Sparta, Ontario

A Little Bit of Whimsy

by David "Sumoflam" Kravetz


May 3, 2008: Back on March 29th I took a trip with a number of Japanese associates and at lunch we stopped in the little burg of Sparta.  We stopped at the Sparta House Tea Room and Restaurant where we were met by Liverpudlians Ken and Norma Roberts.  Details and more photos of that trip are here, but I have moved some of the photos to this page as Ken and Norma requested I make a return visit to Sparta and do a full spread on the quaint little town.  And so, here it is, my visit to Sparta....


As always, I took backroads to get here.  I drove through Brant County and then on to Oxford County.  Since today was Derby Day in Kentucky, I had to stop and get some horse photos.


These horses were on a horse farm at Harley Rd. and 8th Concession, near Burford, ON in Brant County


Also, on a hunch from my friend Cathy Bingham, from Woodstock, I headed west on Beaconsfield Rd., a dirt road going through the farmland of Norwich Township.  My hope was to see a large tulip farm which should be on the road.  And I found it.  I have included more photos on my Oxford County/Woodstock page, but here are a couple.


Derby day may be the "Run for the Roses", but I made a "Run for the Tulips"


Continuing southwest I finally made my way to Talbot Line, which is an E-W road that runs from Tillsonburg in Oxford to St. Thomas in Elgin.  Once on that road, I turned left at Quaker Rd. and went for a couple of miles into Sparta.  It was lunchtime, so I made my way to Norma and Bob's and had a wonderfully delectable open roast beef sandwich with mashed potatoes, gravy and some green and yellow beans.  It was really nice to have a home-style meal.




Paintings of the Sparta House as it may have appeared in the 19th Century

These were painted by local artist Peter Robson



The Sparta House today and over one hundred years ago


Downtown Sparta, circa 1910, looking West (notice Teahouse on right)

Also in the photo: The Sterling Bank, the Temperance House (which was the Sparta Hotel and also served as an ice cream parlor, dance hall, apartment house and now houses two shops); the Israel Doan house; the Tinsmith's Shop (later became an ice house and is currently the Sparta Bakery: it has a boomtown front as shown above)


As I noted above, The Sparta House is run by Ken and Norma Roberts, who hail from Liverpool, England (home of the Beatles) and who purchased the place 12 years ago.  They serve predominantly English fare and most of the meals taste home-cooked (I have eaten there twice).  Originally completed in 1840, over the years the building has served as a meeting place, a tavern, a general store, a barber shop, etc. (see history).   I do have more details on my Southern Ontario page about some of the menu items.


Norma and Ken are both proud of their English heritage.  Norma has an amazing collection of tea kettles, well over 400 of them.  Below are some of her teapots.  There are a few more on the South Ontario page.


A washer, Norma with her Britain-themed teapots, the Queen


Some of Norma's many teapots displayed on the teahouse


Ken is also a collector.  In a side room at the Tea House, Ken has his collection of Beatles posters.  He is from Liverpool and is a Beatles aficionado.  There are books and some rare posters.  He is pictured here with his very rare Beatles poster.



Ken Roberts loves the Beatles


I loved their reading troll...really unique!


After I ate, I made my way over to the "Ye Olde Forge and Anvil Museum" to once again take time to visit with Sparta town historian Bill Fishleigh.  I had visited the museum with the Japanese a few weeks ago, but the displays were not yet up.  The building was constructed around 1827 by a Mr. Kellar from England.  It was originally a blacksmith shop.  The uniqueness of this building was that the walls were made of clay and straw that was mixed in a pit by the continual tramping of a team of oxen.  The interior beams were made from solid Black Walnut logs that were adzed by hand.  They are still there and the clay and straw walls (nearly 10 inches thick) are still there as well.  It was a bit cold and rainy and Bill was huddled in front a nice big wood burning stove playing checkers.


Sparta town historian Bill Fishleigh...82 years young and full of knowledge


Bill shows me an old 1800s Chickering piano that came from a resident in Sparta.

I was delighted to see a one of these as we have an old 1905 Chickering at home.


Old flags and tools on display in the old Anvil House



Forge & Anvil House today and circa 1920s


The interior with sod walls and the large original beams


Bill is one of Sparta's oldest residents and he actually grew up in Sparta.  He recounted to me the Quaker heritage of the town.  According to the historical sign outside of town near the old Quaker cemetery:


The historic sign tells the story of Jonathan Doan and the Sparta Settlement.  Jonathan and wife Jane's headstones from the cemetery.


After visiting the cemetery, we made our way over to the Quaker meeting house, an old wooden structure just north of town.  Apparently one door is always open so folks can come in and worship as they wish.  The meeting house is very Spartan (sorry, I couldn't resist using that word here...but it does fit!  By the way, one definition of Spartan: Simple, frugal, or austere: a Spartan diet; a Spartan lifestyle).  This building was the third meeting house.  The first one was located on what is now the Quaker cemetery grounds.  A second one was built near there.  This one was erected in 1865.  It is an all-wooden structure and is heated by a wooden stove. There is a divider wall that raises and lowers in the middle of the building.  Originally this was to separate the women and children from the men, but is now used to have the children meet on one side.  There is no pastor or other church hierarchy. 


A "Spartan" yet utilitarian Quaker meeting house in Sparta


Just outside of the meeting houses is a small grove of trees.  Bill led me to a blanket of small white delicate flowers that were in bloom and explained that these were called trillium and were the official flower of Ontario.  These are only in bloom early in May and only for a couple of weeks a year.  They are apparently very fragile and don't like to be moved.  Indeed, he explained that there is a law in Ontario that these cannot be picked.  I counted myself very fortunate to be here at this time to see these rare blossoms.


The Ontario trillium - official provincial flower.


Bill told me as well that in the mid 1800s many Methodists made their way into Sparta.  His grew up in Sparta as part of this Methodist heritage.  Bill is very active for being 82 years young.  He is also planning ahead.  I guess the last interesting thing about Bill is that he already has his grave headstone up in the Sparta town cemetery.  He didn't take me there, but he did tell me where I could find it.  So, I did stop by there just as I had stopped by to visit the ever-friendly Bill Fishleigh...


Notice the inscription on the bottom


The town cemetery was on my way to visit another marvel of Sparta...the folk art shop of Mike Roberts and his wife Lucy Ogletree.  (Mike is not related to Ken and Norma, but he is a cousin of Bill Fishleigh's...I thought that was pretty funny).  Mike and Lucy run Winter Wheat, an absolutely delightful shop full of folk art.  Lucy is an accomplished folk art painter and Mike is a very creative folk art sculptor....the kind that I love (for examples of other folk art I have documented see the links at the bottom of the page)


I digress, I absolutely loved this place.  Not all of the objects for sale were made by Lucy and Mike.  In fact, Lucy's paintings are her only works that are for sale and Mike doesn't sell any of his work.  Rather, they have have folk art products from many places...and, ironically, even from TCM Metal Art in Harriettsville!!


The shop is nestled in an enchanting little stand of tall pine trees.  There are a couple of buildings and Mike's artwork dots the property throughout.  The inside of the shop is what one would expect of a shop full of handicrafts.  Lucy has actually created themed rooms with items centering around the themes.  Everything appears to be hand made and I am assuming they acquire their items from a wide range of artists/craftspersons.  Lucy's paintings can be found decorating many spots in the two story shop.


Winter Wheat, south of Sparta, Ontario



Lucy and Mike, owners of Winter Wheat and a couple of funky chickens


Some samples of the inside of the shop, along with a portion of one of Lucy's paintings

Lucy Ogletree is a self taught Canadian folk artist.  She was raised near the small community of Thamesville, near Chatham, in western Ontario.  Many of her paintings are whimsical and many depict life from days gone by.

Lucy with one of her paintings and a portion of the painting

According to one site about Canadian artists, all of Lucy's working experience has been involved with the things she loves to do most; Canadian and American Folk Art. Through her production companies, she has designed and produced hand-crafted country products that have sold successfully at many gift shops throughout Canada. This experience, together with warm memories of her rural childhood, have inspired Lucy to paint her folk style images. Flying cows and Noah's Ark with wings, add a touch of whimsy to her work while farms and fields offer a peace and tranquility found only in the country.


Lucy's "Dance by the Light of the Moon" and some of her calendars from years past

Lucy is also an activist very involved with an organization called Canadian Aid for Southern Sudan.  She has visited Sudan on a couple of occasions in order to help Southern Sudanese communities rebuild after the civil war that have taken place there.  Here are a couple of photos from her web page about CASS.  See more about her work in this area here.  She will be presenting an art show featuring the drawings of Southern Sudanese children called "The World Through Our Eyes" from May 20-24 in London, ON.

Lucy Ogletree works with Sudanese children


As for Mike Roberts, Lucy's husband, he is an artist in his own right.  He uses everyday items to assemble his characters.  They all take on personalities of their own.  I asked him if he sells any of his work and he said no, because he would eventually regret.  Rather, his family of creations resides in their places around the grove of trees that surrounds Winter Wheat.  These speak for themselves.  He uses chain saws and a number of other implements to derive his creations.


A rabbit with plenty of time, a piano playing penguin and a minnow salesman


More of Mike's characters


A Saxy Cat and a couple of stump sisters


A Broomhead and his family


Off to work, udder pleasure and a radio flyer


Another odd family...and Mike with his favorite piece, the Canadian Goose



Some of Mike's tools of his trade


On a final cannot leave Winter Wheat without a smile on their face and most likely something to remember the enjoyable experience.  It is one place that I want to visit again...and again...and again


Metal lillies and geese from TCM metal works in Harriettsville and a big Giggle in the middle


After the visit to Winter Wheat, I headed back to town to visit a couple more places, namely the Sparta Bakery and the shop called "Anything Used".    Anything Used is famous for their Sparta Candles. Their shop is located in an old building that used to be the Eakins General Store and later became the Sparta Mercantile.  The building was built in 1838.  The shop has a room full of candles, but also has two stories of various home decor items and novelties.  It even has a resident ghost that, according to owner Mary Muscat, "enjoys making himself/herself present to the very perceptive customer." Apparently, the Muscat family, the current owners, started with humble beginnings, but have done well with their candle business.  I picked up one, the Spartaberry, for my wife Julianne as she loves candles.  She will like the fact that these candles contain three times more scent in them than most others.  I also grabbed a small chunk of homemade Spartaberry fudge for the road.  It was Berry Berry good.



"Anything Used" on the left today and the old Eakins store ca. 1910


A Spartaberry Candle in a jar


My last port of call in Sparta was at the Sparta Bakery, where I met baker Michelle Schaap and her mother. They recently purchased the bakery and had some tasty treats, though Michelle told me that they really don't kick in until the summer tourist season.  Nonetheless, the pecan bar was phenomenal and their little apple-cranberry pies were yummiferous!


Apple-Cranberry Pies (their own recipe; Carrot Cake loaves; red velvet muffins (with sprinkles on top!)


Michelle ponders the bakery business outside her shop (with a new sign on July 5, 2008)


It was a rainy day outside, but I had an absolutely afternoon in Sparta. 


A Stage Coach riding out of Sparta ca. 1910

This one was driven by Bill Fishleigh's grandfather.


On the way home, I had make one final stop.  I made my way out of Sparta, back to Talbot Line and then north up Belmont Rd. into Mapleton.  On the way to Sparta a sign had caught my eyes and I just HAD to stop there on the way back home.  Once I got to Mapleton, I stopped in at the Mapleton Taxidermy and Cheese Store.  Yes, Taxidermy and Cheese!  When I got there the owner David Snook was hanging a couple of brown bear hides up to wash.  I spoke to him for a moment and told him I had stopped just because of the sign.  Apparently a lot of people have done so.  He said that his sign has even made it onto the David Letterman show. 



Indeed, Taxidermy and Cheese


I asked David's wife how they came to doing cheese and taxidermy.  She said that a  number of years ago the cheese factory in Mapleton closed down, so they took over and sold cheese from the same shop.  I got some Provolone and some cheese curds for the road and went back out and talked to Dave as he cleaned up the bear hides.  David Snook is proud of the fact that everything he uses is safe on the environment.  Folks bring him the entire carcass, he skins it, gives the meat back to the owners and then goes through the tanning process.  He saves the jaws an other important parts of the animal.  He said the ears came from way up in Northern Canada.  He also has a giraffe in the freezer and is backed up with orders.  From processing to completion for these bears, it is about a three to four week process.


Dave Snook of Mapleton Taxidermy and Cheese in Mapleton, Ontario


I returned home in a torrential downpour, but the trip I had was a wondrous day of adventure and learning.


As promised, other folk art I have documented:


1) skeleton walking a dinosaur in South Dakota, 2) Booger Holler, Arkansas, 3) Backwood gifts in Arkansas, 4) Trolls in Mt. Horeb, WI, 5) Metal sculptures in Vermont, WI, 6) Gronk's Grill in Superior, WI, 7) Lee Steen's Stick Men in Great Falls, MT, 8) Mike Hammond's Muffler Art in Walla Walla, WA, 9) The Blue Banana in Lostine, OR, 10) Merle Block's barbed-wire buffalo and Indian in Gothenberg, NE, 11) Long's Furniture World in Amity, IN, 12) Cliff Brice Windmill Hill in Woodstock, ON, 13) TCM Metal Art in Harriettsville, ON and 14) Hillbilly Hotdogs in Lesage, WV)

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