Community Portraits: Legendary artist Milne captured essence of North Hastings

By Sarah Vance
Photos courtesy David Milne Jr.

David B. Milne first came to Bancroft with his canoe and camping supplies on the I B & O Railway in 1947. He was already recognized as one of Canada’s greatest artists. He had exhibited alongside Monet, Matisse, Picasso, Braque and Duchamp and the American modernists at the famous Armory Show in New York in 1913 yet he was still little known to the Canadian general public.

Although he had exhibited alongside the greats of the art world David Milne, shown in New York in 1909, was relatively unknown to the Canadian public at the time of his move to the Bancroft area.

Although he had exhibited alongside the greats of the art world David Milne, shown in New York in 1909, was relatively unknown to the Canadian public at the time of his move to the Bancroft area.

Milne came to the area and specifically to Baptiste Lake to paint and to find a waterfront property on which to build a cabin. He returned in the spring of 1948 with his wife Kathleen and son David Jr. and built a log cabin on a remote shore of Baptiste. There was no charge for the land but he had to pay a $90 survey fee.

When Milne first arrived in Bancroft after dark on September 9, 1947, he was tired from the long train ride, the Bancroft Hotel was full and he thought the town “anything but impressive.” The next morning, when he had a chance to see the town in daylight “with high hills all round” he considered it the finest painting town he had ever seen. Over the next few years he would do many sketches and paintings of the area, which are now prized treasures in private and public collections.

The Department of Lands and Forests office provided the vantage point for Milne’s painting of the eight-sided house, a home still standing today.

The Department of Lands and Forests office provided the vantage point for Milne’s painting of the eight-sided house, a home still standing today.

The Dept. of Lands and Forests office on Chemaushgon Road, where Beacon Construction is today, provided the vantage point for his painting of Eight Sided House, a home still standing on Alice Street today.

Milne would have noticed the octagonal frame building on the opposite side of the river from the Forestry office where he arranged for the survey and applied for the deed for his Baptiste property.

“It was the hills that he loved so much about this area,” says David Jr. “He could paint the details of one hill while standing on another.”

In Bancroft he painted the town from the heights of Cleak Street, the view across the river from the location of the present curling rink, the public school on Flint Street as well as many pictures of the eight-sided house and the train station. On Sherbourne Street, Milne did a number of paintings of the Catholic Church, now home of the popular Old Tin Shed boutique.

Among the many subjects for David Milne’s painting was the Catholic Church on Sherbourne Street in Bancroft, now the home of the Old Tin Shed boutique.

Among the many subjects for David Milne’s painting was the Catholic Church on Sherbourne Street in Bancroft, now the home of the Old Tin Shed boutique.

Railway cars on a siding and the Canada Packers Feed Mill on Station Street with the large arena beside it and the station, water tower and turning shed across the street were also catalysts for Milne’s creativity. The train was a lifeline for Milne, who never owned a car. David Jr. remembers his mother and father placing mail-orders from the Eaton’s Catalogue and the accompanying excitement when the train would bring parcels from the department store.

In those days, the fire department suspended its water hoses 40 feet in the air in a tower behind the fire station on Hastings Street in order to dry the fabric after a fire. This tower with surrounding buildings, seen from across the York River, provided a fine painting subject for Milne. The painting, titled York River, is now a treasured part of the Art Gallery of Hamilton’s permanent collection.

Another painting subject for Milne was the abandoned train station at Birds Creek. Every month or so he would paddle from his cabin to High Falls then walk to Birds Creek, resting on the platform of the empty station while waiting for the noon time bus into Bancroft.

The train was a lifeline for Milne, who never owned a car, and railway cars were often a catalyst for his creativity.

The train was a lifeline for Milne, who never owned a car, and railway cars were often a catalyst for his creativity.

Baptiste Lake was a much smaller community during Milne’s time there. His nearest neighbour was trapper and canoe builder Charlie McCallister on the north shore near the present Scott’s Cottages. Sam Baptiste’s home was a stopping place in the winter on Milne’s weekly ski trip to Grant’s Store for supplies. Elizabeth Grant and her daughter Mabel were always kind, inviting Milne in to the living quarters for ‘a cup of tea’ which would usually turn out to be a full meal. Mr. Lake on the hill behind the store, the Summers family at the Chateau, the Peevers, Frank Lavalley, Sammy Hancock and Art Nicol at Birch Cliff were all people Milne knew and visited with.

The main industry on Baptiste was Martin’s Mill, a large operation for the area with booms of logs being towed down the lake to be turned into lumber at the sawmill. Milne and other residents set their clocks by the noon hour whistle and Milne sometimes piled his canoe with rough lumber to take to the cabin site for flooring and roofing.

Milne was an outdoorsman who traveled on the lake by canoe in the summer and on skis in the winter. He explored and painted the area around the lake and in the village of Bancroft. In the winter he skied five miles through the woods to the Hickey settlement and then caught the Bancroft – Maynooth bus.

Most of Milne’s paintings were of Baptiste Lake, particularly Blueberry Island and the view of the McGarry Hills from his cabin. He painted High Falls and the dam, Paddy Cox’s Bay and Bowers Mountain, the view from Birch Cliff Lodge and from the high land above the store, Camp Makwan, Lavalley Bay and many more locations.

Martin’s Mill was the main industry on Baptiste Lake and Milne sometimes piled lumber from the mill in his canoe to take to his cabin site for flooring and roofing.

Martin’s Mill was the main industry on Baptiste Lake and Milne sometimes piled lumber from the mill in his canoe to take to his cabin site for flooring and roofing.

Hiking and exploring were both recreation and part of the creative process for him. His favourite destinations were the abandoned settlements around the lake: the Sears Settlement and the Hickey Settlement were both frequently painted. In the evenings after dinner, he would sit in an old captain’s chair in the cabin, feet on the oven door and contemplate the brush strokes on the paintings he done that day.

David Jr. remembers the evening contemplation of the day’s painting as important a part of his father’s life as chopping wood, hauling water, and stocking the fire for the night.

It was not an easy life but Milne prided himself on being able to persevere despite the challenges living in an isolated location.

He had found a kindred spirit in his wife Kathleen, who he’d met many years earlier, at Six Mile Lake near Georgian Bay. She had been camping with friends on the Severn River when one day she went paddling on Six Mile Lake, a storm came up and she was swept into Milne’s bay and rescued by him.

Kathleen was an independent career woman, who had pursued post-graduate studies in nursing when she met Milne, and the two developed a lifelong partnership of mutual respect and adoration.

Kathleen’s was a voice for Milne’s artistic process. She kept a diary and took notes on his paintings which today provide art historians and curators an invaluable window into his creativity.

The couple moved permanently to Bancroft with their son in 1952.

Many of Milne’s most famous titles were painted from sketches that the artist made while he lived in Baptiste and Bancroft. The paintings are now in the National Gallery of Canada, the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, which has a dedicated Milne room with videos of Baptiste Lake, the McMichael Gallery and every other major gallery in Canada.

The tower behind the fire station provided a fine painting subject for Milne and the painting York River is now a valued piece in the Art Gallery of Hamilton.

The tower behind the fire station provided a fine painting subject for Milne and the painting York River is now a valued piece in the Art Gallery of Hamilton.

Milne’s special relationship with North Hastings is continued by his son, who operates Birch Cliff Lodge, a popular tourist destination on Baptiste Lake.

Milne's granddaughter Mary Milne, a Genie Award winning singer and songwriter, also resides in North Hastings with her family.

While it is believed that all of Milne’s paintings are accounted for, local legend has it that a long lost painting may hang thick within the walls of the historic Arlington, in Maynooth.

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