On the eve of the local market garden being sold and sub-divided for residential properties, this retrospective, from the Ottawa Citizen June 4, 1947, tells of the farm and the Williams family. Plus, the newspaper’s editor addresses the question of whether or not to add an “s” to the name of Rideau Garden.
The Williams homestead at 96 Southern Drive still stands today.
Rideau Garden to be Subdivided into Building Lots
Fourth Generation of the Williams Family Now Operates the 36-acre Development
By Cameron James , Evening Citizen Staff Writer
Extending over 36 acres of exceptionally rich soil in Ottawa South is Rideau Garden, one of the most extensively cultivated and productive vegetable gardens in Canada. Here, since the arrival in 1817 of one of Ottawa’s first settlers, Lewis Williams of Cardiff, Wales, members of the same family have farmed the land.
(Editor’s Note: Although most persons familiar with the Rideau Garden tend to pluralize it and refer to it as “the Rideau Gardens” or, more affectionately, “the Rideaus”, the singular version is the correct one. The late Frank Williams headed a limited company which established the gardens under the name Rideau Garden Ltd. in 1926.)
Within the next few weeks part of the property will be put on the market as building lots. Eventually it is intended that all of the garden will be sub-divided and sold for similar purposes. Broad driveways flanked by modern houses will appear where now grow rows of cauliflowers, cabbages, cucumbers, tomatoes, and other vegetables.
When pioneer Lewis Williams and his wife, two sons and five daughters arrived in Bytown, later Ottawa, from Montreal after a long voyage from their native Wales, they settled near the corner of what is presently Wellington and Lyon Streets.
Here, however, they found the soil too stony and sought another location. Lower Town was too swampy, Sandy Hill too sandy, so they went southward and established their farm on 200 acres lying between the two concession roads, now Bronson Avenue and Main Street. Ten years later the Rideau Canal was cut through the center of the farm, thus reducing its acreage considerably.
In 1821, four years after the erection of the original Williams’ homestead, it was destroyed by fire. Dismayed but undeterred, Lewis Williams and his sons set about building again. With massive boulders, they constructed a solid foundation on which they laid stout cedar beams cut from the surrounding woods. Today, the frame structure of pleasing architecture which rose from this firm base still stands, practical evidence to the good taste and fine workmanship of its pioneer builders.
On the death of Lewis Williams, one of his sons took over operations of the farm until 1884. Then Frank Williams, a grandson of the original founder, assumed control. Since his death in 1934, the garden has been operated by his two sons Lewis and Charles T. Williams, the fourth generation in the same family to cultivate the original farm.
Rideau Garden land rests only during the winter. Its unusual position within the city limits renders it, with the consequent high taxation, unprofitable for the Williams Brothers to allow different sections of the land to lie fallow. The limited acreage of the garden necessitates the continuous use of all the land thereby posing problems to which the owners have found the answers in part in planned rotation of crops combined with ample fertilization.
To the average amateur gardener who may boast a few dozen first class cauliflowers in a season, a figure such as 40,000 of the same vegetable might seem a little staggering. But this was a single cut of part of the cauliflower crop last year at Rideau Garden.
The growing of vegetables on such a large scale must, of necessity, required considerable planning. Although four large greenhouses are occupied throughout the year growing plants for transporting to the fields, the actual crop begins in January when the owners consider and draft a blueprint for spring planting.
The most important of the many details which must be taken into consideration are future market conditions, suitability of soil, dovetailing of crops and withal the maintenance of a continuous and even flow of work.
Field work usually begins in the second week of April. This year, due to the usually late spring, it did not begin until the last week of April. The tender plants which were started in the greenhouses are transplanted to the fields under the protection of glass frames or cotton wraps. Open field planting usually follows immediately but, again, this year it has been delayed.
Continuous rains and cold spells have now made it questionable whether second crops in all of the required seasonal rotations will be possible.
Staff of 30
To meet the problem of keeping a large staff of men actively employed means careful planning. For example, if it is too wet to work outside, then there should be work available in the sheds and the greenhouses. The average fully employed staff at Rideau Garden throughout the year is about 30 men. During the spring and fall months temporary or seasonal help may number up to 70, a percentage being college and high school students. The latter are employed part time.
For a market garden as extensively cultivated as Rideau Garden, the acreage may be regarded as substantial. Until two years ago, 39 acres were cultivated. The purchase of three acres at the north end of the garden by the Ottawa Hydro Electric Commission for the erection of a substation reduced the land to 36 acres.
Lots of Tools
The operation of the garden requires, for what the average farmer may regard as a small farm, a very substantial number of buildings and a large amount of equipment. Buildings and equipment include four large greenhouses, a modern two-storey barn of metal construction, 2,500 hot bed and cold bed sash, seven motor trucks, five manure spreaders and a multiplicity of tools and other paraphernalia too numerous to mention.
The capital investment in all these runs into many thousands of dollars and to keep everything up to a high degree of efficiency and usefulness necessitates no inconsiderable expenditure. Add to all this cost the sizeable wage bill and it is readily apparent that to realize even a moderate profit from the crops grown requires administrative and executive ability of a particularly high standard. It is a business which demands constant and careful supervision, otherwise instead of a moderate profit there would be a staggering loss.
If future plans materialize, this famous 130-year-old farm – which recently has been not only one of the most expertly operated market gardens in Canada, but also one of the most attractive sights within the boundaries of the city during the height of the productive season – will within a few years pass into limbo. Its passing may be regarded as the price of what is termed, modern progress.