Thumbs Up North Bay: Sweetman’s Gardens

“I’ve had people tell me that they’ve walked past on the trail a hundred times, and never stuck their nose in”

Jim Forscythe on Sweetman’s Gardens

The year 2020 has been challenging to say the least. But even at the worst of times, there are always things worth celebrating. We love North Bay. What’s not to like about the amazing natural setting nestled between two beautiful lakes. The natural features are truly stunning but there is another side to our city that we don’t recognize and celebrate enough. Our people! We all know who they are. Those people that make an effort to truly make this a wonderful city to live in. These are the people and places that they have created that go above and beyond our expectations. They inspire us with their commitment to building a strong and happy city through their citizen-led improvements.

Thumbs Up North Bay seeks out these individuals and the wonderful places they help create that make our community a place where we want to be. Thumbs Up North Bay recognizes their efforts by painting our Thumbs Up Award at the amazing places they have created (Don’t worry we are using water soluble chalk spray).

At the Gateway, we’ve offered to help by featuring the award winners with a more in depth exploration of the people who make this city what it is. We hope you will share the little gems you have discovered in our community that give us a sense of place so we can recognize them and feature them in the future.


Our world is always changing, and with it are our cities. Often, cities contain dated infrastructure that provides a window to those past worlds, such as old industrial areas left unkempt, or railways long abandoned cutting across cities. In New York City, one such relic, The Highline, an elevated railway running through the city, stood for years completely neglected after its decommission. In 2009, in a brilliant application of urban design, it was turned into a linear urban park, allowing for residents and tourists to experience a swath of nature to cut right through Manhattan.

By Acroterion – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=61356977

A proverbial phoenix of public green space rising from the ashes of abandoned human infrastructure from our past worlds is inspiring and poetic. Believe it or not, North Bay has its own such story.

The Secret Garden

In 1962, Murray Sweetman started a humble garden in his backyard along the CNR line. At the time, CN encouraged property owners along their lines to plant gardens, as it provided a view for the passenger trains. Over the years, that humble garden grew to the length of four properties along the line, now around a city block long. Eventually, the passenger train began stopping so that riders could witness the beauty garden from a stand-still.

Murray was a dedicated high school teacher for 30 years and coached multiple sports, nurturing the growth of North Bay’s youth. With the same care and thought, he cultivated his garden, nurturing flowers and greenery to create a beautiful space in the heart of our city.

Murray Sweetman

When the CNR line ceased operations in 1995, the associated infrastructure quickly deteriorated, with vandalism common on the trestles located throughout town, and generally, the rail was an unsightly remnant of the past. In contrast, Sweetman’s Gardens, located on the corner of Cormack and McIntyre W, not only outlived the CNR line along which it was planted, but became only more beautiful over time. While most of the rail has been completely removed, including the multiple trestles which scattered the Old City neighbourhood, the growth of the garden persists.

Map of the decommissioned CNR line through North Bay Source: https://www.cityofnorthbay.ca/media/1406/cnr-pictorial-history-final-edition.pdf?v=635990094310000000

The beauty of lupines, gloriosa-daisies, lilies, and other beautiful flowers that capture the imagination of children and adults alike, grow in a potential wasteland from another age.

The CNR Station became run down, and was targeting by vandals after its decommission in 1995. It has since been rehabilitated as a local heritage site.

While other areas of the CNR line were torn down and provided space for new houses and amenities like sports fields, Sweetman’s Gardens remains as Murray intended, a place of beauty rather than utility. Over the years, the garden has been utilized as a backdrop for many a photo-shoot, and has been the setting for generations of family walks, but ultimately it is the pure intent of beauty that brings people in.

Children are particularly fond of the area, affectionately calling it “the secret garden”, a place that captures their imagination and wonder. While the garden isn’t exactly a secret, the name captures the feeling of the place, as the original entrance, an opening in the hedge, gave the impression that you’ve come upon a place hidden from the world.

Historically, prior to its CNR days, the area was a portage route for fur traders and Indigenous peoples, adding even more of a heritage element to the Sweetman’s Gardens site. What was twice a crucial transportation route, a place to travel through, has become a place to just be.

As with all places, change is constant at Sweetman’s Garden.

In 2012, after the passing of Murray Sweetman, a huge void in the city needed to be filled. Who might carry on the garden’s keeping, and Murray’s legacy? Jim Forscythe and Adelaide Saeger, who’s house backs on to the site, undertook the difficult task of filling those rather large shoes.

Murray, who was notoriously picky about tending to his garden, began to trust Adelaide, a fellow gardening enthusiast, as she began her contributions helping Murray with keeping the Garden when the pair moved onto the block. Over time, the pair became good friends, and as she and her husband Jim took on more responsibility for the garden as Sweetman aged, it was only logical that Adelaide and her husband Jim would continue their work on the garden after his passing. To this day, the pair put an absolute ton of work into the site (mowing the lawns alone takes up about 3 hours per week), and are grateful of the volunteers that help them keep the space beautiful.

“It’s a very unique place within the city, it’s a quiet place. People come all the time to read a book, take photographs, and watch some of the birds that stop at the garden, and probably don’t stop anywhere else in our city.”

Jim Forscythe on the garden carrying different meaning for North Bay’s residents.

Prior to his death, Murray and Adelaide encouraged the founding of the Seedlings Storytime program in 2009, which gives children the opportunity to experience the joys of gardening, paired with creative learning avenues for literacy and ecological understandings of their world. The program, run with the North Bay Children’s Public Library, has seen many children help “grow a row” over the years, has fostered an understanding and appreciation of plant life, has introduced a generation to the joys of growing their own food, and has provided youth with the joy of North Bay’s sense of place.



The program is incredibly popular, and lineups and waitlists are a sure thing when it comes time for registration for the May to August program. Apparently, the registrations for the 16 available spots are filled within the first 20 minutes. The children get to participate in crafts like birdhouse making and according to Jim the parents often learn as much, if not more, than the kids!

“When kids take a bean they’ve planted, and eat it, one of the comments we hear most is how it doesn’t taste like the beans from the store”

Jim Forscythe on the Seedlings Storytime Program

For those who live or have lived in our city, Sweetman’s Gardens is one of the places that comes to mind when one hears the word “home”. For Jim and Adelaide, North Bay’s quiet and safe atmosphere, the recreation opportunities, as well as the nature that surrounds it, makes the city home to them. Their work in the garden brings the beauty of the natural world into the heart of our city.

“Find an area that needs it, there are areas of our city without a lot of green space. Start small and build from there”

Jim Forscythe on how to bring the beauty of Sweetman’s to other areas of the city.

Thank You!

To the regular sightseers of the garden, to those who participate in the Seedlings Storytime program, and especially, to Jim and Adelaide for their dedication to the site, thank you for making Sweetman’s Gardens what it is. Murray’s legacy is being carried on in his spirit of care for community, and the garden continues to be a beautiful site in our city.

Since 1962, the garden has changed and evolved, both over the years and with the cycle of the seasons. Despite this change, the garden has remained a constant source of beauty in an ever-changing city.

If you have yet to experience the garden, visit! It will give you a newfound sense of North Bay as a city, just be sure you treat it with the love and respect that it’s been kept with over the years.

There is grace in the small and often little-known, sites in our city that inject beauty into our lives. These places allow us to stop and take a minute to consider our place in our surroundings, in our community, those are the spots that give North Bay a sense of place.

Sweetman’s Gardens is the first site Thumbs Up North Bay is featuring. The garden’s entrance will feature our logo, a testament to the sites importance in our city and a special thank you to those involved.

On behalf of Thumbs Up North Bay, we sincerely thank those that keep the garden. You’re contribution brings our city to life. You are what make North Bay special.

You are what makes North Bay home.

RM


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