The story of how the Milroy farm on Lot 1 Concession 10 on Steeles Avenue in southeast Markham became a pick-your-own operation started many years ago.
The farm with its barn and house were owned by Bill Dyck, who sold them to Gilbert Whittamore in 1952. Whittamore wanted to grow strawberries and found the Miliken loam on this property good for that purpose.
Evelyn Lapp married Gilbert Whittamore in 1957 and they moved into the Milroy house.
The summer of 1957 was very wet. One time it rained for two days straight. The fields were swamped and the strawberries started to rot. There were not enough strawberries to collect for sale. The couple decided to allow the public to pick what was left and so a sign was displayed on Steeles Avenue: “Pick-Your-Own”. Visitors had to bring their own boxes and pay 15 cents a quart.
The summer of 1958 was very dry and resulted in another poor strawberry crop. It was again decided to try the pick-your-own strategy and charge 20 cents a quart. Many families enjoyed the experience. In 1959, the Whittamores decided to make pick-your-own a yearly event. Eventually raspberries, pumpkins and sweet corn were added to the selection.
Gib and Evelyn had four children – David, Katherine, Michael and Frank – who took their turns working on the farm.
In 1974, the Whittamore farm was expropriated for the new Pickering airport. Opposition to this airport was strong. The airport plans were eventually put on hold and the farmers were allowed to lease their land back from the government. The Whittamores continued to sell strawberries, raspberries, beans and pumpkins. For a time, the Whittamores were into wine making. Their brand was Whittamore Winery. They had wine tasting sessions for customers.
Today, Frank and Michael run a 220-acre farm, the largest pick-your-own and farm market operations in Ontario with close to 200,000 customers annually. Mike Whittamore looks after the farm and the Pick-Your-Own enterprise, while Frank and Suzanne Whittamore look after the operation of the farm store and amusement area.
Some farms, including the Whittamore’s, were declared surplus to the airport and were purchased by the original owners. Many farms of the Rouge Watershed are more than 100 years old and have been officially recognized with signs they can display on their property. Soon these farms will be inside the Rouge National Urban Park and protected in perpetuity.
Larry Noonan is a retired teacher and school principal in Scarborough. Interested in history, he is working on stories of the Rouge valley in preparation for the new Rouge National Urban Park. His collection of stories is called “People’s Stories for a People’s Park”. Twitter @RNUP_NOW. Visit www.rougenationalnow.com for Friends of Rouge National Urban Park. Contact him at [email protected]