The day Dow came to Hope Ness

Any discussion here of the history of Hope Ness will include respect paid to the fact First Nation people lived here for many thousands of years before European settlers, mainly from the British Isles, started arriving less than 150 years ago

As far as I know, I don’t have any First Nation blood running through my veins. Both my parents were adopted, my mother by her grandparents, my father by unrelated people when he was a newborn baby. He had no interest in delving into the mystery of his biological origins. “let sleeping dogs lie,” he said.

(A young anthropologist I met on a trip out west in the mid-1970s told me, from what he had learned, a lot of Canadians would be much surprised at the extent of the First Nation presence in their family background. I believed him, and I still do.)

At any event, I don’t feel comfortable writing much at all about the traditional First Nation presence in this area others named Hope Ness. It’s presumptuous, and there’s been far too much of that already. Besides, what do I know, anyway?

I will say only this: I understand from what I’ve read of the information gathered by the nearby Chippewas of Nawash First Nation that this area was traditionally regarded as a powerful spiritual place, a place of healing for Aboriginal people who came here from all over the Great Lakes region. And I think that’s wonderful.

I also think that adds more weight to my thought that Hope Ness should never have been considered by anyone as a site for a major industrial development.

Back in the mid-1960s there was a farm on every 100 acres (40 hectares) in Hope Ness. There was a community here, with a one-room school house for its children. That building later became the Hope Ness Community Centre when such schools in the former Eastnor Township were amalgamated into one larger one out by the highway. The community centre, with the sign that identifies it as such is still there, but unused for many years.

The pioneer homesteader families of Hope Ness had put their hearts and souls into clearing land for crops and building their barns and homes. They had to, or they couldn`t survive. Though there was some “good soil between the rock ridges,” as one farmer was known to have said, it was tough to make a living from farming. They had to turn their hands to whatever they could do to help bring in some “cash money” and make ends meet: cut and sell some firewood, tap some trees and make maple syrup in the spring, grow a load of peas to take up to Lion’s Head to be shipped out on one of the lake boats, cut some timber logs to sell at local mills. Here at the old “Butchart Place” at the end of what is now called Cathedral Drive, they kept cattle, pigs and chickens. Making a living one way or another was never easy.

So when that man from Dow Chemical showed up one day around Hope Ness and offered people $5,000 for their 100-acre farms, including the one that was here, most people could hardly believe their luck and went for it. “Why would anyone else ever want to buy this land?” one man told his wife who had doubts. He wanted to sell and he had his way, because that’s the way it was.

There were a few hold-outs who never took the bait. Neighbours had fun for a while with a farmer down at the county road corner; they joked he was going to need an extension ladder to get into his front door, what with the big quarry Dow planned to dig and blast around him.

But he had the last laugh. Dow Chemical said it planned to mine the local limestone, for its high magnesium content, so the story goes. Magnesium became an important commodity during the Second World War. Dow tried to promote the idea to the auto industry of building auto engine blocks out of magnesium. A shipping facility to load thousands, maybe millions of tonnes of limestone on lake freighters was going to be built just this side of Hope Bay on the Georgian Bay shore below the Niagara Escarpment cliffs.

But something happened; maybe it was political, maybe it was the market for magnesium went bust. For one thing, the auto industry passed on the magnesium, engine-block idea. We know that, because the Dow Chemical web site has a history of the company that mentions it. There is, however, no mention of the fate of little Hope Ness.

The company did not go ahead with its plans. The farms and land it had acquired became the property of the Ontario government. In the spring of 1979 I bought the house the Mackies did not need an extension ladder to get into after all. By that time most of the homes and barns on the farms sold out to Dow were demolished; and the people who had lived on and worked the land, the sons and daughters of pioneers, had moved away.

This house I own and live in now was an exception. And the barn too, and a few acres that became private land again, after a sympathetic, young provincial employee in Owen Sound went to bat for a woman and her son about 40 years ago. That’s another story for another day.

Otherwise, I am surrounded by Crown land, much of it the provincial Hope Bay Nature Reserve. That’s not a bad thing. It’s a whole lot better than the devastation of a huge quarry.

But, considering the outcome, it was a  sadly fateful day when the Dow man came to Hope Ness: it spelled the end of a rural, homestead-farm  community, and broke some hearts.

I watch that beautiful, old hayfield at the back of the old farm, between the woods on either side, being slowly taken over by thorny trees and brush, the first stage of reforestation. It has become a meadow and wildlife corridor really, for a short while, until the forest finally takes it back again. I think often of the people who worked so hard to clear and work that land and other fields in Hope Ness now being similarly left to go back to nature.IMG_7932

I remember going back there 35 years ago to help Wilma and Cliff bring in their hay when they were both alive. That same hay-wagon we loaded that day time and time again is still here, still usable, though in need of repair. I’ll get at that in the spring – that and a lot of other things.

I’ll work hard as long as I can. That too is part of finding Hope Ness.

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