General Almonte and Dr. Naismith would be … bewildered

Around the Nation

A column by Tom Van Dusen

At Nation Valley News, we pay most of our attention to Eastern Ontario territory defined by the South Nation River and its tributaries.

But we aren’t blind to the world beyond those boundaries! As we like to say around the NVN office, it’s one big nation!

A nation including Mississippi Mills west of Ottawa and its urban core Almonte which over the past five years has gained a reputation as the premier stand-in for American country towns when it comes to shooting Christmas movies for Hallmark and Lifetime channels!

Almonte’s growing reputation as the go-to replacement for “Anywhere, USA” even gained notice in the prestigious New York Times lately, including glowing reports on the town’s camera readiness and comparisons to Currier & Ives and Norman Rockwell prints.

We decided to go and take a look for ourselves. After all, it’s one big nation!

When we arrived, we were startled to see bemused basketball inventor Dr. James Naismith, patron saint of Mississippi Mills, decked out for the season in white scarf and Christmas tuque.  While his basketball inventing mainly occurred in Springfield, Massachusetts, he was born in Almonte in 1861 and is proudly claimed as a native son.

Van Dusen photo, Nation Valley News


Gazing around the Naismith statue, a visitor can readily see why Rockwell might have used downtown Almonte as a model: Striking architecture in stone and brick, quaint shops, and seasonal decorations galore, almost as if the next movie crew was expected at any minute.

Most strikingly, Canada’s Mississippi River tumbles through the town, creating almost embarrassingly rich panoramas at every turn of the shoreline walk. It’s just so cinematic!

The scenery lends itself perfectly to the standard plot of one or the other member of a romantic couple leaving the big city to reconnect with his or her roots and, in the process, with the other member of the couple, only to live happ… well we don’t ever learn how they live because the movie ends at the reconnection!

The Mississippi River in Almonte, in November 2020. Van Dusen photo, Nation Valley News

Almost as bizarre as the plots of some of those Christmas movies, the town was named for Mexican general Juan Almonte. Why, you might well ask?

Well, 150 years ago the general was seen by many international observers as an admirable public figure worthy of having his name honoured in unlikely places such as a rough and tumble Eastern Ontario town, at the time home to 30 stores and 40 other businesses, primarily prosperous woolen mills.

When is a production company going to script a movie, Christmas or otherwise, in that fascinating historic time? I can see it now… a seasonal rom-com set among the raw wool bales!

Over the past five years, eight festive flicks have been shot in Almonte which is always disguised as Somewhere, USA. Most recently, Fatman starring Mel Gibson was released — also partially filmed in Chesterville, my nephew Sam has a bit part in it — and The Christmas Setup and Unlocking Christmas are coming to streaming services near you Dec. 12 and 13.

It’s getting so local folks hardly notice when one film crew leaves and another arrives. Their shops are used as sets and some of them are employed as extras. There’s even a web page promoting “Mini Hollywood North” and the “feel good” movies being shot here.

Convinced that the show must go on, folks even roll with the inconvenience of movie-making trucks, equipment and technicians crowding the streets. One businesswoman whose shop has been used in three movies said she knows what she’s in for when she agrees to participate, what effort and resources it takes to film “one little scene”. However, she said, crews go over and above to make sure all of her needs are met.

It’s all bringing local fame and fortune to the town previously put on the map by General Almonte and Dr. Naismith. But wouldn’t it be a thrill to see just one of these festive follies starring Almonte as itself, an exceptional Ontario town, instead of masquerading once again as somewhere south of the border?

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