In the summer of 1926, Elsie Reford began transforming her fishing camp on the Metis River into a garden. Located 220 miles north-east of Quebec City, at 48.51º N. latitude, the gardens she created over the next thirty years were the northernmost in the eastern half of North America. Known to some as Les Jardins de Métis, to others as Reford Gardens, the gardens have become famous since they were opened to the public in 1962.
Gardening was by no means her first calling. From the early 1900s she had come to Grand-Metis to fish the pools on the river. She also rode, canoed and hunted. She continued fishing until 1926 when an operation for appendicitis intervened. Ordered to convalesce following surgery, her doctor suggested gardening as a genteel alternative to fishing. She was 54 years old. During the summer of 1926, she began laying out the gardens and supervised their construction. The gardens would take ten years to build. The construction would extend over more than twenty acres. When she began, with the exception of a flagpole, a cedar hedge and a tree-lined driveway, the property was barely landscaped at all. The hay was cut to provide feed for the horses. Flowerpots were arranged on the veranda. It was, after all, a fishing lodge.
Elsie Reford’s is a garden of character. It is bold and unique, innovative but traditional. Few gardens have been built in such difficult conditions. Hundreds of miles from the nearest nursery, she faced countless challenges when she set herself the task of building a garden. She took a spruce forest and shaped it into a garden that boasted one of the largest collections of plants in its day. She excavated and dug, built stone walls and moved trees. She brought boulders from neighbouring fields. She created fine compost required for exotic plants with leaves she had bartered from local farmers. Where experienced plantsmen had failed, she succeeded in transplanting or propagating rare species, like azaleas and Meconopsis, and adapting them to the Quebec climate. She trained local men, farmers and fishing guides, making them expert gardeners. Together, they built a remarkable garden over three decades.
For more information on Elsie and her gardens:
Consult our Web Site on the history of the property « Les Jardins de Métis : Portrait of a Landscape »
You can also consult the books by Alexander Reford :
The Reford Gardens – Elsie’s Paradise
Treasures of the Reford Gardens – Elsie’s Floral Legacy
Guides to the Gardens of Québec – Reford Gardens
These books are available via our Garden Shop.
History of the Mitis River
L'héritage industriel de la rivière Mitis, written by Alexander Reford from the Bulletin Association québécoise pour le patrimoine industriel, Volume 22, Numéro 3, Automne 2011.
Elsie Reford Family
Elsie Reford was born Mary Elsie Stephen Meighen on January 22, 1872. She grew up in Montreal where her father was president of the Lake of the Woods Milling Company, the largest flour milling company in the British Empire. Her mother, Elsie Stephen, was the youngest sister of George Stephen. George Stephen was a railway baron who had made a fortune building and operating a railway from St. Paul, Minnesota into Manitoba in the 1870s. The St. Paul, Minneapolis and Manitoba Railway was the foundation of a business empire that spanned the North American continent and made Stephen and his principal partners, his cousin Donald Smith (later Lord Strathcona) and J.J. Hill, some of the wealthiest men of their time. In 1880, Stephen founded the Canadian Pacific Railway. As president and principal financier, he was chiefly responsible for building the transcontinental railway that linked Montreal to Vancouver, completed in 1885. Stephen’s accomplishment earned him recognition from Queen Victoria, who made him Sir George Stephen, baronet, of Montreal and Grand-Metis, Quebec.
Stephen lived in Montreal, but took several weeks off every summer to indulge in the sport of salmon-fishing on the rivers of eastern Quebec. In the 1870s he leased the Metis River and then bought 100 acres of property overlooking the river in 1886. In 1887, he built Estevan Lodge, a rambling wooden building sufficiently large to accommodate his fishing parties. Stephen was elevated to the peerage in 1891, taking the title Lord Mount Stephen after the mountain in the Canadian Rockies named in his honour. The first Canadian to be made a member of the House of Lords, Stephen left Montreal to take his seat at Westminster. Quiet and unassuming, Stephen lived in London and Brocket Hall, a country house outside London. Thereafter, he spent little time in Canada. He loaned Estevan Lodge to his friends, who made an annual pilgrimage to the Metis River to ply its waters. One of the regular visitors was his niece, Elsie Reford.
With no children of his own, Stephen gave his fortune to charity and distributed his possessions among his family. He gave Estevan Lodge to Elsie Reford in 1918. Reportedly Stephen’s favourite niece, she shared his love of salmon-fishing. Every season, she would write her uncle detailing the fish she had caught, their size and the pools where she had the greatest success. As she had inherited a third of her father’s fortune and was married to Robert Wilson Reford, the eldest son of a Montreal shipping magnate, she also had the means to maintain the river and the large staff of guardians and guides who worked at Estevan Lodge.
To learn more about Elsie Reford’s father, Robert Meighen or her uncle, George Stephen consult their complete biographies by Alexander Reford (click on their name to be directed to their biography).