By Agatha Krzewinski
It is no wonder that millions of viewers would tune in weekly to watch the Emmy award winning series Road to Avonlea, with the beautiful green pastures, historic costumes, and beautiful landscapes.
“A period series is a lot more interesting than a contemporary one,” veteran actress Jackie Burroughs, who played the dour Aunt Hetty, would recall at the time.
The 110-million-dollar series came into fruition after the overwhelming success of Anne of Green Gables.
“It really started as a response to viewer interest in seeing more of Green Gables,” said Producer Kevin Sullivan at the time to The Globe and Mail in 1990. “We get flooded with mail every time the show goes to air.”
Like Anne of Green Gables, the story is set in the mythical early-1900s village of Avonlea, P.E.I.
“If you looked at villages from the turn of the century in Prince Edward Island this one would very much resemble the classic P.E.I. village. Unfortunately, those places don’t really exist on the island anymore.”
In addition to proximity and financial costs, the producers decided to construct an entire village near Uxbridge, Ontario, about an hour’s drive north of Toronto. It was in the area around Durham Regional Road and Concession Road 6, on the former Robert Nesbitt Farm.
Near the site of where Montgomery settled with her husband in 1911, it is an area tucked away with a variety of landscapes, from fields to forests. The 370-acre farm area was where all the exterior scenes were filmed, while most of the interior scenes were filmed in a studio in Toronto.
Gemini Award winning Production Designer Perri Gorrara made every effort to turn the area into a convincing replica of a 20th century P.E.I. village.
"The village was conceived,drawn, models made, buildings located, and some were moved to improve shooting angles in under six weeks,” Gorrara told The Mail Star.
The one-million-dollar construction project was based on thousands of Prince Edward Island photos Gorrara had pored over. Hundreds were tacked onto the walls of her home before she arrived at her final destination.
With a crew of about 50 people, a total of 8 period buildings were built, with scrubbed clapboard building fronts and skeletal interiors. The first building was a general store and following that a church, a tiny schoolhouse, and houses.
“It was pretty hectic,” Gorrara recalled. “We did a lot of work in a short time.”
The barn and the schoolhouse were the only buildings that were constructed with interiors for filming, which did present some interesting challenges. Space was limited for elaborate camerawork. Large diesel heaters were used so that you couldn’t see the actor’s breath while filming in the winter (Read more about it at www.roadtoavonlea.com/blog-posts/the-schoolhouse )
A lighthouse was also built, known in the series as ‘Gus Pike’s lighthouse,’ where frequent scenes took place with flowing fields and rippling waters in the background.
“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,”local historian Allan McGillivray had told The Bulletin Magazine.
As the series developed with more subsequent seasons, more buildings were built later on to accommodate story lines such as a post office, a newspaper office, and a cannery.
And while getting the entire village constructed was half the battle, the other half was getting it to look like it was lived in.
“It’s easy to get a carpenter to build a straight fence, but it’s a difficult task to get a carpenter to build a fence that leans. I literally had to get them to hammer at the fences to get them to lean,” said Gorrara.
To make the new buildings look old,construction workers banged their tools against the houses, giving it a worn out look.
In addition to creating buildings,the roads were also painted red to simulate the very red roads of P.E.I., which is a result of the island’s high iron content in the soil and sandstone.
“We just decided if we were going to be totally authentic, why go to the trouble of creating all these authentic buildings if you couldn’t make the rest of the landscape look as real,”Sullivan told The Globe and Mail.
Every week construction workers sprayed the Ontario gray roads with an iron oxide material to sustain the red look. Crushed red shingles were also used for added texture. This was to prevent the road from dissolving into a bleeding pink paste after heavy rainfall.
“I love the way that every week they come out with their little aerosol cans spraying the roads,” a 10-year-oldSarah Polley quoted at the time to The Toronto Star. “It’s hilarious. It takes them like five hours to get the whole thing done.”
In regard to any actual footage of P.E.I. that was used, outdoor filming on the island was done to capture footage of the ocean, bridges, and red earth, which were later spliced in to add authenticity. The famous White Sands Hotel was also filmed on Prince Edward Island for exterior shots, while all the interior shots were filmed in Toronto.(Read more about it at www.roadtoavonlea.com/blog-posts/introducing-the-real-white-sands-hotel-dalvay-by-the-sea )
And, of course there were other things to keep in mind for making the village feel like a period setting:
“Where the wind is, what the trains and planes are doing, if they can stop traffic, if they can get the chainsaw on the next corner to stop – all that stuff,” quoted actress Patricia Hamilton to The Toronto Star.
But once the actors arrived in their costumes and the mannerisms of men opening and closing doors, and women doing other chivalric acts, a feeling for the period was created.
While trying to make everything as authentic as possible, Gorrara did admit the show was a little more glamorous than life would have really been in PEI at that time.
“It has to have that magic quality.We err on the side of making these a little too beautiful. But hey, it’s magic too.”
Unfortunately, the buildings were torn down with a backhoe 6 years later, on February 14th and 15th,1996, but even then, Sullivan admitted that the place didn’t lose its magic when he visited the area 20 years later.
“So many elements of this location have not changed. 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.”
To watch all episodes of Road to Avonlea visit www.gazebotv.com