By Bob Leahy
Bob Leahy introduces a new feature which highlights unique places for a day out just a drive away from Trent Hills.
Today we take you to the edge of the Canadian Shield, wilderness country where life was hard for its would-be settlers but where the remnants of that life are fascinating. It will take you less than two hours to get there.
Who has heard of the Old Hastings Colonization Road? Probably a very few. It’s a gem of a drive, a gravelly though very passable road rich in ghost town history, wild life and scenic beauty. To get there you will need to drive to Coe Hill. That little community lies a little bit south of Bancroft, a scenic 96 km drive from Warkworth. Together, Coe Hill, its tiny neighbor Ormsby and the Old Hastings Colonization Road make for an unusual but rewarding day out.
Plan to spend at least 5 hours daytripping.
First, stop at Coe Hill. It’s a small community. There are a couple of little stores to browse around and a couple of places for a light meal too. The big draw for foodies, though, or anyone curious about what an outpost of trendiness looks like in a very rural setting is the business known as The Barn Chefs. It’s a taste of Italy. Its strong suit is an extensive home-cured charcuterie selection. Be prepared, though, to be bowled over by its unique line of home grown cheeses, breads and preserves, Their website lists home-made Onion Marmalade, Wine Pickles, Wine Beans, Pickled mushrooms, Spicy Ketchup, Cucumber Relish and Pepper Relish but that’s just the start. We love this intimate but friendly little store run by a couple of seasoned chefs with years of experience in the food industry. The store seems almost out of place here so far north, but every square inch of it is an unexpected pleasure. Check their website for hours as the business is a seasonal one. Go here http://thebarnchefs.kitchen/index.php to learn more.
Then on to more adventures. It’s only a four kilometre drive from Coe Hill to Ormsby, a shadow of its former self that houses two very unusual places well worth visiting. Of Ormsby, my ghost town book reveals it’s the most intact of the many villages along the Old Hastings Road. “Enticed by the lure of free land” it says “settlers were unaware of just how harsh the land really was. As long as the settlers lived there and continued to need hotels, mills, churches and stores, these communities thrived. Soon however, the dreadful conditions chased most of the settlers to the more promising prairies. In its heyday, Ormsby contained two hotels, two stores, two churches, a school, a blacksmith, a sawmill and other small businesses.” In 1891 its population was 225. Now it’s 20.
What are the draws for present day visitors to Ormsby? There are at least two, both very unique. We like them both. First is The Old Hastings Mercantile & Gallery. It’s a quaint multi-room building jammed to the rafters with . . stuff. Originally Ormsby’s general store it is, I suppose, a gift shop trading in the eclectic. They have a nice selection of wind-up tin toys, for example. Friendly, not the least bit snooty, the place is a visual smorgasbord that we keep going back to. Find them here: https://www.oldhastingsgallery.ca/
Even more eclecticism is found just a 100 meters away. It’s a little one room schoolhouse built in 1921 that has been converted into a tea room that also serves light meals. But not too converted; the blackboards, world maps and schoolbooks remain so it feels like a school, an eye opener to people like myself who never had the one-room school experience. Now it serves light fare, including my favourite, English cream tea, good quality carrot cake, lunches and more on old fashioned dinnerware. For something really special, go there in December for their Candlelight Dickens-themed dinner. It’s quite unique and not expensive. Find more information here https://www.oldormsbyschoolhouse.ca/
I’m leaving the best until last. The Old Hastings Colonization Road, built in 1856, is where to enjoy an intimate view of the wilderness that has closed in on a succession of little settlements along its way. You will marvel at how early settlers coped with the rocky, swamp-scattered terrain, battling the harshest conditions imaginable. It was once called “The Trail of Broken Hearts” and “one of the “most challenging thoroughfares ever built in southern Ontario.” You will see few signs of that past civilization except for the tiny Thanet cemetery, itself worth a stop, seemingly in the middle of nowhere.
Umphraville, Thanet, Murphy Corners and Glanmire are all gone, simply disappeared. But what a beautiful ride it is. Here is an indispensable essay on the history of this road. http://www.pinecone.on.ca/MAGAZINE/stories/OldHastingsRd.html. I like how it ends. “The Hastings Road is one long trail of abandoned farms, adversity, blasted hopes, broken hearts, and exhausted ambitions. The rugged countryside of Hastings County has handicapped the surveyor, discouraged the farmer, attracted the miner, rewarded the lumberman, and enchanted the artist, sportsman, and vacationer.” It will enchant you too, I think.