This former tobacco mecca is now humming a new tune.
"Tillsonburg, Tillsonburg - my back still aches when I hear that word." Canadian folk singer "Stompin" Tom Connors' lyrics rang true as he sang about the backbreaking work of tobacco picking in Tillsonburg's famous fields. Located in Ontario's southern agricultural belt, a mild climate and rich soil made Tillsonburg the ideal location for tobacco farming. It was a prosperous industry, supported by the kind of arduous work that made such an impression on Stompin' Tom.
It was an industry that thrived for decades until the decline in tobacco usage, combined with less expensive growing regions in the United States and elsewhere, spelled hardship for the entire region. Like so many communities in Ontario, Tillsonburg has had to sing a new tune to ensure its continued prosperity.
Part of their strategy includes embracing art, culture, and heritage. Stompin' Tom may not have been fond of the Tillsonburg of yester-year, butI feel confident that his spirit smiles down on the town's endeavors today. Here's why.
Tillsonburg is a hive of creative activities, some of which take advantage of the region's still rich soil to produce delicious results. The farmers' market is a culinary delight and plays host to one of our favourite Ontario producers, YU Ranch. A leader in sustainable agriculture, YU produces grass fed Texas Longhorn beef. Ryan particularly loves their homemade beef jerky. And like all great farmers markets, you can also pick up a variety of produce and baked good items.
My favourite vendor produces a somewhat less edible product. Makkink's Sunflower Farm grows beautiful sunflowers, as well as many other flower, and they even offer workshops on creating your own arrangements and centerpieces. As I would learn throughout my visit, vibrant colors and even sunflowers themselves are particularly special to this region.
The farmers' market takes place in front of another institution of creative pursuits, the Station Arts Centre. Many moons ago, back in the tobacco heyday and even earlier, small Ontario communities were much more connected by train than they are today. While most of the rail lines are still in use to connect larger centers, many of the small, old fashioned train stations have been in jeopardy. But not in Tillsonburg!
The Station Arts Centre is home to not one but two former rail stations. The larger of the two, built in 1879, has always been on this spot while the smaller station was moved from 'down the road' in 1994. The two buildings are connected by an art gallery and the complex now hosts special events, exhibits, a gift shop, and workspace for artists.
There's an impressive pottery workshop in the basement and the recent efforts from a kids' camp showed the kind of fun spirit and character that I know Stompin' Tom would have applauded.
To visit the Station Arts Centre is to gain a window into the heart of the new Tillsonburg, one where the residents don't rely on tobacco but instead on each other. Farming new crops, coming together at the market, saving the old train stations, and giving them new life - that's a story worth singing about!
But there's something really unique and special in Tillsonburg, something as old as the town itself, something that's been around as long as commercial tobacco, that puts challenge to the idea of the arts scene being a recent development in the area. That something is Annandale House.
Annandale House was built in 1883 by Edwin Tillson, the town's first mayor and son of its founder. Even if it was as plain as plain could be, it would still be a splendid home filled with splendid stories. But this is no ordinary historic home. Its handsome exterior hides an absolutely fantastical interior, for Annandale House is one of the few and finest examples of the Aesthetic Arts movement that took the world by storm in the 1880s. So why on earth is it in Tillsonburg?
The Aesthetics Art movement was popularized by Oscar Wilde. His 1882 speech on "The House Beautiful", given in nearby Woodstock, Ontario, was attended by Edwin Tilson's wife, Mary Ann. She took his impassioned plea to embrace nature, flowers, and art to heart and, in true character of the Aesthetics Art movement, left no public area of her house free from adornment. It was all beauty, all the time, no matter how prosaic or practical the object. Doorknobs, ceiling sconces, hallways - nothing was left untouched.
Every inch of public space in Annandale is embellished with artistic and aesthetic touches inspired by nature. I am especially fond of the stained glass birds and flowers seen in the window inserts in the magnificently carved doors. And visitors with a keen eye will spy a carved sunflower here and there, a tribute to Oscar Wilde's signature look. No wonder the arts are thriving in Tillsonburg today. Annandale - and Oscar - have helped to build a firm foundation.
It's hard to imagine embracing this kind of decor today. Fans of minimalist design might feel a bit overwhelmed! But all visitors will recognize that Annandale House is one in a million and quite worthy of National Historic Site designation. Incredulously, this amazing property was once designated for the wrecking ball until the community came together with the money and the plan to save it. This is a southern Ontario must-see and I can guarantee you won't find anything that remotely resembles it anywhere else in the world.
Where to stay in Tillsonburg
If you're in Tillsonburg because you love the heritage of the region and the community spirit of the residents, there's really only one place to stay. The Mill Tales Inn dates back to 1878. The property is the last remaining of 6 mills built by our good friend Edwin Tillson (of Annandale House). The property functioned as a mill in a variety of capacities until the early 1970s and was in need of nearly a decade's worth of renovation and TLC when it was taken over and taken to heart by Gorden and Lauralee Craig in 2000.
It's hard to believe that the Mill Tales Inn was once in such shocking disrepair. Today, the ten rooms of the inn are all finished in a different type of wood and some rooms feature oversized bath tubs, one of my favourite hotel features. These rooms definitely have a unique look about them and chances are you haven't stayed at a property quite like this one before.
It is worth mentioning that the Inn's internet was very spotty (when we could connect at all) and the check in process was plagued by a bit of chaos as we weren't sure if the first reception desk was for the restaurant or the inn. (Turns out it's kinda for both - I think). It took a while to flag someone down from inside the restaurant, who in turn had to flag someone else down..... You get the picture. These two concerns gave us the subtle impression that perhaps the lodgings are a second priority to the restaurant operations on the ground floor (a lively place that someone like Stompin' Tom would feel right at home in!). I'd definitely stay at the Mill Tales Inn again but I hope that the few wrinkles we experienced will have resolved.
Tillsonburg has come a long way since the days when the tobacco farms beckoned young men like Stompin' Tom but hopefully visitors will continue to stream in, for this is a town that definitely gives you something to sing about - in a good way! With all due respect to Tom, he should have given Tillsonburg a second chance, a mistake that modern visitors won't have to worry about!
We'd love to hear from you! Have you ever been inspired to visit a destination based upon a song?
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