An Ontario Road Trip Inspired by The Band: Part 1
Updated: Nov 9, 2020
The Band: an iconic piece of Canadian history and one of the pioneers of the Americana sound. How does that work? I’m not really sure but if you want to know more about it, you need to check out the podcast, The Band: A History. We’ve partnered up to create an awesome road trip through Southern Ontario featuring some of the most iconic spots of The Band’s history. You can listen to it now:
You can listen to the whole thing on the podcast then steal some of the nitty gritty details here! I’ve posted the entire itinerary in two sections so you can choose to do it all in one go or break it out into Southwestern Ontario and Toronto. With that, let’s go!
Disclaimer: Of course, due to COVID-19, travel is not a safe option for everyone right now. If you're not from Southwestern, Ontario, consider using this blog as a way to plan for a future trip! If you are, be aware and plan ahead as some restaurants and stops along the way may be only open to locals, have altered hours etc.
This road trip (part 1) through Southwestern Ontario makes a great weekend getaway as it will take you approximately two days but can be stretched out if you’d like to spend a little more time at each location.
Stop 1: Old East Village, London
Where: Former home of the Brass Rail Tavern, 657 Dundas St. E. London, ON.
Old East Village is a super cool part of London and former home of The Brass Rail Tavern where Ronnie Hawkins & The Hawks used to play. Known for their charbroiled steaks, burgers and “The Pump Room” for live entertainment, it was a community staple.
Today, The Old East Village is in a process of revitalization and gentrification. Where the Brass Rail Tavern used to stand, there is the London Community Health Centre and a walk through the community is definitely worth your time!
The Old East Village was designated as an Ontario Heritage Conservation District in 2006 and is full of cool places to eat, shop and experience local culture. There are three craft breweries and a distillery in the immediate area plus some great eateries! In walking distance we’d definitely recommend Dundas & Sons Brewing Company, Unique Food Attitudes (out-of-this-world authentic pirogies) and Momo’s at the Market. Also just around the corner, check out The Market at Western Fairgrounds on Saturdays. Coming in late? Check out The Mockingbird, a cool new speakeasy that I think The Band would have really dug. From there you’re only seven minutes to your next stop!
Drive Time to Next Stop: 7 mins
Stop 2: Western University
Where: 1151 Richmond St. London, ON. where Garth Hudson attended university
Garth moved from Windsor to London with his family in 1940, attended Medway High School (just a 6 minute drive away if you’re interested in checking it out) and went from there to Western University where he studied music for one year before dropping out.
Walk the beautiful grounds of the university for a great look at old buildings with some really interesting histories of their own. Garth is in good company as an alumni after all. To name a few other musicians: Basia Bulat, Duncan Coutts and Mike Turner of Our Lady Peace and Stephan Moccio. To go further, alumni of all other walks of life include Jaghmeet Singh, William Lion Mackenzie King and Nobel Laureate author Alice Munro to name a few.
Drive Time to Next Stop: 1hr 16mins
Stop 3: The Lost Hamlet of Blayney, Ontario
Where: The intersection of Yuell Road and McDowell Road (aka Regional Road 1) in Norfolk County
Honestly we wouldn’t have you drive out to the middle of nowhere for no reason but it’s on your way to your next stop! This intersection was once Blayney, Ontario and home to a grocery store, gas station and Rick Danko’s birthplace. It’s also where he was living when he made the decision to go out on the road with Hawkins, Levon Helm, Robbie Robertson, Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson when he was just seventeen.
While the hamlet of Blayney no longer exists, a sign does and on that sign? A plaque dedicated to none other than Rick Danko.
Stop 4: Simcoe, Ontario
Drive through the downtown of Simcoe, Ontario located in Norfolk County (Ontario’s garden).
Pass through Blayney and into Simcoe, Ontario- the heart of Norfolk County. Located in one of Ontario’s most prosperous agricultural regions, you’ll find people here are connected to food in big ways. Pass by Simcoe Composite (Danko’s high school) on your way through and stop for a bite too! We most definitely recommend checking out The Combine Restaurant for some delicious farm-to-table cuisine. In 2013, Mumford and Sons hosted their Gentlemen of the Road Festival and chose Simcoe as the only Canadian tour site, citing Danko as inspiration for that.
Drive Time to Next stop: 15 mins
Stop 5: Pop Ivey’s aka The Summer Gardens
Where: Walker Street, Port Dover (right next to Knechtels)
Want to just chill for a few hours? Simcoe is just fifteen minutes (and a beautiful drive) to the beach in Port Dover! Enjoy some fresh Lake Erie perch at the Erie Beach Hotel, take a dip in the lake (depending on the time of year, of course) and pass by the former Pop Ivey’s where Manuel first heard the Hawks when he was opening with his band The Revols. According to Levon in the book, This Wheel’s on Fire, Hawkins said, "See that kid playing piano? He's got more talent than Van Cliburn."  The following spring the shoes had changed and Hawkins was opening for the Revols. He offered to manage the band and eventually asked Manuel to back the Hawks which he of course did.
Head down the main drag, Walker Street, towards the water until you reach the fish n’ chips joint- Knechtels. Grab some grub or maybe an ice cream cone and enjoy it as you look out onto the water where the picnic tables were. If you do, you’ll be sitting on the former ground of Pop Ivey’s at The Summer Gardens where Levon & The Hawks played in 1964. Some live recordings exist of this show still during which Levon stops and announces there’s more corn available for people to grab! Talk about rural Ontario. The show itself was of course something for the books but The Summer Garden itself was a storied venue that was built not once, not twice but three times.
Originally built in 1921 on wooden structures a bit closer to the water, a huge winter storm took it out by 1929 as it stood precariously sinking into the water and sand below. In 1929, the Summer Garden was rebuilt again in just 19 days by volunteers under the direction of Ben Ivey (who had built the previous one as well). Finally in May of 1932, the third and final summer garden was built. Just four years later, Ben passed away leaving the Summer Garden to his son, Don aka Pop (hence, Pop Ivey’s).
According to vintageinn.ca, Pop was a well-known character always in a white suit with a red rose. The dance floor was a big old octagon and the spot a favourite amongst WWII vets. Over its exciting history, Summer Gardens aka Pop Ivey’s saw some pretty awesome shows from the likes of Light House, Count Basie and even Louis Armstrong.
Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end. The venue burned down in 1979 and townspeople stood by watching and crying. Pop even wrote a poem about it:
Summer Garden Farewell The night is chill, the ballroom deserted The sound of dancing feet is gone The sound of music has faded away There is no sound of voices, they have disappeared There is no laughter Farewell, dear old lady Summer Garden. There are tears I cannot hide, so I smile and say as the flames die Smoke gets in my eyes… – Don Ivey, January 9, 1979. (Source)
From here, consider checking out the town! Walk down to the pier, check out the beach town shops and have a nice dinner at one of the many restaurants like the iconic Arbor right across from an epic mini golf course or a great burger at the new Mustard + Relish.
Explore Beautiful Stratford, Ontario
Where in Town: Stratford Festival Theatre, Manuel’s Walk of Fame Star and Stratford-Perth Museum
Honestly, Stratford could be a full day trip all unto itself so we’ll give you all the info and you can take as much or as little of your time here as you like. Do yourself a favour and pop into Balzac’s for a coffee before hopping about.
Stratford was the birthplace of Richard Manual and awesomely enough where he met Hawkins and The Band back at The Stratford Coliseum when Hawkins opened for Manuel’s band, The Revals back in the day.
Just down the road, at the corner of Ontario Street and Downie Street, you’ll find a star dedicated to Manuel pressed into the sidewalk. Stratford started their Walk of Fame in 2002 to honour notable locals like Justin Bieber.
A short walk away, check out a bench erected in Richard Manuel’s honour. Adorned with lyrics from “I Shall Be Released”, the bench sits along the beautiful Avon River and is a peaceful spot to enjoy a pause in your day.
If visiting cemeteries are your thing, pay your respect to Manuel’s legacy by visiting Avondale Cemetery where Manuel is buried. You can take some time near his gravestone and go for a walk if the weather is nice. Please note, there's no headstone so you will need to pay attention and go on a bit of a search.
From here, a visit to The Stratford Perth Museum is in order. Their exhibit, The Road to Woodstock, celebrates the iconic Woodstock Music & Arts Festival with a heavy concentration on Stratford natives: John Till, Ken Kalmusk and Richard Manuel himself. Learn how they paved the road to their own stardom as you browse this exhibit which will be on until June of 2021.
Finally, wrap up your time with a performance at Stratford Festival Theatre where The Band played on November 2nd 1985. Known for their world-renowned performances and their Shakespearean plays in particular, this theatre functions as a draw for tourists and locals alike each year.
...And there you have it! The first part of our road trip following some iconic venues, schools and more through out the Band's history. Be sure to check out the podcast and let us know what you think. Think I missed something important? Please let me know in the comments!
Peace, love & history.