The Other Butchart Gardens

Butchart Gardens is famous, and it’s one of Victoria’s premier attractions. But I knew of the Butcharts long before I came west. The Butchart mansion on 5th Avenue in Owen Sound, Ontario, was a block away from my boyhood home. It had, maybe still has, an indoor swimming pool. I remember once tramping through the snow to the front door in the hopes that I might sell a subscription to the Toronto Telegram.

Even after many, many years, I can still remember smelling chlorine through the half-open door. I probably wondered what living in a real mansion would be like. To be able to take a swim at home rather in the the minuscule YMCA pool – that would be something! Of course, it probably wouldn’t have worked very well in our 2 bedroom apartment behind the factory, but I would have been up for a try. Incidentally, I don’t believe I sold a subscription. Nor did I ever see the inside of the grand house. The Butchards, I think, were long gone anyway.

The Butchard Mansion

Even then though, I knew about the Butchard Gardens, later called The Martins. They were a few miles out of town at Balmy Beach. It was a long bike ride for a 12 year old so I never got there. I hadn’t yet heard of the west coast version. No reason I should.

A few years ago, I finally visited The Martins. It was May. I was birding along the cobbley Georgian Bay shoreline and then, almost accidentally, I was there, walking among the ruins of a grand idea from another time. Half of the real estate had been stripped way by winter ice and freak high water, the there was more recent damage. Winter storms on the Great Lakes can be fierce.

Winter’s Fallout – The Martins, Georgian Bay

About the Butcharts. The brothers, Robert and David, were born in Owen Sound in the 19th century. They ran a hardware store on what is now Main Street (2nd Avenue East), and ranked among the town’s “contemporary and go-ahead merchants”. Solid, likely Presbyterian, moderately well-off. Then they found that marl from a nearby lake bed could be converted into cement, a product in great demand in Canada’s developing industrial heartland. The discovery was huge. Soon, the Owen Sound Portland Cement Company was making some of the best cement in the country. They also shipped the product in bags rather than barrels. This innovation made the Butchards wealthy.

Marly, no longer industrial, Shallow Lake

Rich now, Robert built the mansion with indoor swimming pool on 5th Avenue and lived there until he and Jennie left for the west in 1904. His brother David stayed in Owen Sound and built something grand too. I’m not sure which of the imposing west side Owen Sound houses was his. Jennie, of course, created the Gardens at Tod Inlet near Victoria, BC, but David also created a Butchart Gardens at Balmy Beach on Georgian Bay. I wonder about this family obsession with ‘Gardens’, and where the idea came from.

The Martins

In any case, the Owen Sound establishment, with its Italian Garden, Sunken Garden, tennis courts, swimming pool, and many other features, was an important tourist attraction until, one winter, unusually heavy lake ice carved away a big chunk of the property. After Hurricane Hazel destroyed much of the rest, the Gardens were finished.

It rained while I was there. Forlorn, a strange, almost haunted legacy of what was once one of the country’s largest cement fortunes, it seemed the last glimmer of the Jazz Age world of the 1920’s. I suspect the property has now been developed; it certainly looked ‘ripe for the picking’. I’ll check on it next time I’m ‘home’. Since this blog is about birds, well, I saw only one on the property, a Common Merganser. The sun flashed out for a millisecond and lit him up, and then it started to pour.

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