The Dairy Capital of Canada

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The Dairy Capital of Canada

A Journey into Woodstock, Ontario

As one who has gotten to know about Woodstock, Ontario through an online friendship, I have been left impressed with the area’s quality of life and find myself wanting to visit and learn more about what makes it so unique.

I have read with interest of a friendly small town atmosphere (“The Friendly City”), but one within striking range of all Toronto and its environs has to offer. I have been impressed with the scope and depth of architectural gems to be found on Vansittart Avenue and nearby, and how this community of some 39,000 is touted at the city’s website “as the only municipality in Ontario to still have its magnificent original public buildings”.

Is it these aspects of Oxford County’s largest centre that provide for its sense of place ?

Perhaps. But what I have found intriguing is how Woodstock has connected its traditional title “Dairy Capital of Canada” and has been able to adapt it to a changing industry and a changing world.

Woodstock prides itself as home of the Springbank Snow Countess – a Holstein cow that set a world record lifetime butterfat production of 9,062 pounds.

The City of Woodstock and surrounding has long referred to itself as the “Dairy Capital of Canada” (How about the acronym for City of Woodstock = COW !)

The community of Ingersoll was the county’s cheese capital from the mid-1800s to early 1900s, packaging much of the county’s renowned cheddar.

It was home to the first cheese factory in Canada, established around 1840. In 1866 a giant block of cheese weighing 7,300 pounds (3,311 kilograms) was produced at the James Harris Cheese Factory and then exhibited in England and the United States at the New York State Fair in Saratoga.

During the 1800s there were 98 cheese factories in Oxford County, with the first cooperative cheese factory in Upper Canada located here.

So ingrained is dairy into the local psyche that they even welcome guests to town on Highway 2 from the 401 with a large statue of a cow.

The statue, Springbank Snow Countess, recalls a Holstein that set a world lifetime butterfat production record. It was erected on August 4, 1937 not long after the passing of the “Snow Countess”. During her lifetime (November 18, 1919-August 9, 1936), she produced 9,062 pounds of butterfat, impressive at that time.

But the connection to the dairy industry is not just steeped in history. There recently has been a renaissance in artisan cheese production locally.

An example may be found at Gunn’s Hill Artisan Cheese Limited, where Shep Ysselstein has garnered a lot of acclaim and publicity for his achievements as a cheese artisan and ambassador welcoming visitors to this neck of the woods. The 33-year-old cheese maker honed his skills by travelling to British Columbia, across the United States and Switzerland to learn how to produce fine cheese. His cheese is made from the milk produced on his parents’ nearby farm . At Gunn’s Hill, visitors can sample products and be “cheese-maker for a day.” Cheese can also be sampled and purchased at the Bright Cheese and Butter factory near Bright.

Shep and others like him have prompted local tourism officials to issue “Oxford County’s Cheese Trail,” a guide listing everything from specialty stores and museums to a restaurant at the Elm Hurst Inn where cheddar soup is a specialty.

In Woodstock, the Dairy Capital Cheese Shoppe sells local cheeses, as does the Birtch Farms and Estate Winery just north of the city.

There’s also a farmers market every Saturday morning at Woodstock’s fairground.

And this past April (2016) for the first time Oxford County’s title as the Dairy Capital of Canada was recognized by a new event – the Dairy Capital Cheese Fest at the Oxford Auditorium in Woodstock. At that time, some 20 vendors including Ontario cheese artisans and restaurants serving Ontario cheeses and prepared dishes to satisfy a cheesy appetite. Ontario wine, cider and craft beer producers such as Beau’s Beer, Toboggan Brewery & Burning Kiln Winery were also in attendance. It left vendor and visitor all looking forward to chapter two of this event in 2017.

And, finally, for those who want to get a greater fix on the area’s history that originally led to the title of “Dairy Capital of Canada”, the Norwich and District Museum has exhibits on butter- and cheese-making, and the Ingersoll Cheese and Agricultural Museum highlights the history of a 3,311-kilogram wheel of cheese.

As is shown in this up-to-date perspective on a long time traditional industry into town, Woodstock continues to manage to as one travel writer aptly put it “….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”, he concludes, “thirty-six thousand inhabitants enjoy the richness and variety of its offerings”.

Definitely worth considering your own “Journey into Woodstock”.

The free guide can be ordered by phone — call Tourism Oxford at 519-539-9800, ext. 3355 — or by email at tourism@oxfordcounty.ca.

For other Journeys Into or more on Smart (Community) Narrative Making & Strategies, go to our sites, journeysinto.com and ericlmodel.com.