Muskoka Resorts

Books tell the story of these important institutions in many different ways, from novels set against backdrop life at a Muskoka resort, to local histories with a chapter or two on nearby lodges. A few books focus on the story of a single resort, such as Douglas McTaggart's 1992 book Bigwin Inn, and Susan Pryke's 1999 Windermere House: The Tradition Continues. Long-running Cleveland's House has a couple fulsome books about it, one by Carol Hosking, another by Pryke.

From among these many, three works in particular sketch the centrality of resorts to Muskoka. The best is Barbaranne Boyer's landmark 1987 publication, Muskoka's Grand Hotels.

Unlike other Boyers who got started in Muskoka pre-Confederation and write local history as if describing current events, Barbaranne came to Canada from England in the mid-1950s and connected with Muskoka in the mid-1980s. Gifted with fresh eyes, she methodically set about accounting for each and every place of hospitality for tourists in Muskoka, a daunting task no one else had attempted.

Plunging into newspaper accounts and other records, and with editorial help from Gravenhurst historian Richard Tatley, she placed on the record the saga of 129 individual Muskoka resorts, giving as well the story of 21 "overflow" resorts off Muskoka's principal lakes. An especially nice touch is her inclusion of the tuberculosis sanitarium at Gravenhurst Bay, not usually considered one of the district's resorts, yet a rambling year-round facility whose many hundreds of patients benefited from Muskoka's pure air.

Rounding out these dozens of individual histories of places ranging from Arcadia Lodge to Roselawn Manor, Boyer offered thematic chapters on the beginnings of Muskoka tourism, on "life at the resorts" covering the activities of guests, the role of supply boats, and the challenges of staffing Muskoka's grand hotels. Advancing through the twentieth century, she described the appearance of new hotels in the twenties and thirties, and concluded with "the modern scene."

Getting so much information together for the first time in a single book was a challenge and, right on cue, those with even more particular knowledge of a specific resort were only too happy to correct the record from the sidelines. There were letters to the editor, and the summer after Boyer's book appeared, Lisa and Paul Love wrote "Commentary and Corrections Concerning Muskoka's Grand Hotels" in the Muskoka Sun. Yet the larger enduring value of Muskoka's Grand Hotels is that it catalogues the complete story in an engaging way for general readers and provides a point of departure for anyone else interested in writing on the subject.

Just when Barbaranne Boyer published her seminal work, another Muskoka historian was hitting her stride, blending for readers the larger context of the district with its enriching particular details. Susan Pryke lead off with Explore Muskoka in 1867, following with Explore Muskoka Lakes three years later, and a decade later books on Windermere House and Cleveland's House.

The great value of Explore Muskoka Lakes is how it places the resorts in their larger neighbourhood context alongside cottages, summer estates, marinas, as well as saw mills, local industrial uses, and lakeland commerce. Her book, infused with the social life and cultural patterns of summertime Muskoka, is enriched by maps and fine photographs.

Pryke was the ideal writer, having grown up on Sparrow Lake where her parents ran Wildwood Inn resort. Her university education and career as a teacher, combined with her natural love of Muskoka's lakes, resulted in a blended work of objective familiarity.

A third book, published just this year, ties much of this history together with present-day resort life. Muskoka Resorts: Then and Now by Andrew Hind and Maria Da Silva is dedicated "to the entrepreneurs and visionaries of yesteryear who established Muskoka's inns, and to the current owners of these historic resorts who keep the tradition of hospitality alive for future generations."

That sentiment infuses their richly told stories of WaWa Hotel, Montieth House, Rostrevor, Deerhurst Lodge, Rossmoyne Inn, Prospect House, Pulford House, Alvira Hotel, Elgin House, Paignton House, Windermere House, and several other Muskoka resorts.

Hind and Da Silva portray admirably the human side of Muskoka's resort story, such as the determination of Charles Waterhouse, an immigrant from England, to build a summer retreat "along a stretch of prime waterfront on Peninsula Lake" after he had a sudden vision in 1898 – "never mind that he had no experience in running a resort." That was the start of Deerhurst, "intended to be an inn of fine quality, offering comfortable accommodations to an upper-class clientele, an island of refinement and British hospitality in the midst of the wilderness." In fact it was a rustic country hotel, with stuffed deer heads in the lobby and mostly wealthy Americans in the beds who'd come north for a taste of ‘real' Canadian wilderness.

Tourism was never in the original plan for Muskoka. Through the mists of time the district's forests and waters were home to aboriginal peoples and in the 1860s some MPPs proposed that Muskoka be made a permanent preserve for First Nations, and idea that never got off the ground. Already in the mid-1850s, logging had begun and the district was viewed for its forestry potential. By the late 1860s Muskoka's agricultural potential entered the picture and settlement was encouraged by free grants of land to homesteaders. Steamboats appeared on the lakes, and when the railway reached Gravenhurst in 1875, then Huntsville a decade later, summer visitors could travel by rail and steamer into the pristine settings of Muskoka.

But places were needed for them to stay, and homesteaders on unproductive rocky land whose property fronted the major lakes quickly found that opening their homes to touring groups of fishermen offered a welcome source of income. Year by year, as the hosts and guests got used to one another and adjusted to their mutual expectations, the log cabin structures were upgraded and Muskoka's resorts emerged.

Many of our grandest lakeside hotels, such as the Royal Muskoka on Lake Rosseau and the WaWa Hotel on Lake of Bays, burned to the ground and are only knowable today through published accounts. The "Lady of the Lake," Windermere House on Lake Rosseau, is one of the few that burned, during the filming of the movie ‘A Long Kiss Goodbye,' and was actually rebuilt.

Several others, like internationally renowned Bigwin Inn, have morphed into places of different character, no longer operating as hotels. A few summertime resorts have pushed back the "shoulder seasons" of spring and fall to become year-round facilities, including Deerhurst Resort on Peninsula Lake near Huntsville. It catapulted to international fame last year hosting eight of the world's most powerful leaders.

The days of anti-Semitism when some Muskoka lodges, such as Drumkerry Cabins in Bracebridge and Bangor Lodge on Lake Muskoka were restricted to "Gentiles Only," are happily gone. The name of Swastika Lodge in Bala was changed to Bala Bay Inn once the Nazis appropriate the crooked-cross symbol. Muskoka's resorts provide not only a fine vacation for visitors, but a mirror to our social history as well.

These fine books by Barbaranne Boyer, Susan Pryke, Andrew Hind and Maria Da Silva open the hospitable doors to Muskoka's most fascinating realities.

— Review by J. Patrick Boyer

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