Porch Views: Island of dreams

Scott Mask and Ollie Scherer are building dreams on Mask Island. Photo Mark Woermke

The largest island in Lake Kamaniskeg has had many owners and several names, but for this edition of Porch Views, I would like to call it “Island of Dreams.”

This jewel in Lake Kamaniskeg was first identified on maps as “Welshman’s Island” in 1873 named after its first owner, Edward Williams. Artifacts and graves found over the years indicate that before that, the Algonquins knew the island well and would have had an Annishinaabe name for it when they controlled the area. After Williams, it changed hands five more times before it was purchased by Paul B. Mask in 1917. Since that date it has been officially known as Mask Island, although many residents of the area simply refer to it as “the Island.”

Owners included Arthur Acton who immigrated with John S.J. Watson who founded Rockingham, William Dunn after whose family Barry’s Bay’s Dunn Street is named and John Billings my great grandfather who owned it only for four years. His dream was to supply his hotel and livery stable with food and hay, but that turned out to be “too goddamned much work” and he sold it in 1913.

 

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Scott Mask points to inscription made by his great grandfather in the barn’s concrete foundation. Photo Mark Woermke

Paul and Mary Ann Mask (née Biernacki) purchased the Island in late 1917 and, although lots have been sold over the years, the Mask family has maintained a working farm on it for over a century. While we can’t know exactly what their dreams were, the fact that Paul sold a successful sash and door factory in Killaloe to buy this property suggests they considered it a step-up. Close to Mary Ann’s parents, a burgeoning village and railway station, it was an excellent place to raise a family and establish a market farm. The Masks raised nine children, farmed successfully, built a floating bridge and found time to serve their church and municipality. In 1938 Paul founded the Island Dairy. Today the family farm is managed by Paul and Mary Ann’s grandson, Ray, and his sons, Scott and Derek.

 

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Mask Island Farm. Photo Mark Woermke

It seems that the recipe for successful island living is one part vision and many parts hard work, and the fourth generation are not strangers to either. I learned this on a recent visit to the Island hosted by Scott Mask and his partner Ollie Scherer.

Right now Scott and Ollie are weekend farmers living an urban-rural lifestyle. Both men work in the city and acknowledge that their lifestyle has its challenges, but Ollie is clear:

We have found a happy balance between employment in the city and our rural lifestyle.

Scott adds,
We need the jobs, but life is definitely better up here.

The couple plans to gradually build their farm business and make it sustainable for them.

In the meantime, they meet the challenges with hard work and good humour which was evident in their stories like the one about purchasing a goat in Hamilton and transporting it to the Farm. Scott drove the truck while Ollie held the kid in the backseat with their four Yorkshire Terriers. Scott adds,

That was a day trip. We dropped the goat off, and headed back to the city.

In addition to their goat, they have cows (Clarabelle and her calf) and a number of guinea fowl, peacocks and exotic hens.

 

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They have introduced exotic fowl like these peacocks to the farm. Photo Mark Woermke

An important part of their project is the production of wildflower honey and beeswax candles. Ollie is the beekeeper and an unlikely one at that. Moved by reports of bee deaths, Ollie responded to this environmental crisis by overcoming his long standing bee-phobia. He jokes,

I have been stung a lot, but looking after the bees has desensitized me.

They have seven hives right now. Ollie cares for the bees and takes care of the honey extraction and bottling, while Scott looks after the marketing, logo design and sales. Their honey is available at Herron’s store in Barry’s Bay, at The Old Country Shop on Roncesvalles in Toronto and on their website maskislandfarm.caScott also makes the natural and scented beeswax candles that they distribute through their website.

 

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Some of the Mask Island Farm beehives. Photo Mark Woermke

An additional challenge that the couple faces is that their trailer is on a part of the Island that does not have electricity. Scott explains,

We are definitely low-tech and live off the grid. When necessary, we have a generator.

Challenges like these do not keep them from thinking big. They would like to continue producing honey and dream about running an educational, interactive farm, offering a rustic wedding venue, and maybe even obtaining a dairy quota.

Ollie, who has a background in economic development, explains their approach:

We want to modernize without too much automation so we can create jobs, growth and provide opportunities for youth.

Scott adds,

Most of my classmates have left for the city and only come back to visit occasionally.  We want to make our life here – the area has lots of potential – but we have to find a way to keep people from running away.

Scott, who attended MVDHS, worked at Valu-Mart and on construction “packed up his stuff and moved to T.O.” to go to school and find work, but the Island was in his blood. That heritage, a supportive partner and an accepting family has enabled him to return to his home. He encourages others who wish to remain in, or return to the Valley, to follow their dreams. All they need is vision, hard work and the ability to “think outside the box.”

 

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Scott Mask, Clarabelle and calf. Photo submitted

For now, these weekend farmers will continue to divide their time between the city and the Island, but, as Scott points out “thinking all week of coming home to “God’s Country” makes it worthwhile. With a smile he adds,

I wonder what my grandpa who died in 1998 would think of all of this? We are so blessed to have this land.

About the author: Descended from railroaders and hotel keepers, Mark Woermke has deep roots in the Madawaska Valley. A high school teacher in Ottawa, Mark spends as much time as he can in the Madawaska Valley gardening, writing and enjoying its cultural wealth and natural beauty. Mark also blogs at https://prussianhillsblog.wordpress.com and manages the group Renfrew County Germans on Facebook

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