Stories to Tell
Conservation Areas are full of adventure and are just waiting to be explored! There are so many great stories to tell about visits to these natural gems, and we have shared some of our experiences and the experiences of others with you on this page. We encourage you to browse through the stories below and then Step Into Nature with family and friends to create your own ‘story to tell’!
From Rags to Riches: A Look at the Lives of Ontario's Pioneers
Perhaps nowhere is the difference in class more apparent than at the Backus Heritage Conservation Area near the shores of Lake Erie at Port Rowan. Owned and operated by the Long Point Region Conservation Authority, Backus offers an intriguing glimpse into Ontario’s pioneer past.
“That’s incredible!” my six-year-old exclaimed when we stepped inside the still impressive Backhouse homestead and peered into the family room, complete with period furniture, window coverings, carpet and artwork.
It looked as if the family had just stepped away for dinner and would be back any minute to pick up their favourite pastimes, whether reading in the armchair, sewing by the window or playing with toys in front of the fireplace.
Having never been to a pioneer village before, I’m not sure what my kids were expecting we’d see inside the house. But clearly what they encountered was beyond their imaginations. We went room-by-room through the house and, although beds have come a long way from straw mattresses on rope and wooden frames, even by today’s standards, it would be a comfortable and roomy home.
“Can we go in and play with the toys?” he asked at the door to the childrens’ nursery. That is how realistic the home feels and although we weren’t allowed past the rope barrier, we stood a long time taking in all the details before we moved on to look at the other rooms.
Restored using original paint colours, the dining room was probably the most impressive room in the house because it displayed fancy china dishes, the family’s grand piano and so many other treasures we might have spent half the day gazing through the open door. My favourite room was the summer kitchen because it was full of old dishes and other cooking implements that, had I lived in the early 1900s, I might know how to use.
“Let’s go see the other buildings,” I suggested when the kids got stuck at the nursery.
“Will there be more toys?” he asked.
“I don’t know. But there’s an octagonal school house!” I suggested.
They both groaned.
Still buzzing from the excitement of the imposing Backhouse homestead, the contrast when we stumbled into a nearby log cabin, dating back to the 1890s, was startling and probably even more intriguing. Inside the two-room structure, that would have been home to some 10-12 people, there was no piano, no comfortable couches, no books, no china. There were two narrow beds in the parents’ bedroom, a dry sink, a woodstove and a loft where the children would have slept on straw mattresses directly on the floor. And this would have been one of the nicer cabins in its time! A settler’s first home was probably more like the Militia Log House which we visited next — with one room and an open fireplace that served to both warm the cabin and provide a place to cook meals.
There are over 15 historical buildings to explore at the Backus Heritage Village, including a garage that still shelters a Model T Ford; a carriage shop full of old trade tools; a heritage craft building featuring a weaver’s shop, general store and eatery; the Forbes barn which houses antique farm implements and a few live animals; and a blacksmith shop. In addition to historical buildings, the village is filled with other aspects of pioneer life such as traditional gardens, an outdoor bake oven, a corn crib, a stump puller, a cider press, a planing and a shingle mill, grave stones, and an ice house. Altogether there is plenty to see, do and discover about the lives of Ontario’s pioneers – including those who were rich, poor and in-between.
The centerpiece of the village, and a rich source of history, is the old red grist mill which is a national historic site dating back to 1798. Remarkably, this mill is still functional and operated until 1955. Backus Heritage Conservation Area also includes a museum and a conservation education centre. The museum chronicles area businesses of the 19th century with realistic storefront exhibits such as a harness and shoe shop, an apothecary, a bank and a railway station. Here you can also learn about the more than 300 shipwrecks that have occurred off Long Point, and see some of the treasures recovered from Lake Erie by late local historian, Davey Stone. The conservation education centre, which is one of the first buildings you will come across on your visit, houses an impressive collection of native wildlife, interpretive displays and exhibits about Long Point Region’s natural history.
You will need a few hours to fully explore and appreciate the Backus Heritage Conservation Area, especially if you stop for an ice cream at Aunt Erie’s kitchen or decide to try your luck fishing in the fully-stocked mill pond. Whatever your interests, the Backus Heritage Village will spark your imagination. At every turn there is another building to explore, another feature to behold and another bit of history to piece together. Tours are available or the visitor’s guide will give you a wealth of information. Be sure to ask about why both Backus and Backhouse are used to refer to the same historic family!
The Backus Heritage Consevation Area operates from May 1 to October 15. During the park season, Backus Heritage Village and the conservation education area open Wednesdays through Sundays from 11:00 am to 4:30 pm from July 1 until Labour Day. In addition to the historical and educational facilities, it also boasts many special events, children summer camp programs, picnic pavilions, event facilities and a campground complete with swimming pool and hiking trails. There was so much to do we ended up pitching a tent and staying the night. If you don’t want to be rushed, you might want to consider doing that too.
For more information on the Backus Heritage Conservation Area, visit the Long Point Region Conservatin Authority on-line at www.lprca.on.ca
There are more than 250 conservation areas across Ontario and many offer heritage features. To find Backus Heritage Village or another heritage village near you, visit www.ontarioconservationareas.ca and type heritage into the search box on the right.
Christina Kilbourne is an avid outdoor enthusiast and writer. She is the author of four novels, including Dear Jo, winner of the 2009 Manitoba Young Readers Choice Award , the 2010 Saskatchewan Snow Willow Award in 2010 and the 2010 British Columbia Red Cedar Award. She lives in Bracebridge with her family and various four-legged creatures.
The Backhouse Mill dates back to 1798 and is a centrepiece of the Heritage Village
From the top storey of the mill, you get a good view and a good feel for pioneer life
Only the wealthy pioneer children had playhouses like this
The Backhouse Homestead is full of furniture, dishes, books and even toys from the pioneer days
Remarkably, the Backhouse Mill is still operational