Life and dreams along Highway 4

Google map with Highway 4 as it appeared until the 1990s highlighted in blue.
Mary Baxter's picture
Mary Baxter is editor of and a contributing editor of Better Farming magazine, the largest circulating farm magazine in Ontario and Canada’s top website for online farm news. In 2007, she, along with her former Better Farming colleagues won the Canadian Association of Journalists' Award for Investigative Journalism in the magazine category. In 2012, she also won the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists’ Star Prize for print journalism. Mary is based in London, ON.




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Ron Benner photo: New York Central Railroad Bridge, St. Thomas, Ontario, 1995



The fog is so thick I can see only a car’s length ahead. The weather is so strange. Here it is December and there’s no snow on the ground. The plants remaining in our kitchen garden in London — the leeks, parsley and kale — still grow.

I’m driving south to Port Stanley on Lake Erie to do the first interview for an article about Highway 4 and the communities along its stretch. During five months of research and exploration, I will meet people of all ages, journey on a bus with students from Central Huron Secondary School in Clinton to Port Stanley, learn about the road’s history and the challenges that its communities face, and discover remarkable efforts of community renewal.

Highways have a way of standing in for the act of living. “Life’s like a road that you travel on / When there’s one day here and the next day gone,” sings Tom Cochrane in “Life Is a Highway.” They’re not just about getting from one place to another; we build them up into expressions of our desires and despairs. “I’m gonna dust my blues, peoples, / Leave this raggedy-ass town behind,” growls George Thorogood in “Highway 49.” As road markers slip past, we catch glimpses of where we’re going and where we’ve been. Maybe, during a momentary pause on the road’s mighty gravelled shoulder, we spy who we are, what we could be or what we can’t be. Those are the images I hope to collect during the months spent along Highway 4. What will their sum produce? A portrait of loss? Of promise? Of something in between?

The past two decades have been tough on Southwestern Ontario. The toll is there to see in the closure of big plants such as Ford’s on Highway 4 at Talbotville and the transformation of towns such as Exeter, Clinton and Hanover into bedroom communities for larger centres to the east and south. Yet a sense of regional solidarity grows in local populations. Witness the efforts to establish groups such as the Southwest Economics Alliance and its successor, the South Shores Mayors of Ontario. Our sense of where we live is now more regional than local. We live in one community, work in another and shop and play in yet others.

For a large portion of the 20th century, Highway 4 stretched 275.6 kilometres from Port Stanley on Lake Erie in the south to Singhampton in the Beaver Valley in the northeast. It linked five counties (Elgin, Middlesex, Huron, Bruce and Grey) many towns and two cities (London and St. Thomas). Provincial offloading of services and infrastructure, including roads, to municipalities in the 1990s diminished the highway’s official stretch to 100.8 kilometres between St. Thomas and Clinton. The full route lives on as a patchwork of county and local municipal roads at either end. For years this road unified communities and their efforts to share experiences and build on each others’ resources. Does it still?

Now the veil of fog seems oddly appropriate. I think about how Highway 4 appears on a map. The 90-degree turn to the east that the road takes before Walkerton has the come-hither form of a crooked finger. Yet it seems like a story without an ending, an ending that raises questions. I want the highway to turn toward Lake Huron. I want its path to join one lake to another so there can be a proper sense of closure.

I meet up with the old highway just north of the New York Central Railroad Bridge at St. Thomas. As I wait for the traffic light to turn green, the bridge’s massive struts disappear into the fog. The light changes, and I gear up to enter the grey.

So the adventure begins.


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Mary Baxter photo: Downtown Exeter.



Twenty-five miles north of London lies the Royal Canadian Air Force Station at Centralia. RCAF Centralia. Don’t look for it now, it has lost its memory. A temporary place, for temporary people, it was constructed so that memory would not adhere, but slip away like an egg from a pan. Constructed to resist time.
Ann-Marie MacDonald, The Way the Crow Flies

The seemingly never-ending flight came first. From Malta to Rome to refuel. To Ireland to refuel again. Then hours in the air before landing. When 10-year-old Alfred Aquilina finally stepped off the plane in New York City with his mother and two sisters, the world had turned white with snow and the city’s tall towers and traffic-clogged streets crowded in.

Waiting at the airport was the father he hadn’t seen in nearly four years. That night, they went to the opera. The next day they caught the train, crossed the border at Niagara Falls and arrived in London, Ont. They drove north on Highway 4 to their new home in Exeter. January 1957. Brought up on the tiny island in the Mediterranean that was at that time a British colony, the young Aquilina had never seen snow until he landed in New York. Nor had he experienced central heating, which awaited him in his new home.

On the half-hour drive from London, the Aquilina family may well have seen cars going the other way, their passengers travelling to the regional centre to shop. If young Alfred had looked west, he may have glimpsed a train on the CN line that ran from London to Centralia. As the family passed through towns and hamlets such as Medway, Birr, Lucan and Clandeboye, he may have rolled the unusual names over his tongue or noticed how the road seemed never to be completely one thing or another — sometimes a bustling, slow-moving street when they reached the towns, where his brother, who was behind the wheel, eyed pedestrians and other cars edging out of parking spots, and sometimes a fast-moving, two-lane highway when they drove through relatively flat countryside populated by medium-sized family-owned farms that mixed livestock and crops.

The Aquilina family wasn’t the first to encounter Highway 4 on the final leg of a long journey to a new home. Since the 1800s, people have used this thoroughfare to reach their final destinations. They have come from everywhere: the United States, England, Scotland, Ireland, Holland, British Columbia, Somalia, Colombia, South Korea, Lebanon, Afghanistan and, most recently, Syria. Many arrived following events that had unfolded countries away. The American Revolution. American slavery. The great Irish potato famines of the 1800s. The land-tenant evictions in Scotland in the same century. Wars, uprisings, coup d’états and revolutions. Some arrived because of circumstances in Canada: no room on the home farm or Second World War prisoner internment policies.1 (See Highway 4: The early years and Black settlements along Highway 4)

The Aquilina family came to Exeter because of the prospects of work and a chance for Alfred’s father to connect with the military. Salvator (Centralia Sam) Victor Aquilina had been a chief petty officer steward in the Royal Navy, a high rank for an enlisted sailor, Alfred told me by phone earlier this year. After the war, Sam retired, but employment was impossible to find. Malta had been heavily bombed during the Second World War and in the aftermath “jobs were not plentiful,” Alfred says. At the time, lots of people migrated from Europe into the United States, Canada, Australia and other places such as Egypt.

When he first arrived with one of Alfred’s brothers in the early 1950s, Sam dug ditches in London but soon found employment running the officers’ lounge at the Royal Canadian Air Force station at Centralia.

Located southwest of Exeter on a swath of flat land, the station was a vibrant military community. It had been the No. 9 Service Flying Training School in the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan during the war. Trainees there learned how to fly the British twin-engine Avro Anson and the single-engine North American Harvard.

After the war, the base became a training facility in the NATO Air Training Plan. Fledgling pilots, many only 18 years old, learned how to fly there on their own and navigate. They trained on two-seater propeller planes called Chipmunks, Alfred says. A training centre in Saskatchewan came next. There, the student pilots learned how to fly jets.

Alfred, who in his teens sometimes worked at the base part-time with his father, remembers it teeming with people from all corners of the world. Classes, called flights, were arranged by country, and he remembers people from Denmark, Norway, Britain and Nigeria. Behind the bar at the officers’ lounge, Sam proudly displayed the crests each class had made. “Some of them were quite large and very ornate; others were just very small things,” Alfred says.

While the noise of the aircraft was rarely loud enough to reach Exeter a short drive away, the cosmopolitan flavour of the base spilled over to the town on Highway 4. Many students who attended Huron South District High School were from military families, Alfred tells me. The station “brought the rest of the world in,” as did the RCAF Signals School located on the former Royal Air Force base near Clinton and, during the war, the temporary base established for ground crew training at the psychiatric hospital on the highway south of St. Thomas. “You didn’t feel like this was just a farming community, which Exeter was,” Alfred says of Centralia’s effect on the town. “It was far beyond that. I think it might have been much more cosmopolitan than some of the larger centres. Because in larger centres, cultural groups — diasporas — tend to stick together. Sometimes they don’t even learn English because they don’t need to.”

Most of those who were stationed at Centralia, however, stayed for only two years before orders came to move them elsewhere. Alfred and his family, the only Maltese family for kilometres around, remained. Despite the multicultural makeup of the base nearby, his ethnicity sometimes drew the attention of bullies at school in the early years. They made fun of his language, how he looked. Many other kids didn’t, however, and today he shrugs off the experience. It wasn’t overwhelming, although he wonders whether today’s world is more finely attuned to the implications of such treatment.

Highway 4 featured prominently in Alfred’s life. He used it to travel to London to visit relatives and sometimes, when he slipped over to the base to help out his father, watch air shows and visit a girlfriend there.

His father was well loved by officers, administrators and younger officers who appreciated how he looked after them. He took care of his young charges well. “He actually invented a drink they called Sam’s Special. It was completely soft drinks — there was no hard liquor in it — and some other flavours, so he would give them that instead of hard liquor if they were going to be doing their exams,” Alfred tells me. When the base closed, Sam was invited to work at the flight school in Esquimalt, B.C. He went for a brief time and then returned to Exeter, officially retiring from his life of service.

The station closed in 1967, the same year Alfred completed high school. He did what many others along Highway 4 have done for years: drove down the road to attend Western University. In 1975, after he graduated, Alfred waved goodbye to the region for good to pursue a career in social work. The Northwest Territories was his destination. Today, he lives in Sault Ste. Marie.

Sam Aquilina died in Exeter in 1999. Some family members remain in London, but no Aquilina lives in Exeter anymore.

1 See for example, Frederick H. Armstrong, The Forest City: An Illustrated History of London, Canada (Burlington, ON: Windsor Publications Ltd., 1986), Robert C. Lee, The Canada Company and the Huron Tract, 1826-1853: Personalities, Profits and Politics (Toronto: Natural Heritage Books, 2004) and Linda Brown-Kubisch’s 2004 book The Queen’s Bush Settlement: Black Pioneers 1839-1865 (Toronto: Natural Heritage Books, 2004). Back


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Mary Baxter photo: Sister Theresa Mahoney



Children now walking
gathering here the walk
with parents, the wait
each morning for the bus,
others now climbing into
their van, morning sun from the east
shines such as a golden glowing
radiant Buddha-head

last night, the wide dark head
above the beach, Lake Erie
string of white bulbs still on there
sign of the bar, The Buc
still on, I walked on, out there, back
on Edith Cavell Blvd., walked on.

— “Jan. 10” by Gerry Shikatani, The Port’s Seasonal Rental

Michael Baker, curator of Elgin County Museum and a member of Morel’s advisory board, remembers the long stretch of Highway 4 from London to Clinton with fondness. It was a regular part of his weekend and holiday commute between his hometown of Kincardine and Western University where he studied history during the 1970s.

He drove an early-1970s gold Dodge Dart and counted off landmarks as the journey progressed. The orchard at the top of the hill outside the city. The barn at Mooresville Drive, north of Clandeboye. Dashwood Industries, south of Exeter. The Bendix (today General Coach Canada) factory water tower at Hensall, which signalled that he was nearing Clinton where he would turn west onto Highway 8.

Now he often drives the southern stretch of the highway which, from the northern outskirts of St. Thomas to Port Stanley, became Elgin Road 4 and Sunset Drive after a series of government ownership transfers took place from 1977 to 1999. There he ticks off other landmarks. The site of the old Stork Club in Port Stanley and the psychiatric hospital grounds across the road from the county building where he works. The Methodist church at Talbotville and, just south of London, Weldwood Farms, owned by the Weld Family who established the Farmer’s Advocate and Home Magazine in 1866 which published for nearly a century.

Baker’s experiences of Highway 4 are the norm for those who live along its corridor, travel on it to take holidays, go to school and pursue careers. From the start, the highway’s purpose has been as much about enabling local comings and goings as it has been about connecting to places outside of Southwestern Ontario.

Soon after the road was established, it became busy with Londoners travelling to and from fast-growing Port Stanley, a town prized not only for its role in lake travel and goods shipment, but also as a recreation destination. By the early 1900s, this Coney Island of the Great Lakes boasted a large sandy beach, a dance pavilion, an outdoor theatre, a casino and even rides such as a Ferris wheel and roller coaster.

Retired journalist Mike Mulhern, who grew up on Highway 4 in St. Thomas, recalls watching the steady flow of cars from London on their way to the Stork Club in Port Stanley on Friday and Saturday nights. In the 1950s, the dance hall drew people from throughout the region. They dressed in their best to swing on the 13,000-square-foot hard-maple floor to big bands led by musicians such as Guy Lombardo and Louis Armstrong and to smaller groups such as the Four Aces.

“We would count all the cars and marvel at the people inside, especially in the convertibles because we could see the men in dinner jackets and the women in evening gowns,” Mulhern writes in a brief account. One summer night, one of those fancy cars crashed into his family’s yard. “My parents invited them in while we waited for the cops and a tow truck. The men were forgettable, but the young ladies were wearing strapless evening dresses and carrying small, jewelled purses. They didn’t say much. My brother and I were silent too but really star struck.”

Sister Theresa Mahoney, one of London’s three Ursuline nuns, grew up in Mount Carmel, north of the city. Mahoney, 74, remembers driving to the city on special trips with her parents. They took her to the ice cream parlour; the treat wasn’t available at that time in the country.

Whenever they planned a trip, her father borrowed the best and newest car he could find because the event was considered so special that the family wanted to appear at its best. By the time her younger brother by five years became a teenager, however, the drive to London had become routine. He’d think nothing of driving there on the weekends to catch a movie, she tells me, for many of the movie theatres in nearby towns had closed.

Much of Mahoney’s Ursuline service has taken place at Brescia University College. Brescia, today Canada’s only women’s university, and its affiliate, Western University, overlook Western Road, one of the six names Highway 4 takes on through London. (The others are Richmond Street in the north, Wharncliffe Road, Main Street and Colonel Talbot Road in the centre and the south.)

The college got its start in 1919 as the Ursuline College of Fine Arts and moved in 1925 to its current location. Teaching liberal arts, religious studies and home economics, the college quickly gained an international reputation. Students came from not only local communities but also South America and the Caribbean.

Mahoney spoke to me in February about her long relationship with the college. We sat in the parlour and dining room of Ursuline Hall, the school’s first, and arguably most recognized, building. The morning had suddenly and, given the mildness of our 2015-2016 winter, surprisingly delivered a deluge of soggy white flakes. (Driving to the appointment, I’d needlessly worried about getting stuck on the steep lane to the building whose spiky late Gothic Revival roofline reached soulfully into the sky.) The parlour’s bright overhead lights compensated for the curtain of wintry crystals travelling from sky to ground outside. Mahoney, who has the agile frame of someone used to long walks and working in the garden and has the all-seeing gaze of maternal authority, sat at the head of the massive table where students once learned the intricacies of formal dinners and table service.

She tells me about the routine that nuns, teachers and students followed. It sounds arduous but also searingly innovative. For years, they operated a farm. (A small portion of the university college grounds continues to be farmed.) The nuns carefully noted farm product sales and the destination of the money in the minutes of their meetings. Mahoney recites an example: “We need new cupboards in the Homec (Home Economics) department; sold three pigs.”

Until they obtained government funding, the order financed the institution. “That’s why we had to sell pigs,” Mahoney says. The school’s capacious garden was a key source of food for the university college, and the nuns rolled up their sleeves to pick beans and can produce. At night, professors cleaned dishes and tidied the kitchen. Although students weren’t expected to work, some did in exchange for tuition.

Students and nuns occupied the building’s upper floors. Today, students live in another building close by.

We embark on a tour of the main floor. Mahoney shows me the chapel with its intricately carved wooden details, the rotunda entrance and, nearby, a curved marbled staircase, where students from another era, nervous and giggling in their silk and satin dresses, clustered before prom to pose for photos and greet their dates. The graceful incline summons the last scene of Margaret Mitchell’s epic Gone with the Wind when, after Rhett Butler spurns the heroine Scarlett O’Hara, she sobs on the stairs of their Atlanta home and bravely tells herself, “Tomorrow is another day.”

When Mahoney first arrived as a teenager during retreats in the 1940s and early 1950s, the building teemed with students, and she remembers sleeping in bunk beds. Soon after, she attended the college and studied English. After graduating and joining the order, she specialized in special education, teaching at a children’s mental health centre in Windsor, then later working with refugees. In the mid-1990s, she returned to the college to become the school’s chaplain, a position she held for 12 years.

By the 1990s, however, the order was on the wane; the nuns realized they had to secure the institution’s future. They sold the university college to a council of trustees which they had helped to form.

The Ursuline order still holds the college’s Catholic sponsorship, and two nuns sit on the council of trustees. Enrolment stands at more than 1,500 full- and part-time students, a number far greater than the seven women who in 1923 were the college’s first bachelor degree graduates. (See The case for women's universities)


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Mary Baxter photo: Jodi Jerome on the Victoria Road bridge over the Maitland River in Wingham.



In the fall in London, the arrival of more than 25,000 students at Western University sparks giant, raucous celebrations in neighbourhoods nearby. The shenanigans often seize the attention of authorities and local media. By May, after exams are done, traffic quietens and peace settles. The objects of the students’ temporary occupation — mattresses, couches, side tables, bookcases — line the curbs near the university like archeological artifacts.

In 1951, one of the region’s most famous daughters also said adieu to Western and Wingham, the town farther north along Highway 4 where she was born. She undoubtedly thought the leave-taking would be for good. Twenty-year-old Alice Munro had just married her young husband James, and they were on their way to British Columbia to make their life. The Nobel Prize-winning author, however, eventually returned to the Huron County that inspired the vast majority of her short stories, settling in Clinton, yet another point along Highway 4.

Much is made of the loss of rural youth to the bright lights and bustle of cities such as Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary and Ottawa. Yet, like Munro, some trickle back to the region years later. What makes someone leave? And what draws that person back?

With those questions in mind, I drove to Wingham from London in early March to explore the town with Jodi Jerome, a public historian. Finding out about the town of Munro’s youth was the official objective. But answers to those other questions were what I really sought.

Jerome and I met in front of the North Huron Museum, walked down the town’s gently sloping main street (which was for many years during the 1900s a part of Highway 4) and sat for a long time in a restaurant in the former Queen’s Hotel. We took a table by a window overlooking the street and drank tea. Both in the restaurant and during our walk on the street, people stopped to greet Jerome, a tall, energetic woman who has this year reached the milestone of 50.

Jerome tells me that she was the curator at the museum when it was established. She continues to be the go-to historian to guide visitors around the town known locally as Swingin’ Wingham because of its radio and television stations but known internationally as the town that Alice wrote. Jerome was also involved early on in the development of the Alice Munro Festival of the Short Story, an annual literary event that takes place in different venues throughout the county in June.

After we finish our tea, Jerome wants to know if there are any specific places that I want to see. I suggest the library, thinking of “Carried Away,” a story I’d recently reread. The first story in Open Secrets, Munro’s 1994 collection of short stories, “Carried Away” is about a librarian and uses as a backdrop the connection between towns like Wingham and London, the regional centre. Earlier, Jerome had discussed the connection too. It was the reason she decided to do her undergraduate degree at Trent University in Peterborough.

She had grown up in Kincardine and couldn’t get far enough away, she told me. When you grow up in a small town and spend your days with the same people at high school that you did in public school, if you have any ambition at all, you want to get out. Going to university in London and Kitchener doesn’t work because that’s where everyone else goes too. “I didn’t want to be in a place that had already defined me,” she says. “I wanted to go outside; I wanted to experience something totally different.”

We walk up the street against the wind and stop at Wingham’s town hall, a yellow-brick building with an ornate bell-tower entrance that divides the structure into two wings. Jerome points to the first floor of the northern section. It had been the library during Munro’s youth. In interviews, Munro often talks about sitting in the library and watching the comings and goings of people on the main street and at the post office. Jerome points across the street to the museum. That had been the post office.

We head back to Victoria Street, which parallels the east-to-west coursing of the Maitland River. On the way, we talk about how the highway seems to become more insular when it passes through towns. Back when the towns were established, narrow boardwalks lined the roads, she says. Wide roads allowed buggies and horses room to manoeuvre around each other. Drivers stabled their horses off the main street, often at the local hotels. Even today in towns like Wingham, shelters and water troughs exist to serve the horses that draw Mennonite wagons and buggies.

Jerome tells me that when hydro first came to Wingham, angry letters to the editor flooded the local newspaper about the poles and wires on Main Street. The letters reminded her of the dispute about wind towers in rural areas today. We discuss big change, such as the arrival of cars or the advent of the Internet. Jerome calls them “rupture points” that leave people with polarized points of view. One generation moves forward; the other gets left behind.

At Victoria Street, we stop. Jerome points to a building across the road: the former home of the Gurney Glove Factory that closed in 1976. Had she stayed, Munro might have ended up working there. Surely she must have thought about the possibility during her long walk from the flats of Lower Town to school. Or nursing. For about two decades, the town’s hospital operated a training school which drew young women from the surrounding region. The town’s factories drew the men. When she researched the history of Wingham’s largest manufacturer, Westcast Industries Inc. which makes exhaust manifolds for vehicles, Jerome came across families who had worked there for three generations.

Walking along Victoria Street feels precarious. On the north side are streets of solid brick houses. The south side drops sharply to a desolate stretch of river flats known locally as the prairie. The street connects to a bridge across the river, and at one time this route was the only way you could access Wingham from the south and west. We pause at the bridge for a picture. Lower Town, where Munro’s father farmed, is beyond the bridge. In the early years, Lower Town housed Wingham’s business district, but the area was prone to floods. When the railway arrived, everyone wanted to be closer to the station, located on Highway 4.

When established as a town in 1879, Wingham excluded Lower Town from its jurisdiction. The rivalry that resulted sounds a lot like the one between Dog River and Wullerton in the comedy series Corner Gas: any mention of Wullerton prompts Dog River residents to spit on the ground. Wingham residents of a certain generation can remember being chased out of Lower Town when they were kids, Jerome tells me.

The young Munro made this trip every weekday. It’s easy to see how the determination to leave would have built, step by step. I imagine the resolve to be as unbreakable as King Arthur’s sword, Excalibur. What shatters such powerful determination and enables return?

At the restaurant, Jerome had talked about her return as if it were a surprise. After working at a co-operative placement job in Ottawa, she took a job at Bruce County Museum in Southampton. The opportunity seemed like a good way to build experience and ride out the recession of the early 1990s. Then she met her husband to be. They had two children. He had no interest in leaving, although they moved around within the region before settling on the outskirts of Wingham.

She might have been living in the area, but Jerome’s commitment to return — or, phrased another way, to stay put — didn’t come until much later, after they had the children. “I was starting to see my area in a way I’d never seen it before,” she tells me. “I decided to live small.

“To me, that meant I would concentrate on what was around me and not seek gratification from the big. It wasn’t because I’d given up on myself. ‘I could do it if I wanted to’ was my attitude, but why not do it here? If I do it well here, then I’ve contributed something. When you go big, sometimes it gets lost amongst everything. Here you get a chance to see if you’ve made a difference or opened an eye. You get to know more about where you live, and I think that’s a bonus.”


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Mary Baxter photo: The crumbling radar building at the former Canadian Forces Base Clinton, today the community of Vanastra, south of Clinton.



The green woman intercepted her, asked if she was all right.

“I have to catch a bus,” said Louisa in a croaky voice. She cleared her throat. “An out-of-town bus,” she said with better control, and marched away, not in the right direction for Simpsons. She thought in fact that she wouldn’t go there, she wouldn’t go to Birks for the wedding present or to a movie either. She would just go and sit in the bus depot until it was time for her to go home.
— “Carried Away” by Alice Munro, Open Secrets

On the drive from Wingham to London, if you look carefully to the west, you can see traces of the London, Huron and Bruce Railway corridor that once paralleled the road. Gaps in woodlots signal the corridor’s former presence, as do doubled-up fence lines here and there. Trains were once vital for conveying goods throughout the region, although passenger service between London and Wingham ended during the Second World War.2 Throughout the middle and the latter half of the last century, most people used cars and buses to travel between Highway 4’s communities.

By the late 1990s, the bus service had dwindled to a single bus that travelled between Owen Sound and London. I’ve taken that bus myself. It travelled on Highway 21 along the Lake Huron shoreline and then turned inland to Wingham to pick up Highway 4. In Exeter, the bus circled round to a parking lot behind a single-storey diner and scraped to a halt in front of a grocery store. If you hurried, you could use the diner’s washroom while the bus driver picked up packages.

That bus service was probably gone or on its last legs by 2003, the year Cheryl Heath moved to Clinton to become the editor of the Clinton News Record. The lack of public transportation along this road was one of several signs that the region was beginning to struggle, but in those early years Heath didn’t think much about the implications.

She had fallen in love with Huron County when she worked at the Exeter Advocate in the early 1990s. She’d grown up in Windsor where it took two hours to get anywhere. When she worked at the Advocate, she lived in a great little apartment in Dashwood. “It was an old hotel that had been converted,” she says. “You could walk around, it was so peaceful.” The beach was right there. The river was right there.

Heath was working in Wallaceburg at a larger weekly paper when the News Record job came up. The job was a step down. So what? Lifestyle was the attraction. “I thought I was going to work there until I retired,” Heath tells me.

Surprisingly, the area had changed little since she’d lived there 12 years before. But the lack of change appealed because it meant everything she’d liked about the area was still in place. She and her husband, Ted, found a yellow-brick Georgian house that they adored. Although Ted’s tax business was in Windsor, which meant long commutes during tax time, everything about the move felt right.

Then, in 2012, Heath lost her job during a massive layoff at Sun Media, the newspaper’s parent company. Struggle began in earnest.

Moving wasn’t an option. The Heaths loved their home and their community. So at first Cheryl freelanced locally; then she retrained and found contract government work. Today, she still hasn’t found permanent work and drives an hour each way to a contract job in Bruce County. In the meantime, she runs The Paper, a monthly publication that she founded, and dreams of a full-time return to journalism. But the publication grows slowly. “I’ll have months where I think this is awesome, the dam’s about to burst here in terms of getting the awareness and the attachment, and then there’ll be times —” She sighs in frustration. “You know what I mean.”

Clinton is a bedroom or commuter community, she tells me. Exeter might be larger, but it too has a large share of commuters, and businesses struggle to serve them. Residents want to support local, but often they can’t find the services or products they want.

In Clinton, the local business improvement association has been trying for years to find ways to stimulate the local economy to attract both customers and more business, she says. But how do you fix it? “Everything’s changing everywhere. You’re not going to draw Hudson’s Bay here. Hudson’s Bay might not be in London (in a few years). It’s a changing world.”

Drive Highway 4 and you’ll see the impact of the population decline in rural Canada: Towns dwindled to little more than a sign and maybe a business or two at an intersection. Businesses long shuttered and windows boarded. Untended grass vying for space with the weedy Phragmites australis.

Between Lambeth and St. Thomas, the decline is acute. Average daily traffic along this stretch dropped by more than 2,000 vehicles between 2010 and 2012, mostly because of the shuttering of Ford’s assembly plant in St. Thomas. The plant closed for good in 2011 and has since been demolished.

In Lambeth, simultaneous decline and growth creates a taffy-pull effect on the community. In early spring, I meet Anna Hopkins at a Tim Hortons to talk about the situation.

Hopkins is councillor for London’s Ward 9, which includes Lambeth and a vast portion of Wharncliffe Road’s southern section (also a part of Highway 4). It’s her first term as a city councillor. She cut her political chops as an activist, fighting the development of a condominium by the river in the city’s west end and participating in a local school’s parent-teacher association. She’s meeting me the day after London council settled its annual budget. Talks had dragged on for weeks and she must have been exhausted, but you’d never know that from the way she gets her teeth into the subject of Lambeth.

Lambeth was once a police village in the former Westminster township. (A police village was a form of local government that predated Confederation and was applied to settlements too small in population to become a full-fledged town. According to The Canadian Encyclopedia, only 50 such villages remain in Ontario.) In 1993, London annexed the area, and what followed, says Hopkins, was residential development. “A lot of development.”

It created pressure. The community historically sat in the centre of a rural and agricultural area, and its identity and London’s differed greatly. Most development is taking place on a pie-shaped area in the north of the community away from Highway 4.

After piling into Hopkins’s car, we cruise north to a side road that leads to a traffic circle where roads stick out like the spokes of a wheel into streets lined with cookie-cutter suburban single-family homes. We drive down another side road, this time to the west, where similar homes sprout on a former farm field. Across from this development is an unplanted farm field. It’s in a no-development zone beyond the city’s urban growth boundary. North of that field is the busy commercial district along Southdale Road. The district parallels Lambeth’s main street: Highway 4 which becomes Wharncliffe Road in the north and Colonel Talbot Road in the south.

We skip over to Lambeth’s northeast end to see the new site for the fire station in another developing neighbourhood. Currently, the station is on Westminster Drive just off Highway 4, close to the Highway 402 access. Hopkins says the move will put the station closer to the people and improve the firefighters’ response times. She doesn’t know why it was put so far south in the first place, but notes it was close to the highway and agricultural communities.

We pick up Highway 4 again in its various iterations and return to the restaurant where I’ve left my car. The road looks forlorn; traffic is spottier here. Lambeth’s four-lane main street, put in decades ago to accommodate the road’s one-time heavy use, creates a formidable barrier between the stores and strip malls on either side. In the restaurant, Hopkins had mentioned a community improvement plan, but it’s hard to see how this area with all its concrete could blossom into quaint shops and neighbourhood haunts.

As we head south, she nods to either side. Most of the buildings are deserted, she tells me. Then she points to the former M.B. McEachren Public School. Built in 1925, it was a continuation school, an early form of high school, before it was converted into an elementary school in 1950. The school closed in 2010 but the building has a future. “It’s going to be a medical centre, a pharmacy,” she says. “But they’re going to keep the integrity of the building.”

When we go our separate ways, I scout Colonel Talbot/Highway 4 to find the current location of the fire station. It’s near the 402 Highway access. I drive farther south to the 401 and remember a painting by the late Jack Chambers called “401 Towards London No. 1” completed in the late 1960s.

In the painting, the highway slips under a bridge and trickles into the horizon beneath big cirrus clouds. At the time, the work spoke volumes about a way of getting from point A to point B that was still new to many of us. We marvelled at the wide, powerful canals that channelled distance with their directness and lack of stops and at the engineering of giant concrete figure-eight cloverleafs that streamed traffic from one highway to another. More and more, these expressways became our preferred routes. More and more, we grew impatient with the pokey regional highway’s lack of directness, the way small towns broke up the current of traffic like rapids or a delta plain.

I segue to Wonderland Road, the city’s newest access point to the 401. The access is on the eastern edge of Lambeth and seems superfluous, given the other access on Colonel Talbot/Highway 4 such a short drive away. Hopkins had told me the city doesn’t consider Colonel Talbot a major corridor.

Here on Wonderland, traffic clogs the road. Cars rush to the highway on-ramps and rush off its exit ramps. South of the highway access, traffic and the city vanish. Flat fields replace both.

Mary Baxter photo: Glanworth bridge over 401 near Highway 4/Colonel Talbot Road.

Several weeks later, I’m sitting in the kitchen of Tom and Helen Bradish and learning about the impact of Lambeth’s development on the area’s farm community. Tom Bradish, 73, has farmed along Highway 4 and in other areas between London and St. Thomas his whole life. His family was among the first to settle at Glanworth, a tiny hamlet that’s now a part of London and a few kilometres east of Lambeth.

Bradish tells me how at one time his family and other area farmers shipped grain, cash crops and cattle from Port Stanley and used Highway 4 to get their products there. Later, they began taking their grain to Cargill Limited, one of the big suppliers and buyers in the agricultural industry. The company operates a grain elevator at Talbotville, a hamlet on Highway 4 between Lambeth and St. Thomas.

Bradish — who is tall and rangy and has a steady gaze that’s honed from years of looking into horizons — grows processing vegetables. He was one of seven farmers who founded Strathroy Foods, a local food-processing company today owned by Bonduelle Foods. He and his son, John, harvest processing vegetables such as peas and sweet corn for Bonduelle right across Southwestern Ontario. They use specialized equipment and drive to field locations that can be more than 100 kilometres away.

When setting out to work in fields in the west, the father-and-son duo drives along the Glanworth Drive to Highway 4. There, they cross the road to pick up other roads that lead deep into Ontario’s southwest. “Glanworth Drive here is the farmers’ 401,” Bradish tells me.

The route is quiet, as are the other country roads they take, and the time spent on Highway 4 when they head west is mercifully brief. The bulky harvesters move slowly. Operating them in regular traffic is highly risky. Canadian Agricultural Injury Reporting lists farm-equipment and vehicle collisions as the fourth most common cause of fatal injury in the agricultural sector.

But about two years ago, Ontario Ministry of Transportation officials announced plans to remove the small bridge that connects Glanworth Road to Highway 4 to improve Highway 401. There were no plans for a replacement. Farm equipment operators would be forced to take Highway 4 instead for longer periods to reach other roads. And although the highway is a lot quieter since the Ford plant closed, it’s still a major road, Bradish tells me.

Bradish says local farmers are lobbying the province to keep the bridge, and they haven’t ruled out taking legal action. Last fall, the group met with the deputy minister of transportation. Bradish still hopes a solution can be found, but as of July nothing had emerged.

A ministry of transportation consultant is modelling the new interchange design to see how it will affect large farm vehicles. The ministry worked with the farm community to determine what type of vehicles to model, and the model will be finished this fall, says Emmelia Kuisma, a ministry spokesperson, in an email.

The precariousness of the bridge’s future is yet another sign of Highway 4’s dwindling significance as a transportation artery.

2 Robertson, Norman. The History of the County of Bruce : and of the minor municipalities therein, province of Ontario, Canada. Toronto: William Briggs, 1906. Back


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SETH illustration: Main Street. 2014. Gouache, ink and gold paint.16”H x 18.5”W.



I had looked forward to seeing the bright blue stretch of Lake Erie on my arrival in Port Stanley in December, but at Dan McNeil’s beachside home the fog is so thick that it’s hard to tell where the beach is, let alone the water.

Fit and slight, McNeil wears his jeans and a grey shirt topped by a blue pullover with the authority usually found in people who wear a military uniform. That’s not really surprising, because McNeil, now retired, spent 36 years in the Royal Canadian Navy before stepping off the boat as a rear-admiral in 2006. (His final assignment was commanding the East Coast navy.) In his home which overlooks the currently hidden lake are photographs of the boats he commanded. The view from the house’s book-lined third-floor study is the kind of view that you’d get of the water that you’d get from the bridge of a frigate.

McNeil has worked on both of Canada’s coasts. When he and his wife, Kathy, were considering retirement, they favoured moving to Victoria, B.C. Then their two daughters delivered a tempting offer: they would visit every summer if Dan and Kathy settled instead at Port Stanley where Kathy’s parents had cottaged for years. “So, we thought that was a good bet,” McNeil tells me.

McNeil, in his 60s, was born in London and attended Central Huron Secondary School in Clinton. He comes from a family tradition of the military: his father had served in both the Canadian navy and air force. The freshly retired rear-admiral enthusiastically set about weighing anchor in his new home, sailing competitively, diving into local history (reading and history are passions) and, in 2010, steering a successful municipal election campaign to become the tiny community’s representative on Central Elgin council.

McNeil is one of Port Stanley’s biggest promoters. It’s a small village, and yet it’s not, he tells me. It’s only minutes away from St. Thomas. Health care is easily accessible, as is shopping. The best theatres in the country are only a short drive away, as is the American border. And all of these attractions exist beside picturesque views of a billowing carpet of Great Lakes blue and a beach that stretches west to enormous sand bluffs.

McNeil is among a group of residents who have been pushing to make changes to attract new residents. The push coalesced following the 2010 federal divestiture of the community’s harbour. Negotiating the agreement had taken years. Before the establishment of the St. Lawrence Seaway in 1959, the port had been one of seven key ports in Canada. In the 1980s, the federal government reviewed Great Lakes ports to determine which ones to upgrade. Port Stanley didn’t make the list. “That was the beginning of the end,” McNeil says.

Lacking a future as a commercial port, the community spiralled. Two decades later, though, the omission became a bargaining point when the federal government approached local governments about divesting the port. The federal government transferred the port to Central Elgin in 2010, agreed to grant $13.6 million to improve the infrastructure and pledged environmental remediation of a portion of the harbourfront to meet Ontario’s parkland standard. In Ontario, the standard supports residential development.

The remediation has not yet taken place, but in the meantime the municipality has bought 90 per cent of the commercial property around the harbour to prepare for development. Central Elgin has also rebuilt the port’s western breakwater and topped it with an attractive walkway, and is using material dredged from the harbour (to improve its depth) to create a nearby park. The vision, McNeil says, is to create a fisheries and small-craft tourism and recreation harbour.

As he warms to the subject of revitalizing Port Stanley, McNeil pulls out a map and points out areas of new residential development. He mentions a public meeting to discuss the environmental assessment of improving and extending the community’s sanitary sewer capacity. “It’s growth. It’s remarkable growth,” he tells me.

The push to revitalize Port Stanley is one of many examples of how communities along Highway 4 are combatting the erosion of rural resources with strong community and entrepreneurial visions. And just as a fallen tree sustains new life in the forest, old infrastructure nourishes these ventures in surprising and innovative ways.

For instance, at Hensall, north of Exeter, privately owned IceCulture found plenty of advantages in its location to help it gain international recognition and demand for ice sculpting.

IceCulture was formally established by Julian Bayley and his late wife, Ann, in 1993. It was one of a cluster of area businesses that Julian had been involved in after he and his brother, Adrian, moved to Ontario from Britain in 1969.

The Bayleys spun off IceCulture from a catering venture. They started by making punch bowls. The discovery of a machine that could produce crystal-clear ice blocks broadened the scope of what they could sculpt, and before long they had acquired 150 machines and produced more than 100 blocks a day.

Mary Baxter photo: Hensall Co-operative.

Right from the start, the business drew heavily on the town’s infrastructure. They acquired their current building, previously a dry-cleaning business, for just $46,000. Next door is Hensall Co-operative, a huge grain elevator and farm-supply business that also offers trucking. A larger-than-average water main initially installed to supply a proposed ethanol plant provides access to Lake Huron water. (The plant has not yet materialized.) IceCulture hires locally.

In the mid-2000s, the Bayleys considered getting into the tourism business by establishing an ice gallery. They thought of locating it at Niagara Falls, but a government official suggested they stay. “We hadn’t thought about that because we knew we didn’t have the population around here, so we did the research,” Bayley says. They found out that they were on the route to four theatres. In Niagara Falls, they would have competed with 80 or 90 attractions.

Nevertheless, they have faced challenges. Although they quickly developed markets for their products in the United States, Britain and Europe, competition from other companies crept in. Shipping costs mounted. The gallery has not materialized yet because of the 2008 recession. Family illness and succession struggles created other hurdles.

Today, Bayley’s daughter, Heidi, runs the business. Bayley, 79, helps out.

Competition continues, and new government regulations that classify ice as food complicate logistics such as transport. Nevertheless, the Bayleys still see a strong demand for products such as ice lounges. They’ve built 30 lounges in locations as far-flung as Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, India, Greece and the United States. They’ve created an ice restaurant in Dubai and even supplied parts for an ice lounge to a cruise line.

Half an hour north, in the small community of Blyth, Peter Smith, theatre director and actor, shares an entertaining story of how building woes led to an ambitious vision of community renewal.

It all started, he tells me, in 2012 when he was working as the Blyth Festival’s interim artistic director. Each summer the festival’s repertory theatre company presents several plays that feature original Canadian writing, often with a rural focus. The theatre company performs the plays in the Blyth Memorial Hall, which was built nearly a century ago to commemorate soldiers who died in the First World War and share the culture for which they lost their lives.

Early in his tenure, Smith realized that the hall’s theatre seats needed to be replaced. “We applied for some grants and we didn’t get them, so I just said to the general manager, I’ll go out on the street and ask some people if they could help us out with seats. It was about a quarter of a million dollars for the new seats. So two of the people that I met said, ‘Well, what about the roof?’

“I said, ‘I don’t know. What’s wrong with the roof?’

“‘Well, HVAC (the building’s heating and cooling system) is at the end of its life. It’s at almost 25 years. The roof leaks.’

“I said, ‘Oh right, of course it does. And how much is that?’


The list continued. The courtyard needed repair. They wanted to lower the floor in the north wing and improve the kitchen.

“So one thing led to another. More people started to come aboard: people from government; people from private business; retired folks. So every week we filled a room with people over here. They would show up.”

Everyone wanted to figure out what to do. It was decided the hall needed renovation, both inside and out.

In the same year, the Blyth Public School closed its doors for good. For years the community had fought to keep the school’s doors open. The buyers of the school approached the group forming around the theatre revitalization and asked what they thought could be done with the building.

What about a school of art and innovation? Smith suggested.

“They said, ‘OK, what about that?’”

Out of those questions came the Blyth Arts & Cultural Initiative 14/19, a five-year fundraising effort to achieve four goals between 2014, the year the festival celebrated its 40th anniversary, and 2019, the year Memorial Hall, the location of the annual festival’s theatre, turns 100. The goals include renovating the hall, establishing the Canadian Centre for Rural Creativity at the former school, creating a trust that would help establish long-term sustainability for both ventures, and introducing a community bond — an investment vehicle — to spur economic development. Smith is 14/19’s project manager.

I spoke to Smith in February, late in a day jam-packed with committee meetings and a presentation to the board. We gathered at his desk in one corner of a large room above the offices of Blyth’s local paper, The Citizen. The building is just off the main street, Highway 4, which is known locally as the London Road. At a large table in the centre of the room sat Karen Stewart, 14/19’s administrator, and another committee member. They were working on financials. A big-pawed Labrador-mix pup named Cooper ran about.

Smith speaks enthusiastically about the potential to revitalize rural areas through the arts, pointing to the Appalshop centre in Whitesburg, Kentucky, as an example of what can be done. Through creative channels such as radio, film, theatre and journalism, the media arts centre in a town of 4,000 people gives voice to the Appalachian region’s rich culture.

The vision for Blyth is not simply to create a tourist attraction out of the cultural assets, but to create resources that enhance community life, persuade younger generations to return to or settle in the area and stimulate the local economy. The health of the community and its arts are intertwined, Smith explains. “If you don’t have a healthy community, then chances are you’re not going to have a healthy arts community.”

He remembers arriving in Blyth in 1985 as an actor. He couldn’t get over the community support for the theatre and the actors. Residents wanted to hang out with the artists. They came to the shows and stopped him in the grocery store to tell him what they thought. Everyone felt part of the festival.

Smith feels soil is the element — the infrastructure, if you will — that epitomizes the identity of the community’s arts focus in the way that mountains encapsulate the identity of the Banff School of Fine Arts and the North Atlantic captures the Fogo Island arts residency experience. Last year, the 14/19 group expressed this identity by establishing a community garden. There, people can get their hands dirty and seed, weed or harvest.

The fundraising initiative aims to raise $12 to $15 million. Smith says support has been strong. Locally, the Sparling family has donated $1 million to the project and North Huron has granted $500,000 toward the renovation of the hall. This spring, the province announced intentions to grant the project $3.3 million. Smith says the 14/19 group, which has members across Canada, is also talking to the federal government.

The centre already offers programming and outreach. Last year, there were pilot programs in fashion arts, photography and photojournalism. Over the winter, the centre and local partners developed the documentary film Deep Roots: The Music of Huron County, which launched in April. This summer, the centre offers courses in textile arts. Smith sees an opportunity to add programs in metalwork and glass blowing.

In September, the centre will host Rural Talks to Rural, a three-day conference featuring innovators from across the country who will discuss how they’re working to revitalize their communities.

For Smith, however, all of this activity would never have happened in Blyth if it hadn’t been for the existence of Memorial Hall and the cultural values it represents. This building’s potential attracted the festival’s founders years after the hall was built.

“I think that building talks,” Smith tells me. “That building decided that culture was going to be constantly presented inside of itself.”


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Bob Osthoff photo: Mary Baxter at the sign marking the end of Grey County Road 4 and what was, until the 1990s, the end of Highway 4.


The mid-April day divides sharply into bright, eye-aching sunlight and cool, dark shadows the way I imagine the Red Sea must have looked when (and if) Moses parted it. My husband, Bob, has pulled the truck over in Exeter so I can take some pictures of Highway 4. I walk from light to shadow to light, aim toward the town’s centre and shoot.

This is the last day that I’ll drive the highway with the purpose of writing about it. We’d planned the trip for weeks. As we head north from London, we pass familiar landmarks: the elevators at Hensall; the former radar building at Vanastra.

North of Clinton, we spy oily, thick smoke. At first we think a barn on our left is on fire. I look back after we pass. “It’s a tractor,” I tell Bob. Underneath the smoke, flames glow with foundry furnace intensity. Cars are collected on the property. Emergency crews haven’t arrived yet.

After we pass Wingham, the buildings look different. The older buildings, that is. Fieldstone begins to replace brick, and the houses look more European (or what I imagine quaint European cottages look like). Traffic empties right out. Somewhere outside Teesewater we pass a boy on a skateboard pumping himself along. Then two more kids, one on a bike. Hills close in on either side of the road. I get out again to photograph the place where Huron County 4, formerly Highway 4, turns 90-degrees toward Walkerton and becomes Bruce County 4.

We’re mostly quiet as we drive through Walkerton and Hanover. Every now and then, the Saugeen River glitters through the tangle of roadside trees and rocks. For Bob, this is home country.

In Hanover, we stop briefly in a strip mall to look for the shop where he used to get pipe tobacco. It’s gone. We drive underneath the hydro towers that haul power from the Bruce Nuclear Generating Station to Toronto. They remind me of the alien robot in the 1951 version of The Day the Earth Stood Still, and I recall that when the structures were being built helicopters carried materials to workers perched on the broad metal columns.

Durham is next. We stop at a small restaurant for lunch, make small talk about the light traffic and then continue our drive toward Flesherton. The country rolls by. Cedar scrub. Marsh. Pasture with crossed cedar-log fencing. Creek. Marsh. Cedar scrub. Gravel pit. A cluster of ponds. Then Flesherton’s century-old hotels and storefronts appear.

After we pass Flesherton, we both just want the trip over and done. The land has become farmable again. There are lengthy stretches of pasture and fields. Small signs plead, “Stop the wind turbines!” Red on white with a hand held up, palm out. We see turbines.

Then, finally, 275.6 kilometres away from where the highway once started in Port Stanley, the T intersection south of Singhampton appears. It marks the point where Highway 4, until 1997, came to an end. We’ve been on the road for nearly four hours.

We pull up. I ask Bob to take a picture of me. Reaching up to the road sign, I pose like Vanna White on Wheel of Fortune when she revealed a prize, and grin. I’m as delighted as the kid who answers, for the very first time, Why does the chicken cross the road?

Bob snaps the photo, and we both climb back into the truck. There’s a long drive ahead, but it is the easiest part because we’re on our way home.

— July 2016

This story was edited by Jennifer Day (structural) and R. Franklin Carter (copy).

Many thanks to everyone I interviewed, and special thanks to Jacqui Vercruyssen and her Communications/New Media High Skills Major students, Ron Benner and SETH for their generous contributions.


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Mary Baxter photo: Highway 4 bridge crossing the Saugeen River at Walkerton.


Your Highway 4 stories

Email your Highway 4 story to Mary Baxter and it will be published here. Photos welcome too!

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Saturday night on Highway 4 near St. Thomas

By Mike Mulhern

In the early 1950s, my family lived in a wood-sided house next to the Catholic cemetery on the stretch of Highway 4 between St. Thomas and Port Stanley. Our section of the highway was called the Gravel Road. It was mostly dull — farmers, coal trucks — except in summer when cars streamed by our porch heading for the beach at Port Stanley. But the most interesting times were on weekends when the Stork Club attracted big bands and big acts: Guy Lombardo, Louis Armstrong, the Four Aces. On those nights, it was the evening traffic that we noticed. By we, I mean my younger brother and me. He was eight, I was 10.

We played a game of counting cars with a couple of twists. A convertible rated two points, if you saw it first, and you’d get an extra point if you knew who owned the car. That sounds ridiculous, but back then there weren’t many red Packard convertibles or Buicks or Cadillacs. Most of the big cars were from London, and we knew who some of the drivers were because they had big reputations: Stallman or Labatt or McManus. We would count all the cars and marvel at the people inside, especially in the convertibles because we could see the men in dinner jackets and the women in evening gowns.

My dad sold tombstones and we had a few examples in the front yard in front of our wooden porch. On one rainy night, we didn’t see any open convertibles and car counting was dull until one of the cars, an Oldsmobile I think, lost control on the wet pavement, spun into our front yard, hit one of the larger monuments and destroyed the wooden stairs leading up to the porch. We weren’t hurt, but we did get to see, up close, two young couples dressed in their Stork Club finest.

My parents invited them in while we waited for the cops and a tow truck. The men were forgettable, but the young ladies were wearing strapless evening dresses and carrying small, jewelled purses. They didn’t say much. My brother and I were silent too but really star struck.

We watched and counted cars for a couple of years after that but never forgot the four visitors who stopped by on their way to the Stork Club.

— Mike Mulhern lives near West Lorne.

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At the RCAF Station Centralia

I am the one holding the chair second from left, NATO flight Cadets Norwegians and Danish, I used to go also weekly to Martin Boundy Music School by bus. The Cadets and I used to go to London, even if it was just for the ride and coffee. I even remember a zigzag on the way. Photo and caption contributed by Anthony James Aquilina  (Retired, member of the Canadian Forces Central Band)

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Ron Benner photo: WHERE WILL YOU BE IN ETERNITY?, #4 Highway, north of Talbotville, Ontario, 1995.


Highway 4: The early years

Highway 4, the King’s Highway, got its start in 1824 when land baron Colonel Thomas Talbot instructed his right-hand man, Mahlon Burwell, to survey the Wharncliffe Highway — north and south of the Thames River — to link to roads running east and west as well as the Proof Line Road (today’s Richmond Street in London) which served London Township. Talbot, once secretary to John Graves Simcoe, Upper Canada’s first lieutenant governor, brought settlers to a large area of land bordering on Lake Erie.

At its conception, the “road” was little more than an idea flowing from another idea: Simcoe’s vision in the late 1700s of creating a government capital at the Forks of the Thames River where the capital would be far enough away from the American border and close enough to defend other British resources. But the location was dead centre in the middle of nowhere — the road survey took place two years before London was actually plotted — and the roads linking it to more established communities east and west were simple dirt paths.

Seen from our contemporary vantage point, the decision to develop a regional artery to run north and south to serve a community that didn’t even exist (and never became a capital) falls only slightly short of delusional. Yet the gamble paid off. Within a decade, London grew big enough to support a three-day-a-week stagecoach service on the southern part of the road to St. Thomas. From there, travellers could take another stagecoach to Port Stanley to connect with the Thames steamer which took passengers to Buffalo. There they could transfer to boats that travelled the Erie Canal to New York City.

The harbour at Port Stanley (first settled as Kettle Creek in 1812) was used in the trade of wood and coal with the United States, and by 1853 businessmen from the town in the middle of nowhere had built the London and Port Stanley Railway to transport goods and passengers to the busy lake port.

North of London, the fledgling highway joined Proof Line Road, which had also been surveyed by Burwell in the early 1800s. Until 1849, the road was little more than a scar through the woods. That year, the provincial legislature passed a law that gave private companies the go-ahead to build toll roads, and local businessmen formed the Proof Line Road Joint Stock Company. The road had three tollgates: using them must have been like passing through international customs at a busy metropolitan airport. Much to the irritation of local residents, the tollgates persisted until 1907. When the road was finally turned over that year to public hands, the joyful celebration in Arva, north of London, included a burning of the gates.

Selected sources for this brief article and history references in the main article:

Armstrong, Frederick H.  The Forest City: An Illustrated History of London, Canada. Burlington, ON: Windsor Publications Ltd., 1986.

County of Elgin Women's Institutes. Tweedsmuir Histories.

"Gates on the Proof Line Road." London Public Library. 2013

The King's

Leighton, Douglas. "Wharncliffe Road." 2016.

Lee, Robert C. The Canada Company and the Huron Tract, 1826-1853: Personalities, Profits and Politics. Toronto: Natural Heritage Books, 2004.

Miller, Orlo. A Century of Western Ontario: The Story of London, The Free Press and Western Ontario. Toronto: The Ryerson Press, 1949.

Robertson, Norman. The History of the County of Bruce : and of the minor municipalities therein, province of Ontario, Canada. Toronto: William Briggs, 1906.

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The case for women’s universities

Susan Mumm, Brescia University College’s incoming principal, says the role of a women’s university is increasingly important. Few women are key decision makers in the public and private sectors, and more are needed. “Women’s universities have a very long and well-recognized history of training women to be leaders.” Graduates of women’s colleges, fewer than 1 per cent of all women in North America who attend university, make up 10-15 per cent of the women occupying the top positions in several different sectors, she says.

Several studies have established that girls do better in sciences and maths when they’re taught in a same-sex classroom, but Mumm thinks that phenomenon is not the only reason women’s universities help graduates to achieve future success. Access to role models is another big reason. “It’s a place where women are not just the norm but women are the authority and are making the judgments of value of the students’ work. For young women, that can set them on a trajectory of assuming that these judgments are good and they’re sound and, yes, they are as valuable to the society as their success in higher education suggests they are.”

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Black settlements along Highway 4

In the early 1800s, a colony of U.S. refugees established themselves at present-day Lucan, north of London. The Wilberforce Colony, founded in 1828, consisted of former Ohio residents who fled the state’s racist, discriminatory laws. In 1829, those laws sparked riots in Cincinnati and motivated the exodus of 1,000 of the city’s black residents.

At its largest, the Wilberforce Colony comprised 200 black families, but many who settled there had lived in Cincinnati and other U.S. cities and were ill equipped for the hardships of the Canadian bush. The colony also faced a crisis when one person charged with raising funds to acquire the colony property from the Canada Company (which was responsible for settling most of the land in Highway 4’s northern quadrants) absconded with the money. By the 1840s, as Irish immigrants fleeing the potato famine began to settle in the area, the colony declined and disappeared. Today, the descendant of just one family remains in the area.

The exodus from Ohio also indirectly produced another black settlement in the area that became, in the 1900s, Highway 4’s east-west arm. Priceville, located between Durham and Flesherton on the former Durham Road, was an offshoot of other, more established black settlements in present-day Waterloo Region and was one of many that sprang up in the bush during the 1820s. The settlers included both free blacks from northern U.S. states and escaped slaves from the U.S. south.

According to Linda Brown-Kubisch’s 2004 book The Queen’s Bush Settlement: Black Pioneers 1839-1865, the vast majority of these early black settlers were probably men in their teens or 20s. The earliest arrivals squatted on the land that had not yet been signed over to Upper Canada through First Nations treaties. In John Frost’s Broken Shackles: Old Man Henson from Slavery to Freedom, first published in 1889 and subsequently edited and republished in 2001 by Peter Meyler, Old Man Henson, who had escaped slavery in Maryland and sought refuge in Owen Sound, describes to the book’s author the Priceville settlement in 1854 as “a large colony of African people. There was a stretch of three miles on the Durham Road, which was all occupied by black families.”

Like the Wilberforce Colony, the little community at Priceville hung on for a while but ultimately disappeared. Many were forced out as the area was surveyed and land agents allocated to others the land that these early settlers had begun to clear.

Other selected sources:

Purcell, Victoria. Wilberforce Beginnings: The Wilberforce Colony and Butler Family Legacy. Victoria Purcell, 2010.

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Stops along Highway 4

In March 2016, students in the Central Huron Secondary School Information and Communications Technology High Skills Major and communications technology programs travelled Highway 4 from Clinton to Port Stanley. Over two trips they explored a historic railway corridor, Port Stanley and the Lucan Area Heritage and Donnelly Museum. These photos document their adventures.

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