Muskoka Trees

Early settlement and the homesteader experience in southwest Muskoka garnered less attention than was the case along the main colonization roads, such as Muskoka Road running north through Gravenhurst, Bracebridge, Utterson, Huntsville, and on toward North Bay, or the Parry Sound Road branching off from Falkenburg up the east side of the major lakes to Rosseau and beyond to Parry Sound. The Years Gone By is one of a small number of important books to fill that gap in Muskoka historiography.

In that quiet corner of the district, Medora Township's peninsula of 3,000 acres "thinly connected to the mainland on the west shore of Muskoka Lake" was particularly isolated. It was, Schell noted, "well away from the waterways used in the early days by explorers or other travellers," except for taciturn Algonquians in summer. Settlers would find arrowheads in beach sand, "a skinning knife in a creek bed, and a stone from which arrowheads were chipped near the shore."

Once free grant land became available after 1868 to encourage settlement, homesteaders, mostly from England, began arriving. They reached the remote territory not overland but by water, the central area of the peninsula facing across Lake Muskoka from Monck Township.

When John Walker opened the first post office in 1875, his own property's name "Walker's Point" was given to the fledgling community. A second post office in 1914 to serve the northern half of the peninsula community was named "Barlochan," after the farm home of Black Douglas in Scotland. Those two names, the first a "Point" into the lake and the second Gaelic for "by the lake," not only identified the scattered yet closely-knit community but revealed its orientation to Lake Muskoka more than to the land.

The peninsula which settlers found had many miles of deeply indented shorelines, abundant sand beaches, a chain of islands protecting the north shores, and "three picturesque inland lakes." But varying from "low evergreen swamps and beaver meadows to high rocky ridges crowned with green pines," there was little level ground or soil suitable for farming.

The colonization road from Gravenhurst through the community was no more than a rough trail, "impassable in summer except on foot or horseback, usable in winter by sleigh only when packed with snow." Because settlers ignored the inadequate road, building homes beside the lake instead, the scratch pathway did not get any better.

Highway 69 would only come close in 1929, so for its formative first 60 years the isolated peninsula's settlers travelled the lake. "They went everywhere by boat in summer, and over the ice in winter on skates, snowshoes, or horse-drawn sleighs, living almost as islanders."

Early settler George Parlett cleared land, built a log house, then sent for his wife and children in England to join him. He rowed into Gravenhurst to meet his family, excited by their grand adventure of starting life anew in Muskoka. "Returning around Breezy Point after a 30 mile row, they saw, instead of their house, a pile of glowing ashes. Everything that had been prepared for the family was gone."

John Hewitt repeatedly rowed the 10-mile distance to a Bracebridge sawmill, whenever he'd saved money for more boards, towing back loaded rafts of lumber to build his Walker's Point home.

With no cemetery, bodies were taken out by boat, one funeral notice in Milford Bay reading "Interment when the boat gets in from Walker's Point."

Summer turned to winter, lake water to ice.

"Beginning the day Charlie Smith, the first settler boy born on Walker's Point, took two files from his father's tool chest and made himself a pair of skates," the people of Walker's Point were in their element on ice. When the ice was good for skating "it opened up the great Muskoka waterways again to the people of Walker's Point" who were isolated at all times and especially after boating season awaiting freeze-up.

Children skated to school, women visited neighbours pulling little ones on sleighs, men played hockey, and every evening there was a skating party. They skated to town for shopping, to parties in other communities, and whole families skated to church on Sundays. When snow covered the ice, "a rink was kept shovelled."

Early hockey teams journeyed to Mortimer's Point to play on an outdoor rink with posts in the centre of the ice, and to outdoor rinks in Port Carling, Bala, and Milford Bay. They'd gamely challenge Bracebridge and Gravenhurst teams on their own ice, usually losing against the town teams.

The Barlochan and Walker's Point boys formed part of a Muskoka Lakes Hockey League, with a challenge cup donated by Bracebridge's Dr. Bert Bastedo. When they won it in 1949, the doctor proudly hung the team's photograph in his medical office, not just because he'd donated the cup but "because every boy on the team had been brought into the world by the doctor himself."

Dr. Bastedo and other medical men from Bracebridge and Gravenhurst visited Walker's Point for emergencies, crossing by boat. Mail came by boat in the early decades. Residents boated to Fred Mill's store at Milford Bay and Willmott's general store at Beaumaris, but also welcomed supply boats such as the Nymoca bringing vegetables from Beaumont's Alport Farm "a regular caller anywhere it was flagged in."

Joyce Schell records the experiences of families, many of whose names are now legendary in west Muskoka. The tale is rich, but one of unremitting hardship, a grim theme in her chronicle being the incessant drowning of men and death of children through disease. One Sunday minister Horace Bradley walking to church was asked to conduct an impromptu burial service at a farm he passed, for a little girl had died. "These tiny graves covered with roses were a common sight in quiet corners of pioneer farms."

Over those early decades, homesteaders cleared bush and operated farms, with the same mixed results of other Muskokans on the district's rocky terrain. "The isolation and hardship was more than some families could endure, and they moved on in search of a life to which they were better suited."

Alfred Smith was just one of many settlers who withered in isolation. He relocated his family, after having already cleared land, to the central part of the peninsula in 1873 just to be beside the farm of another family, the Battyes.

Another, John Davidson moved his family into the log cabin Smith had vacated, but they, too, soon ached in loneliness. In 1875, when the Great Northern Railway from Toronto reached Gravenhurst and Davidson heard the train whistle, he started building a road in that direction only to become discouraged by steep rock ridges and abandoned his road building efforts to the outside world. After a few more lonesome years, the Davidsons moved into Bracebridge.

Alfred Smith, who'd relocated, cleared the required amount of land by chopping and burning trees, using oxen to draw logs to the shore when a market developed. "Logs were split making rails for fences, gates built of split cedar assembled with wooden pegs, brush cleared with an axe, and land cultivated by plough, spade, and hoe. With native materials and tools brought from England, Smith built a small comfortable home and out-buildings, and received the deed to his free grant property in 1879."

By the 1970s, the fields he'd laboured so hard to clear had reforested themselves and become criss-crossed with snowmobile trails.

— Review by J. Patrick Boyer

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