In 1984, Kevin Sullivan drove along numerous rural back roads looking for a landscape that could capture the idyllic maritime farming community of turn-of-the-century P.E.I. for his first miniseries adaptation of Anne of Green Gables.
He was criticized at the time for adopting a lack of authenticity in not shipping his production unit 1500 miles east to Prince Edward Island, to shoot exteriors just off the coast of Nova Scotia. With four seasons of changes in the script and knowing he would still have to build exterior sets on the remote east coast island, he opted to try and find his ideal setting just outside of Toronto.
Sullivan remarked to the press “If David Lean can create a spectacularly authentic vision of winter Moscow in the heat of summer Spain for the exteriors of his epic Doctor Zhivago, Sullivan Films can find P.E.I. outside Toronto”.
Filming in Leakside Ontario
Ironically he found the location that became the production’s signature about 15 minutes from Leakside, Ontario, and the town where L.M. Montgomery and her family lived for a decade after they had moved away from PEI.
Out of the corner of his car window Sullivan caught sight of a wave of rolling fields, crested with pines into which was nestled a charming, rambling whitewashed farmhouse that looked remarkably as if the ocean were located just on the other side of the hill.
Sullivan adapted the fame building and barns and successfully shot them for all of the reverses of “Green Gables”.
Five years later, when he was required to construct an entire maritime village, with lighthouse, schoolhouse, a cannery, woods, ponds, lanes and even the exterior of the White Sands Hotel perched on the Atlantic, there was only one property he could think of with enough vista. Sullivan returned to the charming property at Coppins Corners and began building. The original farm building was renovated and painted blue to become the King Farm. Roads were painted red and covered with crushed brick to emulate the red oxide back roads of the island.
Bringing Avonlea to Life
After seven years of filming and seeing the property through over dozen changes of seasons, it was clear that the farm at Coppins Corners had become a reliable character and a true back-lot in its own right.
Through sun dappled colored leaves to spectacular snowfalls, a more convincing environment of a 19th century small town has rarely been captured on film.The effects were often enhanced with digital matte work where real PEI ocean vistas were married with back-lot photography.
When Jasper Dale’s whimsical cannery was constructed on the farm hillside, sand was brought in along with plenty of fish– which attracted hundreds of seagulls as extras from nearby Lake Ontario. The overall effect was complete when the set was coupled with photography of an authentic period cannery shot on PEI.
And sop the series unfolded, marrying frequently shot second unit photography from PEI with the breathtaking Avonlea set. The set eventually looked so real that citizens in the neighboring town lobbied to even have it preserved as an historic monument to attract tourists.
Nearing The End of Avonlea’s Production
Sadly, once the production was completed in 1996, the town of Avonlea had to be dismantled. All of the lifelike buildings were only shells propped up with timber and tape.
The town’s demise was bittersweet. Like the salute Hetty King gives the town at Felicity’s wedding in the final episode, many locals from Coppins Corners arrived to try to steal a piece of brick as the property was returned to its original condition. So the mythical Avonlea remains; but only on film and in the imagination of its loyal fans.