Our big backyard beckons – Rediscover Manitoulin Island pleasures on the Union Road and Poplar

Ted Smith (left) of Gypsy Family Farm hosts a farm gate market of produce, plants and preserves on Saturdays and Sundays in Poplar. photo by Isobel Harry

by Isobel Harry

Manitoulin’s glorious summer is upon us – it’s finally time to get outside and indulge in favourite warm weather pastimes. After months of isolation and with all the usual attractions, events, fairs, community picnics, cultural festivals and powwows being cancelled until next year, we must ask ourselves: is there anything nicer, really, than going for a drive, a bike ride, a walk or a hike in the Island’s fresh air, under magnificent big blue skies? 

We all crave an occasional break from the relentlessness of the pandemic, and we’re extraordinarily fortunate: we can relax right here, without leaving home, by getting out to explore the wondrous nooks and crannies of the world’s largest freshwater island, Mnidoo Mnising, the Island of the Great Spirit. 

A very pleasant journey of discovery can be enjoyed around the tiny hamlet of Poplar, 16 kms south of Gore Bay on Poplar Road, or west on Union Road from Hwy 542 between Spring Bay and Gore Bay. Or, from the west, take Union Road from Evansville. Poplar lies at the intersection of Union and Poplar Roads.

For this trip, we take Poplar Road (marked ‘Bike Route’ by the Manitoulin Island Cycling Advocates), past the Gordon Cemetery whose monuments date back to settler days, down through dips in the Niagara Escarpment bluffs, hills rolling through marshes, forests and fields blanketed in brilliant white daisies and yellow buttercups. About halfway down, we leave Gordon/Barrie Island township and enter Burpee/Mills, soon approaching Poplar, settled around 1867 with a post office opening in 1884.

Right at the northeast corner of the intersection is a diminutive and beautiful war memorial honouring the soldiers of World War I from this area, fallen and returned. Erected in 1924, the little angel of mossy white stone flanked by two artillery guns was built to recognize Poplar’s large contribution of local men to the war effort, more per capita than any other community in Canada. 

Margo Little, journalist, photographer and educator, wrote ‘Pilgrims at Poplar Corners: Reflections on a Manitoulin Childhood,’ a memoir of her family’s years in the farming community, exploring “the culture as yet untouched by technology” of the late 1940s and 50s. In ‘An Angel Watches Over Us: An Enduring Monument at Poplar Corners,’ Ms Little writes affectionately of the lifelong “touchstone of solace” the angel has been for her, and also notes that “the Poplar Women’s Institute worked for three years to see the memorial erected.” The names inscribed are of local families—Orford, Dinsmore, Wright, Robinson and others.

A left turn here onto Union Road (also a signed Bike Route) immediately brings another surprise: signs proclaiming ‘Fresh Baking’ and ‘Pure Honey’ planted before a little cedar shed with its door wide open in welcome. On the shelves inside are butter tarts, coffee cake, radishes, preserves, lettuce, bread and sometimes there’s summer sausage and eggs. A small bucket holds money and change; the Amish family that moved here a couple of years ago is away today, it says on a note pinned to the wall. The shop is open Fridays and Saturdays in summer and fall when the signs are up.

A few metres up the road on the same side is the old school, sitting proudly as an historical marker now in its grassy school field. School Section No. 1 Mills started its life in education as a log building in 1883, having moved here from a temporary shanty. In 1907, the present school building was built for just under $1,000 by W.E. George. Across the road is the former Mills United Church, built in 1892 as a Presbyterian church on a donated quarter acre; it is now a private residence.

If it’s Saturday or Sunday, there will be more signs on the road just ahead. This is Ted Smith’s Gypsy Family Farm market, with his caravan and tables laden with plants, fresh produce and preserves. Today, Richard Anger is under an awning heating up his Manitoulin Pizza Company slices. There’s social distancing as a few people mill about the yard; Ted’s happy in his new location, on his own farm property, adding that people seem to appreciate “being out where the food comes from.” He hopes more vendors will join him there this season.

We turn around then and head back west, still on Union Road, past Poplar Corners. There are many Amish families in this area now, moving from southern Ontario and settling on large, productive farms, fitting right in with Manitoulin’s old-fashioned country ways in their horse-drawn buggies and invigorating the agricultural sector. Just west of Poplar, the Kuepfer family has a farm gate stand out front—there are petunias in pots and fresh garlic from the acres of bulbs cultivated on their property, and behind the extensive construction works around the house is a large sawmill operation. Sawmills have been active in Mills Township since 1886. The Kuepfers will also sell their quilts once construction settles down a bit, shyly explain two young Amish women at the farmhouse door, and that they’re “not supposed to” pose for photos. Today, you could call that refreshing. 

GG’s Diner in Evansville, a favourite for home-cooked food by local celebrity chef Joyce Benoit, pictured, has been closed since mid-March because of the pandemic. She keeps her 136-seat restaurant ship-shape while awaiting reopening. photo by Isobel Harry

Further along, the Burpee-Mills cemetery reflects the lives lived here since settlement, situated in the sandbanks of the ancient Lake Nipissing shoreline of 10,000 years ago; the community centre is the epicentre of community life, and has a large hall and gym. The road is lovely here, winding, gently hilly and heavily treed with maples; the turn to Indian Point Road is in the zone of the Manitoulin Conservatory for Creation and Performance. In the bush somewhere nearby is the state-of-the-art performance studio of John Turner (formerly of the iconic clown duo Mump and Smoot) and Julia Winder, home to an internationally renowned ‘clown school’ for “research, training, creation and performance in all areas of the performing arts.” Every year, classes of clown students from the world over graduate with a red rubber nose right out here in the middle of nowhere! (ManitoulinConservatory.com)

Watch for the right turn to Hwy 540—straight ahead is Campbell Road—and head back east along the highway out of Evansville. GG’s Diner, a favourite for home-cooked food by local celebrity chef Joyce Benoit, might be open then; the adjacent well-stocked live bait and supply store, Game On, is currently open on Fridays and Saturdays. 

Be safe, take care, and equally importantly, get out there!

Margo Little’s books are available at the Expositor Bookstore, Little Current, and at the IDA pharmacy, Gore Bay.