Story and photos by Lindi Pierce
There was a time, a simpler time, before all-inclusive resorts and luxury spas transformed our expectations of holidays. It was a time when a pristine lake and the lure of catching the big one, an open-rafter cottage with a screened porch and an outhouse, the waves lapping and the breeze sighing in the pines, and the easy conviviality of annual returnees assembled around a farm-house table or communal bonfire made summer memories.
In the early years of tourism, the 1920s to 1950s, a special breed of tourist destination flourished like the summer harvest. Cottage resorts sprouted up along the lakeshore on family farms, a kind of additional crop on sometimes cash-poor farms. There's a tradition of tourist homes or guest lodges - farm wives opening their dining room for home cooked meals and the spare bedroom for a guest or two, farmers building small cabins for much-needed summer tourist accommodation. The tourist homes felt comfortable because they were homes, and guests became like family.
As tastes changed, so did the fortunes of these little cottages, and some have evolved into summer homes for the descendants of early lodge operators. The Maloney and Bonter cottages on Crowe Lake, the Pitts family cottages on Moira Lake, and the Stoco Lake Mulrooney cottages have campfire stories to tell. With time, these cottage operations evolved into family enclaves, preserving and passing on the happy summer memories of generations of relatives and guests.
The Maloney family has been providing hospitality since the 1950s. Around the kitchen table at the farmhouse above Crowe Lake, Grandpa Joe and Grandma Bev (the family historian), their son Kevin and his wife Shelly and Helen, wife of Kevin's cousin Wayne, tell the story.
It was (great) Grandpa Richard Maloney and Grandma Madeleine who started the camp on the lakeshore of the family farm along Glen Allen road north of Marmora. People came for the fishing and the family-friendly beach. This was a working farm; the open meadow area was crossed by cattle on their way to water. Maloney Road still cuts through deep forest. Early on, Joe recounts, "we had to keep a tractor handy to pull stuck campers out."
Early on, the family provided tent platforms and visitors brought canvas. It was a simple matter to cut down a tree or two and create a new home base for extra campers. Later, accommodations evolved to some 20 trailer sites.
Richard built two simple cottages in the 1950s. The men had to hustle to build a third one during a week when someone (Madeleine handled bookings, but never admitted to this one) overbooked. Visitors returned year after year. Mark Thompson of Madoc was a 20-year visitor. Several generations of the Anderson family from Springbrook summered on Crowe Lake. Other families came from Cobourg, Peterborough and Kingston. There were a few Americans. Bev consults the photo album, recalling familar names: Marineau, Twitty, Danford, Pitt, Brown, Barron, Prindle, Bardy, Ayleswoth, Maxwell. The Maloneys never advertised; all bookings were word of mouth.
"There was always a game of horse-shoes or cards going on," Helen recalls. There were dress-up nights, sing-songs around the massive fire-pit, high jinks with buckets of water, skunk mishaps. People socialized from trailer to trailer, a moveable reunion.
Amusements were simpler then, as were accommodations. An ice house, cistern with hand pumps for water and an outhouse provided the creature comforts early on. Joe and Bev recall there was no power until the early 1960s, when a post with a single outdoor bulb was installed to light those nocturnal outhouse trips.
After Grandma Madeleine's retirement, Joe and Bev continued to operate the camp. Family always got together for Madeleine's birthday, the fourth weekend in July. The family continues the tradition with an annual potluck picnic in the sunny open meadow under towering poplars.
But times change, and summer rentals began to decline because visitors wanted more amenities. In 1970 Madeleine gave each son a lot and kept two cottages. To this day, all but one cottage remains in family hands. Helen and Wayne live year-round in his parents' cottage with its views of the immense lake to the south, dark pine and spruce forest behind.
Family members share ownership and responsibility for maintenance of Maloney Road. "The only one who doesn't have legal access is that she-turtle who crosses the road to lay her eggs," jokes Joe. The folks who made the cottage experience available for others now enjoy it themselves.
In 2010 Kevin and Shelly decided to help others make summer memories. They bought three of the cottages and founded Maloney's Retreat, a summer camp for adults with special needs. The couple and their staff welcome 72 campers per year, in small groups. The campers enjoy the pontoon boat, outdoor games, the beach and the friendships. Helen recounts they wave to folks on the shore who always wave back. They wave to her as she mows the grounds on her riding mower, the crowd growing with each circuit of the property. Maloney's is a place where you feel you belong.
Many members of the pioneer Bonter family live year-round on the Crowe Lake shores of the original family farm. Great-grandfather's hundreds of acres once extended from Booster Park Road to Marble Point Road just west of Marmora. The dignified family farmhouse still stands at the crest of the last hill before the shore, along Bonter Pioneer Drive.
Andy Bonter and brother Jeff carry on the tradition established by their grandfather - catering to sportsmen and fishermen at Bonter Marine. Grandfather Bill Bonter was a Johnson outboard dealer who built cedar strip boats - "Better Boats by Bonter." In the late 1920s he constructed eight or nine summer rental cottages, which he and wife Ruth operated until the late 1970s. Grandfather was ideally suited to the life - a multi-tasker who juggled an ice business, insurance business, boat building, boat rentals, propane sales, and the cottages, and yet was "always available for a chat" with the guests.
The cabins weren't fancy; expectations were different then. Andy recalls "the same old 1930s cabins were there in the Seventies. Two had indoor plumbing, for the women visitors."
For the boys, play and work blended. "When it rained we bailed boats. We met returning fishermen, tied up the boats, carried the catch and sometimes cleaned fish." And it was the fishing in Crowe's pristine waters that brought many American families up for the entire summer, year after year. Andy recalls one family from Painesville, Ohio who still come to visit his grandmother, attending family weddings and funerals. "They had seven or eight kids; we all became friends."
Although Willie Mulrooney was a bachelor farmer, he managed to create a family community on the shore of Sugar Island, Stoco Lake. Families who cottaged on the lake were primarily merchants from Tweed and area: Bush, Vesey, Belch, Barnett, McCallum.
Around 1945 William Peter Mulrooney hired respected local carpenter Paddy Whelan to build 14 cottages on the shore of his farm on Bethel Road, off the Marlbank road. In her cottage reminiscences, Judi (Barnett) Libman recalls 13 happy summers there in one of the small open-rafter frame cottages with tin hip roofs. An outhouse, ice-house (Willie would cut lake ice in the winter for the cottage iceboxes) and communal well pump provided the amenities.
People made their own fun. Each cottage was equipped with a flat bottomed wood boat. Kids played ball in the nearby farm field or gathered armfuls of pea vines from the summer crop. Willie collected camp garbage with a wagon and his work-horse Nellie, who figures in many memories.
Mike Hanley has been summering at Stoco Lake for 51 summers; today he and his siblings use the cottage as "a gathering place" for their widely scattered family. The cottage is still in its original form. Mike's father and grandfather knew Mulrooney well. "He was a funny little old man; everybody loved him."
Willie built the first cottage - the Hanley's cottage - for the priest at St. Edmund's church, a welcome retreat during hot summers. In the late Sixties, Willie sold the cottages to his long-term renters. "He was more interested in who he sold to than the price he got."
Libman shared nostalgic 1950s family photos with Evan Morton of the Tweed and District Heritage Centre: kids at dress-up days, proudly holding strings of fish, grinning on homemade docks or cottage steps, happy families gathering for food or campfires.
Mulrooney's 1973 obituary recalls that "he was engaged in farming all his life, and had lived in the same district his entire lifetime, where he enjoyed a wide circle of friends." In the Mulrooney cottages, Willie left a legacy. Memories.
Moira Lake is home to an early farm tourist home and camp turned modern family cottage enclave. The story of Pitts' Landing, now the summer refuge of Gayle (Pitts) Ketcheson and husband Grant and their extended family, was recounted by Gayle's mother Reta Pitts in her 2010 memoir Roses in December. And Reta would know. The former teacher "with that little writing gene" arrived as James Arthur Pitts' new bride in the middle of tourist season 1939. Reta's entry into the tourist home kitchen marked the second generation of farm wives to welcome visitors. Her teaching career abandoned she pitched in, preparing three home-cooked meals a day, cleaning and entertaining, assisting her mother-in-law at Lakeview Inn on the north shore of Moira Lake.
Reta's children Gayle, Jayne and Gordon grew up in the farmhouse, the fourth generation at Pitts' Landing. Gayle recounts the story, seated on the deck overlooking Moira Lake, herons gliding by, red squirrels harvesting cones in the white pines high overhead.
Pitts' Landing was not always so peaceful. It began as a working farm and over the generations evolved into the peaceful haven it is today. Gayle's great grandparents James and Maria (nee Snyder) Pitts purchased the farm and shoreline in 1876; the property became known as Pitts' Landing.
In the fullness of time, sons Arthur and Chesley inherited the land - Arthur took over the lakeside farm and house to the west, Chesley inherited the eastern shore now known as Crystal Beach, a summer camping resort. That property was later sold out of the family.
In 1900 Arthur built a frame farmhouse and a year later, brought his bride Martha to the lakeside farm. From 1907 until the mid-Forties, the busy farm wife welcomed summer boarders to Lake View Inn, serving home-cooked meals to 30 guests, white linen tablecloths still 'de rigeur.' Housekeeping cottages down by the lake - two, then eight, later 10, expanded her workload. Fortunately, there was hired help. Arthur, then later his son James, would be called from full-time work on the farm to rent a boat or make a repair. "The Pitts family had only limited time to enjoy the lake," recalls Gayle.
The unspoiled surroundings and Moira Lake's famous fishing brought affluent tourists from Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York State, as well as occasional Ontario guests. Grant explains: "Most Canadians didn't holiday, maybe the merchant and professional classes..."
The cottage colony grew, each tiny house with a name and a story. 'Bayview', 'Le Nid', 'Camp Rochester', the 'Arthur', 'Edgewater' and 'Wee Blue Inn', some of them altered over the years, were among the original eight 1939 cottages on the shoreline. The story of the first, 'Tuulen Tupa', named by its Finnish residents, is intriguing. A simple white one and a half-storey frame farmhouse, it was built about 1895 by Arthur Pitts for his sister Alice. Sadly she died, leaving Arthur with the never-used house. After a nearly disastrous attempt to move the house on the shore by ice to a new owner Arthur parked it safely back on shore, where it stands still. Gayle's brother Gordon, business writer and author of the soon to be released Moira Memories and wife Elaine, who has deep roots in the area, now summer at 'Tuulen Tupa'.
Many families returned each year - some for 50 seasons! And as they expanded, accommodation stretched to fit, with tent sites in 1962 and later seasonal trailers.
When James died, Reta sold most of the farm, dividing the waterfront among the children, ensuring at least one cottage on each parcel. The former rental cottages have been absorbed by family. Gayle and Grant fixed up three cottages for their children.
Today 'Camp Rochester' is the summer home of Gayle and Grant Ketcheson. The couple spend their summers tending the property, welcoming family and guests and counting their blessings in their little piece of Moira Lake heaven. A "hillbilly Hyannis", Grant observes wryly, of the active extended family enjoying communal meals and campfires, water-sports and hammock time "with Kennedy flair."
It seems we may have lost a lot in our modern desire for the perfect vacation. It's about making memories. A quiet lake, modest accommodation, plenty of nature and the warm conviviality of extended family enjoying the short sweet summer used to be all we needed. And maybe still do.