A Community Cultural Centre Overlooking Cameron Lake
For as long as can be remembered, Maryboro Lodge and the Bur Oak Grove have been a centre of community cultural activity overlooking the Fenelon River and Cameron Lake. A natural parkland consisting of scattered oaks, the grove has always been a unique place. Initially an open savannah at the head of the Fenelon portage, after James Wallis made it his genteel estate, it came to host community events, church picnics and excursions, then became a tourist camp and boarding house, and now is a community museum. Through all the changes that the last two centuries have brought, Maryboro has always been a beautiful community space.
The Bur Oak – Quercus Macrocarpa
Bur Oaks thrive in open spaces, and are a common tree on the eastern edge of the Great Plains—where forest transitions into grassland. Their specific name macrocarpa, means “large fruit” reflecting the fact that they produce the largest acorns of any North American oak. They feed many animals, including the squirrels that thrive in the Oak Grove today. These trees not shade tolerant, so they cannot compete in the dense forests that covered much of the Kawarthas before its transformation into an agricultural landscape. But bur oaks can survive in droughty areas where other native would wither away.
A Unique Ecosystem
At the end of the last glaciation, Fenelon Falls was briefly the controlling sill of Glacial Lake Algonquin—an enormous meltwater lake encompassing the basins of Lakes Simcoe, Huron, Michigan and Superior. As all of this water flowed down the enlarged Fenelon River, it washed away the village’s topsoil, leaving a shaley limestone bed. The resulting ecosystem was so dry that most forest trees could not survive. Since time immemorial it was a bur oak savannah, supporting its own unique ecosystem. Because of the droughty conditions, the oaks are dwarfed, never achieving the size they could achieve in an easier climate. However, because they remain small, they live for an unusually long time—trees often die as a result of growing to an unsustainably large size. The oldest trees in the Oak Grove are thought to date back to the seventeenth century—around the time when Champlain passed through the Kawarthas.
A Striking Landscape
Before it became a village, Fenelon Falls was a particularly beautiful cataract on the Trent Watershed. Cameron Lake descended into a cascade, then rapids, then a waterfall. On the north bank was open bur oak parkland, stretching from the Fenelon Gorge to Cameron Lake, with denser forests beyond. Thomas Need, who owned Bobcaygeon, visited the falls in the early 1830s and observed that it on both sides it was “fringed with dwarf oaks” being “one of the loveliest scenes in the province.” He recalled that it was a “great delight, on the long evenings… to sail up the lake in my canoe, and pass a quiet hour or two at the Falls, after the toils of the day were over.”
The Village is Born
In 1834, “two boats, heavily laden with work people and artisans passed up” Sturgeon Lake to dramatically recreate the Oak Grove. The Falls, originally deeded to the Provincial Secretary in one example of the favouritism that provoked the Upper Canada Rebellion, had been sold to two young adventurers, Robert Jameson and James Walls. Both were younger sons of wealthy gentleman, who would not inherit their father’s fortune back in Britain, so they came to Fenelon Falls in the hope of becoming a landed elite that they could not afford to be back home. They purchased tens of thousands of acres in the vicinity of the Falls, and built the nucleus of the village, gambling that they could then sell the great quantity of land they had purchased at a profit. The Oak Grove was the easiest place to develop and had the waterpower of Fenelon Falls. Before long it was a backwoods village. But they destroyed the natural beauty, peace and tranquillity that Thomas Need (who was doing the same thing in Bobcaygeon) had so much enjoyed.
James Wallis’ father owned the Maryboro Estate and Drishane Castle in County Cork, Ireland. The family was one of the protestant British houses who became overlords in Ireland after King William’s military victories ensured the protestant ascendancy in both Ireland and England. Wallis hoped to live the same kind of genteel life in the Kawarthas, and built Maryboro Lodge (it was just a lodge, not a proper home). Since he owned the town plot, he could choose any site he wanted, and selected the Oak Grove in front of the cascade descending from Cameron Lake. Between his home and mill at the falls, was his park (now Oak Street). Just as Drishane Castle and the Big House represented his father’s status and power in Ireland, Maryboro Lodge, prominently situated overlooking the Fenelon River and Cameron Lake, represented James Wallis’ pretensions to be the overlord of his neighbours. Many of these humbler settlers were just trying to survive, living in shanties, together with their livestock. In this context, Maryboro, though not a proper country estate, still projected his status to anyone paddling Cameron Lake.
It quickly became apparent that the founding gamble of Fenelon Falls—that by developing a village, Jameson and Wallis could resell all the land they purchased at a profit—would not pay off. In a colony where there was no shortage of land, very few emigrants agreed to pay the proprietors’ inflated prices. Within a few years, both gentlemen moved on to other ventures, and by the 1860s, the infrastructure they had built had rotted and creditors were foreclosing on all of the land. Maryboro Lodge housed many tenants over the years, while the Oak Grove, remained a beautiful site, hosting community socials and church picnics.
Developing the Oak Grove
As long as James Wallis owned Maryboro, the Oak Grove was to a degree protected—its natural beauty had been integral to his waterfront estate. But once his creditors foreclosed and liquidated his assets, the estate would be developed. In 1877 the Victoria Railway cut through the Oak Grove and grounds of Maryboro Lodge.
The Trent-Severn Waterway
Shortly after the railway was completed, Prime Minister John A. Macdonald secured re-election, locally by promising to complete the Trent-Severn Waterway. In 1882 work began on the Fenelon Canal, cutting straight through the Oak Grove and creating the Fenelon Island. As it was completed, Wallis’ park was subdivided into building lots, which are today the Oak Street Heritage District. Before long, all that remained of the Maryboro Estate was a small rump surrounding Wallis’ former home. Many oaks lived on as landscape trees.
Fenelon Falls’ Tourist Camp
The Railway and Waterway linked Fenelon Falls to the wider world and made recreational travel practical for common folk. Instead of just hosting community events like church picnics, the Oak Grove became the Fenelon Falls Tourist Camp. Visitors set up tents in the undeveloped waterfront corner of the Oak Grove. Immediately beside this little remaining piece of paradise, was a pulp mill, later a chemical plant. But visitors to the grove were not deterred (their society valued industrial progress), it was still a lovely, “healthful” getaway for residents of smoggy, industrializing cities. Initially serving visitors riding the rails or taking a steamer, with the advent of automobiles anyone could drive across the lawn and pitch their tent, like a modern campground.
The Abbott’s Maryboro Lodge
In 1913 Henry Abbott purchased Maryboro Lodge helping his three spinster sisters, Isabella (Belle), Matilda (Tilly) and Catherine Anne (Kate) open a boarding house. Maryboro Lodge continued to host all kinds of community events, and many visitors to the community. The Abbotts lived at Maryboro, and boarded visitors in the extra bedrooms. They served meals to their guests, despite the fact that for the Abbott’s entire tenure, Maryboro never had a modern kitchen—through the 1950s, they still used a hand pump for water. Tea was very popular, becoming a community tradition.
Amenities at Maryboro
Under the Abbotts, Maryboro Lodge evolved into a new kind of community cultural gathering place. The Abbotts continued to host socials and church picnics, as guests from near and far made the most of summer in the Kawarthas. Visitors could enjoy a game of tennis on the grass courts, under the oaks.
The Abbott Sisters
The Abbott sisters were proper and straight-laced ladies, and were conscientious in meeting the needs of all their guests. At the same time, they made friends easily, both among their neighbours and guests, who would fondly recall their generosity and Belle’s sense of humour. They lived at Maryboro well into their later years, though in the winter they stayed with their sister, Mary and her husband Foster Kelly. Maryboro predated insulation and only had two fireplaces for heat, which was a lot for these elderly ladies to endure in winter.
The Fenelon Falls Museum
When the Abbott sisters had to move to a nursing home, their nephew Milburn Kelly and his wife Freda (Bulmer) were heavily involved with the local historical society. Since Maryboro Lodge was the oldest building in the area and a community social hub, it was the obvious choice to house a local museum. At this time, the last generation that could just remember witnessing the community’s pioneering struggles as children, was now passing on, and capturing this community memory had to be done now or never. The historical society raised the money to create a museum, and gave it to the village in trust, because the unincorporated historical society could not own real property. In 1963, Maryboro Lodge was rechristened as the Fenelon Falls Museum.
Afternoon Tea at the Museum
The traditions of Maryboro Lodge lived on at the Fenelon Museum. In addition to hosting community events like a Strawberry Social on Canada Day, Wednesday Afternoon Tea continued as a community institution. This community museum has always relied heavily on volunteers and for a generation Marion Graham hosted tea, baking all of the scones that were served. Tea was an opportunity to see friends, catch up and enjoy the togetherness of community. It was also an embodiment of the village’s heritage.
The Langton Gallery
Anne Langton, nationally renowned artist, widely regarded as Fenelon Falls’ founding figure, left a sketchbook depicting the early development of the area. For many years it was stored the village archives, while the tea ladies saved every penny they made from the teas to build a gallery and archive to make the Langton sketches accessible to the public, in a facility that maintains the proper environmental conditions for their preservation. Roger Bellwood, the last reeve of Fenelon Falls, raised the money allowing the Langton Gallery to open in 2012, in time for the 175th anniversary of Anne Langton’s migration to Fenelon Falls.
Maryboro Lodge Today
Maryboro Lodge has moved beyond commemorating the achievements pioneers made in creating an agricultural community from the forests of the Kawarthas. The region has a rich history of family recreation—tourism, the joys of waterfront leisure and as a cradle of children’s manufacturing. The Allen Wood PlaySpace opened in 2018, featuring the great variety of wooden toys manufactured in Fenelon Falls and Crayola’s contributions to family crafts. Through the generations, Maryboro Lodge and the Oak Grove have evolved with their community—a community cultural centre on the shore of Cameron Lake.