VANKLEEK HILL – Vankleek Hill lost one of its most devoted citizens last week. On Wednesday, December 14, Phil Arber died at the age of 78 after a brief illness. Since the news became known, the Vankleek Hill community has been sharing stories with each other, on social media and sending their sympathies to Arber’s family.
Most agree that he was hard to describe. You could call him a community activist, as he often worked to rally people around a cause or spur them to action. But he was also an organizer, collecting ideas from near and far and making them his own as he brought them to life in Vankleek Hill. He travelled in between all of these activities and worked on the farm he and his partner, Samme Putzel, operated just outside of Vankleek Hill. The avid antique dealer/collector was often on the road, looking for treasures and was always among the first earlybirds at the weekly Lachute Flea Market.
Putzel says the response from the community has been overwhelming, calling it a “tidal wave” of support. During the past few weeks, there were stacks of cards arriving by mail and cards are still arriving, she said. She said that in the past days, she has become even more aware of the far-reaching influence he had on people.
“There was something about him . . . he drew people out and got them re-examining who they were,” says Putzel. A conversation with Phil Arber seemed to leave a mark and people remembered him, she says.
Arber, who along with Putzel, has lived on a farm just outside of Vankleek Hill since the early 70s, will be remembered for being the driving force behind many local projects. Arber worked with local artists Lis Skelly and Odile Tetu and was instrumental in the creation of four historical murals in Vankleek Hill in the 1990s, at a time when murals were just beginning to gain popularity.
Active for many years in the Vankleek Hill Agricultural Society, Arber was the go-to person for many things, including horse shows at the fair. He was also an organizer of the Hilltop Horse Show, which took place at the Vankleek Hill Fairgrounds. His love of all things historical and antiques made him a natural to organize an annual antique show at the Maxville Fairgrounds for several years; he also organized a similar show in Montreal for a time.
Arber was behind-the-scenes and always supporting the Vankleek Hill Farmers’ Market since its inception 20 years ago and then, having purchased the historical Higginson house on Home Avenue, he founded Arbor Gallery, which later became arm’s length from Arber when it incorporated as a not-for-profit organization a few years ago and is now known as Arbor Gallery Cultural Centre.
Arber continued to host the speaker series at Arbor Gallery each year, building a loyal group of followers for these Saturday night presentations, billed as a cultural alternative to Hockey Night in Canada.
Arber loved parades. He has organized the Vankleek Hill Fair Parade in the past, and more recently was coordinator of the Santa Claus Parade of Lights every year. Moving the parade to a night-time affair was his idea. Arber also coordinated the Horse and Buggy Parade (for 20 years) and revived the Strawberry Social at the fairgrounds as an add-on event, along with a line driving competition.
In recent years, Arber worked at creating a St. Patrick’s festival in Vankleek Hill, which included, of course, a parade.
Around 2003, Arber donated the portion of land and, in ruins at the time, the Higginson Tower to Champlain Township; he was part of a six-member committee which restored the tower within the next few years.
Several years ago, Arber formed a company called “Excellent Events.” It was under this umbrella that he continued to organize the annual parades and events, many of which he had started – like the May Show Festival, the Vankleek Hill Christmas Craft Show, the Champlain Commercial Fair, Breakfast With Santa, the Gingerbread Competition and coordinated the Festival of Flavours, which is hosted by the Vankleek Hill Farmers’ Market.
On his own, it was Arber who approached Champlain Township to ask that Vankleek Hill be declared the “Gingerbread Capital of Ontario.” The township approved the idea.
It is hard to know what drove Arber to come up with ideas and events that were often met with doubts and skepticism.
Putzel says he was born in Stony Mountain, Manitoba to homesteader parents. His early life was one of poverty.
He attended several universities, eventually becoming a civil engineer. Living in Montreal, he travelled the world installing 400 to 500-feet stacks to control pollution, among other things. That is when she met him, Samme says.
“But the two of us wanted a farm,” Putzel says. Plans that would have had Arber move to a new job in Toronto changed.
An ad in the newspaper brought Arber to Vankleek Hill.
“One day he came home and said, ‘I just bought a farm. Do you want to come and see it?’ ” recalled Putzel.
So the couple moved to Vankleek Hill and never looked back.
Putzel is very clear on how she wants the community to move forward and remember Phil Arber.
“We want people to accept everything that he did as a gift,” said Putzel. But more than that, she is hoping that the community can come together and keep growing and building together.
“I hope that people take all of this outpouring of love and respect . . . this is your chance, to pick it up,” says Putzel. She is referring to the newly-formed Philip Arber Foundation for Vankleek Phill and Environs.
That foundation can serve as a canopy for ideas and so far, Putzel said, the foundation has four key projects it will support. One ongoing area of support will be to ensure that Excellent Events continues to organize existing events in the established manner. A second responsibility of the foundation will be the Arbor Gallery property, where the building currently has an adoption agency as a second-storey tenant and Arbor Gallery operating out of the main floor. A third mandate of the foundation will be to establish a community square; a concept for this will have to be created.
A fourth mandate is McAlpine Forest, explained Putzel. Arber has donated his half of the farm to the United Counties of Prescott-Russell; this land will be set aside for trees, following Arber’s idea to have it revert to its original boreal forest setting.
Putzel is optimistic that the foundation is the perfect way to bring people together.
“Maybe we can be something greater than anything we could do separately. We can rally from the inside and who knows what may come of this?” Putzel said, mentioning that others might join in and in the end, a corridor of trees would be created.
A GoFundMe page has been created for the Philip Arber Foundation and Putzel says she has set the goal at a million dollars.
“I know that some may think it is a lofty goal, but why not . . . it could go anywhere. This world can be so depressing, so here is your chance to do something about it,” Putzel continued.
Donate to the GoFundMe location here: