‘SO MUCH A PART OF WHAT THE IS­LAND IS

Dry stone walls are liv­ing mon­u­ments to is­land’s his­tory

Kingston Whig-Standard - - FRONT PAGE - MEGHAN BALOGH

When An­drea Cross looks at one of the many cen­tury-old dry stone walls on Amherst Is­land, she sees the past and the fu­ture.

Cross has lived full time on Amherst Is­land for 19 years. The stone walls that line many of the roads and fields of the small is­land in Lake On­tario, 10 kilo­me­tres west of Kingston, are liv­ing mon­u­ments to a chap­ter in the is­land’s his­tory, when it be­came home to sev­eral Irish im­mi­grants in the early to mid 19th cen­tury.

Cross, a lover of his­tory, con­nected to the walls and their sto­ries. Most of the walls were cre­ated by dry stone wallers who em­i­grated from the Ards Penin­sula in the County Down, in North­ern Ire­land.

Many of those walls still stand to this day, thanks to the some­what frozen-in-time, un­de­vel­oped state of the lit­tle is­land, which is home to ap­prox­i­mately 450 res­i­dents and is still steeped in agri­cul­tural prac­tices for which the walls were orig­i­nally cre­ated.

In fact, Amherst Is­land has the great­est con­cen­tra­tion of known his­toric Irish dry stone walls in Canada. That fact alone makes the is­land a fan­tas­tic venue for the an­nual Dry Stone Canada Fes­ti­val, which re­turns to the pas­toral lo­ca­tion for the third time in five years, this year on Sept. 14-15 at The Lodge in Stella.

Cross has been in­volved with the fes­ti­val since its first it­er­a­tion on the is­land in 2015, and that in­volve­ment was born out of a deep in­ter­est in the walls them­selves.

“When I saw the dry stone walls, I thought, wow, this is a con­nec­tion to our past,” she said. “This is some­thing that needs to be pro­tected and cel­e­brated for fu­ture gen­er­a­tions.”

So that’s what she did. In 2013, work­ing as a mem­ber of the Loy­al­ist Town­ship Her­itage Com­mit­tee, Cross started a project to doc­u­ment his­toric walls on the is­land and helped to cre­ate a by­law that would pro­tect those walls.

“I be­lieve that’s one of the first such projects in On­tario,” she re­called. “We were sort of blaz­ing a trail to fig­ure out how to set up a by­law that would fit within the On­tario Her­itage Act.”

Cross then reached out to the Dry Stone Walling As­so­ci­a­tion of Canada, also known as Dry Stone Canada, invit­ing mem­bers of the or­ga­ni­za­tion to visit Amherst Is­land and see the walls.

“They were blown away by what they saw,” she said. “They knew that this was a spe­cial place, that other wallers would ap­pre­ci­ate and needed to see and would prob­a­bly like to gather and cel­e­brate and build a legacy struc­ture to cel­e­brate a fes­ti­val.”

With mem­bers of Dry Stone Canada, Cross brought to­gether the first dry stone walling fes­ti­val on Amherst Is­land in 2015, the Cana­dian In­ter­na­tional Dry Stone Wall Fes­ti­val, which was at­tended by fed­eral politi­cians, in­ter­na­tional dig­ni­taries and renowned wallers from around the world.

That event earned Cross and Dry Stone Canada a Lieu­tenant Gov­er­nor On­tario Her­itage Award.

Many con­nec­tions — to Ire­land, to ances­tors of set­tlers, and among wallers from around the world — were so­lid­i­fied at that 2015 fes­ti­val, which saw the cre­ation of a legacy project to hon­our the is­land’s Irish his­tory.

“A lot of peo­ple who have walls on their prop­erty, they don’t take them down, they leave them there,” Cross ex­plained. “They ap­pre­ci­ate them, and a part of it, I think, is some of those walls were built by ances­tors of the peo­ple who still live there.

“There are a num­ber of fifth-, sixth-gen­er­a­tion is­lan­ders who have gone back to their roots in Ire­land and have com­mented on how strange it feels to go through the ceme­ter­ies there, be­cause side by side, they’re the same names (as here.) There’s such a con­nec­tion. That’s what I’m per­son­ally try­ing to do. To bring us to­gether again. To make that con­nec­tion.”

In two weeks, dozens of wallers will descend on Amherst Is­land once again to par­tic­i­pate in work­shops, cre­ate a spe­cial project, and cel­e­brate the art of dry stone walling to­gether — and they hope that the pub­lic will come out to watch.

“Peo­ple are re­ally ex­cited,” Dry Stone Canada pres­i­dent Hilary Martin said dur­ing an in­ter­view lead­ing up to the fes­ti­val, which will see five build projects, restora­tion projects, walling and carv­ing work­shops for all skill lev­els, a spe­cial area for kids to cre­ate projects with ex­pert di­rec­tion, food, ven­dors and live mu­sic.

Two of those walling work­shops will be com­mu­nity-fo­cused builds: a dry stone wall base for a sign at the Amherst Is­land Pub­lic School, and a cob oven at The Back Kitchen, a vol­un­teer, com­mu­nity-run restau­rant in Stella, the is­land’s only vil­lage.

“This is a way to give back to the is­land,” said Martin, who thanked the many com­mu­nity mem­bers who con­tinue to show sup­port for the fes­ti­val.

The oven at The Back Kitchen will be used for mak­ing pizza, and that build will take place in the five days lead­ing up to the fes­ti­val.

“With luck, we’ll be able to cook pizza on Sun­day at the fes­ti­val,” Martin said.

The tall ship the St. Lawrence II will be an­chored off­shore in sight of the build site at The Lodge, adding to the step-back-in-time am­biance of the event.

The fes­ti­val will be­gin and end with a land ac­knowl­edge­ment and cir­cle cer­e­mony, to ac­knowl­edge the fact that dry stone walls en­close and rep­re­sent in­cur­sion on Indige­nous lands.

“Be­cause we are aim­ing to be­come more con­scious and aware of the re­la­tion­ship of walling to land, and to the long legacy of set­tler pres­ence in Canada, we’re try­ing as an as­so­ci­a­tion to in­cor­po­rate learn­ing mo­ments and con­nect­ing mo­ments to be­come more thought­ful and aware and ed­u­cated around those things,” Martin said.

Martin said there is an ex­cite­ment sur­round­ing the fes­ti­val “that’s hard to de­scribe.”

“We have wallers that come from around the world, across the prov­ince and other parts of the coun­try, up from the States, ba­si­cally to work for no money,” Martin said. “No one re­ally un­der­stands that. The thing with the fes­ti­val is it’s like an an­nual re­union of our stone fam­ily.

“(There is) a will­ing­ness to put the work in to make it hap­pen in the com­mu­nity.”

The is­land com­mu­nity ap­pre­ci­ates the walls, even if they are not all wallers, and Martin said it feels rare to be in a place that has not only “miles of dry stone walls” but also such a cul­tur­ally ac­tive com­mu­nity.

“Peo­ple care about the walls,” she said. “Some peo­ple don’t get it, and that’s fine, too. But … once you see a dry stone wall and un­der­stand what’s go­ing on, how it is con­structed with­out mor­tar, how it shifts with the freeze-thaw cy­cle … then you start seeing them ev­ery­thing, but they are still rare. On Amherst Is­land, they just are ev­ery­where. As a waller, it is a great place to be.”

The pub­lic is in­vited to at­tend be­tween 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. on both Saturday and Sun­day.

The re­cur­ring fes­ti­val raises the pro­file of lo­cal his­tory and trea­sured rem­nants of the past.

“The walls just feel so much a part of what the is­land is,” Cross said. “And it’s a very spe­cial place.”

MEGHAN BALOGH

An­drea Cross peers through a por­tal built into a wall that was cre­ated dur­ing the first Dry Stone Canada Fes­ti­val on Amherst Is­land in 2015. Twice per year, a sunbeam shines through the por­tal and lands on a carved stone in a wall sev­eral paces away.

MEGHAN BALOGH

Jacob Murray of Topsy Farms stands be­side a 120-foot dry stone wall that was built by dozens of wallers from around the world dur­ing the 2018 Dry Stone Canada Fes­ti­val on Amherst Is­land. The fes­ti­val is re­turn­ing to the is­land once again this year, Sept. 14-15.

MEGHAN BALOGH

An­drea Cross stands with one of the walls cre­ated dur­ing the first Dry Stone Canada Fes­ti­val on Amherst Is­land, which took place in 2015. The fes­ti­val re­turns to the is­land once again this year, Sept. 14-15.

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