Conservation History -
A man doesn’t plant
a tree for himself.
He plants it for posterity.
Scottish Poet (1830-1867)
The tree which
moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the
way. Some see Nature all ridicule and deformity, and some scarce
see Nature at all.
But to the eyes of the man
Nature is Imagination itself.
is the landscape's most
beautiful and expressive feature.
It is Earth's
eye; looking into which the beholder measures
the depth of his own nature.
Henry David Thoreau
went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to
front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not
learn what it had to teach, and not,
when I came to die,
discover that I had not lived.”
Henry David Thoreau
What I Lived For, pg. 101
In many ways,
Blake's Ardfree in Northumberland County (next to Ganaraska Forest) was like Thoreau's Walden
Woods in New England (Mass.) - of two great
thinkers and symbolic places in the conservation movement - each
with a scenic pond surrounded by
woods (pine and oak trees)
calls of the
are still heard.
When V.B. Blake first came to the country farm in
1926 on the 9th Concession north of Port Hope, it was poor barren land having been
almost clear-cut in the previous century. He named it
and until 2002,
it was owned by members of
the Blake family.
The origin of the Ardfree name Blake chose for
the farm in the Ganaraska
region was a slight variation of
the place named "Ardfry". In the homeland of Blake's ancestors,
Ardfry was one of the famous
historic landmarks of west Ireland
(meaning: “The Height of the Heather”).
Historical records show the Blake Family once owned more land in Ireland -- than the entire size of Ganaraska Forest
Ardfry in the heart of Gaelic Ireland
"By patent dated 24 Feb
1681 the Blakes were granted
almost 12,000 acres in counties Galway..."
(NUI Landed Estates Database)
Blake's pioneer conservation project
By the time V.B.
Blake came to the Ganaraska region,
extensive deforestation and poor land management
had caused major flooding and erosion problems. By the early
1920’s, most of the original trees were gone and the land had
been farmed out.
Without tree cover
and roots to bind the land, soils easily washed away.
areas being eroded and unfit for cultivation or
any other purpose. The land had became
barren, unproductive and windswept terrain.
At Ardfree, Blake saw something had to be done and
soon began his ongoing tree
planting experiments. Through a small series of events
in an area once described as
the “sandy desert of the north”, Blake set in motion an important
precedent. His ongoing project was a practical
demonstration of the merits of conservation which included
several tree plantations. His experiment prevented erosion, held the soil in place and
In essence, the treeplanting work
done under Blake’s watchful eye was a “conservation in miniature”
project waiting for the big one to come. The establishment of Ganaraska Forest followed about
Ardfree house, circa 1954
Photo courtesy of Elisabeth Bacque
Blake’s Lookout Tower
Around 1929, Blake built a
prominent lookout tower on a nearby
hill that was seen for miles around. This was no ordinary
surrounding farming community, the three storey
solid concrete tower with wide concrete walls was a marvel at the time
which included knob and tube wiring, water (ram system), etc. - unlike
anything seen locally. Blake’s inspiration for his Lookout may have come
from the ancient castle lookouts in the homeland of his Irish ancestors.
The tower where Blake used to write or watch the foxes now stands sentinel overlooking the mature
tree plantations and quiet waters
of the large scenic pond.
If one looks closely, signs
still remain of
the well worn path from Blake's house to the tower on the hill. .
Blake's Tower circa 1954
Photo courtesy of Elisabeth Bacque
Blake’s Tower is
within bird’s eye-view of Richardson’s Lookout (named for his colleague, Dr.
A. H. Richardson on a nearby hilltop to the south).
was acquired in 1962 by the Ganaraska
Region Conservation Authority.
Symbolic in their hilltop
locations and nearby proximity of each other, Richardson’s
Lookout and Blake’s Lookout Tower are reminders of two great
thinkers who even today cannot be far apart. Blake and
passed away in the same year (1971) but their work in
conservation and heritage preservation lives on for future
Old Wilson 's Pond on Oak Ridges Moraine
A large spring
fed pond was enclosed entirely on the old Blake property.
Located on the
Oak Ridges Moraine, Ardfree was made up of
created by the deposits left during the last Ice Age and
strategically located in an important headwaters area of the Ganaraska
An interesting mix of
creeks and underground springs are also seen in this
vicinity which feeds into areas downstream - including the
large pond of the Garden Hill
Conservation area south of the moraine.
Ardfree supports the
biological and physical function of the Ganaraska Forest which
lies to the west and to the east. Such natural linkages, corridors and
connections are important to the long term
integrity and biodiversity of the Oak Ridges Moraine and Ganaraska Forest
Historically, the pond
on Ardfree was named
the "Old Wilson's Pond", named after an original landowner. The spring fed waters from Old Wilson's Pond drain into the pond of the Garden Hill Conservation
Area below it.
On the Oak Ridges Moraine, the Old
Wilson 's Pond is entirely spring fed (there is no river
intake). It is the only pond pictured in the Ganaraska Watershed
Report (1944) by
Today, the Old Wilson's Pond is almost entirely enclosed by
mature trees and beautifully reminisce of a Northern Ontario
lake - unlike the early photo shown below when much of the land
had been logged out.
Early photo of Old Wilson's Pond on Ardfree - c. 1930's
(now encircled by mature tree plantations)
The Ganaraska Watershed Report (1944) p. 214
The pond at Ardfree is one of the largest
visual headwater areas in the Ganaraska Forest area. Such
aquifers have existed for thousands of years and have great
The groundwater is filtered through sands/gravel
in the pond area and released through two dams eventually ending
at its final destination in Lake Ontario. Spring fed water
also flows from Ardfree's pond a few miles south-east into the Garden Hill pond below it. Acquired in 1956,
the Garden Hill Conservation Area
was the first conservation area acquired by Ganaraska Region Conservation
Many species of birds and other wildlife are attracted
to both ponds.
One of the steepest and most picturesque drumlins
glacial drift) in the Ganaraska area is also seen on Ardfree.
In the old days, it was a popular picnic spot.
Near old Wilson 's pond, along
the ridge of the surface water divide, are many underground springs feeding into little tributaries.
These tiny headwater streams bubble out of the ground in seeps, swales (low hollow place between ridges) and
springs and all these trickles of water, like fingers, join
forces in delivering cold clean water to the Ganaraska River.
During the 1800's, many dams were built on
the Ganaraska River to
impound areas of water. Most of these dams were
for local mill operations. The dams were
beneficial as they had an ameliorating effect on small floods
and slowed the erosive effect of the river. They also improved
summer flow in the river.
Ardfee's pond has two dams. One dam
originally powered a saw mill
which supplied lumber from the mid 1800’s. When the property was acquired by the
Blake family in 1926, the
deed of sale included: “a saw mill building… and all machinery
tools and plant used in conjunction therewith.”
Some remnants of the early saw mill are still seen today.
Blake replaced the original derelict wooden dams with two
concrete dams about
1927 and 1950. If one looks closely when the conditions
are right, one can still see V.B.’s initials carved into the
earlier smaller dam.
Blake - Thoreau Analogy
Henry David Thoreau
as one of the greatest
writers of the American conservation movement. He brought the
concept of conservation into the public consciousness with the
publication of his book “Walden” - a chronicle of his experiment
with nature next to Walden Pond in the area known as Walden
Woods. Here he contemplated the natural world and set in motion
the theories of conservation in what is regarded around the
world as the mostly widely read nature’s journal to this day.
Millions of people around the world have been inspired by
his work. Walden Pond has since been designated a National
Historic Landmark and is considered the birthplace of the
conservation movement – followed by other Waldens in other
communities being identified and protected.
During their lifetimes, V.B. Blake and H.D. Thoreau were
seen by their contemporaries as rather complex, shy and reserved
men. They were
high-thinking naturalists and advocates of conserving natural
resources on private land and preserving wilderness on public
land. Neither man married. Their far-reaching ideas started
to manifest into reality around the same age (at 27 years old).
Having come from the city, neither man rejected civilization nor
fully embraced wilderness. Instead they preferred a middle
ground which integrated both nature and culture.
Blake were little recognized, or their work understood, during
their lifetimes. Both men’s
greatest contributions came from their experiences in the
country. Thoreau’s writings proved to
have more of an impact on the men of the 20th century than the
men of his own century. Blake's treeplanting experiments
were seen as odd and strange by the surrounding rather
tight-knit farming community - Blake’s “conservation in
miniature” project now surrounded by the largest forest in
Southern Ontario (Ganaraska Forest).
and Oak trees prevail in both places.
In his time, Thoreau would often hear 15 or more
Whip-poor-will’s at a time at Walden Woods. Yet few people have
seen this shy and illusive nocturnal bird. In New England (where
Walden Woods is situated), legend says the Whip-poor-will can
sense a soul departing and can capture it as it flees. Many
years later, despite their declining numbers, the distinct
calling of Whip-poor-wills are still heard at Blake's Ardfree.
Ardfree and Walden are two places which show
similarities - through their respective ponds, woods and
association with two great men. Walden in U.S. is recognized and protected
as a national historic site - Ardfree has been forgotten.
The Hall Family
In 1936, a little boy named
Larry Hall (1932-2014) came to Ardfree with his Mother where
he lived until
From 1936 to 1971, Edith Marion Hall was the housekeeper
and was married to Blake's foreman, Hamilton K. Bell (“Hammy”). She
remained at Ardfree for the rest of her life (passing
shortly after Blake in 1971).
keen eye for unusual cars from a young age, Hall still remembers the
arrival of many "fancy cars" of the visitors who came to see Blake at Ardfree
- cars not
often seen locally. He did not know the visitors' identities but to
a young boy, they
were important people by the cars they
were driving. These were the years of the Ganaraska
study which resulted in the establishment of Ganaraska Forest. He
later married Evelyn who lived in
the farmhouse next door.
V.B. Blake and his library was undoubtedly an
influence on the young Hall. A broadcaster and
Larry Hall was a Councillor of the
Municipality of Port Hope (3 terms) and former Chairman of the
Ganaraska Region Conservation Authority. He was served as a volunteer member with
various other public bodies (history and the environment).
researcher never personally knew Verschoyle Benson Blake.
However, she knew of him and his published historical
work - long before she unknowingly came to the same farm he
had owned for much of his life in Hope Township,
Northumberland County named “Ardfree”.
In January, 2002 on a cold winter day,
the empty century old wood
frame house of Ardfree and the trees Blake planted silently spoke.
Only in the Spring was there a meeting with the owner, Pat
Daniel (nephew of V.B. Blake), when he was asked: “Who was
the great conservationist who planted all the trees?” His
reply was “his uncle - Vers Blake”. It was the strangest of
co-incidences - or was it? Most people would never
have thought to ask such a question in the first place.