When it comes to music and drama, Oxford County's got it all - from major music and cultural festivals to award-winning theatre and house concerts to old-time dancing by a lakeside hall. And, did you know that Ontario's oldest Highland Games, stretching back over 150 years, are held annually on Canada Day (July 1) in Oxford County's Embro and the predominately rural municipality of Zorra Township?
Back in 1820, Scottish immigrants settled on the rich, agricultural land of Embro and Zorra Township after being forced off their land in Scotland by the infamous Highland Clearances (evictions to make way for large-scale sheep farming). Determined to preserve their Caledonian culture, they established the Embro Highland Society in 1856 and, until they disbanded 30 years later, organized the Society's Annual Gathering of dancing, music and games. However, "the spirit, music and games of Scotland" was revived in Embro fifty-seven years later, in 1937, with the formation of the current Zorra Caledonian Society and the annual return of the Embro Highland Games.
Just what are the Highland Games? Back in ancient times, the games were all about athletic and sports competition as a means for the Highland chieftains to identify the strongest men. Today however, it is a grand celebration of Scottish and Celtic culture and heritage. While heavy athletics are still a major part of Embro Highland Games, it is the "spirit and music of Scotland" with its hauntingly beautiful bagpipe music, highland dancing, Scottish Clan displays, food and artisan booths that draws in both the spectators and participants.
An additional special event hosted by the Embro Highland Games is Canada's largest tug-of-war, an exciting event that commemorates the six Embro area farmers who won the World Tug-of-War Championships at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair.
If you like bluegrass music, then Woodstock's three-day Sally Creek Music Festival is a must-attend event. Held annually the first weekend in July at Canada's Outdoor Park (dry camping available on site), this family-oriented festival features top American and Canadian bluegrass bands and special entertainers performing on two stages.
Continuing the summer's lively music scene in Oxford County is Ingersoll's three-day Canterbury Folk Festival on the second weekend in July. Past performers at the free weekend of family entertainment have included Murray McLaughlin, Ian Thomas, Valdy, Paulo and Lenny Gallant. Great folk music, unique craft and food vendors set the stage for a fun festival atmosphere in Ingersoll's downtown area and Memorial Park.
Another major summer event that has put Oxford County on the global map is the famous Cowapalooza, a cow-themed festival held each August in Woodstock, the Dairy Capital of Canada (also known as The Friendly City).
Staged in the beautiful Southside Park, there's something for everyone - cows, milking contests, crafts, live entertainment and a free sunset concert on the hill featuring the popular Legends Alive tribute.
And since the cow has become somewhat of a cultural icon for Woodstock, a "must-see" site is the Springbank Snow Countess, a life-size statute of a Holstein Friesian cow named Snow Countess (1919-1936). Unveiled on August 4, 1937, it was designed by Ross Butler to honour Snow Countess's lifetime record-setting milk production of 9,062 pounds of butterfat. Butler had been hired by the Ontario government in the 1930s to develop detailed sculptures of farm animals.
Delicious food, great music and good company are all in one spot at the renowned Walters Family Dinner Theatre. Every summer and autumn, thousands come to the 180-year old beamed barn theatre at the Walters Family Ranch to take in the show-stopping live music (including the multi-talented musical Walters Family Band) or theatre and enjoy a hearty Country Dinner Buffet featuring Oxford farm fresh produce.
Do you enjoy something more intimate in music? Take in the house concerts of live folk music held at throughout the year at the heritage fieldstone home, Stonecroft Farms. Or perhaps you would like to try some old-time dancing on hardwood floors? Drop in on any Saturday night at the Danceland Lakeside Resort on the shores of Lake Sunova where live bands have played toe-tapping dance music since 1930.
Ah music...it does soothe the soul, especially the beautiful sounds of choral singing, and Oxford County, home to three of Canada's best choral groups. They include the 50-member Ingersoll Choral Society, who perform both secular and sacred music in musical performances which include dinner theatres, Broadway revues and their famous Good Friday presentation. The talented choir of the Woodstock Fanshawe Singers and their famous spring and summer concerts (including world premiere presentations) with an emphasis on Canadian Repertoire. And the Woodstock Choralaires, a world-travelled group of 68 performers who perform two annual shows - spring and Christmas - thrilling audiences with an eclectic mix of styles and arrangements. .
In the world of choral music, Woodstock was in the global spotlight in 2005, when it hosted the Kaleid Music Festival. The acclaimed celebration of song featured 200 singers from five Ontario choirs plus Finland's world-recognized acappella singing group, RAJATON. The good news is that in 2010, the Kaleid Music Festival will again be returning to Woodstock (details to be announced soon).
Oxford County is also known for its top-notch community theatres, like the award-winning Theatre Woodstock that stages plays at the historic 1800s Market Centre. Or Theatre Tillsonburg which presents three shows every season plus a children's summer camp and a teen theatre production. And Ingersoll Theatre of the Performing Arts entertains its audience with excellent plays of every genre.
What's one of the best things about all this artistic diversity in Oxford County? It's the easy geographical access. Oxford County is located midway between Toronto and Windsor on the Canadian side, and between Buffalo and Detroit on the American - the perfect getaway destination for music lovers, cultural explorers and families.
Elle Andra-Warner is an author, journalist and photographer based in Thunder Bay, Ontario.
Oxford County Tourism
If you go
Canterbury Folk Festival: www.canterburyfolkfestival.ca
89 Concession St., Ingersoll ON, N5C 1E9 Ph. 519-485-5763
Cowapolooza: 375 Finkle St., Woodstock ON N4V 1A3 Tel. 519.539.2382, # 804
2564400 Sunova Cr., Lakeside ON N4X 1C9 Tel. 519-349-2288
Embro Highland Games: www.embrohighlandgames.ca
Embro, ON NOJ 1JO Ph. 519.475.6510
Ingersoll Choral Society:
P.O. Box 53, Ingersoll ON N5C 3K1, Tel. 519.485.5728, (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Ingersoll Theatre of the Performing Arts: www.itopa.ca
88 Thames St., Ingersoll, ON N5C 3K5 Tel. 519.485-3070.
Sally Creek Music Festival: www.sallycreekmusicfestival.ca
Site: 744906 Oxford Rd. 17, Woodstock ON, Mailing: R. R. #2, Innerkip ON N0J 1M0, Tel. 519.469.3392
Toll-free 1.888.288.4423 (email@example.com)
Stonecroft Farms/Stonecroft Folk: www.stonecroftfolk.ca
464430 Rivers Rd., R. R. #5, Ingersoll ON N5C 3J8 Tel. 519-423-6797
Theatre Tillsonburg: www.threatretillsonburg.com
Otter Valley Playhouse on Potters Rd., Box 64, Tillsonburg, ON N4G 4H3 Ph. 519-688-3026
Theatre Woodstock: www.theatrewoodstock.com
The Market Centre, 22 Reeve St., Box 20078, Woodstock, ON N4S 8X8 Tel. 519.537.2582
Tourism Oxford: www.tourismoxford.ca
Toll-free 1.866.801.7368, ext 3355
Walters Family Dinner Theatre: www.walterstheatre.com
836074 Hubbard Rd., R. R. #3, Bright ON N0J 1BO, Tel. 519.463.5559 (Info@walterstheatre.com)
The Woodstock Choralaires: www.woodstockchoralaires.ca
P.O. Box 20024 Woodstock ON N4S 8X8 Tel. 519.539.1109 (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Woodstock Fanshawe Singers: www.woodstockfanshawesingers.ca
c/o P.O. Box 36, Woodstock ON N4S 7W5, Tel. 519.539.1287 (email@example.com)