"Spend an hour, a day or a lifetime" locals suggest about Tillsonburg, one of many attractive undiscovered towns in southwestern Ontario. Located in rolling, fertile farmland in the heart of Oxford County between London and Lake Erie, even on a sunny cool December day, it bustles with activity as I stroll along the main street on a recent visit.
Formerly a booming centre of the tobacco industry, now, immaculate farms on either side of the rural highways produce ginseng as well as tasty produce from apple orchards and wineries that dot the landscape. Ginseng roots are taken orally as adaptogens, aphrodisiacs, nourishing stimulants and used in the treatment of type II diabetes as well as for male sexual dysfunction. The root is often available in dried form, either whole or sliced. Ginseng leaf, although not as prized, is sometimes also used; as with the root, it is often available in dried form.
Tillsonburg embodies the heart of a rural area settled by Quakers, with a huge Amish community to the south and one of the largest Dutch settlements found outside of Holland. The town of 14,000 is an active commercial centre exhibiting original architecture that dates from the town's beginning in the late 1800's. There's an appealing mix of small, locally owned shops, a thriving shopping mall and some excellent restaurants.
With Amy Semple MacPherson, the famous American Evangelist, who was born nearby, Tillsonburg commands a unique place in history. Oxford County was an important stop on the Underground Railroad during the Civil War. To enjoy a slice of local history, visit the informative city museum at Annandale, former home of E. D. Tillson, first mayor of Tillsonburg and son of the city's founder. A designated National Historic site, the attractive, old yellow brick mansion built in the 1880's in Victorian style with typical ornate embellishments, was rescued from demolition and superbly restored by private donations. It is now maintained by the town as a monument both to the "Aesthetic Arts Movement" and the town founders. Brilliant painted ceilings have been restored to their original splendour, and the house is fitted with authentic Victorian furnishings. For the Christmas season, the main rooms of the house are skillfully decorated by different local businesses. It is open year round and a required stop for tourists to visit and browse.
Arts and culture flourish in Tillsonburg. The Station Arts Centre enjoys a vibrant Arts and Crafts community located in two former railway stations which have been cleverly renovated. Here, classes are offered for both adults and children, and space is provided for potters and artists to work and display their craft amidst paintings, craft exhibits and a quaint gift shop.
The local restaurants are plentiful offering everything from the basic Tim Horton's to fine dining at the Manse, another well-restored home. The newest town hot spot is Niko's, located on the main street, and it is humming Wednesday at lunch time. It features a daily martini bar and live jazz performed on Thursday nights. Their executive chef, Jeremy, presides over a disciplined staff of 11 with five helpers always there to prepare an innovative menu.
This summer, local restaurants feature Oxford Fresh, a ten-day dining promotion in August with three course specials featuring local produce.
Be sure to stop at Coyle's just outside of town. It's an inviting attraction to residents for miles around - an old-fashioned country store not often seen today, and offering a plethora of items from bulk baking supplies, scrumptious homemade baking, aromatic herbs, sewing and craft supplies, natural medicinal potions and garden supplies, in short, anything one might need to enjoy the country life.
During the harvest season, be sure to pick up delicious fresh produce at roadside markets as well as visit several award-winning garden centres. For those intrigued with Canadian aeronautical history, drop by the local airport, home base of the Canadian Harvard Aircraft Associations, where you will be treated to their prized collection of restored WWII Harvard planes. The aircraft collection includes five serviceable Harvard aircraft (a sixth going through an overhaul), a Tiger Moth, and a Yale, which has been completely restored over the past 18-20 years.
Yearly, the Canadian Harvard Aircraft Association offers numerous opportunities for members to ride in the backseat of a Harvard aircraft or in the front seat of an historic Tiger Moth. They keep members updated on what flights are available and when member fly-days take place in Tillsonburg.
To get there: Follow Highway 401 west from Toronto or east from London to the Highway 19 cutoff at Ingersoll. It's a short drive through rolling farmland to Tillsonburg. There is a Super 8 Motel in town and Spring Lake RV Park nearby. Or, treat yourself to a night at the luxury Elmhurst Inn and Country Spa in Ingersoll. Another nearby attraction is the world-renowned Stafford Festival.
Tess Bridgwater is a travel writer who lives in southwestern Ontario, not far from Oxford County. She writes for the Record and other publications in Kitchener/Waterloo County, national magazines and is a member of SATW, the Society of American Travel Writers
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