A military relic, a business park, a hive of creativity – the old Picton airbase exudes a storied past while its next chapter is being written
IN A CORNER STORE JUST OFF PICTON’S MAIN STREET, the man behind the counter has never heard of Loch-Sloy. Perhaps the name is the issue. How about Picton Airport? The Heights? Camp Picton? The old army base? Sorry, no. But he’s new to town, and anyway, English isn’t his first language. Fair enough.
Across the street at the artisanal bakery, the clerk is a longtime resident of Prince Edward County. But the names don’t ring a bell with her, either. “It’s an old World War II airbase, just up the hill…you’ve never heard of it?” She shakes her head, ringing up an order of butter tarts, cheese and chorizo. Then, a glimmer: “Wait,” she says. “Did they shoot a season of Canada’s Worst Driver there?” Yes, that’s the place. “Got it,” she says. “That was quite a show.”
Ask around a little more, and stories emerge. It turns out the film Dieppe was shot there, too. And Camp X, and Haven and Aftermath: Population Zero, among others. Military movies, mostly. Peaceful as the region is, the old Picton airbase – now known as Loch-Sloy Business Park – played a key role in the greatest military conflict of all time.
Nearly eight decades ago, in the 1940s, Prince Edward County’s rural rhythms were jarred by the mighty machinery of World War II. And while Canada went to war, sending men and resources around the globe, war also came to Canada. In Picton, a living record of that war is still here, hiding in plain sight – or rather, plane site.
If you were to fly low over the wide, irregular peninsula that is Prince Edward County, the view would not be substantially different than it was in 1941: Farms, forests and villages, crisscrossed by winding county roads, surrounded by the undulating shorelines of Lake Ontario and the Bay of Quinte.
South of Picton, on a plateau of pastureland and cedar scrub, you’d see a tarmac triangle of runways, half a dozen huge hangars, a couple of Quonset huts and a series of red-roofed buildings standing proud among broken wooden ruins. Sentry towers, a neat grid of streets, barbed wire, rusty piping – you might feel as though you’d gone back in history, but that’s not it, it’s more like history is still happening here.
In 1941, as the Second World War heated up, the British Commonwealth Air Training Program (BCATP) was rolled out across the former colonies. Several sites in Canada were chosen to train future fliers, and Picton was one. The Royal Air Force’s Number 31 Bombing and Gunnery School was built in 1941 on the site of a family farm, laid out according to a military plan shared by other sites across Canada. Seven decades later, only Picton survives, nearly intact. Trainees, instructors and staff came initially from the British Isles; later, from other allied nations and from across Canada.
In beautiful hulks and deadly contraptions, these men learned the art of aerial warfare over Prince Edward County. From there, they took to the skies all over the world. If they survived the training – and the war – the airmen and support personnel carried with them memories of their wartime days. Frequently, those memories come back to the old base, like lone aircraft straggling in from a sortie. Brian Truswell’s dad was one of those men: a navigation instructor, stationed at Number 31, flying Avro Ansons – the Canadian-built workhorse of the BCATP. He crashed at Sandbanks, was hospitalized at the base, completed his training and served at various airbases with the RAF. Surviving the war, he returned to his family’s nursery and dairy business, and later worked as a mechanic. Brian remembers his father showing him the pictures from his war years only once during his childhood. So when he and his wife Jean managed to follow the trail of those photographs to Picton last year, long after his father’s death, the last thing he expected was to find Number 31 unchanged.
“As you walked onto the airbase, you got that feeling… how it used to be,” says Brian. “I just got a creepy feeling, as I was going round, that I wasn’t alone…that my dad had actually been there. We went into one of the rooms, it was in one of the hangars, and I said, that’s funny, I’ve gone cold all the way over. And my wife said exactly the same thing. I stood in exactly the same position where my dad had taken the photographs. There’s nowhere you could do that, anywhere, really. It was a very moving experience.”
From the time Brian’s dad trained at BCATP Royal Air Force Number 31 Bombing and Gunnery School, the site went through several incarnations: Royal Canadian Air Force No. 5 Reserve Equipment Maintenance Unit; Royal Canadian School of Artillery; Camp Picton (home of the Surface-to-Surface Missile (SSM) Battery and the 2nd SSM (Training) Battery of The Royal Regiment of Canadian Artillery) and later, CFB Picton of the Canadian army, which operated until 1969.
Parts of the old base were carved off; the Ontario Government bought some of the housing units and created Prince Edward Heights (“The Heights” to locals) as a home for people with developmental disabilities. That closed in 1999 and has since been sold off as a housing development.
Stories linger of what was lost, as each chapter gave way to the next: of glorious old planes sold for scrap, or worse, disposed of in mighty bonfires of wood and canvas.
Middle-aged local guys remember driving out to the site as teenagers in the ‘80s to spin doughnuts on the empty tarmacs: the original Canada’s Worst Driver. By that point the place was a firetrap, a liability, a relic. Kids would chuck rocks through windows. Camp Picton earned a listing among the ghost towns of Ontario.
But can you call something a ghost if its heart has never stopped beating? Through all the changes of name and purpose, the core of the old base has remained – not just intact, but almost unchanged since wartime. The green-painted H-huts that housed men and facilities, the giant hangars, the backstop of the old gunnery range and the airfield itself are all there to this day.
Importantly, the runway is still in use by a local air cadet squadron and by the Prince Edward County Flying Club. Active since 1953, the club hosts monthly fly-in bacon-and-egg breakfasts through the summer season. On Father’s Day, more than a hundred aircraft crowd the site.
Thanks to the good graces of a member pilot, Brian Truswell was able to follow his father’s wartime trail right into thin air. “The chap who took me, Jeff Douglas, he had looked into it, and he flew me right out and we came down what was the old bombing range and he pointed everything out. It was a 40-minute flight. We both said that it felt as though we’d got my father with us.”
That sense of connection is familiar and important to Jamie Scott, who administers the family company that now owns Loch-Sloy Business Park. A professor in the Humanities department at York University, teaching World Religions, Literature and Geography, Jamie spends little time at the site. But he, too, has personal connections to the military history of the base. His late father, an Englishman, trained in Canada with the BCATP, at the nearly identical Paulson, Manitoba base, before returning to Britain where he established a career in business. (While Paulson boasts a museum today, only at Picton is a BCATP base preserved in near-entirety). Doing business in Prince Edward County, Jamie’s dad became captivated by the site, buying it and whimsically renaming it Loch-Sloy, a name shared by both a region of Scotland and a long-lost sailing ship. Jamie’s father envisioned a peculiar sort of place, open to entrepreneurs, yet maintaining a memorial of military endeavour. He also thought, in Jamie’s words, “that he was going to live forever.” He did not. But his vision thrives.
“I’m not a card-carrying military neo-colonial,” says Jamie, “but there’s a tendency to forget, and I don’t think we should! I think the heritage and history is something that needs to be kept in the front of the public consciousness.”
To that end, the Scott family has purchased a local collection of military artifacts. Along with donations from the local legion, a few of these are now housed in a small room off the old dance hall (still available for weddings and parties). There are plans to make a proper museum on the site: “We had hoped to have it done for the 75th anniversary,” says Jamie, “but we had to put a new roof on one of the hangars.” That particular repair required 1,200 sheets of plywood, plus rubber membrane and assorted materials and labour. The upkeep is daunting. Yet revitalization and renovation continues, all funded by income generated by use of the site.
“The site’s been self-sustaining for years…The money goes into staff salaries or restoring the place. It’s a going concern,” says Jamie. “It would be more of a going concern if we could get the right kind of investment, for what I call Stage 2.” That would include, among other things, a museum and memorial, better utility services, greater occupancy – and perhaps a greater sense of community.
Loch-Sloy today is a bustle of activity, with dozens of tenants – artists, artisans, tradespeople, manufacturers. There’s a music producer, a photographer, a carpenter, an auto-body shop, a pallet factory and an aggregates operation. Sculptor Don Maynard (see Watershed, Fall 2016) shares a space with a theatre company. A marine mechanic, a manufacturer of duck calls, a couple of potters, a luthier, a glazier and several cabinet makers all operate on site. A Lake Ontario fishing operation stores nets and equipment there. One hangar is crowded with boats, buses, RVs, trailers – anything that needs to be stored indoors, cheaply. Space, after all, is abundant in a place that used to house aircraft. There are more than 400,000 square feet of buildings on the site.
Loch-Sloy is bare bones: water has to be hauled in, the washrooms are porta-potties, heating can be an issue in the old buildings. For those who wish to use the space year-round, the management offers a basic upgrade including baseboard heaters and insulation. Some tenants invest in custom doors and windows, propane heat and other features, while others stick to seasonal use to keep it cheap. But what it lacks in amenities, it seems to make up in energy, creativity and possibility.
Is a yoga studio in a former military base a contradiction in terms? Not according to Kelly Cade, who holds classes in a big room in a re-roofed Hhut. Her vision of the site during wartime is a positive one. “To be a part of that connection is interesting to me,” she says. “I don’t imagine that these young boys who were up here training weren’t happy young boys doing their thing.”
Two doors down, Wendy Vervoort and Ed Klein (pictured on page 49) – a potter and a luthier, respectively, who moved to the Picton area to pursue their crafts – speak in reverent terms about the history of the place: “This is Canadian identity,” says Wendy. But Ed is quick to point out that Loch-Sloy offers cheap, practical space that allows them to work as artists, “For people like ourselves, who are committed to our work, where do we set up shop? This is it! There is no other place.”
Glen Wallis and his wife Susan run Wallis Awards, manufacturing the likes of the Canadian Screen Award, and the (now retired) Gemini and Genie awards. They have been at Loch-Sloy for four years in an H-hut that was formerly a medical building (every tenant seems to have a copy of the drawing that shows the location and the function of each building during wartime.) It’s a handy location, a big space with reasonable rent and lots of natural light. Still, it’s the intangibles that drew them. Says Glen, “I was totally intrigued by it. I just talked to Jacqui and the next thing I knew…”
Jacqui is Jacqui Burley, the business manager at Loch-Sloy. Hired by Jamie’s father to help manage the site, she has become, over the last two decades, its animating spirit. With no formal training as a military historian, general contractor, curator or tour guide, Jacqui has somehow acquired a working expertise in all of the above. It is Jacqui who personally leads veterans and their families on tours of the site, literally taking visitors like Brian and Jean Truswell in hand. Jacqui helped them match their old photos to the precise locations where they were taken. “We called our trip, ‘Walking in Dad’s Footsteps’ not realizing we would actually walk in his footsteps,” says Brian. That’s Jacqui in action.
Her enthusiasm is the gateway to Loch-Sloy. As Kelly Cade puts it, “I met Jacqui and I was blown away.” Everyone says something similar. It’s Jacqui (along with her brother, Steven and assistant Victoria) who helps tenants make themselves at home, approving renovations and personifying a can-do attitude that everyone remarks on.
Jacqui makes it her personal mission to make every building at Loch-Sloy a functional, hospitable space. The ones that are not yet usable, she tries to save. And the ones that have already succumbed, she treats like memorials. Several H-huts lie broken and sprawled on the site, side by side with the refurbished ones. They make an eerie sight: greying cedar boards, shattered windows, scattered shingles. To Jacqui, the collapsed buildings are reminders of the urgent need to continue repairs – and something more than that. “To me, they’re like our fallen veterans,” she says. “They’re like the men that came through here. They fought for us. We need to remember them.” She says it with all the certainty in the world. It’s not just a fact for Jacqui, it’s an article of faith. Lest we forget.
History lingers at Loch-Sloy, even as time marches on. The next chapter is always being written. “It’s kind of a yogic concept, but it’s the truth: everything is always changing. It’s cyclical,” says Kelly Cade. Seen that way, Loch-Sloy is a constantly evolving version of its own previous incarnations, alive and well on the edge of a town that sometimes forgets it is there.
At 66, Jamie Scott knows he is not the owner to bring the shared vision for the site to completion. Loch-Sloy is for sale. Listed for just shy of $15 million, the site awaits its Stage 2 visionary, someone who would find it attractive, intriguing, promising and potentially even profitable. But it’s not your average business park, and Jamie doesn’t think it ought to be. “We don’t want to compromise the vision that we have spent so much time and money and effort and energy on. There are people who would just come in with bulldozers and that would be the end of it, but if we get a sniff of that, forget about it.” On the other hand, everyone wants to see a museum on site, but no one seems to want the whole site to be a museum. Something would be lost: the energy, the activity, the spirit of the place. Loch-Sloy is a hive, a fertile place, alive with memory and connections among those making a living there, the visiting veterans, the rubber-neckers, the customers, the workers, the air cadets, the film crews, the eager would-be curators working to catalogue the artifacts.
Each of them owns a little bit of the old story, and feels the call to tell it. And each is making the story new again. That’s what makes a place, a place.