Oxley, Ontario. My mind instantly conjures up images of beasts of burden lumbering about. “And just where is this mythical place?” I ask Chris who has called me from his family’s Oxley cottage to invite me to a party.
Apparently, there’s a hamlet by this name about forty minutes south of Windsor near the shore of Lake Erie. Maybe I had passed through once upon a time with my parents, but I’d blinked.
I nervously follow Chris’s directions through the flatlands of Essex County in what seems like the middle of nowhere (so many fields of corn! It was as if the scenery was a film loop) convinced I would never find it and I would be forever scorned by Chris (who I have only just met) and his family as a city girl. Luckily, I succeed and while I am slightly disappointed by the lack of oxen, I appreciate how Oxley’s rural charms quickly melted away all my stress.
So maybe I had never heard of the place, but lots of people had. Oxley used to be crawling with sun-seeking tourists. In fact, on August 11, 1905, as reported by the Amherstburg Echo, “one of the largest crowds ever accommodated at the Oxley summer resort spent Sunday there. The Pere Marquette train [to Harrow] was so crowded that people had to stand on the steps. Seven (horsedrawn) busloads left Harrow on the arrival of the train, and a second trip had to be made.
And just what was the attraction? Originally known as “Oxford” the name was changed to Oxley due to people confusing it with other Oxfords in Ontario. (Gee, who knew there were so many?) Agriculture had been the mainstay of the community since the first settlement in 1792, but from 1890 until nearly 1950 the village attracted throngs of weekend visitors and ‘summer people’, many coming all the way from the Detroit area. Oxley was then one of the most beautiful spots on the shore of Lake Erie with, as the Echo noted, its “thickly wooded bank and excellent beach being unsurpassed.” Sounds nice, doesn’t it?
Catering to the crowds were local boarding houses and two hotels: the Ravine and the Erie View. The Ravine Hotel was developed strictly for Detroiters.
John Arthur Ridsdale, who came to Canada from New York as a United Empire Loyalist, once owned the site of Oxley. During his ownership of the 400-acre site, he dammed a stream to provide waterpower to run a grist and saw mill. Years later, the ravine property was owned by Philip Ferriss who ran a lumbering business there and lived in the Ridsdale house. Logs were skidded down the ravine to the lake. That must have made quite a racket.
A large brick home built by Stephen Julien became the basis for the Ravine Hotel when R. Arthur Bailey of Detroit purchased it in 1902. The name derived from the ravine running down from what is now County Road 50 to Lake Erie. He built a 3-storey addition to the Julien house for a dining room and bedrooms, rebuilt the dock erected by Risdale and lobbied unsuccessfully for a trolley line from Harrow to Oxley. (Maybe because he pissed the locals off by running his fences across the beach and out into the lake to restrict access to his stretch of waterfront.)
Bailey brought the first automobile to the Ravine Hotel that year and his wife was the first woman to drive in the area. The roads leading away from Oxley were virtually impassable in those days but as the popularity of the auto grew, the roads improved. On the July 4th holiday weekend in 1916, despite it being the middle of World War 1, the hotel accommodated “one of the largest crowds in the history of the resort. By noon the place was thronged. Hundreds of motors were parked along the lake road in every available spot…”
It’s thought that during WWII, Oxley’s popularity with Detroiters was enhanced even more because gas rationing meant that they could only drive short distances (and it sure was a lot easier to cross the border back then!). When rationing ended, the popularity of Oxley dwindled and the crowds stopped coming.
In 1947, the Roman Catholic Diocese of London bought the Erie View Hotel and established a religious retreat the next year. The Ravine Hotel closed and is now lived in by the Cantarutti family who run the Ravine Cottages and Seasonal RV Park (established in 1969).
There is no longer a post office at Oxley, (once considered the most important in Essex County), and the cricket club, tennis club and baseball team have faded into the dim recesses of the past. But the area is still beautiful and while Chris’s cottage is no longer in the family, over 30 years later (yes, I married him) we continue to make the journey south each summer to visit friends lucky enough to spend their summers in a funky old air stream trailer in one of the prettiest spots on the Ravine Cottages property.
If your travels have never taken you to Oxley, this is the perfect weekend. It’s the 3rd annual Explore the Shore event when shops, farms, restaurants, B&Bs and wineries along historic County Road 50 welcome you from 11 am to 5 pm on Saturday and Sunday (July 28 & 29, 2012).
There’s even an 1812 scavenger hunt and if you get your passport (which you can pick up at participating businesses) stamped by five businesses you could win a grand prize.
Details and a map are on the Explore the Shore website.
The Ravine Cottages are located at 445 County Road 50 East. There will be lots to see and do here as they are having their annual huge yard sale, food and refreshments will be available, as well as a display of vintage trailers (ever heard of Tin Can Tourists?) open for tours on Saturday only.
And that’s where you’ll find Chris and I this Saturday from 11 – 5. We’ll be having a sale and signing of our latest local history books: “500 Ways You Know You’re From Windsor” and “Windsor Then – a pictorial essay of Windsor, Ontario’s glorious past”. Check them out on our website: walkerville.com.
Sources for this story include “Harrow and Colchester South: 1792-1992, Harrow Early Immigrant Research Society (HEIRS), 1993.