A friend loaned me a book she’d come across in her research for her husband’s family, A Boy’s Cottage Diary 1904 annotated by Larry Turner. Because my grandparents on both sides of my family came out of the same era, although a few years later, I was curious about how they afford to buy a cottages on Washburn Island Lake Scugog at the height of the Depression in the 30s. My family was working class, as were most families in Canada at the time. It mystified me that they could buy cottages when there was chronic unemployment in Canada. If their stories of hardship are true, there wasn’t a dime to spare in the household.
The 1904 diary was originally penned by 16-year old Fred Dickinson. Fred lived in Kemptville, Ontario, north of Kingston. For one month in the summer of 1904, Fred and three young men set up a tent on his grandmother’s cottage property, Sunnybanks, which was adjacent to the lower lock at Beveridges Bay on Lower Rideau Lake, one of the chain of Rideau Lakes that formed the headwaters of the historic Rideau Canal in Eastern Ontario. His adventures of early cottage life are intriguing. Author Larry Turner ‘s grandfather was Fred’s younger brother.
Although my father was only 16 years old when his family purchased a cottage on Washburn Island, he believed that as an immigrant family in Canada for 7 years, they wanted to emulate Canadians who believed in the Canadian dream of owning a summer place. All very nice and neat as an explanation, but still a little baffling.
Larry Turner’s book A Boy’s Cottage Diary 1904 goes a long way to helping me understand the idea of cottaging in that era. Many readers may have experienced Ontario cottage life, and recognize its uniqueness to our culture. Cottages pass down the generations in many families, and with the passing down of property there is the passing down of collective memories and family lore, knowledge of the community and tall tales. If you’ve experienced a tradition of cottaging, the following insights will ring true for you.
Insights from Larry Turner:
- The whole place evokes a living tradition in sense, smell and texture. Pictures, artifacts, furniture, tools, games, books, blankets, plates and the dim light fixtures are constant reminders of family tradition.
- Where the nuclear families of the 20th century have scattered across the country following the lures of opportunity and the reality of employment, old family cottages have become those places, like gatherings at Christmas, where the family congregates once again.
- Cottages have become family anchors, shared experiences, keeping the ties that bind.
- Where urban environments are subject to change, renewal, and displacement, the concept of the rural, the pastoral and cottage country have come to define a sense of place and meaning. It is this sense of a cultural landscape, rather than specific buildings, trees and lakes, that seems to resonate among cottage country activists.
- … the sheer magnitude and necessity of creating a pastoral landscape out of the original wilderness … encouraged a love-hate relationship with the land. … visitors were acutely aware of the romantic and picturesque qualities of the uncultivated panorama.
- The accessible, controlled, and serviceable lakelands of the southern Canadian Shield emerged as “cottage country,” a comfortable compromise between the search for wildness while clinging to civilization.
- The lumbering frontier had moved into the new north above Lake Nipissing, leaving a near north to be manipulated in a new romance of the woods.
- Being in cottage country or having northern experiences became part of what was seen as the developing Canadian character symbolized by energy, strength, health, purity, and self-reliance. The lakes, rivers and forest of the Shield provided a fertile patch of land on which to help define an authentic national legacy, the celebration of personal character, and a vigorous vision for the future.
- According to Witold Rybczynski, “The idea of having a ‘place in the country’ probably entered human consciousness at the same time as people began living in cities. It was a reaction to the constraints of the rules and regulations that governed behaviour in urban society, and was also a way to temporarily escape the curbs that city living inevitably put on the individual.”
- The purpose of having a cottage had little to do with the kinds of experiences one gets visiting new places, but was a kind of inward journey, to discover self, nature, and unhindered relaxation.
- Increased affluence, discretionary time, and more efficient access to the lakelands opened up opportunities once limited by the rhythms of work, time and space. … but in the towns and cities experiencing increasing industrialization time away from bustling work-lives offered a new horizon, especially with the widespread use of Saturday afternoons for relaxation. At the turn-of-the-century, this was the beginning of the concept of the weekend.
- The first decade of the 20th century extended the widespread notion that as the economy changed and the twin focus of urbanization and industrialization shifted families way from traditional farm labour, a new class of children, known as adolescents, were unprepared, marginalized, and vulnerable in their new setting. … there was concern that town and city living led to idleness delinquency and worse.
- Youth camping was seen as a means to toughen children from non-farm settings where it was believed that, in a natural environment, they would learn useful skills when schools were closed for summer vacation.
- Outdoor activities brought people closer to lakes, and encouraged a tradition of Ontario camping and cottaging that continues to define summer vacation from many families.
- Where public excursions, picnics, and resorts required a degree of middle-class respectability and deportment, camps, cottages, and boats allowed greater personal freedom and brought the home into the venue of the lake and forest. The cottage and boat excited the individualist and family-oriented notion of retreat and solitude from everyday life.
Readers comments and stories are welcome.
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