Lee Arden Lewis is a striking, tall, animated woman. She’s funny, charming – and smart. She owns and operates Jackson’s Falls Country Inn in Milford, where they’ve combined elements of local history with their own heritage and style and come up with a winner. The inn began life as a schoolhouse in 1870 and the schoolroom has survived remarkably unchanged. The beautiful modern renovation they’ve just completed preserves the original blackboards in what is now the dining room. The twist in Lee’s hospitality tale is her mission to introduce people to indigenous aboriginal cuisine and culture.
Lee left a career in sales and marketing and sank every penny she had into the inn. “I had to hit the ground running and make the place work as soon as the ink was dry on the contract,” she has said in interviews. “Right now we have nine rooms and can accommodate 28 people comfortably, but we are rezoned for 10 rooms plus a two-bedroom accommodation for the innkeeper. We don’t have that part yet,” she laughs. “I still live in a shack out back – but it’s coming! ”
Right from the get-go, she wanted to create a bridge to her Mohawk heritage. Her territory, Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte, is only 20 minutes away, across the Sky Bridge, but thanks to media sensationalism, people have a skewed understanding of life and culture on The Rez, and practically no experience of aboriginal food. Lee aims to fix that.
The inn is beautifully landscaped with a seasonal river running through it to the waterfall that gives it its name.
“The dining room has been rezoned as a 57-seat restaurant,” says Lee. “Now we can open to the public it gives us great opportunity for guests to mingle with people who live here. We’ve got a good local clientele, and some of them are great ambassadors for The County, telling their stories and joining in our musical evenings.”
“I have wanted to introduce people to aboriginal food for 30 years. I looked at buying the old Emporium in Milford back then, but, really, it would have been before its time. Now I believe I’m right on time! I’ve caught up with myself, and people are excited about what we’re doing.”
She’s doing the introductions softly. “We’re not giving people pemmican yet! You don’t have to go on a Winter Journey while you’re here. But we serve things like sweet grass smoked duck breast and make our own charcuterie with locally raised elk. People have said to me, ‘Oh you can’t call that an Indian Taco, it’s not politically correct.’ And I say ‘Well I’m an Indian and that’s what I call it.’ It’s pow wow food. Comfort food. It’s bannock, fried bread and, here at the inn, we use elk chili and tomatoes and sour cream. And it’s so, so good!”
Jackson’s Falls menu is all about County Terroir, and she doesn’t just mean the wine list – which incidentally includes labels from native-owned vineyards on the west coast and California. “We source everything possible locally. We get our fish from local fisherman Dewy Kendall, and our pork and ducks from Blane Way. The Millers down the road supply eggs and syrup, and we get rabbits from down on County Rd. 18. I’m so lucky to have my friends in the kitchen who are a fabulous team. There’s Darcy Castleman who worked at County Cider Company and taught those boys up there how to cook! Megan VanHorn, a trained chef, used to run the Regent Café, so you can imagine what our desserts are like!”
Lee is well connected to the local hospitality scene, to entrepreneurs, artists, musicians and the movers and shakers of Prince Edward County. She has actively promoted The County for years, including as executive director of Taste the County, the now defunct marketing organization that created the TASTE event and did a lot to attract the attention of the “outside world.” But she has been equally active in promoting aboriginal culture and enterprises in Tyendinaga, the neighbouring Mohawk reservation. The role of innkeeper brings her prodigious business, culinary and people skills together and she is LOVING it.
Jackson’s Falls rooms have their own themes. The Creekside room is, not surprisingly, beside the seasonal creek and enjoys the music of nature. Referencing the Six Nations are The Oneida Room, The Iroquois Suite and The Mohawk Suite, and then there’s the room that’s all done up in Regency style. “Yep. It’s a pretty stark contrast,” she agrees. “But that’s what I wanted. And what exactly is Native style? I’m a native and this is what I like!” She laughs, “Get over it. I’m half Scottish, and I’m a Gemini, too,” She has no time for the old stereotypes.
Stephen Leckie, CEO and co-founder of Gold Medal Plates was a guest recently and was blown away. He wrote a glowing Trip Advisor review and urged Lee and the crew to attend next year’s Gold Medal Plates events, giving them four tickets to help make that happen. The culinary fundraiser pairs exciting Canadian chefs with Olympic hopefuls and raised $22 million last year. “I felt honoured by his praise,” says Lee. “He was excited about us and encouraging and gave us hope that we could be part of that one day.
Lee says she loves working with friends. And she has some interesting friends. “We do special Guest Chef nights and this month (September 26) Rene Rodriguez, who won Top Chef Canada, is cooking a seven-course meal that we’ll serve spread out around the property and along the river bed. My friend chef Michael Potters was here in summer with his family and helped me plan a Festival of Chefs for October 30. We’ll do stations all around the place and have Dave Maracle playing and a band from Newfoundland in the evening. It’ll be fun.”
Lee is very involved with the Canadian music scene and has bands playing every month. “We are with Home Routes that provides gigs for bands that play festivals in summer and who want to play through the winter, too. It draws people out in the slow months. We get a lot of local people attending.” In true County form, they also put on a popular mini-fest they call Huey Fest. “It’s in honour of the late Huey Hicks, a real character from down Waupoos way who was everybody’s friend. And, boy, people come out of the woods for that one! All the old timers bring their fiddles and all.”
During Maple in the County, they host a Sugar Shack Shindig. Lee is a member of SoCan, so in addition to their fee from the inn, musicians get paid through SoCan. She cares about things like that. Jackson’s Falls supports PEPtBO and plays host to a lot of birding visitors, and they support the Rotary Club during their Waterfall Tour. “We’re just so happy to live in the centre of the universe,” she says with a laugh. “Milford! I love both South and North Marysburgh. It’s not just the people. Nature lives here. There’s that old magic that makes people who visit here not want to leave.”
The old schoolhouse has never looked so good. The renovation respects the old structure and history but adds a lot of style, cheerfully blending historic artifacts with “urban rustic chic.” Lee is brimming with ideas, excited for the future and proud of what she’s achieved so far.
“Years ago people would tentatively ask me, Do you think we could go to a pow wow? There’s always been that bit of tension about “over the bridge.” But Dan Taylor (when he was economic development officer for PEC) showed interest and encouraged people to go and find out about life on The Rez, and now Dave Maracle is a great ambassador, with his music and his Little Crow restaurant and store. All our dishes and stuff come from there, and it’s attracting a whole new crowd. I grew up with stories of my grandfather and my great aunties, and I’m proud to be sharing our culture this way, through food and events. I’m glad the time is right. You don’t forget the past, but lessons have been learned and I truly believe people are aware that we are all family at the end of the day.
“We get a lot of people coming around who actually went to school here, like Wilbur Miller who sometimes brings his fiddles to breakfast. And then there’s all the new people who are bringing new things. Back before Taste the County was developed, a few of us got together, wrote a mission statement and helped raised a million dollars of matching funds to get started creating what’s happening now. I feel kind of like a grandmother of all that, seeing all the youth coming here and bringing their ideas. I’m really proud of what’s happening, of what The County is and what The County offers.”
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