Ironically, long advertising itself as the 'dairy capital of Canada,' the City of Woodstock fashions an appropriate acronym, COW. However, in many ways, Woodstock manages to fashion a contradictory mix between old and new, agrarian and urban, quiet and vibrant that best captures the essence of this lovely, small southwestern Ontario town located in the heart of Oxford County, halfway between Toronto and Windsor and Buffalo and Detroit. In this little gem, thirty-six thousand inhabitants enjoy the richness and variety of its offerings.
Lately, I remained blissfully ignorant of the many charms that Woodstock has to offer, celebrating its past as one of few communities that proudly utilizes all of its stately historic public buildings. It also boasts a three-million-dollar, landlocked peace lighthouse and gallery located on the original Studite Fathers' homestead, yet is a pastoral community on the verge of acquiring a massive new industrial Toyota plant.
Woodstock's motto - "our rural roots are showing" succinctly captures the heart, vision and direction of the community. Woodstock embodies and celebrates the four hallmarks of the district - heritage, culture, horticulture and agratourism.
First, it maintains and promotes its impressive heritage properties - and given the relatively small size of the town, there are a great number. The City Hall, Historical Museum, and old churches are distinctively minor treasures, richly deserving careful observation.
Second, Woodstock celebrates and champions arts and culture with a vibrant theatre, popular dinner theatre program and an art museum.
Third, Woodstock proudly exhibits its strength in the field of gardening and horticulture, winning the prestigious "Communities in Bloom" contest on more than one occasion. The Pittock Conversation Area and many walking trails through enticing Carolinian forests, pine woodlots and along riverbanks and wetlands constitute a moveable feast for photographer and nature lover alike.
Fourth, Woodstock is a gateway for agra-tourism for its environs offer everything from "The National Post's" most highly rated maple syrup farm, Jakeman's, to the many dairy farms that initiated the city's original claim to fame.
My experience is probably typical, having visited on one previous occasion - many years ago to drive my daughter to a Mid-Western Region Optimist Speech contest. I ventured no more than a hundred yards off highway 401 to a hotel and spent two hours there, period. A hundred yards and a couple of hours - how terribly unfortunate!
This time, my visit was rewarding. I traveled alone on an overcast November day, my first stop a gas station immediately off the highway, where I engaged locals in conversation. When I asked for the most interesting sights that a tourist might take it, even though several were recent transplants, they registered no problem in coming up with many, including very precise directions as to how to get there.
an historian, I was fascinated with the preservation of so many heritage buildings everywhere that I turned. Although a dull day, the lovely, whimsical garden centre caught my fancy. So did the short drive to the Pittock Conservation Area. That sense of the past catching up with the present is witnessed in many ways in Woodstock. It was once Canada's second largest Underground Railroad settlement. It claims proud Amish and Quaker communities and one of the largest Dutch settlements outside of Holland.
The Woodstock Peace Lighthouse is a thoroughly unique structure that is deserving of a visit itself. Located on Ferguson Drive, it is plunked right in the middle of a residential area. It is an imposing but aesthetically beautiful building that reaches up to the sky, a $3 million landlocked lighthouse which makes it a one-of-a-kind structure, not only in Canada, but arguably in the world. It also houses the largest collection of religious icons anywhere in the world. Those icons, in the Byzantine tradition, were assembled from South America, Russia, the Ukraine, Greece, and many other parts of the globe, a virtual treasure-trove of artifacts: an old picture Bible, old maps of Eastern Europe, an original stone from St. Peter's home in Galilee, and an entire pictorial history of lighthouses. The structure was originally planned to be built in Israel, but now Woodstock counts it as one of its most highly prized treasures.
Given its bountiful offerings, it's not surprising that Woodstock is considered a prized retirement area with people from London and Toronto gravitating to its myriad blessings and slower pace.
Far too often, travel gems exists in our own backyard, but we ignore them. This is decidedly the case with Woodstock. You have only to spend a day there to realize the bounty of sites offered, literarily something to please every discriminating visitor. The air is fresh and pure, people are friendly and helpful, and the attractions rich and varied.
Nick Brune is an historian who has written for a wide group of organizations, including C.B.C. News in Review, The Dominion Institute (The Memory Project, Passages to Canada, etc.), the Hong Kong Commemorative Veterans Association (The Forgotten Heroes), and Elections Canada (The Democracy Project). He has co-authored more than half a dozen history textbooks for elementary and high schools. Nick loves to travel, having visited Europe several times, China, the Caribbean several times, Korea, and several visits throughout Canada and the United States.
If you go
(Restaurant and gift shop with a lovely outdoor patio that overlooks Museum Square.
(Home of Jakeman's maple products. Their maple syrup was voted number one by The National Post.)
(Located in the historic 1800,s Market Square, this is the home of an award winning community theatre.)
Woodstock Art Gallery
(This is Oxford County's only public art gallery. It showcases historical and contemporary art exhibitions and is home to a permanent collection of Florence Carlyle's works.
(Built in 1853, this is mid-nineteenth century Italianate building once was home to the fire hall, police station, council chambers, and a theatre.