The Villages of Muskoka

George H. Johnson of the Financial Post first connected with Port Sydney as a boy when his parents used part of the village's cheese factory as their summer home and he became entranced with the sawmill and gristmill that were heart of the local economy. From the 1960s he began gathering photos, interviewing old-timers, and combing archives until in 1980 he rendered a touching saga of the community in Port Sydney Past. Johnson's book was reprinted by the author's family in June this year, a well-deserved rescue from its "out-of-print" status.

In contrast to those two books, where one individual devoted years researching and writing an integrated village history, the story of Rosseau was gathered by committee. Rosseau Historical Society designated two "project teams" who compiled all available information and quilted I together in Rosseau: The Early Years which appeared in 1999 and Rosseau: Then and Now which followed in 2004.

The tumble of materials in this two-volume Rosseau record richly portrays growth and change over the village's first century. A reader of Rosseau: The Early Years and Rosseau: Then and Now may feel like a visitor without a tour guide, seeing lots and encountering the jumble of life the way it is before a single writer synthesizes it within a unifying narrative. The two books are printed versions of a lovingly compiled archive.

"The history of Windermere and its hotels is like a microcosmic sample of the history of Muskoka as a whole," suggests Richard Tatley. The same conclusion seems inescapable after reading the other local histories, too. There is an integrated story about Muskoka that seldom gets told, but common elements in these individual histories of the district's villages reveal its components – the logging, milling, farming, boating, and tourist hosting, all layered in with schooling, church life, economic ups-and-downs, commercial ventures, overseas wars, and bean suppers in the community hall.

An example of the common element is how each of these books tells, "like a microcosmic sample," an essential truth about the evolution of Muskoka's important tourist economy. The fact that many resorts were named "houses" (such as Windermere House and Fife House, Clyffe House in Port Sydney, and Montieth House in Rosseau) points to how homesteaders gradually opened their log homes to visiting groups of hunters and fishermen, discovered how they could make a better living as hosts than as farmers on their rock-laden fields, and astutely expanded their facilities over time. Muskoka's resorts had their humble beginnings in log shanty "houses" and these books document that start-up stage and how it laid the foundation for splendid facilities that ensued in Muskoka's evolution from homesteading to hosting.

Another example of how these villages offer a microcosmic view of a common pattern across the whole district is the role transportation played in determining the fate of Muskoka's small early settlements. While the arterial colonization roads were engineered by government, an untold number of offshoot roads within the district were built by settlers themselves. The rough Canadian Shield landscape made these crude routes hazardous passageways at the best of times, but the advent of steamboats enabled Windermere, Port Sydney and Rosseau to surge ahead during the ice-free months of lake and river navigation. The tourism trade really flourished once railway tracks penetrated Muskoka, bringing summer visitors and their baggage to connect at wharfs with the numerous steamboats that in turn docked at the growing lodges and resorts, as Richard Tately documents so well.

By the same token, the route of a railway could be the death-knell for a by-passed community, as George Johnson shows when Port Sydney, "which aspired to be the metropolis of northern Muskoka," did not get train service because the tracks north to Huntsville were laid west of the village.

The story of these three Muskoka villages highlights another truth about small settlements: loss of even a single anchor of the local economy (a shingle mill, a cheese factory, a competitive link to the larger transportation network, or a principal resort) could transform the community from a place of rising expectations and dynamic energy into a sleepy back-water, or even a ghost town. Johnson gives examples of settlements Seeley and Candytown near Port Sydney that rose and fell in a single generation.

Sometimes the demise of a local hotel, and the consequent devastation to the village economy, came hand-in-hand with changing patterns in tourism, as a gradual falling-off of business set in. Other times it happened overnight, with a fire.

The villages of Port Sydney, Windermere and Rosseau experienced, as these books illustrate so clearly, major ebbs and flows as a new enterprise started or and existing operation closed. For a small village, community fate can turn on a single event.

Such a prospect of decline faced Windermere, where the Aitkin family's homestead had expanded over the decades through a series of bold and artful additions to become "The Lady of the Lake." Then on the night of February 27, 1996 a disastrous fire, during filming of the movie "A Long Kiss Goodbye," resulted in the historic resort burning to the ground. Windermere House had seemingly met the same incendiary fate that ended so many legendary resort hotels whose stories are also told in these books.

These accounts do not delve into the murky realm of accidental fire, arson, and insurance claims. For instance at Port Sydney, the popular Germanic resort "Grunwald," built to resemble a German Black Forest castle and attracting people for dances and entertainment from all around Mary Lake with frequent special evening excursions aboard the steamer Gem arriving from Huntsville, suddenly lost business with outbreak of war in 1914 as anti-German feeling swept Muskoka, forcing the proprietors to close the place. The very same night the war ended in November 1918, the Grunwald burned to the ground. Johnson ventures no further than to say this happened "mysteriously." The same could be said of other resorts which turned to smoldering ashes.

As for Windermere House, however, the story is almost unique in Muskoka, since the fire was not a goodbye kiss. The hotel was rebuilt to resemble the style and elegance of the original, but to current codes and standards, and reopened in time for the 1997 summer season. Author Tatley salutes owners James Twiss and William Wakefield "for demonstrating the courage and foresight" to rebuild the beautiful resort after the fire, "tastefully restoring one of Lake Rosseau's loveliest landmarks and an essential component of the Muskoka scene." Tatley added a larger truth when he continued, they "may have saved the village of Windermere itself from oblivion."

These books, offering richly illustrated Muskoka history in up-close glimpses through stunning photographs and unvarnished details of village life in Rosseau, Port Sydney, and Windermere, likewise save the deeply moving saga of our district's story from oblivion.

— Review by J. Patrick Boyer

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