By MAGGIE M, Editor, thewedge.LIVE
I visited the Town of Renfrew a second time, from a different angle. This day began dry and overcast with my first visit to their famed dairy, and ended in my being soaked to my underthings in a den of musicians. It didn’t just rain cats and dogs at 4:45 pm; suddenly and with no forewarning, rhinos and hippos descended in whacks. My obsession with timeliness forebade any grooming prior to reaching my last interview.
“I looked better moments ago,” I exclaimed to my subject on arrival. “I’ve seen wet people before,” he replied without wincing.
As I left town at 6pm, I was a comical sight. Thanks to the generosity of Steve St. Michael, Mill Music, Kermit the frog baggy pyjama pants kept me dry. It wasn’t easy being green; but, I leaned into it nicely and shiver-free.
I won’t set silliness aside as Renfrew delivers plenty of it. You cannot visit this town and not be amused by its cast. After all, when business owners will act on your whimsical direction willingly, this is a healthy sign. There is no hubris here. If you are blue, go to Renfrew and turn red, with laughter. Here is a road map to fun.
Mel Blimkie and Partner, Lynn Parsons, siblings and 50/50 business partners, bring forward warm and fuzzy memories of boomers’ childhood at Sense of Country. Upon entry, you cannot help burst with a, “sense of happy.”
Remember those 50s-60s gum cigars (see top image)? How about Double Bubble, Bazooka Joe, Pixy Sticks candy powder, sponge toffee, licorice pipes? The store will pull you further back in time with old fashioned candy sticks, homemade treats in brown bags and original Cracker Jacks.
Swing your gaze to the left and BAM!, Tiddly Winks, pick-up sticks, jacks, yo-yos and spinning tops keep your attention before moving on to endless themed rooms. This may be the “retro room” for younger generations; but, for many boomers, it’s a playroom. I requested a Double Bubble and began chewing through my words–my decorum is wasted in this place. I can’t remember when I spat the gum out; but, at least, I did not stick it on my bedpost for a second go the next day. Kids do the strangest things.
I worked my way back from the rear, the Fishing Room, Blimkie as my tour guide and model. His father’s old fishing boat floats over your head, where ‘Gordy’ sleeps, booted-feet dangling over the edge.
Blimkie was harrowed by my many takes requesting him to hold a 40 lbs feed bag in the Farm Room. He huffed and puffed, and slung it on his shoulder repeatedly and feigned a wide smile. Meanwhile, farm animal sounds issued from behind him. No ex-banker in this picture!
There is ‘man cave’ behind the games and candy room. Its ceiling is covered with coasters from Blimkie’s days as a bar-owner. This is balanced with a ‘woman cave’ chock-full of girly stuff–no beer mugs or coasters in sight.
The themes are myriad: wrought iron room with fifties tin, baby room, canvas print room, Christmas room, wedding room, etc… Blimkie and a carpenter even build furniture in one room. Midway you will find, ‘The Library’, books featuring local authors, Lowell Green (Perth), Ron Corbett, Linda Ferguson-Tippins and local interests. You can sink into a wing chair and read as long as you desire.
When these two siblings were united around family circumstances, they planned Sense of Country and opened in 2011. They expanded three times since and their inventory and themed rooms tripled. Blimkie was once a bar owner, a banker, and now, he builds retail experiences. Parsons previously worked in the school system. She finds retail hours long, but worthwhile.
“We were always crafty. We always made our own Christmas presents.” Parsons recalls. “Mel’s imagination is beyond,” she adds. It’s nice when siblings support each other.
There is no sense of country when you arrive at the Bonnechere Bakery and Bistro . This large bistro on the main drag surprised this first-timer. I could have been standing in Paris–the colour palette and furnishings had a touch of French style. The decor is ostensibly eclectic and casual-elegant.
The sound rose into the high tin ceilings instead of amplifying as many places do. The din is peaceful. Scents of fresh baked goods quaffed from the large kitchen at the rear. One could spend hours experiencing the menu and the charm of this place.
The Bonnechere offers ample seating, a mezzanine above, counters at the front, sofas at the rear, a cozy nook near the kitchen and the large centre of activity. There is comfy seating for all derrieres–old ones and new ones.
Twin sisters, Maureen Hicks and Marie Schruder, and Schruder’s daughter, Angela McCrea, make-up the cheerful trifecta that own and run this popular haunt.
The Bonnechere building dates back to 1901. Its 3,500 sq. ft., wood floors, tin ceilings and a safe that belonged to the Frasers (men’s garment fame) blend into a unique experience. The safe purchased from the O’Brien’s, Renfrew’s first family, by the Frasers during prohibition is now, ‘The Butler’s Pantry.’ It’s a historical landmark and worth a look before departure.
The two sisters moved the Bonnechere three times on Raglan Street ending at its final location which they purchased December 2015, and renovated for re-opening in March 2016.
McCrea, a trained Chef Patissier, joined them last year. She may be a pastry-maker; but, she is also the chief ‘smiler.’ Schruder once ran a ‘little bakery’ in Eganville. Hicks managed two Tim Horton’s locations in Pembroke. Today, she is the artist behind Bonnechere’s famous soups. All three arrive each day after 6am and begin a routine of food preparation like clockwork. Soups, salads, vinaigrettes, and baked goods are all made from scratch daily without preservatives or additives. Below is a brief look at their culinary progeny.
The Bonnechere closes at 4:30pm each day. “How long does it take you get out of the restaurant after you close?,’ I asked Hicks. “Five minutes,” she replied. Such is an efficient machine.
Steve St. Michael has been writing music since he was a young teenager; yet, he started playing the guitar at 4 years old. The Good Brothers bought and produced his first song, “That’s The Kind of Man I am,” a soon-to-be-hit he wrote at the ripe age of 14. The band surprised him one night, introducing St. Michael to the audience and performing the song on stage. The rest is history. Well, not quite.
There’s no questioning St. Michael’s musical prowess. He traveled for years as a ‘Road Musician’ across Canada and USA; but, he took the road less traveled 34 years ago and opened Mill Music in Renfrew. That’s 1983. The store has been in the same location for 17 years, a former feed mill with a butter-yellow silo by the tracks. It reminds me of a castle turret.
Two years ago he moved his home into the west wing including said turret. I bellowed, on his reply about living in this round space. “The devil can’t corner you,” he quipped.
I’m just getting to know this precious soul. He is as funny as he is big-hearted and talented. He was my final interview and my rescuer from the sudden tsunami that hit me. He immediately collected a first aid kit, hair dryer and pyjama pants, so I may proceed without getting pneumonia in his air-conditioned store. Here’s the kicker: he was wrestling with this illness at that very moment. St. Michael is the great attraction in this store.
Musicians pour into Mill Music from afar for a guitar (inadvertent rhyme). It’s the go-to place for some of the finest and rarest guitars in the country. If you can’t show up in person, Mill Music is one of the biggest sellers of guitars on eBay in the world.
Richard Collins, also a musician and singer, has been with St. Michael since Mill’s early days. He manages the eBay sales on-line on the hour. They had just sold a Martin guitar to Warsaw, Poland, when I arrived.
St. Michael is the one who presses hands, up close and personal. He takes a genuine interest in people and you know it. They are a tag team and best friends.
Ask them to play a tune on the Hippie Guitar when you visit. Ringo Starr had one which he sold for $17,900. US. (see pic above) The team played and sang to me. No audience is too small for this duo.
“You’ve got to go to Tracey’s Dairy,” a local business owner exclaimed, “their cones are as big as your head!” Considering my skull, that’s a lot of ice cream. Little did I realize Tracey’s is not just an ice cream parlour; but, a dairy that manufactures ice cream for retailers across Canada. I learned, Tracey’s Dairy is an important player in Renfrew’s economy.
Ken Tracey bought the then 45 year-old milk plant in 1980 and transformed it into an ice cream dairy. Mark and Melany Tracey have been running the plant since 2000 building its inventory to over 80 flavours. They inherited the company in 2008.
‘Moose Tracks’ is the most popular Tracey’s flavor–creamy vanilla ice cream with chewy chocolate fudge and mini peanut butter cups. I have heard locals rave about the ‘Bordeaux Cherry’; it’s Mayor Eady’s favorite too. There are even ‘no sugar added’ flavours. The company experiments often with new flavours e.g. chocolate and chili, Kahlua, Bailey’s Cream.
Tracey’s have never changed their successful formula. The key is not to use a lot of sugar and little to no corn syrup, to minimize ‘heat shock’ i.e. melting in transit and refreezing on arrival. They don’t skimp on real cream; it’s costly, but it sets Tracey’s apart from the big dairies who use both a great deal of corn syrup and less, if any cream.
Melany Tracey took me for the 25 cent plant tour. First, I was handed a white lab coat and that flattering head cap which I keep as a souvenir (or more usefully, to deter stray men). I digress.
Tracey is such a cheerful Host. I cajoled her into removing her glasses so my spotlight would not turn her eyes into headlights. “They are part of my face,” she wisecracked. Renfrew has a comic wherever you turn.
Amy Rule owns The Rocky Mountain House restaurant and The Crown and Kilt pub connected at a main entrance. This beautiful, soft-spoken, young woman turns fourty this August 16th. She remarks, “I was born the day Elvis died.” I ponder, is Elvis’s spirit alive in this woman? Just ask her to perform, “A Big Hunk O’ Love,” and you be the judge.
The Rocky Mountain House is a place to let your hair down and laugh while you dine. Despite its size at 250 seats and 40 on the patio, it feels like a big cabin; but, with a Disney flare. Instead of the usual howl from the kitchen, “Order up!,” a train whistle alerts servers that an order is ready.
The decor is a cross between Swiss Family Robinson and the wild west. Snow shoes, antlers, moose heads, wagon wheels, a guitar on a ‘canvas’ of pine replace the usual assembly-line art in family restaurants. The Crown and Kilt is more ‘Scottish Highlands’ and intimate; but, it is a Friday night favorite with live performances.
The menu also sets the tone with dishes, The Have at ‘er Platter, Smoking Pistol Shrimp and RCMP (Real Canadian Mashed Potatoes). You are relieved to learn the true meaning of the latter. The menu is long with comfort food; but, the schnitzel is a big draw. Rule’s business card confirms the spirit of this place with the mantra, Renfrew’s Only Pine Dining Restaurant. She doesn’t take herself too seriously.
Rule came to own The Rocky Mountain House in 2007 by working her way through the ranks, first as a dishwasher, then cook, server and bartender. She knows every aspect of the foodservice business especially the financial side. Her early studies in accounting in Peterborough prepared her to run a solvent, long-lasting business. She had dreamed of being an accountant; but, now she is her own client. She employs 45 people and handles the payroll herself. This skill-set informs her role as President of the Renfrew Chamber of Commerce.
“I have no children, so my staff are like my family,” Rule reflects. “I have withdrawals when I’m away.” Sharon Drew, long standing Manager, holds the fort on the rare occasion of her absence. Her husband Ken arrives after work in the marine sector, and lends a helping hand with any loose ends. “I put him to work busing tables,” she chuckles. She does not fail to remind that he is a ‘looker.’
“I love being part of Renfrew,” Rule sparkles on these final words.
There is high-style in Renfrew and I have uncovered two of its leaders in the persons of Lisa Vincent and Christina Ouellet.
Lisa Vincent founded Keeping Company in 1999 with two partners; she quickly became the sole owner due to their circumstances in 2000. The shop featured gifts and home decor items at first; but, in 2007, Vincent added women’s apparel featuring highly sought Canadian Designers under an added retail brand, Ella’s. The name was inspired by the memory of her grandmother, Ella Barker, who was reportedly a ‘fashion plate.’ Accordingly, Joseph Ribkoff, Frank Lyman and Zoé populate racks at Ella’s slash Keeping Company.
How much does Vincent love Renfrew? Her home is two minutes from her shop on the main drag and her cottage is seven minutes by car on the beautiful Ottawa River. I bellowed at the proximity of her getaway, a place we usually associate with ‘away.’ Such is the region–you do not have to venture far to find water, nature and tranquility.
“I worked my way through five books,” Vincent defines as rest.
Vincent is also a Real Estate Appraiser. During the warmer months, this limits her time in the store. Enter Mellissa Meszarics, Manager, Vincent’s indispensable right-hand, and, Nancy Cloutier, Fashion Consultant, and model herein. Might I add, Cloutier is the resident comic, pelting this writer with, “66 happened to me!” Clearly, a good age.
There is deep, high-skill, retail experience in Vincent. For 10 years until 1999 she was Merchandising Manager at Hudson’s Bay. Accordingly, she continually analyses what items sell and their ideal placement in the shop. This is key to ‘keeping any retail company alive.’
It’s no wonder she fearlessly ventured to open a second, Keeping Company, in Arnprior in 2001. Two businesses, two children and a mother-in-need proved to be too much and she closed the shop in 2009. She never added fashion in Arnprior not wanting to step on toes. In fact, in Renfrew, she only added fashion when the shop across the street closed and left a void. This community spirit is characteristic of the town.
During the cooler months Vincent is in the store most days. “In December, I’m always there,” she adds.
Renfrew features an ever-present style maven in the person of Christina Ouellet and the shop she opened on the main drag, The Flower Factory. This gorgeous, elegant woman is a mother to five children from two combined families. It is humbling to hear of the routines all adhere to daily with little respite.
The store music is joined by the whistles of Sybil and The Countess (as in Grantham of Downton Abbey), two zebra finches that meet all customers at the counter. They jammed furiously at my presence. It seems I was too close for comfort!
We discovered our mutual love of Downton Abbey and especially the Dowager Countess’ wit. Ouellet’s favorite, a question which required no answer at the dinner table, “What is a weekend?”
I was schooled by Ouellet on the origins of Kate Spade, a renown Fashion Designer, who has ventured into brand extensions like stationery. My head has been down writing so long, I learn through my work rather than through experience! The inscriptions on the stationery, whether Spade, Rifle Company or other, capture a women’s sardonic mindset well. One journal is engraved, A Likely Story. If you look beyond the blooms and the birds, the shop is covered in quality journals. agendas, wrapping paper, stationery, greeting cards. “Everything pretty,” Ouellet encapsulates. This store is about giving, in style–not just an after-thought.
Ouellet’s skill at flower arrangements is spoken of with awe in town. I witnessed the creative mind that is at work in such a precious gift as a bouquet of flowers. She was preparing umpteen small arrangements for delivery to the hospital as I made my exit.
I have now completed this Seven Visits Marathon.
This is where Maggie M was in July 2017.
Where am I visiting next?