Come Wander

Cam Allen & Donna Dillman

Columnist, entrepreneurs, and owners of Circa 1894 Bed & Breakfast & Day Spa

Lanark, Ontario – Lanark County

A sustainable housing columnist and a green entrepreneur meet on an online dating site – sounds like the beginning of an old joke, doesn’t it? When Cam Allen and Donna Dillman first connected on an internet dating site six years ago, neither could have guessed their romance would not only lead to their own happily-ever-after, but also to the adventure of renovating a former church from 1894 to be a sustainable home and business that today surpasses the Energy Star standards for that of a new home, and to embarking on an entrepreneurial experience that is drawing visitors from near and far to unwind in Lanark County.

The affection the couple have for one another is obvious, and has translated into the passion and quality craftsmanship they put into their business and home each day. Donna and Cam’s innovative renovation of this old church in tiny Watson’s Corners, Lanark County, acted as the spark for both their business and current lifestyle. The couple share what fantastic finds are abundant in Lanark County, and what inspired them to hang their hats in the Township of Lanark Highlands.

What led you to decide to not only renovate a church to become your home, but also to open a bed and breakfast and spa? What was your inspiration?

Donna: Well, Cam is a retired green builder and columnist for Post Media, so obviously sustainable renovation and construction were a priority for him. When we met six years ago, he was already living in a passive solar home, while I was working to lighten my footprint and living in an old church not too far from here, with no indoor plumbing, kitchen, or bathroom. When we bought this church, our initial plan wasn’t to build it as a B&B, but because I had operated a B&B in the past, I was excited at the thought of doing it again. I really wanted to include a spa element, and one day when we were driving through Wakefield, Quebec, I convinced Cam to try Le Nordik Spa. We were only there for an hour and a half before he saw the potential of a new business concept. Since Cam does everything in a big way, what started out as a simple plan to have a single tub and sauna for B&B guests turned into a much bigger plan with three hot tubs, plus a NIR and FAR Infrared and a Finnish sauna, and the Day Spa component evolved from there.

That sounds like a huge undertaking! Can you tell me a little bit about the renovation itself?

Cam: Environmental sustainability and energy efficiency have always been extremely important to us, and I wanted to prove that old buildings could be brought to sustainable levels. This building, a recently operating church, was 119 years old, and an EnerGuide audit revealed that oil heating would cost about $10,000 each year. We started the renovations, using 25 per cent recycled metal studs, and created another building inside the original building. Inside, we used Roxul insulation in the walls, closed cell spray foam in the crawl spaces, three-and-a-half feet of recycled insulation in the attic, over 100 cans of spray foam and three miles of Tuck Tape. We ended up with an EnerGuide rating of 84 without the use a solar panels; a rating that exceeds energy standards for newly constructed homes. We now spend about $700 a year to heat our home.

Wow, with all those efforts, your home must be toasty warm in the winter months! Renovating a century-old building sounds challenging enough, but how did you manage to keep the heritage feel of the original church structure?

Cam: Good question. Maintaining the heritage feel was also important to us, and we kept many of the original finishes, including the original church organ, the stained-glass windows, the hanging ceiling lights and the wainscoting. Recycled, repurposed and reclaimed materials and appliances were used wherever possible. Donna sourced most of these herself, and found the porcelain and stainless Heartland stove that’s the focal point of the kitchen, all the hot tubs and saunas, the spa windows, and most of its doors. Even our shower, tub, washer, and dryer were reclaimed.

You’ve really taken reducing your environmental footprint to the next level! You’ve both chosen to settle in an area that barely shows up on the map (Watson’s Corners). What drew you to set up shop in the Township of Lanark Highlands?

Donna: For me, the Highlands feel like home. I’m from Nova Scotia, and in Lanark Highlands they say you’re either born here, or you’re from away. Well, I wasn’t born here, but I do feel like I belong here because this area really reminds me of Nova Scotia, when it comes to both the terrain and the sense of community.

I could definitely see that! What’s the best thing about living in Lanark Highlands?

Cam: I’d have to say it’s the quality of the people here. They still have a sense of community that’s been lost elsewhere. We know just about everybody in Watson’s Corners! It’s not the impersonal atmosphere that you see in an urban area, that’s the best way to put it; the people here are welcoming. Lanark still has the flavour of an old-time village.

And what would your perfect day of roaming this old-time village, or even Lanark County as a whole, look like?

Cam: I think my perfect day would be wandering the area and spending time meeting artists and crafts people in their place of business. There’s Rita Redner, a potter who lives just outside of Perth, and John Schweighardt, who’s right up the road from us, who has a stonework studio, Living Stones. For me, the perfect day would be exploring and meeting the artists like these who are all around us…and of course, stopping by a local bakery for some fudge (laughs).

Oh yum! The access to so many local products and handmade goods must also play an important role in your sustainable lifestyle. Aside from these products, what is one “hidden gem” in your backyard that visitors would be surprised to discover?

Donna: That’s a tough one. I guess I’d have to go with Purdon Conservation Area. It’s an amazing walk in the spring. There are 32,000 orchids, the biggest colony in Canada, right here in little Lanark Highlands, and just 10 minutes down the road. Even when it’s not in bloom it’s a nice walk along the boardwalk, and it’s fully accessible. It’s a lovely way to spend an afternoon any time of the year.

Sounds like a beautiful way to spend an afternoon, and all that walking might make you work up an appetite. If you could only eat one thing for the rest of your life, what would it be, and where in Ontario’s Highlands can you find it?

Cam: Believe it or not it would be pancakes (laughs). I’m a pancakes fan. I enjoy going to Temples and Wheelers. Their pancake breakfasts are just to die for. I’ve traveled to Vermont, I’ve been to other parts of North America, and there’s something about the syrup here that’s special. If you take three spoonsful of Quebec, Vermont and Lanark County maple syrup, I can tell you which one’s from Lanark County. It’s smoother and much more palatable…there’s a definite difference.

In that case, spring must be a joyous season for you. What is your favourite time of year in Ontario’s Highlands? Why?

Cam: Definitely fall. I love the fall colours in this region. I think there are enough winding back roads around us, with so much foliage along the way, that you can easily fill a day trip. You can stop for lunch, do some shopping, there’s enough smaller places and activities to explore to keep you busy.

Definitely. How and where would you unwind/recharge at the end of that busy day, or even a busy week?

Donna: That’s easy, I’d just walk out my back door to the hot tubs and saunas (laughs). Seriously though, when I want to relax and not worry about cooking dinner, I like to go to to one of the great restaurants in in Perth.  Everyone is always friendly and welcoming and of course the food is amazing.

Cam: I just go where she drags me (laughs).

Haha, sounds like a good way to wander with an open mind. What does wandering mean to you?

Donna: For me, wandering is about spending the day exploring, and hearing people’s stories. I’m most interested in stories, and making those connections with other people. That’s what the bed and breakfast is all about, too, making those connections. The visitor I like the most is the one who has something to share.

It sounds like those types of opportunities for personal interactions are a real highlight to living in this community for both of you. Where is the best hotspot to strike up a conversation with a local in Lanark Highlands?

Cam: The Lanark Landing in Lanark Village. From the outside it’s just a little restaurant on the main street, but it really seems to be the local coffee house, where you get to hear all about the local politics, who’s building this house, the local gossip. Conversation for me always tends to circle back to the trades, but there are a lot of different topics tossed around. And the best part about the Landing is they serve great pancakes with local maple syrup!

That sounds like a great spot for meeting locals. Is there one interesting local you’d recommend visitors meet when they travel here?

Donna: Anyone traveling to this area absolutely has to meet Ankarat Dean. She’s amazing. I’ve heard of Ankaret for years and years and years, but recently connected with her while carpooling to an event and it was an amazing ride. Ankaret operates the Lanark Highlands Basketry Museum in McDonald’s Corners, and is also a fixture at MERA (McDonald’s Corners/Elphin Recreation & Arts). She’s approachable, community minded, and you always learn something new when chatting with her. She’s an amazing ambassador for this area.

This area is so special and it sounds like she’s someone who really sees that. How does wandering in Lanark Highlands compare to travel in a bigger city, like Toronto or Ottawa?

Cam: No traffic (laughs). If we get three cars on this road, we’ve got rush hour. Seriously though, the pace of life is so much quicker in the city, and I’m not necessarily convinced that’s good for the soul. In the winter, when I’m coming home and I come around the corner at the top of Fiddler’s Hill, I have that moment where my whole body relaxes. It’s funny what a sense of peace this valley has. I always say it takes me a while to get to Kingston, but it takes me no time to get home.

I think this region definitely captures that feeling of home –whether you’re from here or not. What’s the one thing you recommend wanderers to the region leave behind when they come for a visit?

Donna: Their expectations. Because if you don’t have expectations, you can still be surprised, and open to adventure. That’s what wandering is all about, isn’t it?


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