By Barry Penhale
Photos courtesy the Barry Penhale Collection
On July 8, 1984, the man often referred to as the first significant Canadian playwright of the 20th century was honoured with an Ontario Heritage Foundation plaque. The site was the Tweed Playhouse in the village of Tweed. The man was Merrill Denison (1893–1975) whose early plays had been performed at the Orange Hall back in the 1920s. Years later, the affable Clyde Bell, editor and co-owner of The Tweed News from 1964 to 1986, hosted my wife and myself during a special 1993 Denison memorabilia exhibit in the Tweed Playhouse. My fascination with Denison was something I had long nourished and the exhibition greatly accelerated my interest.
Born in Detroit in 1893 to an American father and a Canadian mother, Denison was to spend a sizeable part of his highly productive career living in Ontario and writing articles, books and plays celebrating Canada. Known for a zany sense of humour, Denison’s dual affiliation led to frequent references to himself as a “Mugwump” Canadian — with his mug on one side of the border and his wump on the other. His pleasure with this self-appointed moniker stayed with him to the end.
Denison’s story would not be complete without including his remarkable mother Flora MacDonald Merrill Denison — businesswoman, writer/editor, feminist, and social reformer. Quite an achievement for a Hastings County girl born at Bridgeport (Actinolite) on February 20, 1867! After her father, George Merrill, became involved with a worthless Flinton-area mining venture, an already difficult period for the family became more so and they moved to Belleville.
Young Flora, having assessed her short teaching experience in a one-room school near Flinton as considerably less than appealing, departed in search of her destiny. Following a short stint in Toronto, she joined relatives in Detroit in the 1880s where she assumed the name Mrs. Denison in 1892, having entered an unconventional marital relationship with Howard Denison, an already married commercial traveler.
The couple moved to Toronto, but Flora purposefully returned to Detroit for her son’s birth in 1893. Once back home, she used her expert dressmaking skills to become self-sufficient as head of the Robert Simpson Company’s ladies’ tailoring department. But ever the independent woman, she left employment to establish her own successful dressmaking business. Always an ardent advocate for women’s rights, she was president of the Canadian Suffragette Movement from 1911 to 1914. At some point, Flora would discover the writings of the man who became her idol — American humanist, philosopher, and poet, Walt Whitman.
As a youngster Flora Merrill would have heard accounts of the vast Lake Mazinaw country north of her birthplace, colourful tales extolling raftsmen, river drives, and Native lore. Son Merrill had his introduction to what today is known as the Land O’Lakes when the Denison family stayed at Bon Echo Inn in 1908.
Getting there would have been a lengthy arduous adventure since they travelled on the CP Railway from Toronto to Kaladar. The next leg of their journey involved proceeding by horse and wagon to Snider Depot at the south end of the Mazinaw.* But the trip wasn’t over. It was still necessary to get to their final destination, which meant travel in the inboard-powered boat The Wanderer. They must have breathed a sigh of relief once at the dock south of the narrows. Upon arrival, Flora was enthralled by the beauty of Lake Mazinaw and the spectacular dominating landmark known as Bon Echo Rock. The site claimed her total attention and was to be the focal point of her incredibly productive life up to her passing in 1921.
In 1904 Flora, who by then was increasingly using the pen name MacDonald (adopted from her maternal grandmother), purchased a nearby property. But the acquisition that truly changed her life and that of Merrill was yet ahead. In the summer of 1910, word reached her of the impending sale of Bon Echo Inn, owned at the time by Canadian-born but Cleveland-based dentist, Dr. Weston Price. The sale became final on September 27 and Flora took over not only the inn but miles of Lake Mazinaw shoreline, including Bon Echo Rock and hundreds of acres of land.
The presence of Flora and her son in Mazinaw country ushered in a period of enormous creativity that drew widespread attention partly as a result of the establishment of a summer community dedicated to the teachings of Whitman. By then, Howard, at best a shadowy presence in her life, seems to disappear. Flora not only founded the Walt Whitman Club of Bon Echo but also launched the publication The Sunset of Bon Echo to promote an understanding of Whitman and advertise Bon Echo Inn. The Sunset of Bon Echo was published from 1916 to 1920 and edited by Flora MacDonald.
In time, mother and son attracted many prominent visitors — mostly intellectuals, painters and theatrical personalities. Among the surviving memorabilia of that period are several stylish tourism brochures featuring the art of such major artists as A.Y. Jackson, Frank “Franz” Johnston and Franklin Carmichael.
Flora Denison’s death from pneumonia at age 54, robbed her devoted son of his best friend. As heir to Bon Echo, Merrill assumed enormous responsibility and financial challenges, hardly ideal for a creative individual immersed in writing books, plays and radio drama scripts. One marvels at his impressive body of work considering the many shaky years that not only drained the coffers but must surely have sapped the man both emotionally and physically.
But Merrill’s inner strength and creative juices prevailed. A baker’s dozen of successful books would be published, along with numerous commissioned corporate histories including The Barley and the Stream: The Molson Story. Success with light comedy, broadcast assignments, and writing for the stage kept Merrill busy and though never flush, his urgent bills did get paid. Mary Savigny, in her book Bon Echo: The Denison Years* recalls the existence of several bank accounts that regularly needed feeding, including one in Tweed.
Interestingly, Merrill’s first wife, Muriel Groggin of Toronto, was also an accomplished author. One particularly popular title for the young reader, Susannah: A Little Girl With The Mounties, became a big-screen movie starring Shirley Temple. Five years after Muriel died, Merrill married American-born Lisa Andrews who, like Muriel before her, would find herself also wed to Bon Echo.
In preparing this article, I searched old files and was rewarded with a folder crammed with materials related to Flora MacDonald and Merrill Denison. The most exciting finds were numerous letters from Mary Savigny and copies of The Sunset of Bon Echo. Mary’s letters were especially informative. Her life had changed dramatically in 1947 when she and husband John purchased an old farmstead south of Northbrook. It was rough going, but, having survived wartime in their native England, the duo was up to anything including rural inconveniences. John started a radio/appliances repair shop and one day greeted a customer who turned out to be the crusty old Bon Echo caretaker, Mike Schwager. Later, John was asked to go to Bon Echo to repair radios on site, and for Mary it was a life-changing day when Merrill, in search of a typist, heard all he needed to engage her services. The working relationship produced a warm friendship that only ended with Merrill’s death in California in 1975.
In the Foreword to her book, Mary Savigny spoke of my eight years of gentle persuasion that caused her to write about Bon Echo and the Denisons. When the book was published, John and Mary Savigny came to Toronto, stayed at a posh hotel, and, joined by myself and wife Jane, enjoyed a sumptuous celebratory dinner. A toast was proposed to Merrill Denison and thanks given for his most generous gift to the people of Ontario — the property that today is known as the enormously popular Bon Echo Provincial Park.
*Bon Echo: The Denison Years by Mary Savigny was published by Natural Heritage Books, 1997.
John Campbell. The Mazinaw Experience: Bon Echo and Beyond, Natural Heritage Books, 2000.
Ramsay Cook and Michèle Lacombe. “Merrill, Flora MacDonald (Denison).” Dictionary of Canadian Biography. Vol. 15. www.biographi.ca/en/bio/merrill_flora_macdonald_15W.html
Dick MacDonald. Mugwump Canadian: The Merrill Denison Story. Content Publishing Co. Ltd., 1973
Robert Stacey and Stan McMullin. Massanoga: The Art of Bon Echo. Archives of Canadian Art, Penumbra Press, 1998.