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Great Scot traditions

Ontario county of Glengarry is rich in history

Email|Print| Text size + By Ethan Gilsdorf
Globe Correspondent / October 26, 2005

GLENGARRY, Ontario -- ''Flatter than a tabletop / makes you wonder why they stopped here / wagon must've lost a wheel / or they lacked ambition" is singer James McMurtry's explanation of how a swath of his native Texas was ever settled.

Had McMurtry wandered the back roads of Glengarry County, he might have wondered the same thing: Why live here?

Glengarry forms the easternmost end of Ontario, a tongue of Canada defined by two rivers, the Ottawa and the St. Lawrence. Crisscrossing the corn and soybean fields is a grid of roads as straight and regular as a tartan plaid. And as flat.

Yet historically many people have made this fertile plain their home: first Mohawk natives, then French settlers, Britons loyal to the Empire, and Scots expelled from the Highlands. By the mid-20th century, the population had become largely bicultural, roughly half Scottish and half French Canadian.

''This was 'the Northwest' before they knew about the Northwest," says Michael Baxendale, president of the Maxville & District Chamber of Commerce. ''This place is disproportionately historical for an area this size."

For New Englanders missing open sky, the Glengarry region provides a breath of the Midwest -- just a few hours from Boston and an hour's drive from Montreal and Ottawa. Perhaps this is why my parents chose this place: its farmhouses, silos, and cattle recall their Ohio and West Virginia upbringings.

Homesteading hippies got their feet in Glengarry's barn doors first, encouraging folks like mine, who had uprooted to Montreal back in the '70s, to buy and refurbish log homes. Weekends on their ''farm" morphed into full-time country living. They became part of a white-collar, professional wave of academics and artists that is gradually changing the demographic of the county's 20,000 inhabitants.

''It creates a challenging dynamic sometimes, in that the long-term farm families can feel underappreciated by the city people who have moved in," says Susan Joiner, 58, chairwoman of the Glengarry Pioneer Museum committee, and my stepmom. ''[Meanwhile] the city people don't understand what's involved in an agricultural community."

For 16 years, she and my father, Bill, have let neighboring farmers cultivate the 200-acre parcel surrounding their home. But they were not pleased about a local plan to introduce factory-scale pig farming. A recent quarry project, which they opposed, stirred up considerable dust and debate among old-timers and newcomers.

''But a lot of people work hard to overcome [conflicts] and work on common projects," Joiner says.

The museum is one of them. A handful of rescued buildings -- a livery shed, township hall, cheese factory, blacksmith shop, and barns -- were moved to the village of Dunvegan (named after the castle in Scotland) and clustered around the Star Inn, the oldest existing bar in Ontario and at one time a stop on the Montreal-Ottawa stagecoach line. The open-air museum is reminiscent of a small-scale Sturbridge Village.

''We bought the Star Inn for a dollar," says Hugh MacMillan, 81, who helped found the museum in 1962.

Last year, my parents coerced me to ''volunteer" for the museum's annual Fall Festival, Harvest Market, and Zucchini Contest. In a straw hat and suspenders, I helped demonstrate the proper way to churn butter. My painted zuke won a special ''artistic" prize.

This past summer, I spent an afternoon helping to dismantle and reconstruct the 1868 Orange Lodge of Dunvegan (the museum's future office and welcome center). When our crew heaved, by hand, a 1,200-pound wooden beam into place, I gained a glimpse of pioneer-era barn-raising.

Given the museum's creaky buildings and rusty farm implements, one might think Glengarry's agrarian traditions have vanished, but agriculture is still the backbone of this community.

For people of Scottish descent, cultural ties border on fanaticism. The main street of the village of Maxville is festooned with tartan banners. Shops sell Scottish crafts, oat cakes, and haggis. Girls grow up as highland dancers, boys join pipe bands, and men wear kilts in public more often than may be necessary.

Since 1948, this fervent Scottish pride has culminated in an annual hoedown called the Glengarry Highland Games, which includes the North American Pipe Band Championships. Every year, tens of thousands descend on wee Maxville to revel in all things Gaelic: athletics, music, food, and, naturally, alcohol. I wandered the fairgrounds, watching stout men inhale trays of neeps and tatties (turnip and mashed potatoes), excitable kids examine cruel Highlander hand weapons, and amateur genealogists trace their roots. Before the sporting events began, the announcer apologized for the late start, citing ''all the excessive eating and drinking."

Dozens of pipe bands play during the Games, but I was more impressed by the ''heavyweights": massive men and women hurling the stone, hammer, sheaf, and caber. The latter event involves a telephone-pole-size log, the caber, which must be hoisted vertically and heaved. The competitor who manages an end-over-end toss and flops it straight on the grass, closest to 12 o'clock, wins.

Those events seem tough, but what about competing for the highland dancing championship as a first-timer from East Sandwich, Mass. ''No nervousness. It was straight out fun," says Morgan Pell, 10, one of the few US entrants. ''I made new friends." She got one fifth prize and three sixths.

The Games are a two-day blowout. The rest of the year, Glengarry is quiet. Tractors ply the fields into infinity. Tucked along the roads between Vankleek Hill and Williamstown are villages with humble attractions as diverse as a Celtic Music Hall of Fame, ruins of a 19th-century stone church, walking trails through wetlands and forests, a Victorian ''gingerbread house" district, art galleries, and a bootmaker and glassblower's workshop. Annual events such as the Apples and Art open studio tour and the chamber music Festival Alexandria further bolster the artistic scene.

My parents sometimes complain about the isolation of life in a land named Glen this and Green Valley that. But for the sticks, Glengarry, so close to the Quebec (and New York state) border, makes a stimulating day trip from Montreal. But word to the wise from someone who grew up making that northbound US-Canada crossing innumerable times: You best try Glengarry in the snow-free months.

Contact Ethan Gilsdorf, who lives in Somerville, at ethan@ethangilsdorf.com.

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