By Michelle Annette Tremblay
Carol and Hugh Russell had a dream. Both urban professionals, the couple had spent decades developing their impressive careers, raising their children and travelling the world, all while maintaining the daily grind of city life, complete with the commute, gridlock, and packed schedules.
While the Russells loved their careers, they yearned for a new chapter in retirement. After all that hustle and bustle, they wanted to slow down, connect with nature and each other, and delve into their creative sides.
“I’ve always been an artist,” explains Carol, as she shows me some of her newest pieces of handmade jewellery featuring unspun wool and beautifully polished stones. “But now I actually have the time to devote to my art. I have fantastic ideas of how we can incorporate Hugh’s woodworking with my stained glass. We also have wonderful rocks here that we tumble and polish. I have plans about how I’ll use the polished stones in my art.”
We’re sitting in the living room of their home at Hillsview Farm and Studios in Maynooth Ontario. The farmhouse was lovingly moved here, log by log, more than 60 years ago from its original homestead on nearby Muslow Greenview Road. To my right is a huge picture window letting in a stream of sunlight that illuminates jars of homemade artisan vinegars. To my left is a giant stone fireplace.
“We love living here. It’s the aesthetic of the area.” says Hugh as he sips his coffee. “It draws it out of people who are in touch with their own aesthetic. It certainly did us. It’s been a huge and wonderful transition.”
Transition is a keyword in Carol and Hugh’s story. About seventeen years ago, while they were still in the midst of their full-time careers, they started eyeing retirement.
Both Carol and Hugh looked forward to that next phase in their lives, but they were very mindful about what that retirement would actually be like. They wanted to remain active, eat well, explore their passions, and be part of a vibrant community. To achieve all these lofty goals, they began transitioning into their new life, long before they retired from their jobs. For two years it was Hugh’s task to look into real estate. He viewed various pieces of land, homesteads and country homes throughout Ontario.
“Finally after looking for two years at all sorts of farms and so on, I ran into a person who said, Hugh, you have to fall in love with the place. And I said, oh, that’s ridiculous,” laughs Hugh. “Then I got a call from my realtor, and they said, Hugh you’d better get up here, I’m going to list it next week, and it’s got your name all over it. And I walk in and honestly it was like falling in love,” he confesses. “It was like seeing her across a crowded room. And it scared me. And I didn’t have Carol with me and so I was courteous with the agent and said, well, I think I should bring Carol.”
“When I returned with Carol I very carefully told her nothing. Then I stood behind her when she walked in the front door, and I watched her wilt.”
Yes, they both fell in love with the house and the land at first sight, but it was the community that really made them feel at home.
Maynooth is famous for its creative economy and artistic vibe. Even though it’s a very small community, driving down the main street you’ll see gallery after gallery, all thriving, nestled between little cafes or tea rooms, curios and antique shops. Everyone knows each other and there are always community events going on: markets, festivals, concerts. Each weekend, spring through fall, the community rushes to the bustling farmers market, where Hugh and Carol are often found selling their goods from the farm. They have a delectable selection of spreads, herbal jellies, and infused vinegars, all made from their own fruits, vegetables and herbs.
“It was a choice, and not a naive choice,” explains Hugh about moving from city life to rural life. “We knew this lifestyle would have a lot more physical demands that the city did, but we welcomed it.”
Rather than waiting until retirement was upon them, Carol and Hugh bought their farm while they were both still working full time, and continued to live in the city while gradually making the transition to Maynooth. While Hugh worked on the farm’s infrastructure during the first few years, erecting outbuildings, root cellars and fences, Carol worked in the city during the week and spent weekends up in Maynooth. Now, 17 years later they’ve both been living full time at the farm for over a year, their city life behind them. And they couldn’t be happier.
“One of our goals for coming here was mental health. Both of us are social psychologists and understand a good deal about mental health from a professional standpoint,” explains Hugh.
“We knew that working on the land, getting your hands in the dirt, and having the demands and requirements of livestock are all contributors to mental health as well as physical health.”
Indeed, both of the Russells are in good health. Caring for the crops, as well as the livestock and beehives they care for keeps them moving every day. Carol estimates that the overall demands of their rural lifestyle are probably on par with their city lifestyle, with one major difference: they are in control of their own schedules and decisions.
“If we’re feeling overwhelmed or stressed or tired we just take a break,” smiles Carol. “When you’re working for a corporation or big organization you can’t always do that. You’re not as in control of your stressors.”
She describes their current morning routine. They sit and read the news and drink their coffee, and once they’re fully awake, they plan their day together, based on what needs doing and how they feel on that particular day. As they tell me this, they smile at each other, pleased with what they’ve accomplished.
“Each week we have about 2-3 groups that come up for tours and to shop. Often people are interested in doing something similar to what we’ve done, and want to see how we’ve accomplished it,” says Carol. She and Hugh also teach courses at the local college about growing food and how to build a root cellar, and they both volunteer extensively at a community, municipal and county level.
Over the past several years Hugh and Carol have put their efforts into getting the house just the way they want it, developing the gardens and irrigation systems, testing products, creating a brand, and marketing for the farm. Now that they’ve achieved those goals, the next phase is about a shift in focus.
“Our big plan was that for the first while, the farm would take up most of our energy, while we did our creative projects on the side,” says Carol. “The next step is changing focus so we’re spending most of our energy on art, with the farm taking up less of our time.”
She explains that they’re currently in the process of deciding which parts of the farm need to cease or become more efficient so the retirees can spend more time in their studios creating.
“As far as life decisions go, this one is pretty painless,” chuckles Hugh. “If we had waited in the city until our professions were done and we got our gold watches and a kick in the butt, and then went out to build this new life, it would have been overwhelming and less satisfactory. If we were in a position to advise people, we would encourage them, start thinking about the transition early, do what you can with the resources you have to begin to make it happen.”
Are you interested in a mindful retirement? Perhaps in the country? Then head over to the Hillsview Farm to meet Hugh and Carol for yourself, and see what they’ve done. You can follow them on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/hillsviewfarm/ or see them at the Maynooth Christmas Market on December 10, 2018.
Also, be sure to check out other I Left the City Stories, profiling people just like you, who followed their dreams out of the city and into Hastings County.