My first full-length novel, All The Day Allows, was inspired by research about real-life Canadian missionaries during the early 1900s. It was a decade in the writing, and, with a major move from Collingwood to Muskoka in 2015, my protagonist’s hometown moved with me. The early versions had Marjory McAllister born and raised on Manitoulin Island, where the stark and stunning terrain felt exactly right for Marjory’s solitary nature. However, when I relocated to Muskoka, I realized that here, where much of the rugged landscape remains barely touched by civilization, is where Marjory’s life should begin. And so, Marjory McAllister was born and raised in Port Sydney, not far from my own real-life home.
Story Within the Story
My first full-length novel, All The Day Allows, was inspired by research about real-life Canadian missionaries during the early 1900s. It was a decade in the writing, and, with a major move from Collingwood to Muskoka in 2015, my protagonist’s hometown moved with me. The early versions had Marjory McAllister born and raised on Manitoulin Island, where the stark and stunning terrain felt exactly right for Marjory’s solitary nature. However, when I relocated to Muskoka, I realized that here, where we still find pristine pockets of rugged landscape, is where Marjory’s life should begin. And so, Marjory McAllister was born and raised in Port Sydney, not far from my own real-life home.
But there’s more to this location story. My early research had revealed a thin thread of history connecting the missionary organization at the heart of my story, the Sudan Interior Mission (SIM), to Muskoka. In the early days of the novel’s development I set this factual bit aside, seeing no use for it in the story unfolding at that time. When I moved to Muskoka I recalled that thread, and combing back through my research to retrieve it I discovered exactly why Muskoka was a natural choice for Marjory’s early life. Only an hour’s drive from Port Sydney, in a 60-mile-an-hour Buick of the day, was Port Carling, the location of SIM’s retreat centre, the Canadian Keswick Conference Centre. Of course! I said to my writer-self, There’s where Marjory first makes a personal connection with Sudan Interior Mission and the Gowans Home for Missionaries’ Children in Collingwood. It all fell into place.
Ferndale House and Canadian Keswick Conference Centre, Port Carling
Postcard of Ferndale, Lake Rosseau. Muskoka Lakes, c 1910. Published by F. W. Micklethwaite, Photographer, Port Sandfield and Toronto. Courtesy of Toronto Public Library.
The Canadian Keswick Conference Centre, Port Carling once operated as a popular tourist hotel called Ferndale House, built by Richard George Penson in 1880. In 1899, Seymour Penson, Richard’s son, demolished and replaced the original building. It continued to operate as a hotel, rented and managed for several years by John Cope. George Penson used it as a family residence from 1912 to 1916, when it was sold to John Cope, who resumed its use as a hotel until 1926, when Reverend Roland Bingham purchased it on behalf of the Sudan Interior Mission. Readers will learn more about Canadian Keswick Conference Centre and the Sudan Interior Mission in Episode 2 and the next installment of these historical notes.
The Gowans Home for Missionaries’ Children, Collingwood
200 Oak Street, Collingwood, Ontario housed the Gowans Home for Missionaries’ Children for nearly four decades. It is now a residence for young skiers training with the National Ski Academy. Photo: C. Cowley 2009.
What the Day Does Not Know—the novella you are reading—includes a short stay for Marjory at the Gowans Home, but alas, in the latest rewrite of the novel, which follows Marjory’s continuing story, the details of her stay are reduced to a few references in the past. So, the bonus to releasing this novella is that I can include a little more about the Gowans Home for Missionaries’ Children, which was the original inspiration for my leap to fiction. You’ll read much more about the Gowans Home in future posts.
A few historical notes on Muskoka
Muskoka, located on the traditional territory of the Anishinaabeg, specifically the Ojibwe, is thought to have derived its name from Ojibwe chief Misquuckkey (or Mesqua Ukie), a signatory to Treaty 16 in 1815.
Two indigenous settlements predated the influx of Europeans to the area in the mid-1800s. In 1830, the British government invited the Pottawatomi to migrate from midwestern USA to Southern Ontario, in gratitude for their support in the War of 1812. The Moose Deer Point First Nation, on Georgian Bay west of Port Carling, are their descendents.
An Ojibwe settlement also predated the arrival of Europeans to the area; Obajewanung (“gathering place”), was located at present-day Port Carling. Following the government land survey of 1860, white settlers were given free grants of these lands, effectively forcing out the residents of Obajewanung, who relocated to Parry Island, near Parry Sound. Ojibwe communities continued to return to Port Carling, their ancestral home, for decades afterward.
The Wahta Mohawk reserve, west of Bala, is today populated by descendents of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois), who relocated to Muskoka from Kanehsatà:ke, near Oka, Quebec, in 1881. The Wahta Mohawks share an additional one-hectare reserve next to Port Carling, called Indian River, with the Chippewas of Rama.
Though Samuel de Champlain recorded a visit to the region as early 1615, taming of the Muskoka wilderness began in 1858 with the commencement of construction of the Muskoka Colonization Road, the fourth colonization road of the Ottawa-Huron tract.*
In 1868 the provincial government’s Free Grants and Homestead Act granted claims of 100 to 200 acres to European homesteaders, effectively wresting it from the hands of Indigenous residents. As a condition of the grant, homesteaders were required to clear the land, build a dwelling and reside on the property for at least six months a year for five years. The white population grew from about a thousand in 1865 to over five thousand within five years.
Though conversion of Muskoka’s forests to farmland had begun in earnest, white settlers found the land too rocky to support robust farming, and by the early 1870s had turned instead to logging and tourism for economic survival.
Orillia businessman and politician A. P. Cockburn, a proponent of improved roads, bridges and navigation, launched a steamship line, and with improved travel conditions the popularity of sports tourism, introduced to the area in the 1860s, took off.
Arrival of the Northern Railway of Canada to Gravenhurst in 1875 ensured a constant flow of both lumber and tourists. Both industries thrived from the late 19th through early 20th centuries. Interestingly, with improved farming practices even farmers began to see some results of their labours, tourism accounting for much of their market. Reliance on tourism continues more than a hundred years on, as urbanites and international visitors find respite and inspiration in the natural beauty of Muskoka’s pristine lakes and landscapes.
*1600 kilometres of roads in Ontario gave access to lands granted by the British government to white settlers throughout the 1840s and 1850s. These initiatives forced Indigenous people from their land. Many portions of these roads are now being renamed, in acknowledgement of the offensive nature of the term “colonization”. An example is Colonization Road in Lake of Bays, Muskoka, renamed Old Sinclair Road in October 2020, at the request of the Moon River Metis Council.
A brief history of Port Sydney
Port Sydney, located about 12 km south of Huntsville, where the North Muskoka River meets Mary Lake, was named after its founder, Albert Sydney Smith. In 1871 Smith purchased an abandoned mill in the location of the present Port Sydney dam, envisioning a community centred around the south end of Mary Lake, which began taking shape around 1873. When the daunting Muskoka River rapids were conquered by two locks and a canal, constructed in 1875, the village’s location was ideal to reap the benefits from local lumber and tourist industries.
Mary Lake served as a natural waterway linking north and south, and steamships transporting both lumber and passengers moved easily between Huntsville in the north and more southerly communities around Lake Vernon, Fairy Lake and Peninsula Lake. A short line called the Huntsville and Lake of Bays Railway later bridged the gap between Peninsula Lake and The Lake of Bays, making Port Sydney seem destined to become a central hub of activity. Well-appointed homes and businesses were established, and residents anticipated ever greater prosperity.
Unfortunately for Port Sydney, the Northern Railway of Canada chose to by-pass the village in 1886, choosing instead to build its local station at the neighbouring village of Utterson. Disappointed but undeterred, the village focused on drawing weary city-dwellers to attractive accommodation afforded by grand houses turned into summer tourist homes, and a growing supply of rental cottages. Though tourism in Muskoka suffered a downturn during the Depression, along with most industries across the continent, its popularity was restored as the economy recovered. Today, Port Sydney continues to attract a large recreational population, many of whom enjoy family cottages passed down through succeeding generations.
Utterson had long been a stop-over for travellers between Huntsville, Burk’s Falls and Parry Sound in the north to the southerly Muskoka towns of Bracebridge and Gravenhurst. The Commercial Hotel, the Central Hotel, and three general stores served the needs of lumber camp labourers and cattle men passing through. The Commercial Hotel, which burned down in 1939, had its own livery stables.
The railway station at Utterson, which became part of the Grand Trunk Railway of Canada in 1892, and Canadian National Railway in 1923, continued to operate until 1968.
Sources include: Muskoka’s Main Street, Lee Ann Eckhardt Smith. Muskoka Books, 2012; Spirit of Place: Muskoka Then and Now, John McQuarrie. Magic Light Publishing, 2010; page at http://www.portsydneycoc.com/history-of-port-sydney-and-utterson; page at www.militarybruce.com/decline-of-the-family-run-resorts-in-ontarios-cottage-country/; and page at https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/muskoka-lakes.
From the text:
“It was the first market day of the season when folk from all round the village would converge on the square of spring grass that skirted the Port Sydney dock. After the coldest winter on record, they would shake a collective fist at Mother Nature, a parade of fat-cheeked winter babies and shiny new automobiles a testament to their granite souls.”
ON THE RECORD: December 29, 1933 was Ontario’s coldest day on record, with locations across the province logging temperatures well below the norm. In Algonquin Park, an hour’s drive from Port Sydney, temperatures fell to minus 49°F (-45°C). That same winter, in February 1934, “a cold wave engulfed the continent from Manitoba to the Atlantic seaboard and down the east coast to Palm Beach, Florida.” Hospitals scrambled to treat a surge of frostbite patients, and Lake Ontario, for the second time in recorded history, completely froze over.
“Annie was seated on a worn stump of ancient pine, her face turned to the sun, when Marjory scrambled down the bank at Indian Landing.”
Thanks to a citizen-led initiative in 2012, the majestic Red Maple overlooking the Muskoka River at Indian Landing in Port Sydney was recognized as a heritage landmark tree by Forest Ontario, and listed on its website.
“The red maple tree of Indian Landing is a tree of character, community and cultural significance…on the banks of the Muskoka River…A famous landmark and popular tourist destination in the area, this stately tree is loved by many. Situated en route to Algonquin Park, it’s possible that this twisted and turned tree was a trail marker for First Nations hunters travelling by river…”
“Annie steered the Buick onto the old river road…When they passed the small rail yard and station at Utterson, Annie gave the all-clear and Marjory sat up.”
Canadian Automobiles, 1930s
A 1931 GMC Buick Custom, built by Smith Body Works Ltd., Toronto, using a 1931 McLaughlin-Buick chassis. Photo: Canada of Science and Technology Museum 1977.0278
Despite the hardships experienced across the globe during the Depression years, the popularity of the automobile remained strong. More than 750,000 cars were sold in Canada during the 1930s.
Production of the Frontenac, named after the 17th century governor of New France, Count Frontenac, was so successful during the early 1930s that its maker separated from its US parent company, Durant Motors, establishing itself as Dominion Motors Ltd.
Photo: Canada Science and Technology Museum, de Bondt Collection
Do you have small-town stories or tidbits of Muskoka lore to share? Do you have unanswered questions about your ancestry in Muskoka? Share them here, where who knows—some new piece of your puzzle may surface, or you might hold exactly the piece someone else is seeking.
March 5, 2021 – Historical notes on EPISODE 4
- Founding of the Sudan Interior Mission – Part 2
- “In His Own Words.” Edward F. Rice’s first day on African soil.