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By Pat Mestern
March 19, 2004

When Clara Young planted a white lilac tree in her back yard in 1879 she probably didn’t give any thought to the fact that it would still be blooming in Y2003. Of course, high winds and heavy snows have downed some of the old branches but new growth ensures that the tree survives. At the beginning of June the perfume of the tree’s blooms is wonderful, especially at dusk when the air is still and slightly moist. And there’s not much can beat waking up in the early morning hours to the scent of lilacs. This ancient tree provides a tangible link between the present owners of the property, the Mesterns, and the Young family, the people who built “Stonehome” 124 years ago.

My personal spring awakening would not be complete without a tour of lilac enclaves throughout Centre Wellington. I have memorized which roads to travel to see great clumps of old lilacs - South River and Gerrie Line being two of the best. But Fergusites don’t have to leave town to see lilacs. They can find a number of old varieties in the Hidden Garden. I don’t have a clue as to what the area is called today, Milligan Park perhaps? It will always be known as the Hidden Garden, as a matter of fact, to get more personal, “Jimmy’s Hidden Garden”. I’m speaking of the spit of land on Blair Street bounded by the river and the street, Fergus Legion area and the Lions Club Arboretum where one can plant “in-memory trees”.

Before the area became a lilac glade it was a quarry that belonged to Chas. Mattaini. I have written about this quarry before but will now add that many stone homes and barn foundations were built with stone taken from this quarry. Some good examples are the News-Express Building at 390 Tower Street S., The Wilson House at 390 Provost Lane, the Roberts House at 550 St. David Street N., the Deacon house on the south corner of St. Andrew and Johnston Streets and some of the barn foundations at the old Beatty Farm, now Richardsons at the west end of Garafraxa Street. No, Charlie Mattaini didn’t build all those homes but his quarry did provide stone for use in their construction.
When the quarry operation was closed in1929, the land lay fallow until 1939 when talk about the dam project upriver from Fergus spurred Dad and a few of his cronies into action.

They felt that their mission was to save a bit of each farm and homestead that would be affected by rising waters behind the dam. The best way they could find to salute early settlers, and the families who subsequently farmed the land, was to transplant something living from each location. Lilac, honeysuckle and spring bulbs were chosen as living memorials. The fellows went about collecting whips and bulbs from all the properties slated for demolition or flooding. They did so with the blessing of the folks who owned the land and found themselves about to be displaced. Many of these people had roots on particular pieces of soil that went back more than one hundred years, to the 1830's.

Between 1939 and early 1942, when water began to rise so fast they could no longer safely travel abandoned roads in the upper valley, dad and his friends managed to transplant a large number of “suckers” as they called the tender whips, to locations along the river in the village. Yes, it was a village way back in 1939. The primary location chosen was the Quarry property on Blair Street. It was thought that this would make a lovely lilac glade that was easily accessible. Dad tended a Victory Garden on the property but soil was so poor and thin, it never amounted to much. Lilac and honeysuckle flourished as did the spring bulbs - mostly tulip and daffodil, dug in the autumn from each farm. Other locations for lilac whips were in private gardens and in bare spots up and down the river bank between Tower Street and the Iron Bridge at Monkland Mills.

Dad’s love of lilacs came from his experience with Dr. Groves whose later-in-life passion was beautifying Fergus. In particular Groves advocated the planting of lilac and daffodils. Dad, as a young boy during the early 1900's, especially 1918 through 1927, along with a few other young lads, were recruited by Dr. Groves to assist with plantings. I believe that dad said he was nine years old when he became a water boy for Groves’s planting frenzies. The first lilac plantings he assisted at were on Queen Street E. Those bushes still thrive behind St. James Anglican Church. Dr. Groves believed that the spring exercise promoted character, responsibility and appreciation of the land, among the lads. Grandmother thought the world of Dr. Groves and was only too happy to have her children assist with his projects.

For twenty-five years, Dad continued to tend his Hidden Garden. When his health finally gave out, he gave in to the Town Council who were always “at him” to sell the property to the town. “It would make good commercial land they said,” which caused Dad to see red. He hadn’t spent the time planting and tending the glade to have the property made into a commercial wasteland. He wanted townspeople to have access to the river, to enjoy the gardens.

When Dad finally did sell the land to the town after 1965, it was done with several strongly worded provisions attached. Dad was that sick that he couldn’t get out of bed to sign the papers but so anxious were town officials to get their hands on the property that Mr. Milligan, of Milligan footbridge fame and one other council member, arrived at the house one evening with documents in hand. Dad’s provisions were that the price for the property would be the total of the taxes he had paid on the property beginning in 1949; and the most important proviso - that the land would always remain as garden and parkland - that it wouldn’t be sold and that no commercial building would be erected within its boundary.

Today it saddens a lot of people to see what has happened to Jimmy’s Hidden Garden. Fill that appears to be concrete, old asphalt and rock laden rubbish has been dumped for no apparent reason but to get rid of it - somewhere. Trash and garden waste has been carted to the edge and dumped. Some inconsiderate people use the area as their own personal garbage dump. The river side of the road is used as a parking lot. Steps haven’t been maintained into the lilac glade area. No one seems to care that Jimmy’s Hidden Garden was once a beauty spot that people traveled good distances to see and photograph during lilac season. There appears to be money for new arenas, new lights in parks, new vehicles but Centre Wellington doesn’t seem to have money to restore or tend a heritage garden. And what really hurts is the fact that the garden possibly carries the name of a man who should have honored his word, on behalf of council, about keeping the area a garden.

If only the powers that be would realize the treasure they have in their midst. Some of the lilacs in Jimmy’s Hidden Garden are “descendants” of bushes planted in West Garafraxa 1870 through 1935. Some village residents once believed that they were doing the community a favour by providing a public garden. Does that not matter to someone in authority? Does anything having to do with culture and heritage matter to anyone in authority?



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