If you enjoy small-town living, that slower pace of life, and a strong sense of community but don’t want to give up all of the amenities that come with a larger city, I know just the town for you. The charming town of Renfrew Ontario is located along the Bonnechere River about an hour west of Ottawa, where highways 60 and 132 meet the Trans-Canada Highway.
The Bonnechere River contains five chutes, the second of which was dangerous and nearly impassable to travelers heading west from Ottawa in the 1820s. So the town of Renfrew was born at the spot where folks would pull out of the River to travel around the perilous second chute. What started as a tiny outpost of three families quickly grew when Scottish immigrants discovered the fertile farming land and abundance of lumber.
Much of this early Scottish influence can still be seen around town in places like the McDougall Mill Museum. In another homage to the town’s roots, the Renfrew Fair is held every autumn, as it has been since 1855. Other pieces of Renfrew’s heritage have been preserved in places like the Swinging Bridge or Victoria Hospital, which first began treating area residents in 1897. And while the town takes pride in its heritage and its role in the birth of the National Hockey League, a quick trip Downtown will show you that Renfrew is also a vibrant and modern place to be.
Downtown Renfrew Ontario is everything one could hope for in a shopping district. Local shops and eateries are located along flower-lined streets that will make you feel as if you have stepped back in time. The historic brick buildings give off an old-world charm, but you will find everything from thrift stores to boutiques and food from around the globe when you step inside. At Heart in Hand, they pride themselves on bringing you goods and art from across the world and in putting money and resources back into the hands of artists in marginalized areas. For a business based a little closer to home, check out Ottawa Valley Coffee with their fresh brewed beans and selection of beers from more than 30 local breweries.
Being situated on the Bonnechere River has helped shaped the town of Renfrew both geographically and historically. Today its banks are the sight of recreational areas such as Brien Park with its picnic areas, playgrounds, and amphitheater. In the past, it was an essential source of commerce, allowing goods to flow freely in and out of town and the source of power for the local mill. However, it was also an obstacle for some in town as there was no bridge. For many years if locals needed to travel across the river, they would stand at the crossing point and yell until a member of the Gibbons family came to ferry them to the other side.
Renfrew’s first bridge across the Bonnechere was built of plank and wire by local loggers as penance for a drunken fight. A few years later, in 1885, the Swinging Bridge was built out of private funds by the Kearney family. The modern reconstruction of this original suspension bridge was completed in 1983 and is a popular destination today. The Bridge provides excellent views of the Bonnechere and wildlife as you make your way across to another historic site in town, the original mill.
McDougall Mill Museum
Located inside what is now Brien Park, Renfrew’s first mill is now a museum. The McDougall Mill was built in 1855 on a piece of land that John Lorne McDougall bought for five shillings. The large stone building spans the second chute of the Bonnechere River and made it much easier and more cost-effective for the town’s early residents to get their corn to mill. Now the Mill Museum is home to items from the town’s industrial and agricultural past, as well as artifacts donated by local indigenous tribes.
Another vital piece of Renfrew’s history is the Victoria Hospital, which has been serving the community since 1897. The first building only had 12 beds meant for infectious patients. Unfortunately, it was completely lost during a fire in 1926. Luckily an additional building was already under construction, and it was completed shortly after the fire, expanding the hospital capacity to 50 patients. Today, Renfrew Victoria Hospital offers a full range of treatments from surgery to long-term care. The Hospital has come a long way since those early days with 12 patients; they now handle around 30,000 visits a year.
Renfrew ONTARIO Fair
If you are in town during the early part of September, you have to check out the Greatest Fair in the Ottawa Valley since 1853. I’m talking, of course, about Renfrew Fair. This five-day event is the highlight of the agricultural year in Renfrew, highlighting local crafts produce and livestock. In addition to exhibits, there are cattle sales, and draft horse shows along with the traditional 4-H auction. Over the years, the fair has grown to encompass other less traditional events such as the demolition derby. And who can talk about a fair without mentioning fair food? You can find all of the classic favourites like candy apples and fresh fudge lined up next to pork buns and plenty of other goodies.