Junior and Senior Jazz Bands are still performing, still having fun – and still winning.

Full of surprises to the outside eye, Campbellford’s success seems natural to locals – even those who work hardest at it. Dave Noble puts into words something that’s apparent all over Campbellford. “There’s a drive to do things differently here,” he says. The public utility sold, and the money went to the community. A local girl made good as an opera singer and came home to share music with her community. A come-from-away beermaker set up shop in an old church and started hiring musicians five nights a week. A working-class businessman stepped into the shoes his late father had left as mayor, winning the election again and again. An excited young couple of teachers moved to town, dove into extracurriculars and their jazz band won gold, again and again and again. Campbellford seems to be extraordinary because the people of Campbellford have decided that it should be.

There’s a powerful lesson there for all of us.

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