A drive along University Avenue entering Charlottetown, takes one past the University of Prince Edward Island, then the RCMP, and then, the Crops and Livestock Research Centre. The federal government’s Department of Agriculture and AgriFood Canada, owns a large tract of land here, with the newer buildings on University Avenue, and older buildings on the opposite side, along Mount Edward Road. The older site on Mount Edward Road is still called “The Experimental Farm” by the residents of Charlottetown.
The history of the land on which the Experimental Farm is located dates back to a survey in the 1760’s which laid out the town of Charlottetown, surrounded by a Common. The Common was later divided into lots, and by 1820, these were being given to various officials as political favours. Many large homes were built on these lots as many of the owners have visions of living like ‘landed gentry’!One such lot was granted to Sir William Johnston, the Attorney General for the Island, who had Ravenwood house built in the early l820’s. This is one of the oldest homes on Prince Edward Island. In the 1820’s it must have been an imposing sight and, when the leaves had fallen from the trees, the harbour could be seen from the house.. Even today, it is very impressive when viewed from Allen Street.
At the time of Confederation, Ravenwood was occupied by the Honourable James C. Pope, the Premier of Prince Edward Island. Mr. Pope had a hop garden to supply his private brewery and also had a cricket pitch. By 1909, the Pope lands were owned by the province. These were then acquired by the Government of Canada for the establishment of the Charlottetown Experimental Farm. At that time, this land was outside the City of Charlottetown. Today, it is about the centre of the greater Charlottetown area.
In 1909, Ravenwood had been neglected for several years and needed some extensive repairs. Considerable renovations were undertaken to provide a home for the directors of the Experimental Farm. Early pictures show a verandah surrounding three sides of the house. The verandah was removed; bay windows were added at the front, and a belvedere was added to the top. Because of these renovations, Ravenwood is a ‘recognized heritage building’ rather than a ‘designated heritage building’. It was occupied by the various directors of the station from 1909 until 1990, when Dr. Lloyd MacLeod retired. Subsequent directors have lived off the Farm. Ravenwood is used now as offices, and meeting rooms by Island Nature Trust.
A number of buildings were required to carry out the work on the Experimental Farm. The earliest one still surviving sits beside Ravenwood, and is referred to as the “Horticulture” building. This building was the first office building and when opened in 1920 was described as a modern “well appointed” structure. All the other buildings presently on the site were constructed at a later date. Many interesting building are still standing, such as the “cereal barn” and the “apple storage” and hopefully will be kept.
In front of Ravenwood, is a grove of trees called the “Royal Forest”. Some of the trees were here before the land was acquired by the federal government, and at least one, is considered to be older than Ravenwood. The first official tree planting was on July 30th, 1912, when the Duke of Connaught, Governor General of Canada, planted an American elm. The Prince of Wales, later Edward VIII, planted an English Oak in 1919. Queen Elizabeth planted another English Oak in 1951, and Prince Charles planted one in 1983. Many of Canada’s Governors General planted a tree when visiting Prince Edward Island. The last one to do so, was Rt. Honourable Jeanne Sauvé, who planted a maple on July 9, 1985.
Not far from Ravenwood is the lily pond which is quite an attraction during the summer months, especially in the mornings when the water lilies are in bloom. When this property was acquired for an Experimental Farm there were three such ponds located along the top of a ridge running through the property. These ponds had been dug to obtain clay for a pottery, The Charlottetown Brick and Pottery Works, which was located near here operated during the 1880’s. A row of trees just north of the buildings is still known as “Pottery Lane”. The clay obtained from here was found to be unsuitable for glazing and so the pottery operated for only a few years. Examples of the work can still be found in museums and in private collections.
Two of the three ponds were filled in but this third one was retained. To make the area more attractive, water lilies were planted. In 1910, six different species of hardy water lilies were imported and planted in baskets, weighed with stones, and placed in the pond Only one species survived and is still flourishing here.
Between Ravenwood and the lily ponds is a small interesting tree – a gingko tree. This species is very primitive and may have been around when the dinosaurs roamed the earth. The species was thought to be extinct until discovered in China over 100 years ago. There are male and female gingko trees, and both are very tolerant of smog and city life.
The Experimental Farm was a centre for the agricultural community for many years. There were field days organized by the staff, and many organizations used the facilities for their meetings. To mark the 100th anniversary of the entry of Prince Edward Island into confederation (1874), a specific area was set aside for picnics and barbeques. This area, located north of the greenhouses, has been used by various groups during the summer months. A nearby building is available for use if the weather is inclement. Beside the picnic-barbeque site, is a grove of small immature trees. The first one was planted here in 1973 by Mrs. Leone Ross who was then President of the PEI Women’s Institute. Subsequent trees were planted by Premiers of PEI, and one by the Hon. Eugene Whelan, when he was Minister of Agriculture. This area is often called “The Premiers’ Wood”. Although this tradition was abandonned for a number of years. the Friends of the farm are pleased to say that in 2011 , with the support of Dr.Maria Rodriguez , Research Director of the Farm and Gayle Arsenault, Director of property, the tradition was re-instated and trees were planted by Robert Ghiz, Patrick Binns and Keith Milligan.
On the north side of this property, the Farmers’ Market is located. The building provides indoor space for Island vendors to present their wares every Saturday, and during the summer every Wednesday also. The Farmers’ Market is like a community centre where every Saturday people come, not only to buy, but also to visit with friends.
A group of citizens has been concerned for some time about the fate of this land and in 1995 formed “ The Friends of the Farm”. The aim of this group is to preserve this land as green space open to the public. The group has continued to operate, raising the public’s awareness of the importance of maintaining this site. Friends of the Farm have been sponsoring meeting, and have been lobbying governments for support in their efforts.
The Experimental Farm is now in the centre of the greater Charlottetown area, and the Confederation Trail goes through the centre of the property. For many years, members of the public have enjoyed access to the site for walking, driving, picnics, etc. and of course, going to the Farmers’ Market. It would be an ideal location for a park, a botanical garden, an arboretum, and perhaps some forms of recreation. It would be a tragedy if this land is lost to the general public.