Black Creek Pioneer Village
Situated on 30 acres of protected farmland in Toronto’s North York municipality — about a half-hour drive from the downtown core — Black Creek Pioneer Village is a well-preserved glimpse of Canadian life in the mid-19th century. It’s the kind of place you visit with your class in the third grade — which, as it happens, was the last time I’d been there. Based on my rather hazy, two-decade-old memories, I was prepared for this outing to be a charming but somewhat hokey experience.
Instead, upon my arrival, I was taken aback by just how stunning the entire area is. The Village itself is a collection of 39 beautifully restored buildings from across the region, including an 1861 redbrick schoolhouse, an imposing 1842 stone mill and the original farm’s log-built homestead, which was constructed on the property in stages between 1816 and 1832. The structures are smartly arranged to highlight the estate's natural beauty: copper-leaved maple trees swish in the breeze as flocks of sheep graze across rolling fields.
There were plenty of kids milling about the place, of course, but their parents didn’t look the least bit bored or wearied as they might at, say, a theme park. Somewhat surprisingly, the adults were just as engaged as their offspring — fascinated by the still-functioning newspaper press in the Printing Office and ooh-ing and ahh-ing as a baker loaded loaves of bread into a centuries-old brick oven. I was spellbound, too. It helped that while the staff were dressed in period-appropriate clothing, they weren’t required to speak or act as if it were really the 1860s. You could ask questions and have a conversation about how things worked without any annoying subtext.
Since this was Thanksgiving weekend, Black Creek had a handful of special activities going on. I swung by a small barnyard on the edge of the property for a “Turkey Talk” led by Viola McPhee, the Village’s livestock supervisor, alongside a pair of rare Ridley Bronze turkeys.
“They’re sort of ugly but beautiful at the same time,” McPhee joked of her fine-feathered wards. It was true. Though they had wrinkly, reptile-like faces only a mother could love, there was a certain regal quality to the way both gobblers stalked around the pen, arching their lustrous golden-brown feathers and making emphatic whooping noises that sounded like a pubescent Chewbacca.
Like the rest of Black Creek’s farm animals — including sheep, horses, pigs and geese — the turkeys are of a designated “heritage breed,” meaning they’ve been in Canada for at least 100 years. But only the turkeys, McPhee explained, are actually native to Canada. Settlers imported the rest, and had to be shown by their First Nations counterparts that these strange fowl were good to eat. It makes sense, then, that turkeys would eventually become the festive meat of choice: They were born of the very same land for which early Canadians were giving thanks.