Travel & Culture » Ontario

Keep the Home Fires Burning

Giving Hope to the Hardship of an Ontario Winter

We’ve had some really frigid days this January, with many nights well below minus 20°C. I often wonder how they managed in past times; keeping themselves warm, while tending their animals outside, where simply keeping the water from freezing in their stalls would have been a constant effort. Why wouldn’t the pioneers have packed up and just headed south? My partner, Shawn – or as I call him, The Cowboy, because he really is one – says most likely Ontario, even with its brutal winters would have been better than wherever the settlers came from. Escaping famine, political injustice, discrimination, and being in pursuit of a better life anchored them here and gave hope to the hardship. Still, there are days when I just don’t know how they survived; many didn’t.

My family and I live in a classic red brick Victorian farmhouse. It’s beautiful from the outside, with its gingerbread and gabled roof; and inside, it’s flooded with natural light. I fell in love with the land, and it’s what compelled me to move from Toronto to the hamlet of Pontypool in Southern Ontario, just over 11 years ago. From the rolling hills, to the pond tucked away at the edge of a peaceful forest, I connected instantly with the rustic beauty of this place.

That was in the summer of 2005 when it was warm, breezy, and lovely. Little did I know that the house would become barely more than a windshield once the temperatures dropped; that when the winds blow from the north and west, they blast under the floors and send the cold crawling up your legs. Little did I know that the crawlspace the house sits on is just the raw earth. The cold, raw, frozen earth.

Countless hours are spent in our family talking about drafts: where they come from, how to plug them, how to warm the basement. When we first arrived, Glen Preston, the farmer who used to take care of the fields – a man in his 80’s – often dropped by to take a seat in my grandmother’s old rocker by the cook stove. He’d tell us stories of his childhood on the land around this farm, and when I asked him how they survived the winters he said; “Oh, they’d just close off the house and live around the stove.”

This house wasn’t built for ductwork, and the furnace that’s here is terribly inefficient, so we’ve chosen to heat with wood. I installed a good airtight wood stove in 2010 on the north side of the house, and in the kitchen, I have an old-fashioned-looking, but newly-made cook stove just like my grandmother had in her kitchen. I use it for cooking most of our meals and heating that room.

It took me a few years to really understand the art of heating with wood: you can’t skimp on kindling; you must keep the wood dry, and you need to feed the fires all the time. In the early years, I would nip out to the city to meet friends or run some errands, then arrive back home to a freezing house and the disdain of my chilly dogs. My four daughters, Carlyle, Grace, Olivia, and Aubrey Rose, weren’t impressed either. Filling the wood box is a chore that everyone tried to avoid. “Sorry, Mom, I’m going to be studying for about six hours after school.”

Still, frozen toes and all, living here in this beauty, connecting with the ways people used to live, is a choice I’d make again in a heartbeat. My girls may not love it today, but I believe they will appreciate it with age. When we all gather ‘round the fire they love tending to it – they know how to cook with it too – and when the power goes out, we light some candles and make our dinner over the fire safely contained in its iron belly.

Farmer Glen told me that once the kids had gone, the Old Folks would have made up a couple of cots and stayed down by the fire all winter long. I’m not caving into the cold just yet; for now, the beds will stay upstairs where they belong.