Great Barrington finds sister city in Ontario

Gail MacKay leads the Ingersoll Pipe Band during Thamesford’s Calithumpian parade in London, Ontario, Canada.

Thursday August 9, 2012 Great Barrington, meet Ingersoll, Ontario: It was settled by one of your native sons, once produced a 7,300-pound block of cheese, and was home to a poet widely regarded as Canada's worst.

Moreover, it's full of a whole lot of friendly folks who are really quite keen on getting to know you better.

This weekend, Ingersoll and Great Barrington will be formally joined as sister cities when the town manager and a mission of local history enthusiasts travels north to take part in a series of ceremonies in the town of 13,000, which is located about 90 miles southwest of Toronto.

Officials from Great Barrington and Ingersoll say the twinning arrangement -- spurred by the discovery of artifacts from Ingersoll in the Berkshires two years ago -- is an acknowledgment of the two towns' shared past.

Pioneering Great Barrington resident Thomas Ingersoll began settling a thickly wooded area in present-day Ontario in 1793. His descendants later chartered the town and named it in his honor.

Since then, contact between the two towns had been scant -- the ties weren't renewed until last year, when local historian Gary Leveille contacted his Canadian counterparts about the Ingersoll artifacts he'd found following a chance encounter at a tag sale in Sheffield. The items included a wooden box with the town's name lettered on it, a diary and a tea set.

"I sent an email over to some officials there, including the mayor, never expecting to hear anything back," Leveille said. "Well, I heard a lot back. ... And when they found out about the 250th celebration, they wanted to come down."

A group of about 15 interested Ingersoll residents and dignitaries made the trip in December and took part in the closing of the 250th celebration, but rather than taking the artifacts back to Canada with them, the representatives from Ingersoll asked if a group of Great Barrington residents would come deliver them in person to Ingersoll.

A date was set and, through the ongoing dialogue between the towns, the twinning agreement was drawn up and approved by both municipalities.

In all, six locals, including Leveille and Town Manager Kevin O'Donnell, will make the 450-mile trip to Ingersoll this weekend. The group is primarily composed of members of the Great Barrington Historical Society.

Ingersoll's mayor, Ted Com iskey, who was among the group that visited Great Barrington last year, said the town is prepared to greet the group with open arms.

"I was just overwhelmed on their generosity down there and how at home we felt, and I thought, jeepers, if we felt at home down there then hopefully they'll feel at home up here," he said. "I think we're of similar blood."

Ingersoll and the surrounding Oxford County are historically known for cheese production and agriculture. Comiskey called it the dairy capital of Canada.

"At one point in time, I don't think there was a square mile that didn't have a cheese factory on it," he said.

In 1866, one of those factories famously produced a giant block of cheese weighing 7,300 pounds, which was exhibited in England and the United States.

Among the town's notable residents was James McIntyre (1827-1906), who became known as "the cheese poet" for his works inspired by the region's primary export.

"He was almost pretty well proclaimed as Canada's worst poet," said Comiskey. But the town's mayor says McIntyre was simply misunderstood by later generations, who didn't pick up on the tongue-and-cheek nature of McIntyre's work.

Today, Ingersoll, which is also known in Canada as "Festival Town," hosts an annual poetry contest in McIntyre's honor, among 17 other annual town events, including a rib festival, pumpkin festival, and winter lights festival. Comiskey said the town's Canterbury Folk Fes tival regularly draws 20,000 to 25,000 people.

Comiskey said he sees similarities between Great Bar rington and Ingersoll, and he hopes the twinning relationship will blossom into an international friendship that promotes understanding between the United States and Canada. (Coincidentally, the twinning of the two towns comes during the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812, during which the U.S. invaded Canada.)

"Whenever there is a situation that arises -- any form of irritation on behalf of Can adians and Americans -- I want our two towns to jump up to the front and say, ‘Hey, we're all the same folks, we do the same things, we're all part of the same family'," said Comiskey.

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An ode to cheese

We have seen thee, Queen of Cheese,

Lying quietly at your ease,

Gently fanned by evening breeze;

Thy fair form no flies dare seize.

All gaily dressed, soon you'll go

To the provincial show,

To be admired by many a beau

In the city of Toronto.

-- From "Ode on the Mammoth Cheese," published in 1884 by James McIntyre, the cheese poet of Ingersoll