Artwork by Cathy Van-Raay Myers - Retro Suites Hotel
In 1973, celebrated British economist
E. F. Schumacher
wrote his classic
"Small Is Beautiful"
essays to combat the "bigger is better" hypothesis. He might have been writing about Chatham and its three local champions, Rob Myers, Dan Warrener and Mike Fairbairn, whose influence permeates this cozy city.
The three share a love of cars, and are so successful in the auto renovation business with
RM Classic Cars
that they now often work on vehicles valued at over $1million! Comedian
cars were refurbished here, and when actor
was involved in an accident, guess where his automobile was shipped?
With offices worldwide, they happily remain in their southwestern Ontario hometown where their shops employ 30 full time craftsmen and they house a museum of exotic (priceless) cars. They attend classy car auctions in myriad venues from Toronto to London, England, and at Pebble Beach, they captured the "Best in Show" accolade four times. The public may visit the "museum" but are no longer allowed into the shops because of competitor espionage. At the museum, I notice an
1959 Ford Fairlane
, a common
Rolls Royce Silver Cloud
, and yes - a James Bond
. Gleaming under showroom lights, I am in car heaven!
The trio owns the local
shop and they have
profits locally by purchasing large swaths of downtown real estate which includes the mall, armoury - turned into a public hall suitable for weddings and several commercial buildings along King St.
Myers and his family purchased and refurbished their funky hotel, downtown's Retro Suites in boutique style to house affluent friends and clients from all over the world.
Cathy Van-Raay Myers
, an artist, is responsible for most of the eclectic decorations at the Retro Suites. The staircase, in the hotel's lobby, dates back to 1895, when it was a part of the Merrill Hotel. We are in "The Sky" suite with its two-
storey ceiling and conclude that the
hotel experience alone is worth a trip to Chatham by Via Rail from Toronto.
Chatham-Kent is composed of 22 towns plus the city, and Tourism Manager, Joy Sim, takes us to sample emerging attractions. In
, we chat with Mary Jane Wilson of Smith (husband George) and Wilson Estate Wines, producing and supplying grapes to wineries for over 25 years. Overlooking Lake Erie on old Highway 3, for the past five years, George and Mary Jane have make their own red, white and - popular with Americans - grape and fruit wines; they serve lunch al fresco on a scenic patio overlooking both vineyards and lake. The land is sandy loam over a limestone and granite lakebed base, producing vintages of exceptional quality. We purchase several bottles from Mary Jane who feels blessed with a long growing season and an extended harvest into the first of November.
Next, we visit the Bayside Brewing Company in
with views of both harbour and lake. We tour the new facility and meet Nancy Cowan, co-owner. Bayside produces a tasty Long Pond lager and also a light beer. Across the street, we enjoy lunch at Molly & OJ's. Owner Tom & Sandra Vidler are second generation owners and the restaurant boasts local fresh perch and pickerel. I opt for the former; it's delicious. The restaurant as well as cottages and RV hookups have been a staple here since 1966 with regulars from Ohio, Michigan and Kentucky.
Erieau, popular with boaters and fishermen, sits on a peninsula framed by vast Lake Erie on one side and peaceful Rondeau Bay on the other. The marina bustles with 2700 boat launches recorded last summer and inexpensive rates that attract customers from myriad areas. Farmers here grow onions and root vegetables in rich, black earth.
After lunch, we travel to Nmaachihna (we are returning home), a
attraction that opened this summer. Travis Snake leads us through this impressive experiential Enviro-Educational Centre that features three wigwams ("our home") and other facilities where some formerly troubled youth now teach their culture to school groups of all ages.
Travis proudly demonstrates setting up a fishing trap using only bare hands and outlines teaching mechanics involved in activities such as building lodges (circular and square), skinning and tanning and dugout canoe construction by patient and careful log burning, noting that the elementary students outperform high schools and university types. In one lodge, he jumps heartily on top of a raised log bed to demonstrate its strength. Each lodge has two air holes in the ceiling and fires are constantly maintained to preserve the wood's integrity.
I marvel at the rate of development, the positive vibes from cooperative youth engaged in re-establishing their native skills and crafts. And they are precise. The First Nations craftsmen travel all the way to Maryland to
gather wood from
because of its preferred thick bark for roofing shingles.
Not far off is the site of the
Battle of the Thames
also known as the Battle of
Moraviantown where, rather than retreating with the British,
, the formidable orator, politician and warrior - surely an equal to
died in a valiant fight against a much superior force led by
who later became a U.S. president. On Oct. 4-5, next year a huge crowd of re-enactors and tourists is expected to help celebrate this
War of 1812
battle. Sadly, the existing monument to Tecumseh, leader of the
and a large tribal confederacy, pales in contrast to that of Niagara's Sir Isaac Brock, something local politicians should remedy immediately.
Heading back to Chatham, we notice significant signage for both the Tecumseh Parkway and the
. Chatham is blessed with ample green space and enjoys two theatres, one at the Cultural Centre and the downtown Capitol refurbished to seat 1300. Later, we dine at Chef Brian Machado's Churrascaria Steak House, a Portuguese restaurant. Here and at Retro Suites in their Chilled Cork Restaurant,
(where we met two Niagara on the Lake natives, Executive Chef Dylan McLay and Assistant Chef, Kyle Skinner), the food was tasty.
E. F. Schumacher was prescient with his "small is beautiful" premise, and with some nearby lakeside property valued at less than $200,000, this might be a fine place for us to revisit and - maybe take up wine making!
Mike Keenan writes for QMI Agency (Sun Media) Canada's largest newspaper publisher, printing 44 daily newspapers as well as a web portal, Canoe.ca. Besides regular columns for the St. Catharines Standard, Welland Tribune and Niagara Falls Review, Mike has been published in the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, Buffalo Spree, Stitches, West of the City and Hamilton-Burlington's View Magazine.