Muskoka has, in its inventory of structures, those that are more considered and those that are less considered. Affecting the degree of consideration is also knowledge, time, money and materials. (If you have ever attempted to do some architectural design work yourself, you will know how little knowledge you have to bring to the table compared to an architect. Through their training architects bring history, science, math, social science, psychology, philosophy, law and art to their design work) Knowledge, time, money and materials were certainly factors that affected the earliest builders in Muskoka as they planned their homes.
Native vernacular structures were the first of our built heritage in Muskoka. The consideration through relationship to the natural environment and effectiveness for purpose is readily apparent in these early structures. Style was also distinct among geographic areas. As the indigenous people of Muskoka developed more stable settlements they created semi permanent buildings such as the longhouse. These were usually sited northwest by southeast so that the end of the building faced the prevailing winds. They had hearths in the centre and were well insulated against the cold. At Saint Marie among the Hurons there are prized examples of both longhouses and wigwams. Wigwams were more easily transportable, being a frame of saplings poked into the ground and lashed together at the top. The outer covering was sheets of bark or reeds. When wigwams were moved, the outer coverings were taken, but the poles were left because trees were plentiful and the poles would be ready when they returned to the area or would serve as a gift to a traveler. The ingenuity of these, among other styles of native structures, has long been inspiration for architectural innovation.
Other than the fur traders, the United Empire Loyalists were the first Europeans to populate Ontario. They quickly spread by necessity through Upper Canada in 1784 after the American Revolution, for political and defensive reasons. They were followed by many more British and American immigrants.
The original buildings of the Europeans were crude, fulfilling not much more than the purpose of shelter. Time, money and materials weighed heavily on their creations. For this reason log cabins were frequently the first structures they built.
Log cabins were introduced to North America by the Swedes in the mid to late 1600’s.
During this same period in their American colonies, the English built cottages of notched and pegged post and beam which were thatched and wattled, referenced from medieval times. However, eventually the ease of construction of the log cabin made it become the standard for all who ventured into and settled new frontiers across North America. Muskoka was no different. Early settlers to Muskoka cleared some land and then used the trees and rocks they cleared away to create their log shelter. The natural insulation of the thick log walls were warm in the winter and cool in the summer.. (Bob Dunlop, President of Carson Dunlop once told me that logs provide the same insulating value as a typical subdivision brick veneer home would have). No extra frame work was required to hold up the walls making construction quick with efficient use of limited materials. Log cabins were often meant to be temporary structures, intended to be used for 5-10 years until the family could afford to build a larger permanent home.
“How will we know it is us without our past?” The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck
In the interests of historic preservation, in 1962 the Hall family log homestead was purchased and moved from its original location in Glen Orchard to the Muskoka Lakes Museum on the island in Port Carling. This is a wonderful legacy of Muskoka’s early built heritage. Log cabins are valuable to our collection of built heritage and have become a symbol of hardships and virtue, representing all that pioneers to an area had to face and through which they persevered.
We are fortunate that people care for and maintain log cabins as an important part of our heritage. There are many log cabins still in daily use throughout Muskoka. Most have interesting stories.
One is the log cabin built by Timothy Eaton in 1902 so that he could escape to a peaceful environment when his wife had the cottage filled with company. It was moved from its original location at Ravenscrag near Windermere to Echo Point at the bend in the Indian River by Ian and Diane Turnbull.
A second is the log cabin on the island on Harraby Point, Lake Rosseau. This cabin was used as a trading post during fur trading days, and it is rumoured to have been the location in which several of Gordon Lightfoot’s songs were written when he stayed at Harraby Point as a guest.
Just last month a log cabin trading post on the Muskoka River, that had been expanded into a cottage, was sold. It had been lovingly cared for by the Miller family for many years.
Where else across Muskoka do you know there to be homes of indigenous people or log cabins still in existence? Are there examples of architecture on your lake which use reference to or symbols from these structures in their design?