The long history of Muskoka cottagers’ dependence on year-round residents

by Lauren Naus on July 12, 2017

Known mostly as a summer retreat for the wealthy, Muskoka’s history reveals the critical importance of permanent dwellers

four Muskoka chairs with lake and cottages

Originally posted on TVO
Written by guest blogger, Andrew Watson.


When most people in Ontario think of Muskoka, they picture mansion cottages dotting the shoreline of an affluent lakeside play land. Many who spend time in Muskoka are drawn by the enjoyment of fossil-fuelled recreation (wakeboarding, jet skis, etc.) and the trappings of creature comforts, but most are attracted by the rest-cure afforded by proximity to clear waters, wind-swept pines, and the rugged landscape of the Canadian Shield. The popular images of cottage life and resort tourism seem to characterize the region, but the impressions of conspicuous consumption bely a larger story that acknowledges and includes the lives of Muskoka’s year-round residents.

If we look past the expensive shoreline real estate and think beyond the affluent seasonal resident, we end up in a part of Muskoka that receives far less attention and confront a permanent resident population that builds, supports, and reproduces the region’s society and economy.

According to the 2011 Canadian census, approximately 58 per cent of Muskoka’s population is seasonal residents, while 42 per cent live in the district permanently. Without its permanent residents, however, Muskoka’s cottage and tourism culture would be impossible.

Through a large number of occupations in sales, service, trades, and construction, permanent residents provide the fundamental structures that support seasonal residents and tourists. In fact, the proportion of workers in these occupations in Muskoka is more than 10 per cent greater than the provincial average (roughly 47 versus 36 per cent).

Through a large number of occupations in sales, service, trades, and construction, permanent residents provide the fundamental structures that support seasonal residents and tourists. In fact, the proportion of workers in these occupations in Muskoka is more than 10 per cent greater than the provincial average (roughly 47 versus 36 per cent).

graph of Muskoka occupationsOccupations in Muskoka 2011 (District Municipality of Muskoka)

Yet unlike the image that dominates our perception of Muskoka, the lives of year-round residents are not characterized by wealth and privilege. Homelessness and poverty have been important challenges in Muskoka over the past two decades. In 2011, more than 50 per cent of households in Muskoka made less than $30,000 per year, and more than 70 per cent made less than $40,000. Moreover, homeowners in Muskoka earned, on average, 22 per cent less income than the Ontario average, while renters earned approximately 9 per cent less. Despite Muskoka’s reputation of wealth and affluence, those who make that reputation possible are largely overlooked and their important role is underappreciated.

The ways we discount their place in Muskoka’s society and economy is a historic problem with roots in the socio-economic, political, and cultural power differentials between permanent and seasonal residents that stretch back to the 19th century. Cottagers and tourists controlled the narrative of the Muskoka story, which not surprisingly favoured and romanticized leisure and luxury next to the lake instead of the labour and resources slightly further inland. The consequence of this narrative has been the nearly complete erasure of permanent residents and their central place historically in Muskoka’s society and economy.

During the second half of the 19th century, Eurocanadian peoples (residents of Canada West/Ontario and immigrants from Britain and Europe) displaced Indigenous peoples and colonized the Muskoka region as part of a larger effort to extend a rural agrarian society into the southern portions of the Canadian Shield. At the time that the earliest pioneers took up land during the 1860s, few people understood the potential of the landscape for farming. It did not take long for pioneers to discover that the Shield environment featured rocky outcroppings, poor drainage, and thin soils unsuited to commercial agriculture.

Muskoka cattle photo from 19th centuryCattle grazing in Muskoka’s early settler years. (John Lane/Archive of Ontario, C 127-2-0-4-7)

Those who moved to Muskoka expecting to grow wheat or establish a mixed farm resembling ones found in southern Ontario were disappointed. And when the Canadian Pacific Railway opened in the 1880s, many abandoned their land and moved west to the Prairies. Others grew crops more suited to the environmental realities of the Shield, such as oats, potatoes, and hay, and sold them to logging camps that cut white pine timber in Muskoka during the winter. Those who took up land next to the three largest lakes in Muskoka (Joseph, Rosseau, and Muskoka) realized a more profitable use for their land: selling goods and services to tourists.

Muskoka’s first tourists appeared during the 1860s, and the first hotels were built in the early 1870s. By the 1880s, tourism defined Muskoka’s rural society and economy next to the lakes. Early on, Muskoka attracted adventure seekers, anglers, and hunters, but only in relatively small numbers. The culture of cottages and resort hotels that characterized the region by the turn of the century materialized because permanent residents cultivated it. They aligned their labours and resources to provide accommodations, fresh foods, and services for seasonal visitors. Farmers continued to grow crops to sell to logging camps, but also increased the amount of time they spent on market vegetables, eggs, dairy, and meat – items that did not travel well from the city at that time. Enterprising farmers and merchants next to the lakes operated supply boats, which served as mobile extensions of their businesses to bring provisions to lakeside residents.

In the off-season, settlers cut cordwood from the forests and ice from the lake for stoves and icehouses, and hauled timber and lumber across the lake to build cottages on islands and remote points of land. Tourism co-evolved with agriculture and logging to form the basis of Muskoka’s rural identity, particularly for those who lived in close proximity to the lakes.

a 19th century supply boat in Muskoka, OntarioInterior of supply boat, Constance (Courtesy of Muskoka Steamship and Historical Society)

Our impressions of Muskoka are guided by well over a century of wealth and privilege. For more than one hundred years, Ontarians have associated Muskoka with opulent cottages, grand resorts, and a lifestyle of leisure and recreation. In constructing this narrative, seasonal residents (un)consciously ignored a critical part of the Muskoka story. In this regard, not much has changed since the late nineteenth century. But by understanding a more balanced history, we can start to create a more balanced society, culture, and economy in Muskoka.

You can read more about this important, and largely overlooked, aspect of Muskoka’s history in my recent article, “Pioneering a Rural Identity on the Canadian Shield: Tourism, Household Economies, and Poor Soils in Muskoka, Ontario, 1870-1900,” from the Canadian Historical Review, which will remain open access until the end of August 2017.

Andrew Watson is an assistant professor in the department of history at the University of Saskatchewan. He’s been delving into Muskoka’s past for more than a decade.

Nam Kiwanuka interviews Andrew Watson about the history of Muskoka. Courtesy of The Agenda YouTube Channel.

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