Travel & Culture » Ontario

Scarecrows, Dippy Doughnuts, Gas Fest and a Six-Foot Sturgeon

A cup of coffee with two locals, Jenny Bryce and Dana Stavinga of Selkirk, Ontario.

This is a shiny new feature in Harrowsmith, and we hope to continue to sit down and have several cups of coffee, virtually, with a few locals, Canada’s best small-town ambassadors. When you’re from “away,” wouldn’t it be perfect if you could simply sit down and learn about a tiny town over a cup of coffee with the ones who know all the best picnic spots and secret bragging points already? The stuff that is often overlooked in glossy tourist brochures?

Meet Jenny and Dana … and their take on Selkirk, Ontario.

Hello, I’m Jenny Bryce. I’m originally from Stoney Creek, Ontario, but my husband and I moved to Selkirk lakeshore when we were just 19 and 21, respectively, for the construction of the industries at Nanticoke in December 1973. At that time, I felt like I fell off the edge of the world! After 45 years, raising three children (and becoming grandparents to eight!), that all live local, no one could surgically remove us from here. We have been here so long, people think we are from “here.” Almost from the first day in this town, I have volunteered in community organizations, and my husband did a 17-year stint as a volunteer firefighter, all while raising our kids, starting a contracting business in the recession of the ’80s, purchasing and renovating local properties, which led us to the world of landlords and several retail operations. At present, my husband still works at our electrical company, which over the years gave many local boys their start in the trade, and now two of our own grandsons are on the payroll, too. Me, I have a retail shop and welcome many travelling construction workers to the town by providing temporary rental accommodations. I also volunteer as the president of the Selkirk Chamber of Commerce. No grass grows on me!

Hi, I’m Dana Stavinga and have lived in Haldimand County almost all of my life. My husband, John, and I have four children that we have raised in this quaint little town. I have been the curator of the Wilson MacDonald Memorial School Museum for 30 years and am very proud of all the rich heritage and culture that our town has to offer.

Harrowsmith: So, where is the best place to sit down and have a coffee in your town?

Sunflower Cafe

Jenny Bryce: Sunflower Café.

Dana Stavinga: Nestled right in the community of Selkirk, we feature our Sunflower Café, where lots of locals go for their morning coffee and of course their award-winning carrot cake! This restaurant has a great history behind it, as it once was a butter factory, later a drugstore, bakeshop, billiards hall, post office and even a barbershop.

HS: When you go to the local farmers’ market, which vendor do you visit first?

Jenny: Flowers!

Dana: Living in Haldimand County, we are deep in the heart of the farming community, with 840 farms used for land crops, and three wonderful farm markets. I enjoy visiting each of the vendors to see what they have to offer—the fresh vegetables, flowers, honey, maple syrup, meat and baked goods.

HS: What’s your favourite independent business?

Jenny: Barnwood Wine! It’s an on-site brewing location in a carriage barn built in 1900.

Dana: One of my favourite places to shop is Selkirk Home Hardware, which features almost everything under one roof: housewares, gifts, gardening, carpentry—they have it all!

I also enjoy visiting the Hen House eatery, just west of Selkirk, where there is a unique little gift shop that features wares, including homemade soap and candles, eclectic signs and wreaths, and beautiful clothing and purses.

HS: When company arrives from out of town, where do you take them?

Jenny: To our new Waterfront Way Park and the 95 km Haldimand County section of the Waterfront Trail.The parkette is at the mouth of Stoney Creek, on the shore of Lake Erie, and the awesome quiet little trail that leads to a walking bridge over the creek.

Dana: Selkirk is very proud of its rich heritage and culture and features three unique museums: Wilson MacDonald Memorial School Museum, Canadian Drilling Rig Museum, and Cottonwood Mansion Museum.

Cottonwood Mansion


HS: Does your town have a mascot? Any unusual roadside attractions or monuments?

Jenny:  No mascot, but we do have a few unique murals. One depicts articles of history, one shows the famous drilling rig, and another highlights the country fields with sunflowers.

Dana: The Wilson MacDonald Memorial School Museum has received a heritage landmark designation.

HS: What’s the strangest annual event or festival or little-known fact about your town?

Jenny: The event is not strange, but the name is tongue in cheek. Our most popular summer festival is Gas Fest. This is to celebrate our heritage of natural gas. We also have a scarecrow event, whereby the chamber asks local businesses to create a scarecrow that depicts their business. We simply can’t miss our annual Christmas Celebration and Illuminated Tractor Parade. After children visit Santa to have their pictures taken, there are crafts and food and a special quiet hour for families with children that have special needs. Then, the crowd moves outside to gather and await the farm equipment, all illuminated with lights, parading ahead of Mr. and Mrs. Claus!

Dana: Selkirk is known by many for its annual Heritage Day, which takes place on the third Monday in February (Family Day in Ontario). This event is put on by the North Erie Shore Historical Society and attracts over 1,000 visitors. There are demonstrations on sausage and sauerkraut making, quilting, rope and butter making, just to name a few! Children and adults alike have the opportunity to play with old toys, take a ride on a horse-drawn wagon, explore exhibitions, add a stitch to a quilt, meet old friends and listen to the music.

The strangest festival would be Selkirk Gas Fest, as many visitors have no idea why it is called Gas Fest. In 1904, the first gas well was drilled; the well proved to be good, and the Selkirk Gas and Oil Company Ltd. was formed. This was the start of the gas boom. Other companies obtained lease options on the lands, and many gas wells continue to be productive today.

Gas Fest showcases a special exhibit by the Canadian Drilling Rig Museum that tells the history of natural gas in our area. The Selkirk Lions are instrumental in putting together this event, including the local parade and an afternoon of music and special events.

The last Saturday of November, the Selkirk Chamber of Commerce, along with our local businesses and the farming community, features a fun family event: The Selkirk Christmas Celebration and Illuminated Tractor Parade. This is a free family event, and the parade features floats, including tractors, combines and a visit from Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus at the Selkirk Centennial Community Centre.

HS: What’s the most notable event in your town’s history?

Jenny:  The winter snowstorm of 1977. Buses were stranded on the way home, and many children became the unexpected house guests of the closest home. Three days of unrelenting wind-driven snow off of Lake Erie created drifts that buried cars and entrance doors to homes, cutting off residents, for some more than three days. As to a fish? Garry Cooper brought up a six-foot sturgeon that washed up on the Lake Erie shore and displayed his find by hanging it from the bucket of a tractor on his front lawn for several days. One can only guess as to the age of this size of a sturgeon.

Dana: The snowstorm of 1977!

HS: Best place to take your dog? Skip stones? Watch the sunset?

Jenny: Dog owners like to let them run at will in the community park or chase sticks from the shoreline at the Waterfront Way park on the shore of Lake Erie. Sunsets and sunrises are breathtaking anywhere along the lakeshore or across open fields.

Dana: Waterfront Way lakefront park has a trail and bridge over Stoney Creek that skirts the shoreline of Lake Erie. Selkirk Provincial Park features the Wheeler’s Walk Trail through the woods and meadows of the park and is located on the shoreline of Lake Erie.

HS: It’s Friday night and you’re not in the mood to cook. Where do you go? Or order in?

Jenny: We can always count on the Sunflower Café to have awesome eats, with a full menu, or we can venture over to the neighbouring village of Fisherville, for Friday night fish night. In the summer, a great foodie experience can be found at the Hen House, just west of town. It offers unexpectedly good food from a chip wagon in a unique setting. It’s located on a family farm, with outdoor seating.

Dana: Selkirk and the local community have so much to offer that will tantalize your taste buds. East to Kohler, we love going to a historical restaurant called Shelly’s Family Dining. Shelly’s features homemade family-style meals, and they are well-known for tasty chicken cordon bleu, dippy donuts, their pancakes and sausage. It’s a glimpse of history, as the restaurant is housed in an old landmark church conversion that features an old choir loft that has been turned into a space for meetings or small family gatherings.

If we travel west to Nanticoke, there is a hidden treasure tucked away in the heart of the local village, called Hoover’s Marina and Wharfside Restaurant. An old fishing shanty has been converted into a restaurant, and it’s a beautiful wharf-side setting. Many visitors come by boat and bask in the warm sun on their patio and enjoy a drink along with an authentic fish dinner.

HS: What’s your favourite road/house/tree?

Jenny: My house on Lakeshore Road!

Dana: Just north of Selkirk, I drive by a designated two-storey century farmhouse owned by the Lindsays that is made of straw clay blocks. They have a big pine tree, higher than the house, that is covered with an array of beautiful Christmas lights.

HS: Who’s the most famous person in town?

Dana: Wilson Pugsley MacDonald was a famous Canadian poet who was born in the nearby village of Cheapside. He published many works, including Out of the Wilderness. Also, Cheryl MacDonald (no relation to Wilson MacDonald) was a well-known local historian and author who wrote several news articles and historical books, such as Deadly Women and Haldimand History: Crime & Punishment 1850–1950.

HS: What’s the most popular item at roadside stands in your area?

Jenny: Tomatoes and maple syrup.

HS: What does your town smell like?

Jenny: The lakeshore can smell like rotted seaweed. The town can have the occasional waft of farm animals!

Dana: I love it when it rains and the day after you can smell all of the fresh crops in the field that are getting ready to be cultivated.

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