When Andrea Cross looks at one of the many century-old dry stone walls on Amherst Island, she sees the past and the future.
Cross has lived full time on Amherst Island for 19 years. The stone walls that line many of the roads and fields of the small island in Lake Ontario, 10 kilometres west of Kingston, are living monuments to a chapter in the island’s history, when it became home to several Irish immigrants in the early to mid 19th century.
Cross, a lover of history, connected to the walls and their stories. Most of the walls were created by dry stone wallers who emigrated from the Ards Peninsula in the County Down, in Northern Ireland.
Many of those walls still stand to this day, thanks to the somewhat frozen-in-time, undeveloped state of the little island, which is home to approximately 450 residents and is still steeped in agricultural practices for which the walls were originally created.
In fact, Amherst Island has the greatest concentration of known historic Irish dry stone walls in Canada. That fact alone makes the island a fantastic venue for the annual Dry Stone Canada Festival, which returns to the pastoral location for the third time in five years, this year on Sept. 14-15 at The Lodge in Stella.
Cross has been involved with the festival since its first iteration on the island in 2015, and that involvement was born out of a deep interest in the walls themselves.
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“When I saw the dry stone walls, I thought, wow, this is a connection to our past,” she said. “This is something that needs to be protected and celebrated for future generations.”
So that’s what she did. In 2013, working as a member of the Loyalist Township Heritage Committee, Cross started a project to document historic walls on the island and helped to create a bylaw that would protect those walls.
“I believe that’s one of the first such projects in Ontario,” she recalled. “We were sort of blazing a trail to figure out how to set up a bylaw that would fit within the Ontario Heritage Act.”
Cross then reached out to the Dry Stone Walling Association of Canada, also known as Dry Stone Canada, inviting members of the organization to visit Amherst Island and see the walls.
“They were blown away by what they saw,” she said. “They knew that this was a special place, that other wallers would appreciate and needed to see and would probably like to gather and celebrate and build a legacy structure to celebrate a festival.”
With members of Dry Stone Canada, Cross brought together the first dry stone walling festival on Amherst Island in 2015, the Canadian International Dry Stone Wall Festival, which was attended by federal politicians, international dignitaries and renowned wallers from around the world.
That event earned Cross and Dry Stone Canada a Lieutenant-Governor Ontario Heritage Award.
Many connections — to Ireland, to ancestors of settlers, and among wallers from around the world — were solidified at that 2015 festival, which saw the creation of a legacy project to honour the island’s Irish history.
“A lot of people who have walls on their property, they don’t take them down, they leave them there,” Cross explained. “They appreciate them, and a part of it, I think, is some of those walls were built by ancestors of the people who still live there.
“There are a number of fifth-, sixth-generation islanders who have gone back to their roots in Ireland and have commented on how strange it feels to go through the cemeteries there, because side by side, they’re the same names (as here.) There’s such a connection. That’s what I’m personally trying to do. To bring us together again. To make that connection.”
In two weeks, dozens of wallers will descend on Amherst Island once again to participate in workshops, create a special project, and celebrate the art of dry stone walling together — and they hope that the public will come out to watch.
“People are really excited,” Dry Stone Canada president Hilary Martin said during an interview leading up to the festival, which will see five build projects, restoration projects, walling and carving workshops for all skill levels, a special area for kids to create projects with expert direction, food, vendors and live music.
Two of those walling workshops will be community-focused builds: a dry stone wall base for a sign at the Amherst Island Public School, and a cob oven at The Back Kitchen, a volunteer, community-run restaurant in Stella, the island’s only village.
“This is a way to give back to the island,” said Martin, who thanked the many community members who continue to show support for the festival.
The oven at The Back Kitchen will be used for making pizza, and that build will take place in the five days leading up to the festival.
“With luck, we’ll be able to cook pizza on Sunday at the festival,” Martin said.
The tall ship the St. Lawrence II will be anchored offshore in sight of the build site at The Lodge, adding to the step-back-in-time ambiance of the event.
The festival will begin and end with a land acknowledgement and circle ceremony, to acknowledge the fact that dry stone walls enclose and represent incursion on Indigenous lands.
“Because we are aiming to become more conscious and aware of the relationship of walling to land, and to the long legacy of settler presence in Canada, we’re trying as an association to incorporate learning moments and connecting moments to become more thoughtful and aware and educated around those things,” Martin said.
Martin said there is an excitement surrounding the festival “that’s hard to describe.”
“We have wallers that come from around the world, across the province and other parts of the country, up from the States, basically to work for no money,” Martin said. “No one really understands that. The thing with the festival is it’s like an annual reunion of our stone family.
“(There is) a willingness to put the work in to make it happen in the community.”
The island community appreciates the walls, even if they are not all wallers, and Martin said it feels rare to be in a place that has not only “miles of dry stone walls” but also such a culturally active community.
“People care about the walls,” she said. “Some people don’t get it, and that’s fine, too. But … once you see a dry stone wall and understand what’s going on, how it is constructed without mortar, how it shifts with the freeze-thaw cycle … then you start seeing them everything, but they are still rare. On Amherst Island, they just are everywhere. As a waller, it is a great place to be.”
The public is invited to attend between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. on both Saturday and Sunday.
The recurring festival raises the profile of local history and treasured remnants of the past.
“The walls just feel so much a part of what the island is,” Cross said. “And it’s a very special place.”