Archive for July 5th, 2010

Elsie’s Paradise: The Reford Gardens by Alexander Reford. Photography by Louise Tanguay. 2004. Les Editions de L’Homme.

Reford Gardens were the creation of Elsie Reford. She was born into wealth and privilege in 1872, the daughter of Robert Meighen and Elsie Stephen. Meighen was president of Lake of the Woods Milling Company, producers of Five Roses flour and the biggest flour milling company in the British Empire. Her mother was the youngest sister of George Stephen, who in 1880 founded the Canadian Pacific Railway and was instrumental in the construction of Canada’s transcontinental railroad . After the completion of the railway in November of 1885, he was made a baronet, becoming Sir George Stephen. Elsie married Robert Wilson Reford, the eldest son of a Montreal shipping magnate associated with Cunard Lines. Elsie inherited a third of her father’s estate upon his death, and so had financial means of her own.

Elsie as a young woman.

It was through her uncle that Elsie came to own the property on the Gaspé. Stephen first bought the property of about 100 acres in 1886. He had Estevan Lodge constructed as the centre of a hunting and fishing camp at which he could entertain important business connections and friends. After Stephen was elevated to the peerage in 1891, becoming Lord Mount Stephen, he moved to England to take his seat in the House of Lords, the first Canadian to do so. Thereafter, he rarely returned to Canada, and in 1918 he gave Estevan Lodge to his niece, Elsie Reford.

Estevan Lodge

When the Refords took over Estevan Lodge, Elsie had an addition constructed on the right, or north end of the building to provide herself and her husband with private quarters. There is a large picture window on the second floor that looks out over the water. Elsie began the gardens in 1926, when, following an illness, her doctor suggested she take some time to relax and recover, perhaps indulge in a little gardening to pass the time. The garden became a passion that would engage her for the next 30 years. In later years, the lodge passed into the care of her son Bruce, and then was purchased by the government of Quebec. In July of 1995, the government sold its interest in the gardens and they are now owned by Les Amis des Jardins de Métis, who have undertaken a complete restoration of the site.

The wood for the interior panelling was imported from British Columbia on the newly completed railway.

Estevan Lodge is open to visitors and includes displays featuring photographs and historical material from the past. I was fascinated by this interesting woman, and when we stopped at the gift shop at the conclusion of our visit, I purchased Elsie’s Paradise. I read it over the next few days and enjoyed it immensely. Written by the current director, Elsie’s great-grandson, the book is a wonderful mix of historic photographs, many taken by Elsie’s husband, beautiful photographs of the gardens by skilled photographer Louise Tanquay, and a lively text that tells the story of Elsie and her gardens and puts their history into the context of the times.

Sated gardeners or bored boyfriends?

Elsie had no professional training in garden design, and at the time, there were no other such gardening projects in the region to which she might look for guidance. She read extensively and visited English gardens. The gardens are very much a result of her own vision. During the summer of 1926, she began to lay out the gardens and supervise their construction. With a staff of men hired from the local farming community, the gardens took 10 years to build, and extended over more than 20 acres. The gardens were never intended for public visitors. They were her own private paradise.

My favorite photograph in the book shows Elsie in her garden, a few years after she began her project. In the photograph, taken by her husband, she is about the same age as I am now. I love her clear-eyed, direct gaze; her sensible garden hat and gloves, worn with a necktie beneath her apron. Her strength and determination are obvious. This book is an interesting addition for any gardener’s library.

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