Apple maven Eileen Giffen was Gram to all
Giffen Orchard matriarch Eileen Giffen, famous for her pies and tarts, died March 6, just weeks before her 100th birthday.
Because she was like a grandmother to everyone, she was most referred to as Gram.
She and her late husband Frank grew their Glen Huron farm business, with help from their family, over the past eight decades.
Daughter Fran Levesque said the pie and tart craze all started when someone put in a request for a homemade apple pie. The restaurant and store took shape over the years. They sold mainly apples and a few other things. At one point, Levesque said her daughter was making apple muffins and then someone asked Gram to make them a pie and it snowballed from there.
Each one was made by hand, and the butter tarts, too.
Thanksgiving was the busiest time, said Levesque, with Gram and her helper cranking out about 80 pies in preparation.
“She was a great poet, storywriter and a great artist. She had all these talents,” said Levesque.
Gram kept a number of scrapbooks filled with memories and stories.
One of six children herself, Gram was born in Collingwood and always wanted to be a nurse but it was discouraged by her mother, who had lost another daughter to illness, when she was working as a nurse.
Their father died during the depression, so everyone in the family had to leave high school, to find work where possible and pitch in.
Frank Giffen bought the Glen Huron farm in 1939, when he was 21 and he married Eileen soon after. Together they had six children – Patricia, Bob, Fran, John, Gerald and Margaret.
As children, they worked for the family business, and the three boys do to this day.
“We were put to work at six years old. We loved it though,” said Levesque.
She loved animals and said she spent half her time in the barn, there were also apples to pick and they all learned to drive the tractor while picking stones out of the field.
Gram recorded in her scrapbook, “When Frank was living at home on the family farm on the Fourth Line, they would come over to the mill in Glen Huron to get feed processed. While passing this place, on his way, he often dreamed of owning it.”
It was already planted with an orchard but they were off to a rough start when they lost a crop that first year due to early winter weather. They had to work hard to keep things going.
“We grew raspberries and strawberries for a few years,” wrote Gram. “We planted out a large patch of raspberries, this was during the war… we didn’t know how we were going to get them picked. There weren’t many kids around the area to pick.”
So one night before the berries were ready they sat down and decided to put ads in the local newspapers – Creemore, Dundalk, Stayner and Collingwood – to see if anyone would come and pick their own.
“Well, we were overwhelmed. Women came from miles away to pick their own berries. It was great. Other growers in the area said we were crazy, that they would tramp the patch and ruin it but we were always in the patch and kept everyone in their rows and no problem. I believe we were the first people to start pick-your-own and now it is all over the world.”
“I’ll tell you the truth it was uphill all the way and it still is. It’s a struggle to get ahead. Costs are high and markets aren’t the best. The USA floods the market so it is a struggle. However, it’s our life and we still carry on.”
Gram loved to play bridge and played bid euchre with the Big Heart Seniors. Levesque recalls a funny story about the day her mother wanted to get to away from the store, where a police officer was lunching, in order to get to euchre on time.
“She said to the officer, now don’t you be following me to Creemore, I’m late. She had to get to her cards. The last 10 years, she lived to play cards.”
Gram was also a dedicated volunteer, a member of the Cloverleigh women’s Institute, 4H and the Collingwood fair board.