Markdale is one of many towns along Highway 10 between Toronto and the sandy beaches of Lake Huron’s Georgian Bay. The Toronto, Grey and Bruce Railway, now a gravel bike path, gave Markdale its first big boost by linking it to the provincial capital about 100 miles to the southeast during the 19th century. Then Highway 10 sustained the town. But there is now little to encourage beachgoers from the big city to take a break here aside from an attractive cafe and restaurant in the town’s old fire hall.
“It’s still a little bit of old Ontario,” said Ron Motz, a farmer who is chairman of the area’s board of education. “It’s more rural, it’s a little bit quieter, some people would say a little less progressive.”
While Markdale has lost some employers in recent years, Chapman’s is the stuff of small town dreams. A sign at the end of the street leading to its complex urges passers-by to stop in and apply for work.
The company is, by local standards, a newcomer. In 1973, David and Penny Chapman were working at a small Toronto ice cream maker when they decided to get into the business themselves. That required access to a milk supply, which was limited under Canada’s tightly controlled dairy system. And the Maypole Dairy in Markdale had milk for sale at a reasonable price.
By focusing on niche products like house brands for supermarkets, Chapman’s became Canada’s largest ice cream maker by volume. Then almost eight years ago, fire leveled the plant. And that was nearly the end of Chapman’s in Markdale.
Other cities and towns offered tax deals and other incentives to rebuild. But Ashley Chapman, 38, who now runs the company with his parents, said moving was never an option.
“This town made us who we are,” Mr. Chapman said in his office at the rebuilt plant. “It was too hard a thing to wrap your head around — moving to a different place.”
The town’s identity is also closely…