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Decline of the family-run resorts in Ontario’s cottage country

May 2020

Generations of families have always enjoyed getting away from the crowded cities and having a leisurely vacation in a relaxed, peaceful and serene environment, perhaps on a lake, with the sound of rustling leaves from tall, mature trees.

Residents of eastern New York State have the Catskills, but for generations of Ontarians, the lure of the Muskoka and Haliburton Districts have been irresistible, with trains, steamships and then automobiles bringing families to the area summer after summer. However like the Catskills, Muskoka and Haliburton has seen a decline, but in a different way.

The Muskoka and Haliburton Districts were once the premier resort area in Ontario, dating back as far as the late 1860s, when resorts like Cleveland’s House on Lake Rosseau opened in 1869. Although Cleveland’s House is still operating 150 years later, it’s no longer independently-owned, family run resort.

While not all of the old family run resorts have been replaced with newer, corporate-owned resorts, or by condominium developments, many of them have done exactly that. Rustic family cottages are being replaced with mansion-like summer estates and year-round residences, in areas that were once seasonally occupied only.

The crowds certainly haven’t died off as they did in the Catskills, with 2.1 million annual visitors coming to Ontario’s “cottage country” every year, but the character of the area certainly has changed.

Local residents complain with each closure, it’s one less family-run resort with a history and the charm that comes with old Muskoka.

Developers on the other hand, have a different view. Developer Rick Koffman pretty much summed up preserving heritage versus making money when he was quoted as saying, “Bangor Lodge has been there for 75 years. They bought their cottages knowing that. If they were delusional, thinking it would be a rickety old resort for the rest of time, then that’s their wishful thinking. It’s just not the market reality.”

Many argue that the current clientele for Muskoka resorts are those who are abandoning the rustic charms of the older resorts and bare-bones cottage enclaves for modern, high-end resorts and cottage communities, some of them sold to buyers as time-shares like Touchstone Resort, most with urban-style facilities and amenities. The old-style resorts just can’t compete anymore.

Of course this is having a negative effect on those who want an inexpensive vacation in the region. The loss of the smaller, independent hotels and cottage communities is that rates in the $300 to $400 a night range are becoming unaffordable to families who used to pay $600 to $1000 per week, including meals and family activities.

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Bangor Lodge:

One of the many resorts that have disappeared from the landscape is Bangor Lodge, opened in 1930 by R.J. Siberry, west of Bracebridge, on the shores of Lake Muskoka.

Bangor Lodge was a popular summer spot for vacationers, many of whom would return year after year.

It all came to an end for Bangor Lodge in 2006, when increased operating costs for the aging resort, along with the declining health of the owners, made it difficult to continue. With property values skyrocketing in the Muskoka Region, it seemed the time to sell the old resort, with its paint-weathered cabins, screened porches and shaggy nine-hole golf course.

An auction was held in 2007 to sell off lounge chairs, canoes, beer fridges and other items. Eventually, all the buildings were demolished, leaving only the circular theatre/dance hall building, which stood slowly deteriorating for another 12 years until it was consumed by a fire on the afternoon of 17 July 2019.

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Minnewaska Hotel:

The Minnewaska Hotel operated for a brief 11 years, from 1897 to 1908, before competition from other hotels in the area forced its closure.

Due to the increase in cases of Tuberculosis, it was necessary to have more hospital rooms. The Minnewaska was converted into a private Sanitarium. Calydor Sanitarium opened in 1916, but it too closed in 1935.

During World War II, the site of the former Minnewaska Hotel in Gravenhurst as a Prisoner of War Camp for German officer detainees, the camp was also referred to as Camp Calydor and Muskoka Officers’ Club. The camp had a fenced-in swimming area on Lake Muskoka for use by the prisoners. By the end of the first summer, Camp 20 held 489 prisoners.

The prisoners were used for various construction projects- around Gravenhurst, including a set of stone steps leading down to the waterfront at Gull Lake Park, which remain today, and a light house in the park, as well as working at local lumber camps.

The camp also had its own small zoo and gardens for the prisoners to grow their own food and they were able to smoke sausages from the local animals.

One of the prisoners was Ulrich Steinhilper, a German fighter ace who shot down five RAF airplanes during the Battle of Britain before being shot down himself.

Camp 20 closed in 1946 when the last of the prisoners had been repatriated.

The buildings were renovated an in July 1948, the camp re-opened as Leyland Holiday Village.

By the 1960s, the camp became a Jewish youth camp names Camp Aviv and offered Jewish youth a vacation area. Two fires in 1967 and 1968 destroyed the buildings and the camp was abandoned.

Today, all that remains of Camp 20 are concrete foundations, a fire hydrant, and parts of a fence. The site is now Ungerman Gateway Park.

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Tamwood Lodge

Tamwood Lodge opened in 1947 on the north shore of Lake Muskoka. It once had Canada’s largest log structure, along with some lakeside chalets, as accommodations for their guests.

Tamwood Lodge featured an indoor pool, several tennis courts, shuffleboards, canoes, windsurfers, sailboats, sandy beach and a golf course.

Tamwood fell victim to the changing Muskoka environment, and it closed in 2007. All the buildings, including the rustic log lodge, were demolished.

Touchstone Resort, now occupies the property, along with the land once occupied by the neighbouring Aston Beach Resort. While this new a $75-million development is helping to carry on the Muskoka summer tradition of vacationing by the lake, it now features luxury homes sold as fractional units, otherwise known as time-shares.

Touchstone is made up of 75 homes of three and four-bedroom cottages and villas. In order to minimize the environmental impact, the developer used as many of the foundations of the old buildings as possible.

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The Beaumaris Hotel

Opened by Edward Prowse in 1883 when he transformed his house on Beaumaris Island into The Beaumaris Hotel, a 200 guest hotel on the shore on Lake Muskoka. The hotel, a 3 story building with a verandah surrounding the building, featured the latest amenities, including law-tennis, a croquet field, a dance hall, a billiard room and a bowling alley.

The hotel went through three other owners after Prowse’s death in 1910, ending with George Nicholson in 1923, who operated the hotel for the next 22 years.

The Beaumaris Hotel burned to the ground 21 July 1945, caused by hotel employee Edward John Van Buren, who later served 2 years in prison for arson.

The land was sold to the Beaumaris Land Company, which also owned the land occupied by the golf and yacht clubs. After failing to attract a new hotel to the site, a new golf clubhouse was built on the property.

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Wigamog Inn

Originally opened as a boarding house by Robert and Ann Gould in 1903 on Lake Kashagawigamog, near Haliburton. It was once just one of 17 resorts operating on the lake.

The hotel closed in 2011 and has sat vacant and deteriorating ever since.

In March 2016, The Aurora Hotel Group, operators of the Pinestone Resort and Conference Centre, also in Haliburton, purchased the abandoned hotel with the intention of re-opening it that summer, but four years later, that has yet to happen.

It’s still remains to be seen if the Wigamog Inn, or any other hotel, will ever re-open on the property. For now, the hotel started by Robert and Ann Gould a century ago continues to deteriorate.

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Pulford House

Opened in Baysville by Alexander Henderson in 1906, on a plot of land along the Muskoka River previously occupied by the Mickle-Dyment Lumber Company.

Henderson built the hotel himself, a two-story building with 12 guest rooms and a dance hall upstairs, naming it after his son Pulford Henderson.

An interesting feature of the hotel was a winch that Henderson installed, to lift the steamer trunks used by the visiting guests to the upper floors.

The hotel also had a boathouse with rowboats, canoes and motorboats for use by the guests.

Unfortunately for Henderson, Baysville was a somewhat isolated location for travellers and business was slower compared to the rest of Muskoka’s hotels. World War I further cut into Pulford House’s business, causing Henderson to close the hotel for the duration of the war.

The post-war years weren’t much better and Henderson sold the hotel in 1922 to John James Robertson, who changed the name of the hotel to Robertson Inn. Extensive renovations were made to the hotel, which had fallen into disrepair. Cement tennis courts were added, the first such in the area, as most were grass courts, along with a wading pool for the children.

The Robertson Inn prospered and continued to do so after Robertson’s death in 1933, after which the name was changed to Riverview Lodge by the new owners, the Chambers brother.

After World War II broke out, the Chambers brothers, cognizant of how World War I almost spelled the end of the hotel, came up with a business agreement with various munitions plants in Toronto where workers would have a small portion of their pay deducted and banked for vacations at the hotel in the summer, a much needed break for the workers from the stresses of their work.

In April 1946, the main hotel building burned to the ground, the victim of an electrical fire fueled by it’s wood construction.

The outbuildings, including the boathouse, dance hall, three cabins and the two-story, eight room staff residence, were saved but the Chambers brothers opted to sell what was left. New owners John and Jessie Walsh were able to continue operating a hotel at the site until the early 1950s, when the Highway Department bought them out for construction of a new bridge across the Muskoka River.

All the buildings, except for the staff residence, were demolished at the time. Jean Robertson Dickson, daughter of J.J. Robertson, occupied the house until her death in 2009, at which time the last remaining vestige of the Pulford/Robertson/Riverview disappeared.

The property is now known as Gristmill Park, which features the town cenotaph, a monument to the old gristmills once common in Baysville, along with picture displays on both the gristmill and the old hotel.

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Windermere House

The Windermere House is one of the original hotels still in operation, although not in the original building.

Originally opened in 1872 as a boarding house by Thomas Aitken, a Scottish immigrant from the Shetland Islands. Aitken had originally taken up farming in Muskoka, but when his land proved inadequate for farming, he bought the land on the shore of Lake Rosseau now occupied by The Winermere.

Originally, the house served as the post office, with Aitken serving as the Postmaster, but he found he could make extra money renting out rooms for a few nights.

Timothy Eaton of the Eaton’s Department Store fame was an early guest on The Windermere. WWI flying ace Billy Bishop was also a frequent guest in the years between the world wars.

The original hotel building was expanded over the years. By 1883, a new front was added with the first of the two iconic flag tower peaked roofs (the second as added in 1902) and in 1887, the three-story wing fronting onto Windermere Road was added.

The Windermere House continued to thrive and expand well into the 1970s, even as other Muskoka hotels were closing their doors, but by the mid-1980s, Mary- Elizabeth Aitken, grand-daughter of Thomas Aitken, had relinquished ownership of the hotel and a changing roster of owners took over running the hotel.

In 1985, the old hotel had undergone a $3 million renovation, but these mostly cosmetic changes failed to address some serious problems with warped walls and floors and leaky pipes. Eventually the costs of maintaining the aging structure proved too much for the then current owners and by 1992, the Windermere House was in receivership. It wasn’t until 1995 that a new owner was found, saving the hotel from impending closure.

Not content to be just a hotel, Windermere House would also serve as a movie set for three movies. The 1985 Canadian TV mini-series “Anne of Green Gables” chose the Windermere to stand in for the fictional White Sands Hotel, with many of the staff playing extras in the film. The staff were also employed as extras a few years later for the 1988 film “Switching Channels, starring Christopher Reeve, Kathleen Turner and Burt Reynolds.

However, the third time film producers came knocking would prove disastrous. While filming “A Long Kiss Goodnight” in February 1996, starring Geena Davis and Samuel L. Jackson, a thousand-watt halogen light that had been placed inside the building to illuminate outdoor scenes caused a fire that destroyed the hotel.

Fortunately, the hotel literally rose from the ashes. A replica of the original hotel was built and opened a year later on 31 May 1997, with then-Ontario Premier Mike Harris as the first guest.

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WaWa Hotel

The Canadian Railway News Company opened the hotel in 1908 at Norway Point, on the shores of Lake of Bays, east of Baysville. Named the WaWa Hotel, after the Native word meaning “wild goose,” the wood frame building had accommodations for 300 guests in its three-story main building, with two, two-story wings flanking it.

Like many of the Muskoka hotels, the WaWa Hotel was popular with both wealthy Canadian and American families looking for a fashionable summer vacation.

Despite the luxurious accommodations, the WaWa Hotel had a short live as hotel burned to the ground on 18 August 1923. The cause was never determined. Eleven died in the fire, all women, with 25 sustaining injuries.

Although the owners had planned to rebuild the hotel, the insurance proved insufficient and the property was sold. What outbuildings that remained were left to rot and eventually demolished.

The land was later subdivided and sold for the construction of cottages. Today, all that remains of the WaWa Hotel is a gazebo, dating back to around 1911, still in its original location on the Norway Point property.

The purser’s cabin also remains, but it was re-located to the Muskoka Heritage Place in Huntsville in 2004, and restored. It now serves as the Fairy Lake Station for the Huntsville and Lake of Bays Heritage Railway. Now a popular tourist attraction, the 1.8 kilometre narrow-gauge railway served as a transportation link for passengers travelling on the steamboats sailing between Peninsula Lake and Lake of Bays, along with mail and cargo. Once promoted as the world’s smallest commercial railway, it operated from 1904 to 1959.

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Hammill’s Point Hotel

Hammill’s Hotel had its beginnings when Thomas Joseph opened his home on Lake Joseph to guests in 1890.

Over the next 19 years, Hammill expanded his hotel several times, eventually reaching a capacity of one hundred guests. By this time, Hammill had relinquished operations of the hotel to his son and daughter-in-law. A few years later, the hotel was sold again, before finally coming under the ownership of Reverend L.S.D. Croxon, whose ownership was severely crippled by the Great Depression.

Croxon drowned in the sinking of RMS Waome on Lake Muskoka in 1934, officially bringing an end to Hammill’s Hotel.

Taken over by new owners, the hotel was re-named the Lantern Inn, but the fortunes of the hotel didn’t fare any better.

The Lantern Inn closed in 1946 and was demolished. Nothing remains of the hotel today.

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Paignton House

Opened in Minett in 1895 by John Frederick Pain and his wife Charlotte, after expanding their home, which they had been operating as a rooming house since the previous decade. Now able to accommodate fifty guests, Pain and Charlotte built a new house nearby for their use so as to dedicate the expanded house to their guests.

In 1911, Pain added seven additional rooms, a new lobby and an enlarged the dining room.

World War I cut drastically into Paignton House’s business, like the other Muskoka resorts and also into Pain’s desire to carry on as the proprietor and in 1918, he passed the hotel onto his son Richard Pain.

Richard closed the resort temporarily in order to renovate the hotel, including the addition to a third-story to the hotel, raising the guest capacity to 100. As luck would have it, this proved so successful that Pain had to add some guest cabins, along with tennis courts and a lawn-bowling green.

Paignton House was able to weather the next downturn brought on by the Great Depression of the 1930s. One way was by obtaining a liquor licence to sell beer in 1937, the first hotel in Muskoka to operate a tavern.

Like his father before him, Pain passed the hotel onto his sons Archie, Robert and John in 1954.

Some of the new things added to Paignton House was the addition of programs for children staying at the hotel, keeping them busy while the parents enjoyed boating, shuffleboard, tennis, golf and horseback riding.

The three brothers and their children continued running the resort until Archie brought out the other two in 1968 but just five years later, the Pain family ownership of Paignton House came to an end when seventy-three year old Archie decided it was time to time to retire. An offer from developer Ken Fowler made him an offer that he simply couldn’t refuse. While the Pain family no longer owned the resort, Archie’s daughter Susan and her first husband were retained as managers.

Fowler was keen to maintain the success of Paignton House by modernizing it and making it a year-round operation, retaining the family-focus in the summer and conferences and couples packages keeping things going during the winter.

Despite his efforts, Fowler was unable to fully implement his expansion and upgrading plans due to bureaucratic resistance from the municipal government, prompting him to sell in 1987.

Paignton House went through several other owners before finally going into receivership in 1993, at which point Fowler bought the resort property back and over the next seven years, bought up over 1300 acres of neighbouring properties, including Cleveland’s House Resort, with the intention of finally implementing his plans for a major Muskoka resort. Sadly, the original Paignton House ultimately wouldn’t be a part of it.

After having survived for 105 years without a destructive fire that had claimed many other Muskoka resorts, Paignton House was destroyed by a fire on 29 June 2000.

Undeterred, Fowler did proceed with his plans for a high-class, year-round resort, partnering with J.W. Marriott Hotels.

The J.W. Marriott Rosseau Resort and Spa achieved Fowler’s vision of a modern, luxury resort with the classic charm of the old Muskoka resorts, although Fowler’s plans for creating a village around the resort never came to be.

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Elgin House

Opened in 1900 near Port Sandfield by Lambert Love, a blacksmith originally from Richmond Hill. Love sold part of his property in 1895 to help finance the construction costs, in addition to constructing five cottages on the property to generate some rental income.

The luxurious hotel was built to accommodate fifty vacationers, providing them with amenities such as lawn bowling, badminton courts, canoes, rowboats, a sandy beach and walkways winding their way through beautiful flower gardens and manicured lawns.

When finally opened, Elgin House was one of the few hotels that didn’t sell liquor, along with prohibiting smoking, card playing and dancing. Despite being a dry resort, Elgin House soon became a very popular spot for summer vacationers.

Love was very careful to make sure that half his salary each year was invested in hotel improvements. In time, these improvements led to a new wharf, an 18-hole golf course, electric lighting and steam heat and a steam-generated power plant to supply the hydro.

Love continually made improvements, including a new wharf where steam ships disembarked the hotel guests, groomed lawns and beautiful gardens and a golf course.

In 1910, a new four-story building was added, providing twenty-two additional rooms. The following year, another wing was added to create two elegant dining rooms.

These expansions to the hotel were done as separate buildings, instead of building on to the existing structures as a safeguard against fire damage. This way, any fires that broke out wouldn’t destroy the entire hotel, unlike the destructive fires that had completely leveled many other Muskoka hotels.

By the 1920s, Elgin House could accommodate around 300 guests and the accommodations were superior to many of the similar small hotels. It had a reputation for fine hospitality and warmth, which helped Elgin House survive the rough periods, like the Depression, that led to the demise of other hotels.

Elgin House continued to prosper over the succeeding decades, even as other hotels faltered and closed. Even the Depression didn’t affect bookings, due in part to Bert’s cleaver marketing to their wealthy clientele, the ones who maybe couldn’t afford international trips anymore, but certainly could afford a summer vacation at Elgin House.

Lambert eventually passed operations of the hotel onto his son Bert, who continued his father’s tradition of maintaining the elegant hotel and even expanding it again with the addition of the North Lodge, bringing capacity up to four hundred guests.

By the 1950s, Victor Love, Lambert’s grandson was in charge and made several changes such as lifting the smoking and card playing bans, demolishing some of the older buildings and guest rooms to cut the guest capacity to what he considered a manageable two hundred, adding a swimming pool and a new boathouse.

Victor Lambert sold the family hotel in 1971 and for the first time in over 70 years, the hotel was no longer a Lambert family hotel. While maintaining the feel of the historic hotel, new owner Didace Grise began attracting a younger crowd with a livelier, more exciting and less restrictive atmosphere.

Elgin House remained a very successful hotel throughout the 1970s and 1980s, consistently booked to capacity with guests who would return summer after summer. In fact, Elgin House was so successful during these decades that Grise made plans to expand again, taking on big debt to finance it. It was this success that made the end of Elgin House so sudden and shocking.

Age and the changing clientele of Muskoka finally caught up with Elgin House. Unlike many other Muskoka resorts that were destroyed by fire or suffered slow deaths into bankruptcy, Elgin House was brought down by an economic downturn. With the burden of the added debt, the hotel was forced into receivership and closed in 1991.

The deteriorating buildings were torn down in 1995 and today, nothing remains of the Elgin Hotel itself

The property was re-developed into a private condominium resort, the Lake Joseph Club Resort, which opened in 1997.

Built as a villa concept, the buildings at Lake Joseph are modern cottages built in a old-style, using post-and-beam construction with stone accents.

An on-site 27-hole golf course that makes use of some the Elgin’s course.

Today, the century old chapel remains and the Water’s Edge restaurant enjoys the same scenic views as guests did back at the turn of the 20th Century.

The historic century-old chapel once used by the guests and the Grise residence still stand.

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Alvira Hotel

Opened in 1900 by Isaac Newton Langford in the Village of Dorset, on land across the street from the Dorset Hotel, nearby the wharf where passengers would disembark from the steamships bringing vacationers to area.

The resort, named after Langford’s wife, Eunice Alvira Barker, was impressive looking. It consisted of a three-storey hotel building with wrap-around roofed verandas on each level, the pleasant view of Lake of Bays, and the extensive dining room creating an inviting, yet rustic resort.

The Alvira was more modest that the other hotels of the era favouring the natural elements, wilderness and serenity of the area for fishing, canoeing or swimming in the lake, or hiking around the nearby hills to enjoy the scenery of the area. There was no dance hall, golf or tennis courts at the Alvira.

The rooms were simply furnished, with only a bed, dresser and washstand and one communal bathroom per floor.

Despite the basic nature of the hotel, it was an almost immediate success. The home-cooked food in the dining room was excellent and the Alvira appealed to hunters and anglers, who were so impressed by the pristine beauty of the area and the rustic hotel that they brought their families there on vacations too.

Langford sold the successful hotel in 1911 to a group of investors from Buffalo, New York.

The hotel was re-named the Ganasayo Resort, but the severe loss of business during World War I saw the once successful hotel decline over the next 2 decades.

The end for the Alvira came on 3 December 1927, when a fire completely destroyed the hotel, fueled by the aged timbers, wood-paneled walls, and stored furniture and linens. While locals hoped the hotel would be re-built, the owners had no interest in reviving the failing hotel, something that led to speculation that the fire was an arson job, done so as to collect on the insurance money.

Nothing remains of the Alvira Hotel today.

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The Dorset Hotel

Opened in the late 1800s, the hotel was one of the oldest buildings still standing in Dorset. The hotel started as a boarding house, across the street from the Alvira Hotel, known as Dorset House and when that burned down, the Iroquois was built in its place.

The hotel was expand over the years to accommodate the increasing number of guests. Originally a three story wooden structure with a wrap-around porch and second floor balcony on the front side, this hotel burned and was re-built as a red brick building by Dan McIlroy.

Over the years, the hotel would go by various names, such as the Iroquois Hotel, Cedar Narrows, the Dorset Hotel, and finally Hotel Dorset.

In old photos of the brick hotel, one can distinguish between when it was called the Iroquois Hotel from the other names is that the Iroquois Hotel had roll down bamboo blinds on the Main Street side on two floors of the hotel. 

Also, prior to being named the Dorset Hotel, their signage was near the front entrance, but when it became the Dorset Hotel, the owners put the name at the top of the hotel.

In the 1970’s the top floor was removed and it was converted to a restaurant. The brick on the exterior is the original brick.

Since the Dorset Hotel closed, the building has served as various restaurants, including the Fiery Grill. It’s now the Trading Bay Dining Company.

The parking lot for Trading Bay used to be one of two jails in Dorset, known as the Snake House. It was located close to the hotel to house loggers who had over-consumed.

Dorset Hotel on the left and the Burk and Avery Stores, which burned down in the 1940s, on the right. Historical photo.

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Milford Manor

Milford Manor dates back to the 1930s, becoming a popular summer vacation spot. Like some other hotels, Milford Manor adopted a cabin resort style, with a main lodge at their centre providing dining and
entertainment facilities

Milford Manor closed in the late 1980s. The main lodge was used to film some scenes of the action movie The Long Kiss Goodbye in 1996, posing as the Deer Lick Tourist Lodge, starring Geena Davis and Samuel L. Jackson.

The 90-acre property was subdivided and most of the original buildings were torn down. The property is now a private cottage community with a private golf course, with new luxury cottages replacing the more basic cottages that were once a part of Milford Manor.

The current owners preserved some remnants of the resort: the shuffleboard courts are still there, and the original honeymoon suite is now one of the cottages.

A small collection of the old Maple Grove cottages do remain, the few remnants of Milford Manor. Some are still in use, while others are abandoned and slowly being consumed by vegetation.

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Ferndale House

Ferndale House was opened in 1880 by R.G. Penson on Lake Rosseau.

Ferndale House was built in 1880. Opened by R.G. Penson it was located on Lake Rosseau. By 1887, dances were held at the hotel every Friday night.

Penson sold the hotel to his son Seymour in 1895, and he ran it until 1905. Seymour tore down the original building and replaced it with a new hotel in 1899.

From 1905 to 1910 John Cope rented the hotel, running it until George Penson took over, operating it for two years.

The hotel was closed from 1912 until 1916, with George Penson using it as a private home.

John Cope bought the hotel in 1916 and ran it for ten years. It was sold to Canadian Keswick, who turned the old hotel into an inter-denominational bible conference centre, the Canadian Keswick Conference Centre.

The conference centre fell victim to a fire in 1945, but was rebuilt with stone.

The Canadian Keswick Conference Centre closed in 1976 and the building was eventually demolished.

Today, the former Ferndale Hotel property is owned by the founder of Mattamy Homes, the largest home builder in Canada. A new “cottage” occupies the property, the largest one on Lake Rosseau.

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Pinelands Resort

Pinelands Lodge was a Muskoka resort, located on the south end of Lake Joseph, for around 100 years, before it was demolished in 2004.  

The property is now occupied by the Muskokan on Lake Joseph, an upscale timeshare cottage community.

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Marygrove/Glen Home Hotel

Opened on 29 July 1939 by Lambert Love as the Glen Home Hotel. The hotel, near the Village of Glen Orchard, on the shore of Lake Joseph, was a towering, white, art deco-style building.

The Glen Home Hotel operated until the 1974, at which time it was sold to the Sisters of St. Joseph from Hamilton.

Re-named Marygrove Resort the following year, it continued operating it as a vacation spot for nuns from the order, retaining much of its original decor.

Marygrove closed in 2007, when the Sisters of St. Joseph decided they could no longer maintain the property. After a failed attempt by the Muskoka Lakes Heritage Committee to preserve the original building, it was demolished in June 2008. All seven members of the heritage committee resigned in protest as a result.

The property was divided into four lots, that are now occupied by luxury cottages.

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As mentioned above, not all of the family run hotels and resorts have passed into history; some are still going strong and remaining a big part of the Muskoka summer experience for families. Some of them include:

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Sherwood Inn

Opened around 1942 by Charles Henry “Henry” Draper, a middle-aged lawyer from Toronto, the historic Sherwood Inn is an elegant resort, set among century old pines trees on Lake Joseph, near Port Carling.

Over the decades, several owners have come and gone, and the Inn has seen significant expansion since 1939, yet it has remained a shining example of the romantic cottage/resort era in Muskoka. Providing tasteful accommodations, fine dining, exceptional facilities and upscale amenities, situated amongst beautiful surroundings, where generations of family vacationers have come to spend an entire summer in comfort and luxury.

Going against the popular model of a sprawling hotel with the latest amenities and leisure facilities, Draper’s vision was something smaller, more intimate, with just 15 rooms for his guests. His resort looked more like a charming millionaire’s estate than a summer hotel.

Notable visitors over the years included Lawren Harris, a member of the famous Group of Seven, and George Thomson, brother of Tom Thompson, did some paintings at the hotel, one of which was retained by the Draper family.

Author Thomas B. Costain, was also a regular guest and the family has several signed books in their possession. Costain was the author of books such as The Black Rose, later made into a movie starring Tyrone Power, and The Silver Chalice, the movie version of which was the film debut of Paul Newman

Not only did Draper and his wife Marjorie run the hotel, their children were also brought into the business over the years. Eventually his son Charlie took over running the hotel, but by 1962, Charlie sold the hotel to Bob and Mary Pritchard.

In September 2009, the Sherwood Inn was the victim of a fire, but fortunately, it was contained to the main dining room, which was heavily damaged. The original, smaller dining room, called the vintage dining room, sustained mostly smoke damage.

The hotel continues to operate, currently with a total of 49 rooms for their guests. As their web site advises, the hotel remains one of the “..most romantic lakeside resorts, Sherwood Inn is the perfect Muskoka wedding venue for an intimate and exclusive wedding.

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Severn Lodge

Severn Lodge opened in the early 1920s, when George Barrick and Glen Crummel, both from Akron, Ohio, bought what was then called Mordolphton Camp.

The main lodge building, which dates back to the mid 1800s, had served as the headquarters for the Georgian Bay Lumber Company, but was sold in the 1870s to a group from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and converted into a private fishing and hunting club for wealthy railway men.

In the fall of 1936, William H. “Bill” Breckbill purchased the hotel. Breckbill had worked at Severn Lodge since 1928, starting as a summer worker and eventually rising to General Manager.

In 1940 he married Jeanne E. Krammes.  Jeanne was the ultimate hostess. She welcomed guests upon arrival, and during their stays always made them feel at home.  

During World War II, Breckbill’s wife Jeanne, whom he married in 1940, took over running the hotel while Bill was serving in the army.

In 1973 Bill and Jeanne’s son Ron started working at the hotel in 1973 and his older brother Rick joined in 1977.

After Bill suffered a debilitating stroke, he and Jeanne retired from the business, officially turning it over to Ron and Rick, who along with their wives Cindee and Sue, operated the Lodge together.

Bill Breckbill died in 1985 and Jeanne, who remained semi-active with the hotel, died in 1994.

Ron and Cindee retired from Severn Lodge in 2007 and Sam Brickbill, son of Rick and Sue, joined the family business, along with Sam’s wife Holly.

The Breckbill family still runs Severn Lodge today, which offers all-inclusive packages, along with amenities such as a heated outdoor pool & hot tub, sandy beach & lake water swimming, a 25 foot water trampoline, canoes, kayaks, pedal boats, stand-up paddle boards, mountain bikes, 100 acres of beautiful wooded trails, outboard boat & jet ski rentals, fishing, tennis, shuffleboard & horseshoes, a recreation & games room, water skiing, tubing, wake boarding, supervised kids’ activities, and evening entertainment.

Some of the cottages come with kitchens that allow guests to prepare their own meals.

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Cleveland’s House Resort

Opened in 1878 by Arthur Minett, north of Elgin House on the shores of Lake Rosseau, Cleveland’s House in one of the oldest resort hotels in Muskoka. Minett would transform the resort from a typical mid-range accommodation into one of the most popular hotels in Muskoka.

Minett saw the benefit of attracting automobile traffic to the area and making his resort car friendly by installing a separate entrance, garages,
and a small gas station on the property and featuring these amenities in the hotel’s brochures.

The original building features two storeys, with eight bedrooms, dining and living room areas and a kitchen wing. Minett called his new hotel Clevelands House, a name that came from Charles’ roots in the  English village of Bishop’s Cleeve, in the County of Gloucestershire, building it without the use of blueprints, using lumber taken from the property.

Minett added a third story to the hotel and a new dining room in 1891. At the time, a very distinctive feature was the octagonal tower at the south end of the main building. It was during the construction of this tower that Charles fell and broke his ribs. He died the next year of complications from the fall and pneumonia on 14 April 1892. Fanny and her sons continued operating the hotel until 1904, when her son Arthur Minett and his wife Alice formally bought the hotel from Fanny and the three other Minett sons.

A ballroom was added to the north end of the building and more bedrooms were added to the upper storeys. It was also at this time that the first croquet lawn and tennis courts were added, a sign of the recreational focus that Cleveland’s House was to have in the future.

Other additions over the years expanded the guest capacity and amenities. Arthur Minett partnered with businessman Fred Newton in the mid-1920s to expand the hotel’s facilities. These additional amenities included a lakeside refreshment stand that included a soda fountain and snack counter in 1924, and a casual dining space and a dance floor, together known as the Casino, in 1928, to compete with the Royal Muskoka Hotel’s facilities.

The dance hall, called the Lake Rosseau Club, provided dancing to a big band, with visitors from other hotels on the lakes tying up their boats at the dock and enjoying a night of entertainment. Other resorts soon followed with their own dance halls, but none matched Cleveland’s House.

Although prohibition had recently ended, guests had to “brown-bag” their alcohol as the Minetts were strongly against alcohol.

The Minett’s era at the home came to an end in 1953, when Arthur Minett sold the hotel to Ted Wright, a salesman for a Toronto newspaper. Wright, along wit his wife Laura, changed the focus of the hotel from a middle-aged clientele to a younger, party and convention-oriented clientele.

It was around this time that Wright hired Bob Cornell as manager of the hotel, where Cornell eventually met his future wife.

Wright and Cornell formed a very close friendship, as well as a working relationship, and Cornell was given a free hand in running the hotel. On of Cornell’s changes was to focus business on family vacations instead of singles.

To accomplish this, major improvements and additions were necessary. The physical plant was renovated, new cottages built and a swimming pool and tennis courts built. The swimming pool proved to be a was a major draw for guests. The beach made for a great swimming area, but the pool allowed for relaxing and socializing.

When Wright finally decided it was time to sell the hotel in November 1969, it was to Bob and Fran Cornell, his trusted manager for so many years.

Continuous improvements and additions led to the resort now having a compliment of 16 tennis courts, four swimming pools, a nine-hole golf course, a state-of-the-art fitness facility, numerous cottages and a dining room that can seat 540 people.

While many other Muskoka resorts fell on hard times and closed, Cleveland’s House has remained a fixture in Ontario’s cottage country for over 140 years. It’s still a family-run resort, currently owned by Red Leaves, who purchased it from long-time owners Bob and Fran Cornell in 2007.

The original buildings still exist, including the historic main lodge, with its wrap-around porch.

For the 2020 season, a major renovation was unveiled, restoring the iconic building to its past glory, with updates to the main floor dining rooms and restoration of the original hardwood floors in the 2nd and 3rd floor guest rooms.

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Shamrock Lodge

Shamrock Lodge had its beginnings in the early years of the 20th century, when Robert Hardcastle Johnston opened up his farmhouse, on the shore of Lake Rosseau, to summer guests.

Johnston, who named his home in honour of his homeland, was a successful dairy farmer and one of the earliest milk producers in the Port Carling Area. While he turned out to be a capable hotel operator, operating the farm remained Johnston’s primary focus.

It wasn’t until 1934, when Alfred Edward Johnston inherited the family farm, that he formally turned the farmhouse into a hotel for the growing number of vacationers coming to Muskoka each summer.

In the beginning, Alfred was able to accommodate forty guests, some within the house, while others were accommodated in a four-bedroom cottage building.

Johnston continued running the lodge until selling it in 1947 to new owners, who ran it until selling it again in 1950 to Bill and Eve Clinch.

Bill and Eve ran the lodge as a summer only operation for close to ten years, but when Bill retired from his full-time job with Canadian Pacific Railway, they turned Shamrock Lodge into a year-round operation.

During the 1950s, the Clinches expanded the occupancy from ten rooms in the main house and four in the cottage building, by adding two separate family cottages in 1956 and another in 1959.

The cottage building was demolished in the mid-1960s and replaced with a two-story multi-room hotel building. An indoor pool was added and an agreement with the nearby Port Carling Golf and County Club allowed guests access to their facilities.

The Clinches ran the lodge until retiring in 1978, selling it to another short-term owner who sold it again in 1980 to current owners Dennis and Murial Bryant.

The Bryants made much needed upgrades to the aging buildings and adding additional facilities like a sauna, whirlpool and other modern amenities, along with turning it into an all-inclusive resort.

Affectionately referred to as “The Shammy” by its regulars, a stay at the Shamrock Lodge includes a variety of activities, including supervised children’s programs, indoor swimming, hiking, canoeing, kayaking, water skiing, pontoon boat tours and tubing, and three meals a day, all included in the package rate. The kids’ club is also included and available Sunday through Friday.

Although the Shamrock Lodge is small in comparison to some of the other Muskoka resorts, it’s a perfect example that the traditional family-run resorts are not only viable, but cherished by vacationing families.


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About the author

Bruce Forsyth

Bruce Forsyth served in the Royal Canadian Navy Reserve for 13 years (1987-2000). He served with units in Toronto, Hamilton & Windsor and worked or trained at CFB Esquimalt, CFB Halifax, CFB Petawawa, CFB Kingston, CFB Toronto, Camp Borden, The Burwash Training Area and LFCA Training Centre Meaford.

Permanent link to this article: https://militarybruce.com/decline-of-the-family-run-resorts-in-ontarios-cottage-country/

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