How are you going to keep them down on the farm? That's precisely the question farmer/businessman George Matheson was facing as he watched his family grow. He wasn't concerned about who would raise cattle and grow crops on his Woodstock-area farm. He just wanted his descendents to absorb his love of country living. He got the answer from his good friend - the fiddle. He introduced his three grandchildren to that most traditional of country musical instruments, and he warbled country/western songs to them as youngsters.
Before long, the kids, siblings Darren, Brad and Kimberly were singing along with grandpa and playing their own instruments. A year later, they were on the road as the Walters Family Trio. As the bookings and invitations poured in to the family farm, the children persuaded their parents to take music lessons, practice hard and eventually join them on stage.
And now, some 30 years later, the 180-year-old barn on the family farm no longer houses bales of hay or draught horses, but rather 160 theatre seats, professional stage lights and state of the art sound system as the home of the popular Walters Family Dinner Theatre.
The 150-acre farm that grandpa George bought 60 years ago near the village of Bright, 115 kilometres west of Toronto, has become one of Ontario's most popular summer dinner theatres.
The stage, built in the barn, used to feature only performances by the six-member Walters Family Band - grandpa George, his daughter, Shirley, on base guitar, her husband, Garry, on drums and their three children playing practically every instrument in modern western music.
Today the barn theatre plays host to a wide variety of visiting music stars, plus the Walters Family Band, which has recently moved into its fourth generation. Kimberly's six-year-old son, Schyler, now performs with the family band. Grandpa George passed away in 2004 at the remarkable age of 94.
The eighth season for the Walters Family Dinner Theatre kicks off on June 2. It will run until late October when the family closes up the barn, packs their bags and heads off for southern ports as entertainers aboard cruise ships.
Classic Country Spectacular is the name of the season opener, and it runs until June 21 with the Walters family playing all the biggest country/western hits, combined with comedy skits.
Grammy Award winner, Walter Ostanek, and his band will grace the barn in an Oktoberfest celebration for five days in September. An Amish comedy play from Lancaster, Pennsylvania occupies the barn for 10 days in August. Tom Netherton, a veteran of the Lawrence Welk Show, will serenade the barn audience with his deep baritone voice near the end of July.
Many of the more than 20,000 visitors to the Walters barn this season will come by tour bus. The country theatre is a popular destination for one-day bus trips. Remarkably, despite those numbers, most of the audience is comprised of individuals who visit independently. It's not just the music and the fun that draws the crowds. There's also a good old fashion farm meal included with your theatre ticket.
Prices range from $35 to $50, depending on whether you want to take part in the buffet meals and who is on stage. The family still lives in a 160-year-old Mennonite stone house on the farm, which is only five minutes off Highway 401 near Bright. A few acres around the home have been groomed into a welcome park setting for summer picnics beside the duck pond. The rest of the farm is rented out as pasture to area farmers.
Patrick Brennan is a veteran travel, business writer/photographer based in Guelph. His credits include writing for a chain of 60 newspapers with 1.6 million readers. He was a staff writer/photographer at the Toronto Star for 32 years