Remembering Road to Avonlea:
Popular Canadian CBC television show was filmed in our own backyard
By Blair Matthews
It’s hard to believe that just 15 minutes from the East Gwillimbury border, early 20th century history was re-imagined and shared with the world.
Road to Avonlea, the popular 1990s CBC television show, will probably go down in history as one of Canada’s most beloved family programs. Fitting, since it was based on the timeless writings of Lucy Maud Montgomery.
The series, which aired in Canada on Sunday nights on CBC and in the U.S. on the Disney Channel from 1990 to 1996, was developed by Kevin Sullivan and produced by Sullivan Films. Sullivan had worked wonders five years earlier with his version of Anne of Green Gables (starring Megan Follows and Colleen Dewhurst). Because of the success of Anne, Sullivan decided to venture into the world of weekly television with more of L.M. Montgomery’s work.
The Road to Avonlea series began with the story of 10-year-old Montreal heiress, Sara Stanley (played by Sarah Polley), whose father was embroiled in a financial scandal. While he tended to his legal affairs, Sara was sent to live with her relatives in the sleepy Prince Edward Island town of Avonlea. At first, Sara struggled to fit in living with her two aunts, Hetty and Olivia King (actresses Jackie Burroughs and Mag Ruffman). She had grown up with a nanny, a tutor, and fancy clothes. As she quickly discovered, her cousins Felicity, Felix, and Cecily (Gema Zamprogna, Zachary Bennett, and Harmony Cramp) weren’t used to putting up with a spoiled family member in their midst.
The fictional town of Avonlea (circa 1903-1912) was brought to life on film in Uxbridge, Ontario, at Durham Regional Road 21 and Concession 6 on the former Robert Nesbitt farm. Tucked in away from the road, unless you knew what you were looking for, you might never have spotted this makeshift village.
Unless, of course, you were driving along Goodwood Road and caught a glimpse of the full size lighthouse on the hill.
The Lighthouse that Wasn’t There...
If you’ve seen the show, you might recall frequent scenes that took place at Gus Pike’s lighthouse. When the series was in production, most fans assumed these scenes were filmed on location in P.E.I., with the flowing fields and rippling waters cascading in the background.
The locals in the Uxbridge area knew better.
Local historian Allan McGillivray has followed the life and works of L.M. Montgomery for decades and is a human encyclopedia of all things historical in our area. He’s privy to behind-the-scenes stories and inner workings of how a parcel of Uxbridge land morphed into the picturesque Avonlea. Including that mysterious lighthouse.
“They built the lighthouse, and then they built an exact replica of the top of lighthouse and had it sitting on the ground. So any scenes that were on the top they could film at ground level.”
As the show became more popular, curious fans - many from outside Canada - vacationed in the area hoping to catch a glimpse of the set. When McGillivray was curator of the Uxbridge Museum, he once had a couple who dropped by looking for Road to Avonlea sights. “They were from the southern States. This couple went to Prince Edward Island looking for the lighthouse. They found someone in P.E.I. who was an expert in lighthouses and got them looking for it... on the way home they came to Ontario and they came into the museum and started asking about the lighthouse. I said, ‘it’s on the hill down the road here, miles from the ocean’,” McGillivray laughs.
So while the lighthouse scenes were filmed in Ontario, viewers who remember the White Sands Hotel that appeared in numerous episodes can rest easy - those scenes really were filmed in Prince Edward Island. Of course, all the interior shots at the White Sands were done on a soundstage in Toronto, but still...
Thanks to the magic of film and editing, watching Avonlea on television was a seamless experience.
The crew at Sullivan Films built pieces of the town with meticulous attention to detail. “When you looked at the buildings, it looked like they were there for 100 years,” McGillivray says. “But the guys who were doing them were trained to make them look that way. About once a year they’d have to have a crew go in and do some painting and shoring up some of the buildings.”
McGillivray points out, for example, that at Jasper Dale’s place, the crew had constructed three different sides to the same building - one side was the canning factory, one side was Dale’s house, and the other part was a barn. The angle that they’d shoot from would depend on what background the scene called for.
And in fact, most of the buildings that appeared in the 91 episodes of Avonlea were shells built to resemble the small town.
“All but the schoolhouse,” McGillivray says. “The schoolhouse was out in the middle of the field but it was finished so they could actually film inside. But any of the other buildings, as soon as they went in the door they were in a studio in Toronto.”
Since many Road to Avonlea episodes were filmed during the winter months with less daylight available to them, the schoolhouse gave the crew an indoor location to shoot in after hours. At times large lights were errected outside the windows of the schoolhouse to simulate daylight long after the sun had set in Uxbridge.
You’d think shooting in a small authentic looking schoolhouse would be an easy task; not so. As the story goes, space was limited, and unlike studio sets, walls could not be removed in order to accommodate elaborate camera and lighting set ups.
Since it wasn’t insulated, a large diesel heater was brought in and canvas heating tubes were installed through the windows to heat the schoolhouse. The object was, of course, to have the room warm enough that you couldn’t see the actor’s breath when they spoke on camera.
On location at the Uxbridge Museum
The series shot on location at the Uxbridge Museum on two different occasions. McGillivray remembers it well. “They did 14 seconds,” he says. “They did (the scene) over and over about 10 times and all it was at the end of the one show was three ladies getting out and walking to the church. Some of it is optical illusions. The three ladies that got out of the buggy and walked to the church were not the actors they were dealing with; they were stand-ins. You’re not going to pay those three actors to be there for 14 seconds of film.”
When you take into consideration that the crew brought in a crane with a huge light on top of it - to simulate moonlight - it was an expensive 14 seconds.
Dispelling the ‘Maud Myth’
TV Guide ran a feature about Road to Avonlea in the early 1990s and claimed the show was filmed on location in Prince Edward Island. McGillivray, being an astute historian, wrote a letter to TV Guide to clear up the misconception: it was NOT filmed in Prince Edward Island; it was filmed in Uxbridge within of miles from where L.M. Montgomery wrote many of the stories.
“This is what people don’t realize,” McGillivray says. “Maud only wrote two books in Prince Edward Island. All of the rest of them were written in Ontario.”
L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables novel was published in 1908. Most of her 22 books were set in Prince Edward Island. And while she was born an island girl, three years after she penned Anne, she married Presbyterian minister Ewan McDonald and moved to Leaskdale, Ontario.
She wrote 11 of her 22 novels at her Leaskdale manse over the course of 15 years. Her Chronicles of Avonlea collection of short stories was the material and inspiration Sullivan used for Road to Avonlea.
Touring the set
Being the curator of a museum a stone’s throw away from where Road to Avonlea was doing primary filming certainly had its advantages. McGillivray and his daughter, Bethany, were invited to tour the set - a rare experience, since it was a closed set complete with guard house at the road and paid security to restrict access.
At the time, Bethany was in Grade 2 or 3, and was a huge fan of the show.
“We were there for a good chunk of time, and it was a whole bunch of the women characters and they kept going over and over (the same scenes) - they’d walk into the store, then they’d come out and do it again. It was so interesting how they did it,” she remembers. Take after take for most of the afternoon was how that day was spent.
In between takes, Bethany got to meet many of the cast members and still has the autograph book she carried around that day filled with the signatures of Mag Ruffman, Gema Zamprogna, Cedric Smith, and others.
Unfortunately, there are no photos of her visit to Avonlea that day - cameras weren’t allowed on set.
“It was winter when we were there that day,” McGillivray recalls. “Mag Ruffman had her costume on, long dress, and we were talking to her and one of us said, ‘don’t you get cold waiting for your scenes,’ and she said, ‘oh, I’m prepared for it’ and she pulled her dress up and she had ski pants on under it.”
According to a Sullivan Entertainment press release, a 1994 Angus Reid poll reported that Road to Avonlea had the highest awareness level of any Canadian television production, easily recognized by 82 percent of the Canadians surveyed.
At its peak, season 1 of Avonlea was watched by 2.6 million viewers every week - and some of those fans were fanatical about the show.
McGillivray often got letters at the museum from fans asking very specific questions. Someone from Oregon wrote and asked him if he had the plans for the King farmhouse because they wanted to build their house to look exactly as the King house looked. He had to write back to him and break the news that the interior of the house was a sound stage custom made for the show. Though the original farmhouse was used for all the exterior shots, the insides of the house were never shown on camera and differ from what was on television.
And in fact, before the Uxbridge location was the Road to Avonlea set, parts of it were used in the 1985 film Anne of Green Gables. The field just beyond the King farmhouse was the same field where Matthew Cuthbert died in Anne’s arms. The King farmhouse also doubled as Green Gables (but the exterior was painted to look different for Road to Avonlea).
By the time the final episode of Road to Avonlea was finished production in 1996, the town looked so real that some Uxbridge residents lobbied to have it preserved as a historic monument to boost local tourism.
It wasn’t meant to be.
On February 14 and 15, 1996, the Uxbridge set - the buildings, the schoolhouse and even the lighthouse - were torn down with a backhoe.
The final episode of Road to Avonlea aired in March 1996 after 6 seasons and had garnered an impressive list of achievements: 4 Emmy Awards, 16 Emmy Nominations, 18 Gemini Awards, 4 CableAce Awards, and 3 John Labatt Classic Awards for Most Popular Program in Canada (chosen by the public).
Now, almost two decades after the series came to a close, Road to Avonlea is still revered by viewers from around the world.
Many Japanese tourists, who watched both Anne of Green Gables and Road to Avonlea in syndication, still visit P.E.I. to get married at the place where L.M. Montgomery got married.
Recently the series was re-mastered in HD and is now available on DVD.
The adventures of Sara Stanley and the rest of the Avonlea characters are being discovered and re-discovered much the same way that L.M. Montgomery’s books have been enjoyed for decades.
Even with her vivid imagination, McGillivray says it’s doubtful she would have ever envisioned her stories captivating audiences by the millions.
“It was the way the stories were presented,” McGillivray says. “In Avonlea, to me, they’re a lot of happy stories, family stories, kids can watch them. When you look at those characters, you can start to think of people you know today that are like that.”
Two years ago, Sullivan returned to the original Uxbridge site where he created the Road to Avonlea set to film a featurette for the DVD release. He reflected on what made Uxbridge the perfect place to bring L.M. Montgomery’s visions to life.
“I find it remarkable to come back here 20 years later and find so many elements of this location have not changed,” Sullivan said in the video. “I think the rolling fields, the pines, the tall grass, and the (King) house itself nestled in the corner made it really unique. I found that the more we shot here, the more magical this location became. It became a kind of emblem itself. It started to identify for an audience a magical world of escapism that I think is part of what makes the series so popular.”