One of the perks of working community news in Niagara is that the peninsula is a prolific wine-making territory. This means wineries dot the landscape. Around these has sprung up a rather well-heeled tourist trade. As a result, even lowly civic dinners and Chamber of Commerce galas are amazingly well-catered.
In my days in rural Haldimand county (Principal Crops: corn, Six Nations cigarettes), all the but the poshest of civic luncheons featured the inevitable “beef on a bun” and boiled vegetables. One glorious night in Dunnville I was treated to roast chicken by the tourism association, and this marked the high point of my gustatory experiences in the service of the public interest in Haldimand. Niagara has been very different. For example, last night, I attended a business awards dinner in Jordan Village, a strange little oasis of houses and stores overlooking a valley.
Some background is in order, perhaps.
Jordan is an old Mennonite settlement, founded by German pacifists who first fled Europe to live in peace in America. They arrived just in time for the revolution, whereupon many came to Canada and settled along the Niagara Escarpment in the 1780s and 1790s. The settlers in Jordan were hard-working, sober-minded men and women of God. They read from elaborately hand printed “Fraktur” hymnals and Bibles, books so fantastically decorated as to resemble Warhammer Fantasy props. Their village prospered, but it did not grow. Two hundred years ago it was already nearly the same size as it is today. It was just a strip of storefronts with a schoolhouse, churches and a mill, overlooking a mill pond that connected with Lake Ontario, and a densely forested valley.
Jordan, in short, was like the starting village in a D&D game.
In fact, Jordan’s primary connection with the outside world until the 1950s was a horse-drawn postal van. This almost Dickensian relic continued to bring mail into the village even as the government completed a modern superhighway just a few kilometres south. Things changed slowly in Jordan, but they did change. The old businesses faded and closed. The Mennonites mingled with the later Dutch, Scottish and English settlers, and Lutheran, Presbyterian and Anglican churches were founded. Jordan went from a living pioneer village to a backwater. The mill pond was cut off from the lake, and schooners no longer shipped grain and fruit to market. The orchards turned into vineyards. One line of old shop fronts was bought up by a low-end winery, the makers of bargain basement sugary “sparkling wines.”
As Niagara gentrified in the 1990s, this changed again. Old homes were converted to bed and breakfasts. A large private Christian school appeared. A 30-house development was built, billed as an “adult lifestyle” community. Upscale wineries and a luxury inn and spa now dominate the single street. Jordan is still a strange little enclave, but now it is separated from the real world by upper-middle-class money, rather than faith and geography.
Photo taken this time last year, when we had a LOT more snow…
Even today, there are only two roads into the village. One winds past an old harbour, through woods, diving into Jordan Hollow and across a rickety bridge before climbing sharply to the village. The other is the two-lane highway that follows the base of the Escarpment. Just before Jordan it dips and curves through a deep valley, and up again.
Now, to return to the recent past! I arrived at Jordan as the sun was setting behind grey clouds. I navigated my dented Kia hatchback into a lot full of SUVs belonging to young businessmen and respectable sedans belonging to the elderly retired businessmen. A man in a suit directed me to a door marked in gold with the words “Private Dining Rooms.” I ascended to a series a large rooms filled with murmurs of conversation and the sound of a harp plucked by a 20-something woman in a black dress.
The dinner was fantastic, certainly among the best for this sort of affair, where many dozens of dinners are prepared at once. I had a slab of tender, rare roast beef as the main, followed by a vast array of desserts and locally made cheeses. I was disappointed to find the event had a cash bar, as I’ve become Rumpole-ian enough in my thirties to appreciate the idea of free wine. Sadly, the $7 I had in my pocket was not enough for a single glass, a far cry from the days when that very building produced cases of bubbly sugarplonk that went for $4.99 a bottle.
I slipped out of the dinner around 9:15, while the awards banquet was in full swing. The noise and heat was getting to me, not to mention the need to shout while schmoozing about golf courses and the-best-place-to-land-your-private-plane. Jordan was cold and windy. The single street was ornately lit by faux-antique lanterns under a pitch black sky. I went exploring.
I expect the austere Germans who settled this place would be spinning in the settler’s graveyard if they could see what their sanctuary has become. The old mills and warehouses are given over to wineries and chic fashion boutiques.
The vines and trees were still bare, though flowers bloomed here and there, thanks to the unseasonable warmth of the previous two weeks. I walked to my car along a tunnel made of bare trellis work, covered in dead vines.
But looking back, the warmth and light from the inn restaurant was comforting. I could faintly hear the rumble of laughter and conversation. Jordan is still a place worth visiting, even if I can’t afford to shop there.