Local History of Muskoka Townships

Cardwell Township in north Muskoka, named for Britain's colonial secretary Viscount Cardwell who was deeply involved with Canada's leaders creating Confederation in the mid-1860s, had just 54 permanent settlers when organized in 1876. First reeve of the sparsely settled place, Charles Robertson, was elected two years later, though surveying the township's 46,000 acres into concessions and lots was still underway, and only completed in 1886.

With two of Cardwell's boundaries abutting townships in Parry Sound District, this corner of Muskoka was understandably tied in with Parry Sound. Settlers claiming their free land dealt with Ontario's land agent there, rather than Bracebridge.

Reeve Robertson's wife died when she was 61. His son and daughter-in-law died within four weeks of one another from pleurisy in the winter of 1882, leaving two tiny orphaned girls. Robertson himself drowned December 20, 1889, and his body only recovered 20 months later in August 1891. Untimely death, however, was just one of many hurdles facing Cardwell's pioneers, as History of Cardwell Township documents.

No account of Cardwell is complete without the township's moving tale of Icelandic settlement. A significant portion of History of Cardwell Township deals informatively with the arrival and struggles of families from Iceland, and their community named Hekkla after the volcanic mountain back home. Many moved on to Manitoba, but other families stayed in Muskoka, important builders of the district's community.

An interesting comparison is central Muskoka's Macaulay Township, named for Sir James B. Macaulay who'd been a military leader in the War of 1812 and a senior judge in Ontario's courts. Settlement began a decade earlier, though like Cardwell it was surveyed in stages, even as homesteaders were moving in.

While Cardwell's small settlements of Hekkla, Rosseau falls, Bear Cave and Shannon Hall struggled to become established, Macaulay's easier access for people coming north up the Muskoka Colonization Road saw land quickly taken up and settlements readily emerging at Bracebridge, Fraserburg, Falkenburg, and other locales.

Having more people, and because Bracebridge was a transportation hub, economic life flourished. Macaulay became one of Muskoka's major townships, out of which Bracebridge was carved in 1875. Monck Township, another of Muskoka's banner townships thanks to its fertile farms and extensive river and lake frontages, lies just west of Macaulay. The division line running between the two townships traces the centre of Bracebridge's main street, with everything on the east side in Macaulay.

Conditions enabling Macaulay Township to become preeminent – from transportation routes, extensive land grants, milling and manufacturing, farming, schooling, and strong social life – are thoroughly presented in Gary Denniss' fine 1970 book Macaulay Township in Days Gone By.

Mr. Denniss's work is scholarly and offers solid grounding in early Muskoka settlement. His book, published in 1970 at Bracebridge by Herald-Gazette Press, is now out-out-print, but copies linger in Muskoka's libraries and some used book stores. Subsequent books by Mr. Denniss, still in-print, happily incorporate much of his earlier research about Macaulay's history.

The values and experiences of Macaulay homesteaders, as presented in Macaulay Township in Days Gone By, open a window onto an earlier era in Muskoka daily life, showing self-reliant families starting their own schools and pushing roads ever further east into wilderness Muskoka.

Because this flagship township served as model and inspiration for what took place in many others, the author's careful exposition of Macaulay community development and municipal history, and his descriptions of schools, churches, community institutions, and local businesses, combine to make Macaulay Township in Days Gone By a grounding reference work.

Watt Township, situated between Cardwell and Macaulay, pretty much blends the story of those other two. Settlement occurred in the same era, starting in 1863 then surging when more homesteaders flooded north to claim free land after 1868 in the pattern common across Muskoka.

The township was named for Scottish engineer James Watt, whose steam engine invention in 1770 revolutionized transportation and industry. It was not a township with all Macaulay's initial advantages, but was closer to the action than Cardwell.

In his 2009 book My Early Days as a Boy in Ufford, Kenneth Veitch tells the Watt Township story in the course of focusing on the township's Ufford settlement where he first saw the light of day in 1940. Mr. Veitch's stories are more personal and contemporary than those found in the two other publications, making his memoir essentially a social history.

Page after page of Ufford offers an easy trip through Muskoka rural life from the 1940s to the present, joining the author as he catches trout in Three Mile Lake, hits four homeruns in a single baseball game on the diamond beside Ufford's stone schoolhouse where another pupil scored a different hit putting a dynamite cap in the school's wood stove.

On Hallowe'en the young Veitch boy pushed over woodpiles, and worse, in those glory days when "tricks" were still on the nighttime roster. He also fed chickens, put fresh ice in the family's rental cabin iceboxes in summer, and lost two front teeth playing goalie in winter.

None of these three books is written by a trained professional historian, yet each is a well-researched and highly informative account of early Muskoka life by individuals who love one particular township because that is where they, and their ancestors, grew up.

Each reveals examples of Muskokans' entrepreneurial instincts, a sampler being in Watt where the Vietch family operated tourist cabins at Poplar Beach, in Cardwell where Bert Fry operated his sawmill on the picturesque Rosseau River, and in Macaulay where George Yearley of Falkenburg opened the township's first gas station in 1924.

Like building blocks for a larger structure, the griping saga of Muskoka itself begins in tales from the district's townships. These books bear testament to that reality.

— Review by J. Patrick Boyer

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