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Celebrating 150 years of Bala history

We will never know on which summer day Bala’s first permanent settler arrived at the future location of the town in 1868, one year after Confederation. All we know is that there was no one on shore that day to witness the sight of Muskoka’s first steamboat, the Wenonah, entering the future Bala Bay.

Thomas BurgessThe southwest corner of Lake Muskoka was still unsettled Crown land. Seagulls soaring high above the bay were the first to notice 44-year-old Thomas Burgess, a Bruce County farmer, standing near the bow of the Wenonah, staring anxiously at the shore. Beside him was his family and a 14-year-old niece who was there as a mother’s helper. 

This year marks the 150th anniversary of that arrival, a perfect time to imagine what Burgess and his 27-year-old wife, Margaret, must have been thinking as they stood there with their four children ranging in age from barely one to six years old. Burgess had left a thriving farm in Bruce County to start all over again where no one else lived on Lake Muskoka. Margaret must have been worried sick about how she and her niece, Annie Currie, were going to cope.

Burgess planned to build a home near the Musquash Falls (now the Bala Falls), but the ship’s captain was nervous about its current and turned into the future Wallis Cut to find a safer landing spot. It was Annie who called out, “I see the barn, Auntie!”  What she actually saw was a deserted shack, just one room with one door and no windows, used by lumbermen. 

The captain brought the Wenonah near the shore where crew members pushed a cow and horse off a leaky scow that had been towed from Gravenhurst behind the ship. The family and Annie were somehow taken off the ship with their belongings to where the animals had swum to shore. Thomas and Margaret must have felt totally on their own as they watched the Wenonah disappear back up Bala Bay.

The family survived the winter in the lumber shack and Burgess built a home, the following summer, opposite where Portage Landing and Don’s Bakery stand today. Part of it became a store as other settlers slowly arrived. Burgess built a small sawmill in 1870 on the mill stream and became postmaster for the tiny growing settlement, which he named “Bala” after a town in Wales where his own family had holidayed. Six more children were born during the following years. Margaret died after giving birth to her 10th child on Dec. 19th, 1877. She was 36.  

Scottish-born Burgess became the laird of a tiny settlement, which did not reach a population of 50 until the next century. He died in January 1901 (three months before Queen Victoria passed on), justifiably proud of the village that had grown around him. It had its own church and school, both thanks to him.  Burgess had even started a bakery.

Bala was basically a sawmill village when Thomas Burgess died in 1901. That slowly changed after the Canadian Pacific Railway decided to build a line from Toronto through Bala to Sudbury and the Canadian National Railway planned a competing line that would go through Torrance.

Work on both lines began in 1904 but slowed down when crews ran into swamps and muskeg. By 1906, 2,000 men of all nationalities were involved in building the two railway lines. That required a strong police presence in Bala, which led to one of the first OPP detachments in Muskoka. The first CPR train arrived in Bala in June 1907. Bala soon became the jumping-off point for cottagers and tourists who connected with steamboats to reach their camps, cottages, lodges or islands.

Tourism had started in Bala before the first train. The Clifton House, built in the late 1890s where Bala’s ski shows now take place, was Bala’s first hotel. A nearby 75-room hotel that eventually became the Bala Falls Hotel, one of the largest in Muskoka, followed it in 1899. It burned March 13, 1913, in a spectacular blaze that could be seen in the night sky as far away as Port Carling. The acetylene lighting system was blamed.

An acetylene explosion was also blamed for an earlier fire that destroyed the Windsor Hotel (originally the Clifton House) on June 7th, 1909. It was immediately rebuilt as the New Windsor Hotel.

Muskoka’s first brick summer hotel, the Swastika Hotel was named for a good luck symbol and opened in June 1910. Its owner, E.B. Sutton, was one of Muskoka’s most creative citizens as a musician and composer, and as the longtime author of a popular newspaper column. He was one of Bala’s greatest boosters, predicting a great future.

Sutton was followed by others who made a similar impact.

Gerry Dunn is credited with putting Bala on the map. He had just graduated from the University of Toronto as a pharmacist in 1929 when he traveled from Bracebridge, his hometown, to buy Langdon’s Ice Cream Parlour on a street that is now Gerry Dunn Way. He created a dance hall at the rear of his ice cream parlour and was so successful that he opened Dunn’s Pavilion at the edge of Bala Bay in July 1942.

The finest dance bands in the world played at Dunn’s Pavilion for more than two decades including Louis Armstrong, the Dorsey brothers, Guy Lombardo and others. The pavilion was eventually re-named as the Kee to Bala, featuring top rock groups like Kim Mitchell to this day.

Bala has become known as the Cranberry Capital of Ontario and that is all due to another visionary dreamer. Orville Johnston was convinced that a cranberry marsh, just north of Bala near Medora Lake, would be successful and purchased the land in the early 1950s. He had doubters in his first years but proved them all wrong. His son, Murray Johnston, and daughter-in-law, Wendy Hogarth, have turned the family business into an award-winning cranberry operation and a winery that has won gold and silver medals in Europe.

Orville Johnston’s trail-blazing success led to the annual Bala Cranberry Festival that draws up to 25,000 to Bala every October on the weekend following Thanksgiving.

Bala celebrated its 125th anniversary in 1993 for an entire year, climaxing it with the Trek to Bethlehem, a Christmas holy walk. The Trek has continued to this day and will carry on this year.

The Bala Legion Branch 424 is currently creating considerable excitement with plans for an affordable senior housing project, built on Legion-owned land behind the Bala Arena. Muskoka Lakes Township Council recently gave the branch preliminary approval for the proposed Bala Legion Heritage Manor, a 128-room assisted living and long-term care facility.

Township Councillor Ruth Nishikawa, who has been deeply involved with the project, says a plan will be ready to submit to the federal government by Dec. 2nd. 

The 150th anniversary will be celebrated many ways this summer. Bala’s Museum is offering free admission on Tuesday, July 3rd, so visitors can learn how author L.M. Montgomery was inspired by a 1922 Bala holiday to write a Muskoka novel, The Blue Castle.

Meanwhile, everyone who has ever lived, cottaged or holidayed at Bala is being asked to return to Bala on Saturday, July 21st for a large group photo and a whole day and evening of sharing memories. The group photo will be taken at 1 p.m. from the rooftop of the Bala Arena by award-winning Bala photographer Andy Hansen. The last time a similar photograph was taken in Bala was in 1992 when a photo was taken from the arena roof to honour the 125th anniversary of Confederation. The main photographer on that occasion was the author of this article, who was (and still is) afraid of heights.

A community barbecue will follow the July 21st group photo on Maple Avenue with opportunities to share stories from the past. Everyone will be invited into the Bala Community Centre to see a PowerPoint presentation of photographs from Bala’s historic past. In the evening, the Kee to Bala will be offering live music and an opportunity to remember the wonderful bands that have performed there since 1942.

This has been an abbreviated history of a most remarkable small town. Come to Bala on Saturday, July 21st, to fill in the highlights from your own family history. Tell us how your family came to Bala or to your cottage:  don’t forget the first fish your son caught off the dock, the sunset or sunrise that you will never forget, or your first kiss at Dunn’s Pavilion or the Kee to Bala.

Somewhere, Thomas Burgess will be smiling.

Source: Unique Muskoka Magazine
Article by Jack Hutton



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