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A family farm that helped grow a community (19 photos)

Five generations of the Coulter family have furrowed fields for kin and community on Elmlahoma

In his lifetime, fourth-generation St. Joseph Islander Perry Coulter has seen farms flourish and seen them fail and many change hands.

When it was founded, the Coulter family farm was dubbed Elmlahoma after the elm trees that once stood on the farm.

It is one of only three designated century farms that has remained in the ownership of the family that originally held its title on the island.

The number of family farms operating is dwindling as every year fewer farms are still operating as farms but, for Perry, the success of the farm in recent decades has been a result of the support of his family, outside help and a secondary income.

The Coulter family has been continuously farming Elmlahoma for more than 130 years on St. Joseph Island.

Coulter family farm accidentally started in the wrong spot

The Coulter name has been synonymous with St. Joseph Island since 1875.

Tucked away in personal papers, many Perry was not aware of, is an account of how David Coulter, Perry’s great-grandfather, landed in Southern Ontario from Ireland. David made his way by boat up to the island and, with the little money he had, bought a parcel of land on St. Joseph Island.

Under the Homestead Act of 1875, David Coulter was to locate on land next to what is now the A-Line but he accidentally began clearing land that belonged to Major Rains. Later, the major’s son sold the land cleared to Coulter.

David later approached Eliza Doubleday at Sailor's Encampment, who moved her family to Sugar Island, to purchase the parcel of land in which the Coulter house now stands in St. Joseph Township.

The first deed to Elmlahoma was registered under David’s eldest daughter Adelia Coulter in 1888 and the land has remained in the Coulter family for generations.

The deed was handed down from Adelia to John, then to Clifton and Helen (Perry’s parents) and to Perry.

Perry is the fourth generation and, with his wife, Kim, raised their three children, Shelby Foreman (Coulter), and twins Connor and Faith, the fifth generation on the farm.

In the early years farming was done by hand with horse-drawn machinery. In successive generations, more modern tractor machinery was brought onto the farm.

“When I was old enough to help, I helped,” Perry said. “But, David (Perry’s brother) had it harder than I did.”

Equipment such as the McKee Harvester (which blows loose hay into the maw) was used in David’s time – a step forward from his father’s time with stooked hay and a hay loader.

Various adjacent pieces of property have been purchased over the years bringing the family farm to a total of 182 acres under the Coulter title.

The McKee Harvester is still used today with the addition of a swather, rake and square baler.

Other working equipment includes a combine and five tractors with the oldest being a 1930 McCormick Deering 1020 and the most modern a 1985 Zetor.

On an average year, Perry cuts about 40 acres for loose hay and about 1,000 square bales. In the community, he typically cuts about 30 acres.

There's room for 120 acres of hay on Elmlomaha. Perry cuts some of it and his neighbour the remaining standing hay.

Not many farmers bale square bales anymore. Every year Perry and Kim receive phone calls from folks searching for various quantities of square bales from as far away as Goulais River, though, so there's still a demand for it.

Coulter family tried to help get a bridge built in 1929

The Bernt Gilbertson St. Joseph Island bridge, which opened in 1972 and links the island to the mainland, could have built over 40 years earlier if an agreement had been reached.

Perry's grandfather, John Coulter, sat on one of the first bridge committees with the intent to get a bridge built between St. Joseph Island and the mainland but board members were unable to agree on a location for it. The Trans Canada Highway wouldn't be completed until 1962 and, in the 20s and 30s, people usually travelled the region by boat or rail.

In 1929, the United States Coast Guard (USCG) was tasked with dredging a section of the Middle Neebish Channel. Perry said some islanders saw this as an opportunity to build a bridge that would incorporate the dredged material and be less costly than building from scratch. The USCG approached the St. Joseph Township council sharing its plans for dredging and looking for a place to move the material.

“They couldn’t agree on anything,” Perry said. “Finally, the Americans got fed up waiting and had to get the job done.”

Dredged material ended up piled alongside the channel.

“We lost a perfect opportunity to have a bridge in 1929,” he said. “They (USCG) were prepared to do what St. Joe wanted. The argument for many was not on a means of getting to Sault Ste. Marie but focused on only the ferry and getting to Desbarats and the train.”

Giving back

As far back as the early to mid-’50s, the Coulters have helped their neighbours and when called upon by their community.

Perry’ said he remembers stories about his grandfather, John Coulter, who owned three threshers and travelled throughout the community threshing grain.

The 1935 Robert Bell thresher, which is still in operation today, travelled from farm to farm along the Huron Line and A-Line with a work bee of farmers threshing grain and as far away as the Milford Haven region.

By the 1950s the need for Coulter’s service dwindled. The area then saw more threshers and the introduction of combines which rendered threshers largely obsolete.

But Perry said his father used to say the thresher had paid for the first car on the farm.

The Coulter family has a tradition of being contributing members of its community. Big contributors of time, especially. Perry, no exception, is involved with the St. Joseph Island Plowmen’s Association, Canada Day Tractor Trot, Richards Landing Community Night, Jocelyn Township Harvest Festival, 4-H, St. Joseph Island Central School tours, sheep wool depot from the early ’70s to early ’90s, snow plowing, cutting and baling hay off-farm, six Katimavik billets and the St. Joseph Island Museum.

Kim is involved in autism awareness, an issue dear to their hearts, and has participated in fundraisers for autism awareness. She is also involved with the St. Joseph Island Central School and has sat on the school council. Kim is also involved with Girl Guides of Canada on the island, having served as a leader for the First St. Joseph Island Sparks, Brownies, Guides, Pathfinder, and Rangers as well as, District Leader for St. Mary’s Shores in the Algoma Division.

Perry teaches competition plowing and best practices in plowing for land stewardship. In fact, he's taught more people than anyone can remember. The list includes his father, brother, wife, daughters, niece and numerous friends many city slickers who never sat on a tractor seat before. Illustrious among his students is a politician and two church ministers. Over the decades, some of the people he has mentored have gone on to be tractor class winners and field champions.

Perry’s years at Jocelyn Township Harvest Festival have brought farming of the past to the present for visitors to the festival.

With the aid of his wife, his brother, daughters and numerous friends, tractors and machinery have been transported to the Jocelyn Centennial Grounds for annual demonstrations.

He’s also quick to step in and help a neighbour in need.

Last fall, for example, Karen Garside found herself in a difficult position. she was in need of hay for her animals but the machinery she used to cut hay had broken down. Without hay, she would not have had food for her horses, donkey and goats. 

“She was in a real bind, in dire need of hay, and well, that’s what neighbours do,” Perry said. “I wouldn’t want to see her stuck.”

Perry drove his tractor and baler about 35 kilometres to Pat and Karen Garside’s farm in Hilton Township and the fields to be cut. But, the task was not without additional complications.

When Perry arrived at the first field to be cut, his tractor broke down. In a show of typical island resolve and teamwork, Perry’s baler was connected to Pat’s tractor and they got the job done but it took a while.

Over the next three days, Karen picked Perry up each day and they baled hay together while the Garside’s extended family assisted with haying and meal preparation. When it was all done, Karen had enough square bales put up to feed her stock for the winter.

“Perry’s offer of help meant everything,” Karen said in a telephone interview.

“I couldn’t have fed my animals. I would’ve had to buy hay and would have cost a lot of money. Who else would drive clear across the island? No-one but Perry was game to get it done.”

Just as the last of the Garside’s hay was finally all put under cover on the third day of haying, the rain started.

“Pat and I looked at each other and said, ‘can you believe this’, everything worked out,” Karen said, adding they couldn’t have timed it any better.

“He was a Godsend, I don’t know what I would have done without Perry,” she said.

Elmlahoma not likely to stay in Coulter family

Very few farms on the island are self-sufficient. Most farmers today need a secondary income to operate their farms. Perry worked as a custodian at Central Algoma Secondary School and is now retired.

The future of Coulter’s century farm is unknown.

Perry doesn’t foresee any family member taking on the running of the farm and, with sadness, 68-year-old Perry figures somewhere down the road, likely in about 15 to 20 years, a 'for sale' sign will go up on the property.

“I certainly don’t want it but I have to face reality,” he said.

But, for now, there will be more field furrowing and less brow furrowing for Perry and his family.