Hedi Nowak has lived in Milton for all but four years of her life. Arriving from Germany with her family as a small child in 1956, she has seen Milton from every angle, and in every light. While not an artist herself, Hedi has built her life through art while the town of Milton has built and arranged itself around her. She is known as a gatherer in town: bringing people together in the name of common interests. She supports Milton artists with her whole being, many of whom are showcased in the charming little yellow house-turned-art gallery at the corner of Mill Street and Bronte.
Go in for a minute, and you will stay for an hour. Whether you’re seeking inspiration, a unique gift, or that certain piece that you just have to have, there is something wonderful to behold in every nook and cranny.
Who is the woman behind it all?
Jenn: Hedi, You purchased the Harrop House in 1976 and opened the Harrop Restaurant. As a young, single woman, what prompted the idea to open a restaurant?
Hedi: About 43 years ago when I was 22, I was serving customers at the old Bavarian Inn at the Milton Mall, which was our existing restaurant. There were three men there, and one of them said “Sell it to her!” and I said, “Sell me WHAT?”.
They told me about the Harrop House, that they were involved with it, and that it was ready for ‘somebody.’ I had just finished writing my registered masseuse exams, but the thought of the restaurant…well, something about that intrigued me. So the next day we met on the Harrop property at 345 Steeles Avenue, and within an hour the house owned me. Stone houses have that gift. So I fell in love [with it] and I went ahead. I was 22, female, and it was a time when it was challenging to [borrow] money, as a woman, but I managed to convince the bank, and family and friends supported me, and away I went! Because it was a beautiful old stone home, I kept the old English energy and went into continental cuisine. We opened up with Minton China, Zwiezal crystal, white table cloths, silver, French service…we even had chefs that used to cook for the Queen! We had waiters, maître D’s…the whole nine yards. It was a wonderful, magical place, and people who came in loved the elegance, yet always the comments mentioned the “homeyness” about it. It was the kind of place where you’d come for dinner, and you’d end up staying for hours, enjoying dessert and coffee. It was a place where people came to talk.
Jenn: What part did you play in the day to day operations of the restaurant?
Hedi: For my part in things, I would welcome the people, offer them homemade toast and almonds to nibble on to start, finish with handmade mints, and I also used to wander around with cigars and cigarettes to hand out after dinner!
We started out with chairs without arms for the women, and with arms for men, menus without pricing for the women, and the men’s would have the prices in them–all of that went to Hell in a handcart because the women grabbed the armchairs! Women’s Lib had just started and of course, there were comments like “How dare you have my menu without prices!” and that was the end of that.
For years people would come to Harrop from all over for special occasions, like birthdays, anniversaries, high-end executive parties, and the mayors would come and bring visiting dignitaries and show the place off; it was the IT place to go. We were known as a destination.
Jenn: Back then Milton was still very tiny!
Hedi: Oh yes, when I started working at the Bavarian Inn we had just 6,000 people in Milton, but back then we were told that Milton would become the County Seat, and grow to something like 80,000 people!
Many of our customers came from all over when we were a destination spot, and then as more of those spots appeared, we became more locally centered. You knew everyone then, walking in town.
Jenn: …and Harrop House grew.
Hedi: Yes, in the beginning, we just had the dining room in the front, but then we added a dessert and coffee lounge in the back. That was how The Gallery started, with just my brother Burkhard’s photography, and then we found Trisha Romance, and she fell in love with the Harrop. It was a magical place for Trisha, and we ended up carrying her art. She painted the Harrop homestead, and a piece called Winter Twilight, which was the whole farm. Trisha loved the Harrop, and we were the largest Trisha Romance gallery anywhere.
Back then, with people coming in from everywhere for special occasions, people would buy a lot of prints, and they would want the print that they had purchased for their special someone presented by hanging on the wall with a bow on it, and it became a very symbiotic relationship with the restaurant. That went on for many years, and we had many art shows, some of which required police traffic control for people like Trisha and Robert Bateman, because it was huge in those days, having that print market.
Then later we had Massage and Martini nights, and my friend Gina Bello would come and give chair massages, people would have their martinis, and we had Elvira [Hopper] for Jazz and Art nights too. There were always functions for people to come and interact, and see the art in person as much as possible. We’re only a representative for an artist, but when you’re able to actually come meet an artist and interact with them during these functions, people would form that bond, and start to collect their work.
Jenn: You were able to meet so many wonderful artists! You must have some fascinating memories to share.
Hedi: I do, too many to share! I remember Robert Bateman, he used to come in often, and I remember one time, we did a Valentine’s Day dinner for Robert and his wife, and he came in and said to me, “Hedi, I want to do something really special for my wife.” He asked if I knew where to find an antique baby buggy. His wife wanted a doll buggy. I had a contact in downtown Toronto that I called who had one, and I got it for him and brought it in for their special dinner.
Jenn: So you’re not an artist, and your interest in art began purely as a smart business move.
Hedi: No, I’m no artist. I can barely draw a stick figure, so I’m more of a frustrated artist, who just appreciates the talent that people display, and I just love art in every form.
Jenn: That explains what the gallery is today, certainly.
Hedi: I carry art in many forms. Art in chocolate, art in food. Art on the walls, in the outside meadow art. Fibre art. Cement, glass, metal, stone. Art is everywhere, and I have so much showcased here. I have a large display showcasing Milton artist Tina Newlove, and I just love the colours she uses in her paintings. Then we have stone work by Bo, and these pieces are done with beach pebbles from Lake Ontario.
Of course, I’m known for my framing, having been in the custom framing business for 35 years, and people trust me with their treasures. I know what mats and frames make the pictures pop and also fit into your decor. Many people are renovating these older homes now, and we can bring new life to older artwork, too.
Jenn: So many wonderful things out in the garden, too. There are a couple of sculptures that I’m just in love with. If only my yard would support them all.
Hedi: My motto is: “If we don’t have it you don’t need it!”
Jenn: Truth! And I’ll be back to shop in the near future.
Harrop House and the Gallery, in all it’s forms and locations, has really been your life. You never married, or had children?
Hedi: I have been blessed with a large family. My four brothers, and a ton of nieces and nephews, and now great-nieces and nephews, and I’ve always had phenomenal family support. My birthdays are usually a big occasion, and we have parties where there can be a hundred people with family and friends celebrating. One year we actually turned it into a fundraiser! I’m really big on that, and I do fundraising for the Epilepsy Research Fund of Canada. We raised ten thousand dollars doing a walk-a-thon, walking from Harrop House to the Mill Pond. I do think that as we get older, birthdays should instead become fundraisers for whatever your favourite cause is.
Jenn: That is a fascinating idea. Rather than gifts you don’t need, have your friends put the money into a fundraiser. Brilliant.
Hedi, you have seen Milton grow and change so much over the years., from it’s farm-centric early days to what we’re experiencing today. What is the biggest change you’ve noticed in the community?
Hedi: We came to Milton from Germany when I was four years old. My parents, my four brothers, and me. We were immigrants, and I saw how everyone welcomed us. It was just after the war, so for some people having Germans here was hard, but even so we felt welcomed here. We found work, and we worked hard. The German Club was formed around that time, the Italian Club was formed, everyone had their own cultural place, but it was all community and everyone interacted. So when I see all the changes in Milton now, I welcome the new people, because that’s what it’s all about. We were those people 50 and 60 years ago. Many of us went on to do so much for our community, and for our families. This is nothing new, really, it has always been a mix of cultures.
People say “Do you like the progress?” and I say “What’s the difference?” It’s here, and if I don’t like it I can move; I have that option. But if I’m going to live here, it is what it is. Yes, there’s busy roads, but it’s like this everywhere else as communities grow, and we’ve just been spoiled up to now. I live in the old part of town, and I’d like to say it’s less busy, but it’s loud. Bronte is a loud, busy street, and people tend to zoom by and may say “oh, what is that place?” I used to be on Steeles, and about a year and a half ago Harrop became Remax, and I moved here to the Mill Street location. I’ve opened up this different, eclectic little gallery. I also do angel card readings, I live with crystals, and do healings with Reiki. There’s always coffee, and people are welcome to come, and talk, and spend some time. We have a number of artists who come here to paint, to create their art, and hang out. You just never know what might be going on in here. I always say that my biggest constant is my inconsistency!
Jenn: How are the newcomers with the art you have in the Gallery?
Hedi: For many, they are seeing it all for the first time, and it’s quite something. It’s fascinating talking to them and getting to know what they like, maybe introducing them to things that are new to them.
Jenn: You’re well known in Milton, in many circles.
Hedi: I’ve been in the industry for…forever. I started working at the Bavarian Inn when I was 12. I have a reputation for being a bit of a gatherer. I tend to gather people and interact with them and send them where they need to go. Like when we opened Harrop and found La Rose’s Good Hearth bread, people would come in and have lunch and love our bread, so I’d send them to the bakery at La Rose for their bread. I’d also send people to Springridge, or to Chudleigh’s, and I found that the more people love our area, the more likely they would be to come back. I always felt I wanted to give them their money’s worth.
Jenn: You and I met through MAFE, the Milton Area Female Entrepreneurs Facebook group. How has that affected business?
Hedi: Well, I think MAFE was one of the best things that ever happened in Milton thanks to Sandy Hatzis, who really put herself out there and got a whole community of women who didn’t have an outlet to [easily] interact with or talk to a lot of other women. So with MAFE, I tell every woman I meet to get in there. It’s the most inexpensive [free!] way to have your finger on the pulse of what’s happening in town and to put your own word out about what you’ve got to offer. You also see how generous these women are in terms of fundraising, and in terms of a massive support group.
Jenn: That’s it exactly, a fully-supportive group of women. It’s completely unique. Sandy is amazing for keeping on top of things.
Hedi: There is a genuine desire to support and assist each other. They’re very open and will tell you “hey, this person does what you’re looking for!” and go out of their way to support each other.
Jenn: I agree, and I’ve made many friends via MAFE that I never would have met otherwise. It’s a very special group.
Hedi, do you ever plan to close up shop and retire? What might that look for you?
Hedi: Being in the art world, retirement is a gift. I always see myself being open with something. That’s how I meet people and see myself. I do think I have an ultimate here. It’s a one [wo]man show, and I’m here most of the time, day and night, but ultimately I can see myself travelling and seeing more of Canada. We have everything in Canada. I would really like to do a retreat in Niagara on the Lake, I think.
Jenn: You’re happy, and exactly where you want to be, and not many people can truly say that.
Ok, here they come – the rapid fire questions!
Hedi: Oh dear.
Jenn: Favourite Restaurant, and dish?
Hedi: Oh my. So many. I’d have to say Grand Chalet, who make the most amazing schnitzel.
Jenn: Favourite colour?
Hedi: Oh, the blue you’re wearing now is my favourite colour!
Jenn: Favourite place in town?
Hedi: I’d have to say the downtown. I love the downtown area in Milton, although I just spent an evening at the Italian Club, and they’re starting to have live music now, which was really wonderful. I love Milton.
Jenn: We’ve already covered this, but what do you love best about Milton?
Hedi: The people, for sure.
Jenn: Who else should I do a Spotlight on?
Hedi: For sure Peter Haight, who just moved and now has a gallery in his home. Also, I love Grumbling Granny in Campbellville on Guelph line, who have a myriad of unbelievable crystals and jewelry.
Hedi, thank you so much for spending the afternoon with me, and thanks, too, for the spontaneous Reiki for my sore shoulder!