Look beyond the garden gate in Black River and you’ll find hardworking optimists of all ages, working together, cherishing the past and building their own histories in this tenacious rural community
MANY RURAL COMMUNITIES STRUGGLE AS POPULATIONS DWINDLE, as farmers age and young people move away. Prince Edward County has struggled, too, but despite being an island, by-passed by the highway in the 1960s, or maybe because of that, County towns and villages have largely retained their identities and, thanks to tourism and an influx of newcomers, their vitality. Young people are actually moving into the County. Some are returning after sampling city life, and many of them are coming to farm. Black River, population 250, is a 200-yearold community that feels remote from the bustling towns of Picton, Wellington and Bloomfield but is an easy 11 minutes from downtown Picton.
It’s not officially a town, but Conrad Biernacki stubbornly gives it as his postal address. “I sent myself letters and it works, as long as you use the right street address and postal code,” he says proudly. “Milford is our official mailing address, and I love Milford, but I live in Black River!” He and his partner run Black River B&B. He’s an enthusiast, a self-appointed ambassador of his adopted home and on a mission to show the world there is life outside of Picton, Wellington and Bloomfield.
He and his friend Bob Burkinshaw drove around Black River, doing a head count of local farms and home businesses, artists and entrepreneurs, then invited them all to get together to talk about helping each other. One simple idea was for everyone to tell their visitors about their neighbours and encourage them to explore Black River and its history. To this end, they created a visitors’ guide that is mounted on the wall of the venerable Black River Cheese. Black River dates back to 1785. Its fortunes peaked in the late 1800s when the river was alive with warehouses, wharves and shipbuilding. Earlier incarnations of today’s sensible little Black River Bridge included a swing bridge that opened for stately, tall schooners to pass through on their way to and from the Big Lake. Black River is dotted with 19th century farmhouses, and Morrison Point Road takes you to the lake. It’s a long and winding road lined with 150-year-old maple trees that also boasts a full kilometre of dry stone walls. Learning to rebuild and restore theses walls is one of the projects the community has embarked on together.
Bob Burkinshaw is one of the newer farmers in the neighbourhood, raising chickens and pasturing goats on his 60 acres. He and his sons are planting fruit and nut trees, including American chestnuts that were almost wiped out last century. One son, Andrew, is a beekeeper and lives next door with his wife and five children, so that’s three generations living on Morrison Point Farm already.
Down the road, Rebecca Sweetman and Neil Usher are also raising a family at Hawkridge Homestead. Rebecca came home to Prince Edward County after working on sustainable global development projects with farmers around the world, and she and her high school sweetheart are now building an organic permaculture operation on her family farm. The old barn with its three-foot thick limestone walls and massive hayloft beams that stay in place without a single nail houses organic Tamworth pigs. “I wondered if I could raise them and then eat them,” Rebecca recalls. “Turns out I can, and they’re absolutely delicious!” The pigs are joined in winter by chickens and the guinea fowl that Rebecca says are “ridiculously noisy but terrific” at keeping down ticks. With a barefoot toddler in the barnyard, that’s a good thing.
Rebecca’s and Bob’s farms are on Morrison Point Road, and if Black River was a town, this would be its main street. The former Vicki’s Veggies was founded here about 20 years ago. It was an organic smallholding that caught the attention of lifestyle magazines and helped launch the current organic revolution in the County. But Black River’s most famous attraction is undoubtedly Black River Cheese just around the corner. Established in 1901 as a dairy farmers co-operative, the original building burned down in 2001, but the County rallied to rebuild it, and it remains a hugely popular destination. Located beside Black River Bridge (which local knitters gleefully yarn-bombed last year for Canada’s 150th birthday), it no longer makes cheese onsite. The new owners, Gay Lea, do that elsewhere, but it still sells it, along with other County produce. A newly-built dock invites canoes, kayaks and rowboats to tie up and stop a while to enjoy a chunk of cheese or an ice cream. When the dock goes back in the water in May there is usually a party down by the river.
Not far away on County Road 13, a road that hugs the shoreline from Point Traverse to Waupoos, sits the whitewashed Black River Chapel, circa 1870, that opens its old wooden doors for the occasional wedding or acoustic music session. Lit by oil lamps and warmed by a woodstove, it’s a serene little time machine. Opposite the chapel live longtime residents Deb and Don Hudson at Valley Pine Farms. They’re well known for their organic heritage grains and flours and mentors to many of the newcomers.
Turn at the chapel on to County Road 16 to find Joaquim and Amor Condé, a couple who are restoring an old farm and raising pigs, sheep, chickens, ducks, turkeys and geese. Amor sells antiques in the barn and they run The Local Food Shop selling their own and neighbours’ produce. Joaquim is also known as ‘The Olive Oil Guy’ for the top quality oil he presses from organic fruit he harvests himself in Portugal. The couple host outdoor farm-to-table dinners where everything is organic, grown or raised on their farm, and in the fall of 2017, they hosted a special dinner with an open invitation to everyone in Black River. Conrad just loved it.
“They did it for the sheer enjoyment of bringing people together,” he says. “It was a joyful occasion that made me think of the olden days. There are lots of local events, church suppers and fish fries and pork roasts – very enjoyable – but they’re usually fundraisers. This one was pure goodwill – a celebration of the harvest, of old friends and fresh starts and the joy of good neighbours. We were celebrating history and our plans for the future.”
If you look beyond the garden gate in Black River, you’ll find hardworking optimists of all ages, working together, cherishing the past and building their own histories in this tenacious rural community.
|Writer, performer and speaker David Newland is a Fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society with a lifelong passion…|