Muskoka's Early Land Issues

Lumber barons saw Ontario's next most accessible stand of virgin forest ready for clear-cutting. Government officials and land companies saw "the undeveloped northern lands" as additional farms just waiting to be settled. Adventurers from southern parts discovered a close-at-hand wilderness to explore and enjoy. Those seeking a new start in life envisaged a remote place to escape and rebuild themselves.

Muskoka's very first book, published in 1871 by one of those who viewed Muskoka's pristine setting as an ideal setting for a utopian future, gave his particular view of the land wide acceptance. In The Free Grant Lands of Canada, Thomas McMurray outlined to would-be homesteaders the "practical experience of bush farming." Printed at his Northern Advocate newspaper office in Bracebridge and widely distributed throughout Canada, the United States and United Kingdom, his book promoted immigration and encouraged people to claim free Muskoka land.

Like a prospectus, The Free Grant Lands of Canada comprehensively outlined every feature and possibility of Muskoka and Parry Sound, from climate, soil, timber, scenery, crops, and roads, through development of each village and settlement, reports on transport and travel times to reach Muskoka from Britain, and details about prices for equipment and the social practices of homesteaders. It offered people the first integrated view of Muskoka's land – one centred on agricultural settlement. As well, The Free Grant Lands of Canada did in book form what McMurray's newspaper did every week: promote land settlement and moral uplift. An entrepreneurial visionary, the land-promoting publisher was also a prohibitionist who saw Ontario's virginal northern landscape as the New Jerusalem. Here poor families could achieve prosperity on free farms carved from forests, and find salvation in a fresh-start society free of alcohol.

The late 1860s and 1870s land rush into Muskoka – pushed forward despite deep reservations about the suitability for agriculture of the "Huron Tract" that stretched from the Ottawa River through Muskoka to Georgian Bay– flooded the place with hopeful farmers who soon learned winning free land was a game of roulette. Cutting down trees to make fields for farming, most homesteaders found not rich soil but the rocky Canadian Shield. Intermittent winners claimed their 200 acres on rarer stretches of clay or areas with rich loamy soil that had been the composting bottoms of centuries-old swamps.

Muskoka's hardscrabble farmers found little in McMurray's optimistic book that helped them "farm the bush." Some with good lots succeeded so well their crops were displayed at the CNE in Toronto to promote Muskoka agriculture, but many settlers barely subsisted on their farms, while hundreds abandoned their stumpy and soil-poor acreages, leaving behind endless piles of boulders like grave-markers over their dreams.

In the same period, meanwhile, loggers propelled by a different vision of Muskoka had entered the district to harvest its virgin stands of white pine. McMurray's book, taking care not to discourage settlement, avoided mentioning the rivalry between farmers and loggers. He simply pointed out, "The timber south of Muskoka Falls is principally composed of pine of fair quality; north of the Falls, a very perceptible change is noticeable, the great portion being composed of hardwood, consisting of maple, basswood, beech, birch, elm, etc." He was not the only one in denial. The policy of the provincial government, though strenuously debated in the legislature over logging versus settlement, had been largely to ignore these conflicting land uses. Settlers would be charged stumpage fees applicable to loggers, rivers would be choked with logs that stopped navigation and the resupply of communities.

Although tourism picked up as time passed, it was hardly a latter day add-on to Muskoka's economy and social life. From the early 1860s, young men explored Muskoka for holiday excursions, increasingly finding a pristine landscape laid waste by loggers and settlers.

By 1879, a sort of cartographer's and artist's sequel to The Free Grant Lands of Canada appeared, offering a view of Muskoka which nobody had until then. Just as our view of the world changed with the first photograph of planet earth from outer space, the Guide Book & Atlas of Muskoka and Parry Sound Districts gave people a fresh idea of the land and of the relationship between geography and human activity.

The text, written by W.E. Hamilton, gave a picturesque update on everything from Muskoka's gold-bearing pyrites and iron ore, to Bracebridge's scenic waterfalls and navigation on the lakes, geologic descriptions of each township, and reports on farming, logging, manufacturing, natural resources, and tourism.

But even more, the Atlas was replete with maps and illustrations. The maps showed each township with settlement, giving the individual name of every person's lot, and traced both colonization roads and statute labour roads. Until then, only large government maps existed, and they were hard to obtain, often inaccurate, and did not even show the roads. Separate highly detailed town-site maps of Muskoka's main communities were lithographed from the original drawings of Captain John Rogers of Port Sandfield.

Port Carling artist Seymour Penson rounded out peoples' new Muskoka image. The romantic realism of his pencil sketches showed not only villages, waterfalls, and a lumberman's dam across a river, but even two hunters in a canoe shooting a deer while it swam, a common Muskoka pioneer practice strictly prohibited under Ontario's hunting laws.

This new 1870s view of Muskoka was possible thanks to book printing advances the previous decade in the United States. New techniques in lithography and steam-driven presses allowed publication of a county atlas to replace the large wall maps of counties, and the new format was extended to Ontario where eventually some 34 different atlases for counties and districts appeared in print These large volumes were awkward to handle and difficult to store, with one sole exception: the Guide Book & Atlas of Muskoka and Parry Sound District. Much smaller in size, it was a nod to practical use as a guide book in an area of tourism.

Hamilton described demand for this book coming from settlers, tourists, hunters, trappers, anglers, "and many other unclassified travelers who visit Muskoka in ever increasing numbers." All of them cry out, "Give us maps, give us something descriptive of Muskoka to guide us before we start for the North, and to retain as a souvenir of our journey." It fit that bill to a tee. Although salesmen fraudulently solicited orders at $8 a copy when the final price was $12, people treasured being able to study a printed volume portraying their own time and place.

The Muskoka Guide Book & Atlas was unique from all the others, too, in being created by three local men (rather than outsider "data gatherers"), and in being shorter, having less history to describe than county atlases for more settled parts of Ontario.

The Free Grant Lands of Canada was republished in 2002 (as shown) and Guide Book & Atlas of Muskoka and Parry Sound Districts was republished in 1971 but is again out-of-print. More than heritage souvenirs offering windows on the past, both books also show how the view one had of Muskoka's environment would directly determine the district's destiny.

— Review by J. Patrick Boyer

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