A lifelong Torontonian traded her Dupont apartment for a five-acre property in Wellington County. Here’s what happened
In 1967, my family moved from England to Toronto, into a Victorian semi in the lower Annex. I lived in downtown Toronto for the next 50 years.
By the 2000s, I was a thoroughly urban woman who owned a collection of meticulously polished designer footwear. The thought of walking on anything other than pavement unnerved me. My idea of a vacation involved travelling to Europe or visiting a luxurious spa, not camping in cottage country and swimming in the deep, cold Ontarian lakes.
In 2008, my husband, Ivaan Kotulsky, a well-known Toronto sculptor and jeweller, died following a surgical procedure. He wanted me to continue his work, which I’d been helping him with while finishing my degree in Italian studies at U of T.
After his death, I took some time to make a decision about the next phase of my life. I travelled, studied and restored an arts-and-crafts-style home that my husband and I bought as an investment. I felt unsettled and unwilling to commit to any long-term plan.
In 2011, I put the arts-and-crafts house up for sale and thought about buying a place with the profits of the sale. Almost immediately after selling the house, I purchased a small two-storey commercial building at Dupont and Shaw for $465,000.
The entire lot was 640 square feet, wedged between two legendary restaurants: Vinny’s Panini, an Italian sandwich shop, and Universal Grill, a retro diner famous for its weekend brunches.
I converted the main floor into a jewellery store, called Atelier Ivaan, in honour of my late husband. I had a workshop in the basement, where I set gemstones, resized rings, polished finished pieces and made wax duplicates of Ivaan’s original gold and silver jewellery. And I lived on the top floor of the building, in a two-bed, one-bath apartment.
After five years on Dupont Street, I developed a need for some greenery in my life, so I added a secret rooftop garden, accessible by a ladder built in to the ceiling of my kitchen.
My roof became an urban oasis, contained within a tall wooden fence. I took up beekeeping and grew everything from potatoes to ginger to tomatoes. On summer evenings, I went up on the roof after store hours and enjoyed the Toronto skyline, snacking on fresh vegetables, reading whichever novel had been assigned by my book club.
But by 2018, Dupont Street was ripe for condo development. Every morning at sunrise, there were dump trucks idling, waiting to pick up soil from the construction sites nearby. The diesel fumes from the trucks were triggering my asthma, so I started sleeping in the windowless basement, among my work equipment: the workbench, wax injector, polishing machine and thousands of rubber jewellery moulds.
After a couple of months of sleeping the basement, I woke up and abruptly decided I’d had enough of everything—the working, the diesel fumes, the endless construction. I wanted to make a change.
I didn’t know what that change would be. It seemed like I had two options. I could become even more urban and move farther downtown, or I could head in another direction, outside the city, away from all the residential neighbourhoods and stuffy suburbs.
That summer, I was driving to Collingwood with my nephew, Philippe. As we went along a county road, past farm fields and tiny hamlets, I realized that my asthma was notably absent. For once, I could inhale deeply without wheezing. “I can breathe here!” I said to Philippe.
“Well, auntie,” he said. “Look around. There’s no shortage of for sale signs up here.”
So, in early 2019, I listed my little commercial building for $1,160,000 and started looking at rural properties within an hour’s drive of Toronto. Before long, I found an unusual house on a five-acre piece of land in Wellington County.
The home, built in 1963, had a grey board-and-batten exterior and a wraparound deck. A large two-storey wing had been added in 1989.
Inside, spread across 3,000 square feet, there were four bedrooms, three bathrooms, two basements, a spacious kitchen and a large loft with cathedral ceilings. The floors in the old wing were strip hardwood, and the extension had both stone floors and wide-plank pine. For the past 35 years, it had been the home of a well-known artist and her late husband.
On the lot, there were three ponds, a derelict boathouse and a deep inground swimming pool. In the middle of the property, situated between two of the ponds, was an island covered with thick brush and dead wood. The listing included a flat-bottomed aluminum rowboat, which could be used to explore the ponds and explore the forested edges of the property.
I was sure my long-time real estate agent would hate the place. Our tastes are very different, and we’ve never agreed on a property before, so I persuaded my friend Sonia—who, like me, is a real estate junkie—to tour the property with me. Sonia loved the place immediately.
The following week, I asked my agent to come and see it with me. The place had been on the market for six months. It was originally listed at $1,225,000, but the owners had since reduced it to $999,999. To my amazement, my agent saw the potential. He prepared an offer of $990,000, conditional on the sale of my commercial property. The sellers accepted.
Exhausted from all of the excitement, I fell asleep in my agent’s car on the way back to Toronto. When we arrived, my agent asked if I would accept an offer on my commercial building. A couple who wanted to open a wellness clinic in the space were offering $1,045,000.
It was less than I hoped to sell for, but I wanted a buyer who would not be in competition with my neighbouring restaurants. I also wanted the sale to net me enough to purchase the Wellington County property and a new vehicle. My agent offered to waive his commission on the sale of the Dupont building to help make it happen. How could I refuse?
Within a span of two hours, I sold my commercial building and bought the rural property, which I promptly named Five Acres.
My wedding anniversary was April Fool’s Day, so I made that the closing day on both properties. I arrived at Five Acres with only a suitcase, a lawn chair, a blanket, a wind-up radio and a bag of groceries.
I had no idea what I was doing. I didn’t know anyone in the area. I didn’t know how to light a fire or even how to operate most of the light switches. I couldn’t find a phone jack for the landline.
It was a long, cold, dark first night at Five Acres. And yet it was exhilarating, sleeping in complete silence and pitch darkness. It seemed like the beginning of an adventure.
Suddenly, all of my time was discretionary. I had no commitments and I felt that everything depended solely on me. Once the movers arrived and my furniture was unloaded, I felt an overwhelming sense of excitement. I had enough of everything, yet not too much of anything, and boundless energy for the hard physical work to come.
One of the first tasks I set for myself was to clear the brush and dead wood on the island. It was so overgrown that it was impossible to walk across. And I’d need all the firewood I could collect for winter. I lasted two days, using an axe and hand saws, before I realized that I’d make quicker progress with power tools.
On day three, I bought my first battery-operated chainsaw from the local farm equipment store. It was the smallest model they sold, and surprisingly easy to use. I had previously imagined chopping all my firewood with an axe, eschewing the convenience of modern tools.
Once I had the chainsaw, however, every dead tree on the property started to look like firewood, and I became adept at determining how to saw a tree so it would fall at the correct angle.
I spent most of the summer working on the island, only returning home to eat, sleep and apply more insect repellent. Occasionally, family and friends from the city would come for a visit, and I noticed I was anxious to appear competent at every aspect of rural life.
I’d never operated a lawn tractor, could identify few trees and fewer birds, and I didn’t even know for certain how big five acres was. Some long-time friends, who had a large farm of their own, came up in August to attend a wedding nearby. They stayed in the guest suite at Five Acres.
The next morning, they walked me around my property, pointing out plants that were invasive species. Some had pleasant, non-threatening names, like periwinkle, while others sounded alarming, like dog-strangling vine. I paid close attention so I could rattle off the names confidently to my next visitor.
Then the pandemic hit.
World news travels to rural communities much more slowly than it does to major cities. I started wearing face masks almost immediately, even though they attracted stares whenever I ventured into our nearest town.
I started batch-cooking vegan meals—soups, curries, chilis and stews—and looking for ways to increase my self-sufficiency, in case we’d be required to remain at home, as some experts were already predicting. There were four raised vegetable beds built on the south side of the properties, which I surrounded with chicken wire from the local feed store.
The first harvest from my vegetable garden was abundant—plenty of squash and root vegetables, which would last for months if kept cool. I built a new wooden cover for my below-ground well pump and filtered the water through a sediment filter, an ultraviolet filter and a charcoal filter before boiling it for drinking.
I grew my own green vegetables, relying heavily on my prior successes in container gardening on my rooftop garden. I learned how to maintain the swimming pool (so far, I’ve rescued three large snapping turtles who took a wrong turn on the way to the ponds). I figured out by trial and error how to operate the lawn tractor.
I’ve taken down 50-foot trees using my new, larger chainsaw, acquired a four-ton electric log splitter, replaced a shed roof, restored the boathouse, successfully cleared the island and rowed across the largest pond to hike on the farthest corners of my land for the first time.
I’ve learned to share the land with beaver, deer, Canada geese, turkey vultures, crows, muskrats, rabbits, skunks, herons and swans. I once stared down a coyote who emerged from the bushes at dusk to look for something in the pond to eat. I can go for weeks without seeing another human.
While my urban days were entirely time-bound, an experience shared by most shopkeepers, I no longer have to look at a clock to know what time it is. I wake up when dawn breaks, go to bed when it’s dark, and in between, I can tell time by the position of the sun.
In the country, I’m hungry at 10:30 a.m. and 6 p.m., not when I’m bored. In the city, it was easier and quicker to order meals to be delivered than it was to cook. Out here, there is no option other than to prepare my own meals, so I eat a substantial homemade meal in the late morning and a lighter meal for dinner.
One of the biggest changes has been to my wardrobe. My rubber boots and flannel shirt were purchased at the feed store. I wash my hair once a week.
As for the rest of me, it’s layered T-shirts and thick socks, all year round. I only wear my beautiful city shoes, coats and hats for trips to Toronto, once every six to eight weeks, after which they get cleaned and put away.
I no longer take the neat precise steps that carried me around my tiny building on Dupont Street. In a tiny building, there’s no need to walk quickly. If I walked like that here, I’d never get anywhere. My rural gait consists of big, loping strides. I always stare at my feet when I walk outside, because there’s always something to trip over.
Sometimes I dream that I’m still on Dupont Street, unable to run the shop during the pandemic, but still obliged to pay the eye-watering commercial property taxes, stuck living in a tiny building and waking up every morning to construction noise.
It’s a relief to wake up and find myself 78 kilometres away from my old life. I like my new next-door neighbours, even though their houses are a car ride away.
And I know how big five acres is now. It’s just slightly too big for a woman in her 60s to manage singlehandedly, but I really like the challenge. More importantly, it turns out that I like being self-reliant. In that sense, I’m one of the few people for whom Covid-19 has been a blessing.
Every so often, Philippe comes up to Five Acres on the GO train. I pick him up at the station, drive him out to the property and sit shotgun while he practises driving a manual transmission on the county roads we took during our drive to Collingwood back in the summer of 2018.
I always make sure to point out the for sale signs, which led me to a life I could never have imagined for myself.
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