Stratford's 'cygnet-ture' stars   by Ellen Thomas  Stratford-Perth Archives

If one would hazard a guess as to what is most photographed in Stratford, one might guess the swans. After all, they have been a fixture in Stratford since 1918, when J. C. Garden, once a machinist in the Grand Trunk Railway shops, donated a pair he had purchased in Battle Creek, Mich. Some may believe the swans came from royal stock but, according to an article written by T. J. Dolan many years ago, most came from the United States. Although, when Queen Elizabeth II visited Canada in 1973, some swans from the royal flock were presented in Ottawa as a gift. According to a Beacon Herald article “after some negotiations, the two cities (Stratford and Ottawa) exchanged a pair of swans. The royal birds arrived in Stratford in 1973.”

Over the years, the swans have attracted quite a bit of media attention. The often filmed “swan parade” is usually huge event, attracting large crowds. In 1969, the National Ballet’s prima ballerina, Veronica Tennant, led the parade down to the Avon River. This photo from the collections at the Stratford-Perth Archives is of the swans taking a break on the road and dates from the 1960s.

In 1972, the Beacon Herald reported: “Stratford Mayor Donald Davis was greeted with laughter and applause when he stepped from the Festival Theatre in a gold and fur-trimmed robe to read the proclamation that set the swans free. The fanfare for the mayor’s reading came from the Midlanders, a drum and bugle corps with eight Northwestern secondary school students in Beefeater’s-type uniforms serving as honour guard.”

The very next year, 1973, it was reported that two of the swans took “their place along with Lassie, Rin Tin Tin and Gentle Ben as stars of television. Lyall Jariett, parks board superintendent, said the swans would be going to Kitchener Saturday morning to appear on the TV show Romper Room. The Romper Room appearance is “in keeping with the philosophy of promoting the city,” Mr. Jariett said.”

In 1984, the swans were once again stars. “A movie crew will roll into Stratford Saturday to film one of the city’s best-known symbols — the swans on the Avon River. The swans will be part of a film about Ontario, being commissioned by the provincial government, for use at the Ontario exhibit during Expo 86 in Vancouver. Bob Miller, the city’s keeper of the swans, will take part in the filming, but his role will be off-camera, he said in an interview.”

The CBC took an interest in the swans over the years. In 1989, swan keeper Miller appeared on The Journal and, again, in 1993, Miller was featured on CBC’s On the Road Again. He was billed as “an Ontario man and a family of two-dozen swans.” This involved three days of filming that July. Miller went on to write a book, released in the summer of 1995. The Swans of Stratford was described by Miller in his preface: “This book is part history, part science, part anecdotes and drama, with the hope that it will have some appeal for a wide variety of readers. Perhaps you will reflect a little, learn a little, smile a little, and end with a feeling of empathy for the swans.”

In 1999, Alan and Kaaryn Gough of Ragtop Productions Inc. spent six months filming the swans. They produced a video that was released in 2000 titled Swans on the Avon. They enlisted the talents of Loreena McKennitt for the music and Colm Feore for the narration. Also, that year, the Goughs and a group of local businesses set up a live broadcast of the hatching of a nest of cygnets. People all over the world could watch the Stratford swans.

So, as the swans are perhaps more photographed and filmed than the actors at the Festival in Stratford, it’s not surprising that in 1987 a headline in the Beacon Herald read: “Residents challenged to swan photo contest.” Mayor R. L. Bird of Burlington contacted Mayor Ted Blowes with a proposal to extend a challenge to the surrounding community to participate in the “Great Swan Challenge.” Bird wrote: “I believe Stratford’s long-necked birds may have met their rival with the Burlington beauties.” How could Stratford not take up the challenge. Citizens of Stratford were asked to unite and “make it snappy.” The categories for entry were the most regal swan, the most humorous swan, the ugly duckling, and the most intelligent swan. One can only image how much attention the swans received that spring.

Even during these trying times, one can go down to the river, enjoy the beauty of the swans, breathe in some fresh air, and watch people with cellphones or cameras being “snappy.”  Source: Beacon Herald Reflections