Freeman family legacy lives on through stewardship at Sheppardton Tract
BY SHAWN LOUGHLIN
Huron County Forest Conservation Officer Dave Pullen says it’s amazing to see what can change in a lifetime when it comes to stewardship and planting trees in rural Ontario.
In recent years, he’s been involved with a historical connection between the Sheppardton Tract, a Huron County-managed forest north of Goderich, and the Freeman family, some of whom have lived their whole lives on the edges of the tract. Because of their proximity to the hundreds of acres of forest, members of the Freeman family have been able to watch the land grow from swamp land to a towering forest. And not only have they watched that process happen, they’ve even taken part on occasion.
Growing up on the edge of the Sheppardton Tract and attending S.S.#5 Colborne, two of the four Freeman children, Lois and Beryl, helped plant some of the trees that now stand so majestic in the forest. Joe, the youngest of the four, wasn’t quite old enough to take part, nor was his brother Art, but Joe certainly remembered the work being done as a curious five- or six-year-old boy at the time of the planting in the 1940s.
Joe was a central figure in the remembrance of the wooded area, living beside it for his whole life. He passed away last fall, but prior to his death, he was involved in several events aimed at spreading the history of the Sheppardton Tract and how much growth he and his siblings saw there over the course of their lifetimes.
For Arbor Day, the county would invite students from local one-room schoolhouses to the forest to help with tree planting. The Freemans were among the dozens of students who would participate and who had a hand in creating the forest. They just had to walk, however, from S.S.#5 Colborne, whereas other students had a longer trip to get to the Sheppardton Tract.
Last spring, the Freemans were featured as guest speakers at one of the Lake Huron Centre for Coastal Conservation’s speaker series nights at the Huron County Museum in Goderich. The four siblings spoke about their family’s history with the natural area and seeing it grow up over the course of over 70 years.
The process began in the 1940s when the county was in dire need of reforestation, Pullen said as part of the presentation, which is when significant work took place at the Sheppardton Tract. The forest is one of 14 Huron County forests and it currently sits as the largest as well, at over 280 acres.
While some of the Freemans had married and moved away, Joe married but lived adjacent to the mighty forest for his whole life. He grew up on one side of it and was able to purchase and move to a farm on another side of the tract, which is where his wife Dorothy still lives.
At the centre’s speaker series night in Goderich, Lois said she remembered those Arbor Day planting excursions, saying she remembered how hard the ground was at the time. Meanwhile, Beryl said she could remember how hot it would get during the tree-planting process.
At the time, Art said he couldn’t remember planting any of the trees, but that he did learn about the importance of forestry through the 4-H program at the school that gave students four options, one of which was forestry, so he learned through that process.
He said they would take trees from an adjacent property, with permission of course, and plant them in their family’s bush on their home farm, which is where he got his tree-planting experience, bringing between 300 and 400 trees to their property.
At the event last spring, Joe said he remembered that those on unemployment would help plant trees throughout the county to earn a wage. He wasn’t old enough to help plant trees at the time, but he certainly remembered watching the process as often as he could.
In an interview with The Citizen, Pullen said the story the Freemans have to tell is amazing. They have literally grown up with the Sheppardton Tract in their backyard and have seen it grow from the ground up to what it is today.
Looking at the progress through the eyes of one family, Pullen said, really shows the difference that can be made in one lifetime. The Freemans, now all in their 80s, have seen the Sheppardton Tract rehabilitated from swamp to a robust forest and they continue to enjoy the progress that has been made.
Pullen said it reminds him of the saying, “the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago and the second-best time to plant a tree is now.” With that in mind, the Freemans show how some can look back 75 years at trees that were planted and see what a difference they’ve made.
Since Joe’s passing, Pullen said that Joe is pictured on one of the trail entry signs at the tract, which he says feels like a fitting tribute due to how passionate he was about that piece of land.
When Pullen presented his annual forestry report to Huron County Council in early 2020, he placed a large focus on the timber harvest at the Sheppardton Tract, completed using Good Forestry Practices (GFP) as a guideline.
At the Sheppardton Tract, Pullen told councillors that 200 of the 280 acres in the forest were harvested using Good Forestry Practices (GFP) methods. Through that harvest, 1,500 bush cords of timber were tendered, sold and cut, resulting in nearly $45,000 in revenue for the county.
In addition, Pullen said over 600 ash trees were able to be salvaged.
A good amount of work was also done to improve the forest, including the rebuilding or repairing of two-and-a-half kilometres of logging road, the installation of 200 feet of boardwalk to connect Nile Road to Hwy. 21, the installation of a Nile Road parking area and log landing and the installation of the final signs on Nile Road and Hwy. 21. All of the work, Pullen told councillors, was completed on a cost-neutral basis.
Huron County Warden and Ashfield-Colborne-Wawanosh Mayor Glen McNeil says he’s known the Freemans, most specifically Joe, for over 50 years. That relationship, he said, was a wonderful experience and the world would be a better place if it had more people like Joe in it. Living in that part of the county as well, McNeil said he grew up knowing the importance of the tract to the area.
Now, however, as a politician, he sees its importance from a different perspective, knowing how crucial conservation and preservation of the environment are to areas like Huron County. He says it makes him realize how visionary those who came before us were to plant so many trees in the 1940s, knowing it was good for the environment so current generations can now reap the benefits.
He also lauded Pullen for his work, not just with the county forests, but with the connection with local history he has been making in recent years.
On a special day that featured walk-throughs of the trails on the property, McNeil said there were people there from very early childhood up to those in their 80s, which shows just how important conservation can be to those of every generation.
McNeil said he and his wife walked with a girl who was maybe five or six years old and couldn’t get over the sense of wonder she had for the mighty forest.
“Her eyes were full – I’ll always remember that. And she’ll be able to relive that with her children there,” McNeil.
Donna MacPhee, Joe’s daughter, said she only learned about her father’s history with the land when he started talking about it in early 2020, so she learned about it at the same time as everyone else. What she did know, though, was that it was great to grow up with the Sheppardton Tract as a backyard.
MacPhee also detailed her father’s and his wife Dorothy’s great level of involvement with the Huron Pioneer Thresher and Hobby Association, which began when they became members in 1984. She said they were very active volunteers with the organization for years, with Joe managing the people movers, bringing people around the grounds during the association’s annual reunion and telling stories.
She said her father enjoyed all aspects of the reunion, but especially the music, which sucked him in every year.
MacPhee said she remembered going to the reunions as a child with her father and liking it, but going as an adult and appreciating it in a different way; seeing it through new eyes. She and her husband now volunteer with the association, wanting to give back and help the organization that gave so much to her family.
Joe Freeman passed away on Oct. 29, 2020 at the age of 82. He worked at Volvo/Champion for over 35 years and, in his spare time, served as a member of the Goderich Legion, the Barn Dance Historical Society, the Masonic Lodge and the Huron Pioneer Thresher and Hobby Association.