by Neil Carleton
Gemmill Park is a treasure in the heart of Almonte. It’s a popular place with an arena, curling rink, soccer field, swings, tennis court, track, baseball diamond, and a network of trails that are used in all seasons for walking, cross country skiing and running.
More than a century ago it was the 100 acre farm of pioneer John Gemmill where maple, oak, and pine competed for sunlight at the margin of the farm fields. This month’s column is an introduction to a significant white oak that grew on the Gemmill farm at field’s edge. It’s a survivor, having escaped the axe, ice storms, and lightening strikes of the decades. Although only a short walk from the present-day ball field, this impressive tree of renown is likely a stranger to many community residents. When you’re next out for a walk in Gemmill Park, stop and introduce yourself.
The Homestead White Oak
In his article of February 15, 2001, ‘The Homestead’, the late John Dunn records that John Gemmill was one of the Lanark Society Settlers who left Scotland after the Napoleonic wars. The economy of Britain was in ruins and thousands fled in hopes of a better life in British North America.
Their journey would have been long and hazardous. Seven to eight weeks in a sailing vessel across the Atlantic, to Quebec, was followed by a week or more of river and portage travel to Prescott, where I grew up. The settlement in early days was the hub of the forwarding trade on the St. Lawrence River.
Overland from Prescott in a wagon, on rough roads and trails, would have been a luxury. Many had to walk great distances. Some of those who reached Perth, a military settlement established shortly after the war of 1812, ventured even farther into the wilderness. The river routes of the Clyde and Mississippi enabled them to travel considerable distances through the endless forest of the time in search of suitable land.
At http://almonte.clal.ca/articles/the_homestead.html, John Dunn creates a majestic image for us to consider. When John Gemmill of Dunlop in Ayrshire came down the Mississippi to the 62 foot falls and quiet bay below, it was an impressive sight to behold. Here he chose his lot and christened the location The Homestead. We learn from Almonte’s noted historian that only one-third of the property was cleared for home and farm. The woods were left on the steep hillsides and in the ravines that are still characteristic of the landscape today.
The family’s second home of stone and brick at The Homestead was of a distinctive style with very steep gables. Photo from the John Dunn story ‘The Homestead’, February 15, 2001.
The first child of John Gemmill and his wife, born in 1833 at The Homestead, was James Dunlop Gemmill. He rose through the military ranks to command the local 42ndRegiment of Volunteers as Lieutenant Colonel. Although living abroad with his family, John Dunn reveals in his article that the Colonel maintained his subscription to the Almonte Gazette for over forty years. His interest in his home town included the donation of land for the building of the Reformed Presbyterian Church on Bay Hill.
To the left in the distance behind the Reformed Presbyterian Church is a glimpse of some of The Homestead’s cleared land. Image titled ‘reformed_presbyterian_church.JPG’ from the library of pictures at ‘A Virtual Walking Tour of Almonte’, by Michael Dunn, January 8, 2012, at http://almonte.clal.ca/images/library/ .
Following the Colonel’s death in 1927, at age 96, his surviving child Winnifred inherited The Homestead of Almonte. She died in London during the blitz of 1943. In her will, she made a bequest to the town of The Homestead as a public park or recreation ground. This gift was later acknowledged by the stone cairn and plague that stands on the lawn in front of the arena.
The Homestead house of the Gemmill family is long gone, and the playing fields of Gemmill Park are reminders of the earlier farm fields. While the land was tilled, young trees at the field edges put down deeper roots and grew taller towards the sun. This month’s tree of renown continues to thrive.
The leaves of trout lilies are emerging beneath the bare branches of The Homestead white oak in the second week of April.
Look for last year’s food factories around the base of The Homestead white oak. Acorns are noticeably absent on the ground this spring.
The rough coarse bark of the tree is a hint to the significant age of The Homestead white oak.
With a diameter of 103 cm at chest height, and a circumference of 302 cm, this Homestead beauty is a mature Shady Character. White oaks are large trees that can grow more than 35 meters tall and live for several centuries. Ontario’s honour role of trees includes a white oak in Otonabee Township of Peterborough County, nominated in 1976, with a diameter of 191 cm.
As soon as the buds are open, the canopy of The Homestead white oak will prevent much sunlight from reaching the forest floor.
Thank you to Kathy Priddle for nominating The Homestead white oak of Gemmill Park.
Do you have a notable or favourite tree? Readers are invited to submit their nominations for an honor roll of trees in our area that could be featured in future articles. You can contact me at 613-256-2018, <email@example.com >, or Neil Carleton, P.O. Box 1644, Almonte, Ontario, K0A 1A0. I look forward to hearing from you.
My volunteer columns started in March 2010, as print features, to support the tree planting and tree awareness initiatives of the Mississippi Mills Beautification Committee. The contact for the Tree Working Group is Ron Ayling, 613-256-4617. In Carleton Place, the contact for the Urban Forest / River Corridor Advisory Committee is Jim McCready, 613-257-5853.
Until the next column, you’ll find me looking for and hanging out with local shady characters.