From Corporate Living to County Living – A Story by Janet Davies

I’ve lived 18 years in Prince Edward County. Let me tell you, the living is good.

Once I had a corporate job. A good one. In the 1990s I was executive assistant to the president of Thomson Newspapers Canada and I played the role well enough to avoid detection for a good two years.  My mother was proud yet astonished as I have trouble organizing my own life, never mind that of a Big Wheel. But he and I got along famously. My ego never got in the way of taking his shoes to be mended while he sat in his socks doing paperwork, and he didn’t fire me when I accidentally hit Group Send on a highly sensitive fax. But times change. Thomson head office moved to Stamford, Connecticut and I decided not to go with them (in fact I don’t think anybody asked me)

I took on a Corporate Communications role. My gift is more communicating than organizing-my-way-out-of-a-paper-bag – AND  I could work from home, communicating for all I was worth with Thomson people all over North America via the amazing new Internet. One day I had a blinding flash –  I could work from ANYWHERE. Goodbye Toronto, Hello Prince Edward County.

It was 1998. I weep when I recall the selling price of our house in the Beaches … but moving right along. My husband is a freelance photographer and free as a bird and he’d checked we could access roads year round (we didn’t really know much about the County back then) so the occasional commercial job in Toronto was still viable. We knew Via Rail stopped at Belleville so I could get to the airport should Connecticut call. We looked all over the island (and realized how big it is) before buying an old farmhouse on 54 acres in Point Petre. It was not your storybook stone beauty – more like a wild west stagecoach stop. It was remote, but I could drive to Picton in 14 minutes. It was run down but had glorious lilacs and peonies and two big barns – one of which became the second incarnation of the Bald Photographer Gallery, formerly of Queen St. West, where the rent had just about killed us. Best of all the price was $125,000. We threw caution to the wind and put in a pool.

Things went well for nine months. Then Thomson sold all its papers (except the Globe and Mail) and I was out of a job. Only then did I notice there were no walk-in-and-get-a-job agencies in The County, because there were no big companies regularly hiring and firing office workers. Long story short, I found work by reaching out, opening my ears, letting it be known I was looking.

I did NOT get the school secretary job I went for,  even though I finished the typing and make-a-poster challenges 20 minutes before anybody else in the room. I was not a good fit and they knew it. However, I DID do a stint on the front desk at the Waring House and I LOVED it. I made more connections there than I’d ever made in Toronto. I did freelance work – writing, ad design, filing, writing resumes. I took anything. And I learned more about The County than I would have sitting at my computer talking to editors in Arizona. Eventually I began doing freelance work for the Economic Development office.

I helped plan the first seminars on How to Start a Vineyard in Prince Edward County and met the dreamers who went on to establish some of the first of our more than 40 wineries. It was the early 2000s and there were plenty of nay-sayers who thought wineries were a joke. I like to think I did a tiny bit to change their minds. For years the County’s fortunes had been dwindling, but then awareness of this unusual and beautiful place began to grow and things began to change. I remember when people would say , “You live where? South of Belleville? Nah, there’s only the lake there.” It sounds quaint now that PEC pops up in Paris Vogue and in lists of Canada’s Top Ten Places.

Of course some people always knew it was a wonderful place. People who’ve lived here all their lives. People who “discovered” it when they came sailing or camping at Sandbanks. People who ventured off the highway and found paradise just past George’s Fish and Chips. But in the early 21st century, a whole lot more people are learning about these communities first colonized in the 18th century.

At first it attracted retirees, but now a lot of younger people are moving in. I see it in my own village of Cherry Valley. Did I mention we moved after six years and bought the old general store in the heart of The Valley? Empty for 18 months, it was in sad shape but had terrific potential to be the third incarnation of the Bald Photographer Gallery It also had a rambling four-bedroom house attached and was 10 minutes closer to County Magazine in Bloomfield, one of my freelance gigs for 12 years. Only after we moved in did we discover the beautiful marsh behind us, hidden behind head high weeds.

old+new CV store

Here’s the old Cherry Valley store in 1909 and our home and gallery in 2016. Couple of canopies and a rain barrel added. Works for us!

People shook their heads and said, “In your dreams,” as we hacked away at decades old linoleum and repaired 100-year old shop windows. But we made the dream come true. We paid $100,000 for it in 2005. It was a rare deal even then, and risky, because we gambled  (on good advice) that the old gas station had not contaminated the land. We were lucky because we could do the reno work ourselves, what with not having 9 to 5 jobs and my husband being handy with a crowbar and hammer.

In the 11 years we’ve lived here many young people have moved into the neighbourhood. Hri Neil lives across the street, Tess Girard and Ryan Noth are just up the road, and John and Sarah and little Olive live a few doors away. They still run their coffee shop in Toronto but are scheming hard to get here full time. In neighbouring Milford, Alysa and Jessie bought a deserted public school and are living their dream with the operation they call South in Milford. Actually Bay and Gavin of Honey Pie Hives were our neighbours down in Point Petre.

Yes we have been lucky – our properties were remarkably cheap. But those days are not entirely gone. In 2015 a cute little house in The Valley was listed for $139,000 – in better shape than our old place had been. It sat on the market a long time, and folks I know said “It needs work.” Well, no kidding. Have you seen what goes for $500,000 in Toronto these days? In the end, the young couple who live opposite (and run Stowaway Vintage in their barn out back) bought it. They’ll work on it and make it a great place.

Up the other way towards The Store, another house listed at $229,000 just sold to a young woman we know. Do I mind that houses around me sell for such affordable prices? (Although I must mention the beautiful stately brick century home that went for closer to $500K.) Well, no I do not. I’m delighted that people can afford to buy a decent house. And we’re not here for the money – we’re here for The County Life. We’re here to pick up work where we can, to know our neighbours and meet new people all the time. And if you’re more about being happy than BMWs, Prince Edward County is one hell of a nice place to live.

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