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Boyd Island

April 30, 2024

Former Mossom M. Boyd Farmhouse, with Kawartha Dairy Plant and Boyd (Big) Island in distance from the cupola on Boyd Barn

By Guy Scott

Boyd Island was originally called Big Island because it was the largest island in the Kawartha Lakes. Its land area is 1,167 acres and is located in Pigeon Lake, just off the eastern side of the lake in Harvey Township, now the municipality of Trent Lakes. It is readily visible from Bobcaygeon. The island contains a variety of landforms from high rock ledges on the north side to hardwood forests in the centre to marsh along the east side. The Island was somewhat larger before the dam at Buckhorn raised water level in Pigeon Lake by 8-10 feet in the 1830s. Before this date, the Island was likely joined to the mainland on the east side, at least in the dry seasons and was not really an island at all!

Boyd Island was a favourite camping spot for local aboriginals. Archaeological digs have revealed numerous camp sites along its shores, and likely many more sites are now under water due to the raised water levels. During the Woodland eras, the Island was a popular hunting and fishing location for native groups. Just south of Boyd Island was the large Woodland gathering spot at Gannon’s Narrows. The Wendat (Huron), although an agricultural people, no doubt set up fishing stations on the Island. The agricultural Wendats were replaced by the Mississaugas who loved to camp on islands. The Mississaugas divided the Kawartha Lakes into family units and Boyd Island was likely the domain of the Nogie Family.

The ownership of the Island was not clear until 1881, when the Boyd Family of Bobcaygeon purchased the island. Their goal was to use it for farming. They cleared the centre and south sections of the island, built several barns/shelters and a caretaker’s cabin. It was not necessary to fence the Island, Mother Nature had already taken care of that, but for some reason, a massive dry stone wall was built through the fields. The Boyds employed their own crew of stone masons, so maybe they had plans or were just busy at the time. Access was gained by boat or barge from the Bobcaygeon shore. It was quite a feat to ‘barge’ livestock to the Island from Boyd farm just south of Bobcaygeon village. Mossom M. Boyd (the son of the original Mossom Boyd of Bobcaygeon) built a huge barn on the mainland property, where he wintered his livestock. The island was a summer pasture only. He also built a cupola on top of the barn, legend has it, so he could keep an eye on the Island herd. There were fewer trees there, than there are today. The cupola and barn still stand, while trees have overrun the Island.

M.M. Boyd was a breeder of livestock, not a commercial farmer and kept experimenting with cross breeding for the sake of improving livestock breeds. He dabbled in both Angus and Hereford cattle, actually introducing polled (without horns) cattle. He purchased top-line animals from the USA and Britain and sold the offspring as breeding stock. M.M. Boyd was famous in livestock circles all over North America for his quality animals. So the herds that roamed Boyd Island were not mere grade animals, but valuable breeding stock.

M.M. Boyd’s efforts were well documented in the local press. The following except of a ‘Trip to Boyd Island” was published in 1881:

“Our visit to the Big Island was made in the afternoon of June 11th, when the sun was sinking slowly towards the wooded Fenelon hills. Pushing out a little fleet of three small skiffs we soon reached the Big Island, for the waters were so beautifully calm that the ‘black duck with her glossy wing’ might have swung upon them ‘silently’ with the very quietest movement. Our starting point was opposite the structure where the furnace that consumes the dross from the saws is kept burning continually like some vast Gehenna fire. The cattle are taken to the island in a barge in the spring and remain until days when the faded leaves fall down, when they are taken to winter quarters at the steading on the Verulam mainland. A rim of forest runs along the water’s edge, within which is pastureland that has never been torn by share of plow.

Ascending an eminence far inland on this island of 1,225 acres we looked down upon the slopes covered with heaps of stones resembling the tents of a vast encampment in the distance. All around us stumps of trees were seen that had furnished many a mast for vessels on the deep. Solitary stragglers stood here and there holding out their ragged arms for sympathy that will never come, and broken stubs with charred jackets spoke of past conflict with the flames. Amid the stones that lay around, some in heaps and more alone, were piles of logs laying close in the entrance of hastening decay. Here amid such inoffensive companionship the Aberdeen-Angus Polls, the Oxford Down sheep, built well upon high pedigreed imported stock, and mares that work in the lumber woods of the north in winter, but rear their young in summer, gotten by Clydesdale sires, have all things in common, sharing the grasses one with the other, one large and happy family. After lying about an hour discussing future Angus probabilities, some on stone, some on the ground, we catch sight of moving black specters far downward on the plain. Soon a large wing of blackskins come trooping by with the astonished look of families in the backwoods who seldom see a stranger. Their strong bodies, well packed with flesh and glossy as the skin of a seal, call forth our commendations and we look first at the cattle and then at the slender pastures.”

M.M. Boyd also dabbled in crossbreeding buffalo with European beef cattle. By the 1880s, the massive herds of buffalo (or bison) which had graced the Great Plains of North America, once numbering 40,000,000 to 50,000,000, were nearing extinction. Only a handful of survivors existed, most protected by concerned collectors in small pockets. M.M. Boyd acquired a buffalo bull named Napoleon from a breeder in California. Napoleon was shipped to Bobcaygeon (walking the last leg from Fenelon Falls) to breed with selected beef cows. The results were a mixed, but separate breed called ‘cattalo’ was created. Napoleon was a local celebrity; strutting in the Bobcaygeon fair parade and roaming the pastures of Boyd Island every summer until his death. Napoleon (and family) sometimes demonstrated their ‘wild side’ by swimming off the island and visiting the Harvey shores for a little vacation. (Evidently water fences will not stop a buffalo!) When caught, the escapees were often walked around the lake to Bobcaygeon, so they could be barged back to the island. M.M. Boyd paid for damages caused by their rampages.

Boyd Island was also used for picnics, excursions and camping. The Boyd Family also owned the Trent Valley Navigation Company, which operated a fleet of steam boats on the Kawartha Lakes. Boyd Island was a perfect spot for a steamboat excursion; any excuse would do!

The Boyd Island cattalo adventure did not survive M.M. Boyd who died in 1914. The remaining cattalo were shipped to Wainwright, Alberta where the experiments were finally ceased in 1944 (and declared a failure!). By then, the Boyd lumber business in our area had wound down and moved to British Columbia, or what was left of it. The Boyd Family continued the farm operations until 1972, Boyd Island was essentially abandoned, used only by tourists and Mother Nature. The Island changed hands a number of times until it was acquired by Mattamy Homes, a developer. It was planned to divide the Island into 95 cottage lots and leave a good portion of the island as open park or common land for the cottagers. Then in 2015, Mike and Terry Wilson donated Boyd Island to the Kawartha Land Trust to conserve and protect it.

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