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Tourism in the Kinmount Area

January 23, 2023

A 1930s Cabin near Elephant Lake

By Guy Scott

To the earliest settlers, lakes, rivers and local waterways were sometimes a nuisance. Lumbermen utilized the river systems, but farmers were interested in agricultural land. Besides many of the lakes were isolated and inaccessible. But over the decades, opinions of local water resources began to change. By 1900, summer vacations began to become popular with rich urban dwellers. The Kawartha Lakes became popular summer vacation destinations, easily accessible from the urban centres. The earliest vacationers stayed at resorts (the richer ones) or simply camped (less well off). Private cottages were still in the future. The main attractions were canoeing or rowing, bathing (today we call it swimming), fishing, hunting and relaxing and the solitude of Mother Nature. The camping was tent-only and the comforts of the age would be considered very primitive by today’s standards. Earliest vacationers often stayed for weeks or even months at a time: no weekend jaunts. It often took them several days to reach the vacation paradise, and moving about was difficult or impossible: it was by horse & wagon!

Kinmount was one of the first travel destinations in the area. The main access mode was by train, and such local centres as Kinmount, Burnt River & Haliburton had this valuable link to the outside world as well as lots of nearby lakes. Once in town the tourist had to rent a horse & wagon from the local livery stable or arrange for a ‘taxi’ to their vacation destination. Often the vacation party was simply dropped off on the shore of the local lake and abandoned until a pre-arranged date when the taxi service would pick them up. Any travel was by foot, and the vacation party was prepared to spend the allotted time stranded in one spot. Most parties simply squatted on an appropriate shoreline, the land still being crown land. Some local families did eventually build ‘cabins’ in a collected spot. These cabins were small shelters from the weather or for sleeping, as most activities were still held outside. The cabins doubled as fishing cabins, hunting shacks or whatever was in season.

After the 1940s, the vacation industry began to change drastically. More people were now clustered in urban environments, and the demand for outdoor vacations increased. Cars became commonplace, and mobility was greatly enhanced. Due to changing work schedules, more frequent but shorter vacations became the norm. It was now possible to reach the lake in a few hours, and thus the weekend vacation was born. Increasing levels of disposable income meant many families had the money to build vacation residences. And thus the cottage was born. The earliest cottages were still rooted firmly in the cabin mentality of the past: small, plain and related more to outdoor camping than permanent residences. Things like hydro and indoor plumbing were still not common, but ‘roughing it’ like the early pioneers represented the pioneer spirit and was embraced (or quietly tolerated) by the tourists. For those who wanted to be ‘waited on,’ resorts sprang up at preferred locations, but individual cottages became more common.

The earliest access roads were still primitive and very seasonal. The easier the access via the existing pioneer road grid, the earlier the cottage. Private property lots were sold by individual landowners, but most shorelines were still crown land in the 1940s. However, the Government of Ontario was more than happy to sell off shoreline lots where the demand (and access) was good. Cottage lots were always small, no acreages here, but the water was still open to the public so the front yard was more important than any back acreage. Later lots lacked road access, and many cottagers had to go the last little bit by water. To accommodate the water-access cottage lots, public boat launches were set up for every lake and eventually marinas sprang up at key spots where demand made them practical.

The marina was a new phenomenon to the local scene. Services provided to the cottagers included boat launches, gas, boat rentals, docking facilities, a small general store and sometimes restaurants and entertainment facilities. The marina business was tricky economically: basically relying on the 2-month tourist season and a few long weekends. Locals joked it was based on the black bear lifestyle: intense summer feeding followed by hibernation for the winter. The only true marinas in the Kinmount area were found on Crystal Lake, where the number of cottagers justified the business.

The local municipalities were forced to upgrade & build additional roads for the advent of the tourist age. Narrow ‘cottage roads’ (a new category in the local lexicon) eventually spider-webbed around suitable lakes. In the early days, they were seasonal roads: no snowplowing and even little summer maintenance. Natural obstacles, such as bridges, rivers and swamps drastically affected their routes and mud was a problem in the fall and spring seasons. Many entrepreneur farmers earned extra cash ‘hauling’ cars from the mud, usually with that ever reliable team of horses! Gradually over time, the access roads were improved and extended, making a trip to the cottage practical all year and less of a struggle.

As the cottage community grew, the newer versions of the cabin became larger, more luxurious and filled with the modern conveniences once reserved for permanent homes. Hydro lines were added so all the amenities of the modern age could be enjoyed on vacation as well. The electric refrigerator replaced the ice-box, and the electric stove the old wood stove. Cottages became larger to the point where they were basically indistinguishable from regular homes and only the setting differed. Winter usage was practical if desired, and many lovers of the lake life began to retire to their cottages. The original pioneers would be aghast at the fact that there was now no more space for new cottages, but today such is the case on most of the area lakes. Many of the later cottages occupy lakefront terrain once considered unsuited for human habitation, and marginal, smaller lakes and even riverfront properties have now entered the vacation equation. As with the laws of supply and demand, the values (and taxes) on waterfront properties have also climbed to historical highs. Where the vacationer of 1900 simply squatted on crown land unabashed about ownership or taxes, the modern cottage can be an expensive proposition. Back-lotting (cottages not on the actual waterfront) became common and several subdivisions were organized to fit more cottages on less waterfront. The cottage became a part of Canadian culture, and the area once labelled the Ottawa-Huron Tract received a new nickname: ‘Cottage Country.’

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