The Village of Russell - 150 Years of Change and Milk
By Robert Janelle
Originally published in The Algonquin Times, October 2005
It’s early morning in Russell, a long procession of cars in various makes and models moves north on Concession Street, heading for the 417 on-ramp on Boundary Road, some stopping for gas, their morning coffee or newspapers.
Village residents are making their half-hour commute westward to theirs jobs in Ottawa. It’s the beginning of another day in a small village that has become increasingly urban over the years. “It’s been quite a transition to a fairly sophisticated commuter town,” says Tom Van Dusen, a columnist for the Ottawa Sun and resident of Russell since 1972.
“It’s becoming so developed, it’s almost part of the city.”
But away from the main drag, off on the back roads of town, local farmers are already working, tending their fields and milking their cows. While most of the residents are collecting their pay-cheques in The City of Ottawa, for these farmers, milk is good business in Russell.
In fact, the Dairy Herd Improvement Corporation of Eastern Ontario has ranked Russell County as the number one area of milk production in the province. The town has changed a lot since the early days as a major industrial hub, but the dairy industry has remained. Originally called Duncanville, the village of Russell was settled in 1852 by the Duncans, a family of cabinet makers.
William Duncan began the industrialization by opening an oatmeal mill on Mill Street, across from what is now the Russell House. Other industry soon followed; saw mills, brick plants, cheese factories and of course, dairy farms. The town’s industry became even more viable when land was purchased from residents and farmers to build the New York Central Railroad.
On July 29, 1898, the first train arrived in Russell. Along with passengers, the trains carried merchandise and materials manufactured in Russell to other towns and brought livestock and equipment to the farmers. The railroad is also responsible for saving the town from near destruction.
On June 6, 1915, around 9 a.m, a fire broke out in Murray’s Tin Shop, according to Wendell Stanley’s book From Swamp and Shanty. “It wasn’t long until a good chunk of the town was on fire,” says Henry Staal, president of the Russell Historical Society.
Town council had approved the purchase of fire-fighting equipment two weeks earlier but it had not arrived yet. Hundreds of residents quickly formed a bucket brigade but they were unable to control the fire. Within an hour, calls for help were sent out to Metcalfe and Ottawa. Ottawa responded by loading a steam pump and a fire-fighting crew onto a flat bed car and rushed it to Russell by train.
“They were pushing the train hard, breaking some speed limits,” says Staal. Within three and a half hours of the pump and crew’s arrival, the fire was under control. In all, 25 buildings were destroyed by the fire.
When told, this story often includes a rumour that the engineer who drove the train was either fired or reprimanded for recklessness due to the speed he ran the train, though no one living in the town now knows for sure.
At this time, dairy farming had already become big business in Russell.
The farmers had such high yields of milk they didn’t know what to do with it and without modern cooling systems, the milk had to be disposed of immediately.
Wilmer Hamilton, an 84-year-old former dairy farmer sits in his spacious trailer which he uses to travel to warmer climates in the winter now that he’s retired.
Wearing a worn jean jacket and a green baseball cap, he reflects on the old days of dairy farming in Russell. “You couldn’t cool it with coolers,” says Hamilton. “It had to de delivered every day.” To deal with this situation, cheese factories began popping up all over the town to process all the milk that was being produced.
Eventually, there was a total of 25 cheese factories in the Russell area. “There was a cheese factory on every corner,” says Hamilton. However in 1919, the Canadian Milk Products plant was built. Specializing in powdered milk, they began offering local farmers more money for their milk than the cheese factories.
As a result, many of the factories had to shut down because there was no longer enough milk available for them to continue operations.
“There used to be (a cheese factory) at the corner of Hamilton (Road) and Route 100,” says Hamilton. “Nothing there now but a pile of bush. I guess everything has its time.”
Ironically, the Canadian Milk Products plant ended up meeting the same fate as the cheese factories it had run out of business. The Nestlé plant in nearby Chesterville began buying milk from Russell and there wasn’t enough to support two large plants, according to Betty Kidd, a member of the Russell Historical Society.
The plant was shut down in 1932 and slowly, the town itself began to change.
In earlier days, the roads had no gravel on them and nothing was paved. As a result, too much water would turn the roads to mud and cars would regularly sink right into them.
“The roads were the worst,” says Hamilton. “The trees along the side of the road were like a snow fence and the snow stopped on the road. "We’d put the car away in November and go everywhere with the horses until May,” he said. “Of course, that’s country living.”
As roads were improving, the automobile was becoming more popular and after the construction of Highway 31 just outside Metcalfe in 1937, fewer people were using the trains for transportation. On Feb. 15, 1957, the last train went down the New York Central Railroad. The tracks were removed a short time later.
Today, all that remains of the railroad in Russell is a paved bicycle path.
However, this was not the last big change coming up for Russell: a new highway being constructed changed the face of the town forever.
Boundary Road used to be a dead end, according to Staal, but when the 417 Queensway was constructed in 1971, an off-ramp was added on Boundary. “After the 417 came in, this village started to grow,” says Al Clarke, a real-estate broker in Russell.
“It was evolution,” says Kidd.
In 1972, the town still had a population of just over 600, but it was becoming more suburban. As land to build on in Ottawa was becoming more scarce and roads and municipal services in Russell were improving, folks working in the city began to buy houses in Russell and commuted to work. This is when Russell was labelled a bedroom community.
The town kept growing until the population hit more than 3,000, but milk remained big business.
“Despite the urbanization, we haven’t lost our agricultural heritage,” says Van Dusen. “(We) still have a very healthy, very vibrant dairy industry.”
Along the gravel path that makes up Hamilton Road is the farm the road was named after.
A long driveway leads to a quaint house surrounded by barns and field. Despite the warm weather, there’s still a small pile of snow – the remains of a snow mound piled up with a tractor for the kids on the farm to toboggan down. Wilmer Hamilton used to farm here, as did his father and his grandfather. Now, his son Robert is in charge. The town’s dairy farming history is kept alive on this farm.
Robert has a brownish vice from the Canadian Milk Products plant, which gets used every day.
Sitting on his back porch wearing aviator glasses and sipping ginger ale, he talks about dairy farming and the changes he’s seen the town go through.
When Robert was in elementary school, he used to ride his bike through the town during lunch hour and count the population. “I’d know that two people lived in that house,” he says pointing, “and one person lived in that house.
“I’d count the population in an hour.”
He explains that one of the current issues facing farmers in the area is difficulty expanding farm operations. “It’s getting hard to purchase more land, there’s just too darn many houses around,” he says. “Now we have to farm behind the houses.”
Michael Bols, president of the Russell Agricultural Society and fellow dairy farmer, agrees that expansion is one of the biggest problems. With so many residential areas, there’s less land available.
“That’s the only drawback with being so close to Ottawa,” says Bols.
According to Al Clarke, property values have more than doubled in Russell since the ‘80s. Bols said that in order to properly expand his farm, he’d have to move somewhere less developed like Vankleek Hill.
However, some changes have been beneficial. A quota system introduced in the mid-‘60s prevents farmers from overproducing milk, as had happened in the early days. The quota system, called supply management, dictates how much milk must be delivered on a given day, nothing over or under and the Dairy Farmers of Ontario deal with transporting and selling it.
“The system does work,” says Henry Staal, a former dairy farmer himself, “(Even if) it is kind of contrary to free trade.”
Besides farmers still toiling away on their farms to this day, Russell’s agricultural heritage is preserved by an annual fair put on by the Russell Agricultural Society. The fairground is made up of rides, concerts, a bingo tent and of course, livestock displays. Michael Bols says that with the town becoming more suburban, the fair is more important than ever.
“When I was school, everybody in my class was from a farm or was a generation away,” says Bols. “(Today) kids have never touched a cow or milked a cow.”
The fair runs an education day on Friday during the week of the fair, where elementary schools classes receive free admission and get to learn about that year’s theme.
“We have about 1,000 kids here on Friday,” says Bols. “That is still our biggest point, education about agriculture.”
He says he hopes the fair can help continue to bring awareness to the town’s agricultural roots. “Every generation gets further away from the farm,” he says.
“The trouble with that is, there’s people that leave Russell when the fair is on.”
Stall, standing with a display of antique farm equipment on the fairgrounds, agrees with the importance of the fair. “Most towns like Russell, it was agriculture that kept them going,” he says. “I guess now we’re trying to preserve history and educate people on the importance of agriculture, past and present.”
Although Russell has experienced a lot of growth and many of residents are more removed from the farm, the town has still maintained its small town charm. Most people know their neighbours and the main street isn’t cluttered with big-box stores like in other smaller communities that experienced heavy growth.
“It’s still a friendly town,” says Bols.
“They’ve kept it quite residential,” says Staal. “It is still quite a nice town, ya know.”
Aside from the presence of the dairy industry, there’s something else that hasn’t changed in Russell: the sense of community. Whether people are in line passing buckets of water back and forth to try to control a fire or just helping out a neighbour in need, the people of Russell do come together when it really counts.
Last November, Robert Hamilton lost most of his hand in a farming accident. After being laid up in the hospital for a while, he returned to his farm to find his neighbours there, plowing the fields and looking after his property. “I wouldn’t have a farm anymore if it wasn’t for my neighbours,” says Hamilton.
“Living in a small community, you can’t appreciate your neighbours enough.”