Rolling down a dead end country road in Cherry Valley, a dot-on-the-map village nestled into the southwest corner of Prince Edward County, you hear what’s going on a good 45 metres before you reach a red barn wired for sound. The barn door is open; live, wiry roots rock tumbles out like dice into the night air. Standing out front, having a smoke of something, is Toronto’s finest pedal-steel player, the gentleman Aaron Goldstein – a tip of the cowboy hat from him. Inside, laying it down fierce and hard, are the Beauties, a house band at the Dakota Tavern in the city.
It’s opening night of the new version of the Hayloft Dancehall, since 1967 a beery juke joint for the local wilds to dance off stink and steam. Now it is co-owned by Shawn Creamer and his wife Shannon Kohlmeier, also proprietors of the Dakota. In its new incarnation, the Hayloft’s DJ-driven beats have been replaced by guitar-heavy alt-country and ragged-glory Americana bands.
A slow panorama around the rustic, funky venue reveals members of the Toronto music scene, coming into focus one by one: Tonni Maruyama of Epitaph Records is on her iPhone, and Jude Coombe, who works with Blue Rodeo, is also on hand. There’s Bruce Eaton of Ticketfly, Jen Rogers of Six Shooter Records – and what would the scene be without the collegial charm of indie-rock icon Kevin Drew?
Between songs, by the door, the music journalist Kerry Doole leans back, drink in hand. “The tribe,” he tells me, “is here.”
In the back, a soulful bartender named Claire offers wet cans of beer and welcoming conversation. She’s not from around here, and is enamoured with the night views. “When you live in the city,” she says, “you forget about how the stars look.”
Between sets, the energy dips and the chatter in the 200-capacity space picks up. There are darlings in plaid and conspicuous urban dandies – and more beards than a ZZ Top convention.
The Hayloft’s motto is, “Are you ready for the county?” But, one wonders, is the county ready for us.
Prince Edward County is a picturesque island 2 1/2 hours east of Toronto that was once a quaint, insular pocket of tourists, folks and farmland, but more recently has become a place of foodies, wineries and incongruous hipsters. The economy of the Loyalist stronghold has waxed and waned over the years, and now the Green Acres-like incursion from urbanites – Toronto migrants most notoriously, but also Ottawa and Montreal – has the region bustling.
With the influx of those from “away,” there has been resistance and worry from the county hard core. It happened in the 2000s when people such as a city sommelier named Norman Hardie began swooping into the area, introducing French vines to the area’s limestone soil. Some of the county people still do not consider growing grapes to be farming – it was debated at the county council a year ago – but the wine business here is running hotter than the wood-fired pizza oven at Mr. Hardie’s popular spot outside the village of Wellington. On Victoria Day weekend, Heather, the new maître d’, had her arms full of tattoos and her hands full with customers packing the patio overlooking the vineyard.
A year ago, more recent city-meets-country commotion developed when Jeff Stober, the owner of Toronto’s artsy Drake Hotel, opened up a stylish waterside outpost, the Drake Devonshire in Wellington. For some, the invasion smacked of cultural imperialism.
But if there is grumbling from some corners of the county, the pique is hardly unanimous. One sees no pitchforks in the county seat of Picton; there are no mobs looking to boil young tastemakers in their own beard oil in Bloomfield. It seems the people here have woken up and smelt the pinot noir, and for every long-time resident who might still resist, there are others who would suggest they do so at their own peril.
Paradise needs a parking lot
“I see it, I hear it,” says Jeremiah MacKenzie, about the culture-clash tension in the county. “But that’s nothing new to me, having grown up here.”
Mr. MacKenzie, executive director of Bay of Quinte Tourism, was born and raised in Prince Edward County. He worked in advertising for years (in Toronto and Montreal), before returning to the area. He understands the uncertainty that comes with change, but welcomes it wholeheartedly. “Has the Drake Devonshire changed the county?” he asks rhetorically. “Absolutely it has. It’s employing people, and it’s getting more people down to the region.”
Dining at the Drake
"The restaurant, which is cantilevered over a creek and a limestone beach on Lake Ontario, is one of the most magical new spots to open in the province in recent memory."
- Christopher Nuttall-Smith on the Drake Devonshire
A pop into the Drake Devonshire finds Cheynelle Fraser behind the bar. She may suggest the house wine, Vintner’s Daughter, which is made by Rosehall Run winery in Wellington, or perhaps a Pimm’s Cup or Beets by Drake, a hiply named vodka-based concoction of her own design. She worked at the Drake Hotel in Toronto on and off for more than six years, but now calls the county her home.
“I just had a feeling about this place,” says Ms. Fraser, who moved with her husband and two small children to Bloomfield last summer. She first visited while the “Drake by the Lake” was still under heavy renovation. “We were here two hours, and we were like, ‘Yeah, we’re moving here.’ ”
An article from a 1915 edition of The Globe describes Prince Edward County as something of a Garden of Eden – a wealthy place of county trade, a beautiful place to live, a natural place to farm. One hundred years later, with the chief trade now tourism, paradise is in need of a parking lot.
“The parking issue is a reality, but it’s symptomatic of a greater reality,” admits Mr. MacKenzie, addressing an oft-heard complaint about the Devonshire patrons blithely annexing the grocery store spots next door. “There are three-quarters of a million people going through this region, and we only have so much infrastructure to support all this heightened awareness around this beautiful discovery.”
Leaving Toronto behind
Toronto Life’s June issue offers a survey of the “city slickers of P.E.C.,” in which monied colonizers such as Andy Stronach (son of the tycoon Frank) and David Frum (former speech writer for George W. Bush) are listed. But that’s an old story. The newer and more compelling wave of transplants are luthiers, chefs, craftspeople, bakers, artists, filmmakers and musicians.
“I’m done with the city,” says Justin Rutledge, a 36-year-old singer-songwriter and Michael Ondaatje collaborator. Long a mainstay in the Queen West alt-country community, the literate crooner recently sold his house in the Junction and bought another in Wellington. “Right now, my eyes are on quality of life. There’s definitely something happening here.”
Beyond the region’s sereneness and beauty, what appeals to Mr. Rutledge is the freewheeling mentality of the region. “There’s no red tape here,” he says. “It’s all about making it happen.”
Mr. Rutledge has released five albums and has built up a healthy audience. He’s made any music business connections he’s needed to make in Toronto and is recording his next album in Halifax. He’s no longer tethered to Canada’s biggest city or any city for that matter.
His story is not unlike the situation of Tess Girard and Ryan Noth, filmmakers who, because they couldn’t afford to buy a house in Toronto, headed to Cherry Valley. Here they own a modest house and shambolic barn with a gorgeous pastoral view. “I always felt like I was one rent cheque behind in Toronto, treading water,” says Ms. Girard, an experimental visual artist. Adds Mr. Noth, “Our overhead is so low here, that we can afford to take greater risks creatively.”
Both have worked on the relaunched Historica Canada Heritage Minutes series. Mr. Noth contributed to the National Parks Project (a music and film initiative celebrating the 100th anniversary of Parks Canada) and last year co-founded Sandbanks New Waves, an indie-music happening set among the region’s famous dunes in September. Having laid the groundwork to their careers in Toronto, they are now just a phone call away from clients.
“There is this illusion that Toronto is the hub of everything, and that you have to be there,” says Ms. Girard, who recently collaborated with the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony. “But it’s an illusion that keeps you tied there.”
On the afternoon following the Hayloft’s reopening, I drive back out to speak with Mr. Creamer. He’s not around yet – he’s on a beer run to Picton and the afternoon traffic there is brutal – but his delay affords a chance to look around the now empty venue. There are kitschy old hockey trophies lined above the bar, and there’s a nifty beer tap, fashioned out of a reclaimed milking machine. The whole place is rustically charming; the only sign of invasive hipsterdom is the beard oil for sale at the venue’s General Store.
“This isn’t the Dakota Tavern,” says Mr. Creamer, back from his errands. “This isn’t a Toronto venue.” Sitting down to chat at one of the interior picnic tables, Mr. Creamer – a rugged, friendly man whose beard is natural and not a fashion statement – expresses frustration over a recent article in the Toronto Star which, as he puts it, “made me the face of Toronto taking over the county.”
He tells a much different story, explaining that he and his wife wanted to open (with co-owner and manager Trisha Cook) a “county place,” and that they wanted a place to work, raise their family and to “everyday watch that million-dollar sunset.”
A musician – he’s a singing/guitar-playing member of the Beauties – Mr. Creamer drops into the weekly open-mic nights at the Drake Devonshire to play with and meet local musicians. He wants the Hayloft to be a place for adults to visit, instead of only catering to the venue’s traditionally younger crowd, and he’s instituted a shuttle-bus service to get patrons safely back to Picton, Bloomfield and Wellington on weekends.
“I’ve made myself part of this community,” he says. “I worked so hard to close that gap that everybody thought there was, between the newcomers and the county people. The Hayloft has been here for 50 years,” he continues. “I didn’t invent it.”
If you talk to someone like the laid-back local musician Bill McBurney, he’ll tell you that people here gripe about city-folk outsiders – “They don’t let you in traffic, they park anywhere they want” – but they know it’s a mug’s game to fight the flow. “Because when push comes to shove, you better learn to tolerate it, because that’s your livelihood.”
There’s an old bit of county lore involving a summer hotel, the Evergreen House, which had to be abandoned because of encroaching sand dunes. The lesson? Some things can’t be stopped.
The county’s barn door is open, no sense in shutting it now.