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Early Muskoka Councils and Issues Engaging Them

Article by J. Patrick Boyer

Muskoka’s councillors have plenty of issues, today, including their own futures with Queen’s Park reviewing municipal government for our District. In times like this, if you think some perspective might be helpful, here are several cameos of what engaged earlier Muskoka councils.


Just getting a framework for governing Muskokans was itself major pioneering work.
Confederation in 1867 gave people new identity as “Ontarians” but local operations, such as forming township councils, remained unchanged under the pre-Confederation Municipal Corporations Act of 1849 and, despite Muskoka being surveyed through the 1860s and 1870s and Ontario encouraging settlement with “free” land, organizing local government faced hurdles.

For scattered people to create any municipal structure at all, they combined townships that scant voters might elect one council over them all. United townships included Draper-Macaulay-Stephenson-Ryde, Cardwell-Watt, Morrison-Muskoka, and McLean-Ridout. 

That made it harder for councillors to get to meetings.
Enos Broadley, first Walker’s Point settler in 1869 and a councillor for United Medora-Wood townships, as local historian Joyce Schell learned, needed three days for every meeting. “One day to walk to Bala, one day at the meeting, and one day to walk home,” the councillor said. At least he could mull over the agenda en route, and reflect on decisions taken during his return.

Another hurdle Muskoka’s developing municipalities faced was not being free-standing. They were attached to either Victoria or Simcoe counties, a two-tier system. Township reeves were also members of their respective county councils at either Lindsay or Barrie, Muskoka historian Gary Denniss explained, and had to attend those meetings, too. Only two full decades after Confederation, in 1888, was Muskoka made a Provisional District, with Queen’s Park designating central Bracebridge as District Town, a hub for government offices.

Muskoka communities equated progress with population growth. As a township gained more people, councillors could decide to delink from other townships. When clustered communities reached the Municipal Act’s population threshold to become a village, they’d separate from their host township, as happened for Bracebridge in 1875, Gravenhurst three years later, and Huntsville by 1886. Up to 1888, these changes had to be approved by the upper tier Victoria or Simcoe county council to which the township was harnessed.


Getting roads built was on the agenda of all councils. How else would their section of Muskoka grow?
Local road-building efforts included enforcing provincial “statute labour” laws requiring men to spend a fixed number of days every year building and maintaining roads in their bailiwick. Councils appointed inspectors and charges were brought against anybody shirking this obligation. But settlers also had statutory obligations to clear acreage on their “free” land, and private duties to farm their land and feed their families. They pushed back, and their elected representatives had to choose. A township council could abolish application of statute labour in its jurisdiction but it then faced spending money raised through taxes on roads. Councillors sought to upload whatever they could, passing motions pressing the provincial government to build, extend and maintain colonization roads and highways.


Directly connected to roads was land use policy. In pioneer Muskoka, this was basically framed by treaties between Indigenous chiefs and the Crown, provincial laws governing Free Grant Lands, common law property rights and workings of the province’s Land Registry system.
The provincial government’s disjointed treatment of land use, navigable waters and property rights pitted settlers against natives, loggers against settlers and the provincial government, itself, against everybody regarding land clearance practices. Early councils sued lumber companies for river-borne logs blocking passage for supplies and passengers; settlers, with councils’ backing, rebelled against paying stumpage fees to the provincial government for trees they had to clear to get title to their “free” land.

Exactly where one person’s property ended and another’s began was a durably contentious issue councils did their best to contain. They’d appoint a line fences inspector to arbitrate disputes along contested boundaries; when that failed, councils took charge; when that didn’t produce a mutually agreeable saw-off, the matter landed in Magistrate’s Court.


As they were able, Muskoka councils hired a constable to keep an eye on things, stop bar brawls and road fights, curb “boys’ doings,” impound livestock and dogs running at large, prevent commercial activity on the Sabbath and other bylaw prohibited vices at all times.

Although law officers were hopelessly outnumbered, enforcement was enhanced because private prosecutions turned every citizen into a potential watchdog for malfeasance and misdemeanours. The power of citizen’s arrest was real and used, sometimes producing as many cases in court as those brought by a municipality’s policeman. Moreover, gaining a successful conviction meant the citizen prosecutor could collect half the fine, which bolstered a municipality’s law-abiding order by converting citizens into vigilantes paid, not by council, but the offender himself.


Muskoka’s first village to emerge from a township, Bracebridge, provided an example of transition. In an era when councils were elected every 12 months to ensure democratic accountability, municipal elections took place normally at the start of January. Bracebridge resident Thomas Bowerman, clerk of the division court, conducted the voting and then swore in elected councillors at their inaugural meeting in 1875. Thereafter, the municipal clerk ran elections.

Three former Macaulay Township representatives, Reeve Robert Perry and councillors Hiram James McDonald and Joseph Cooper, personified continuity in local affairs by getting elected to Bracebridge council. Village councillors then appointed Macaulay township clerk James Boyer to also be theirs. Each council’s minutes record harmonious relations between the two municipalities as a result. Macaulay Township’s assets were $86.83 and five road scrappers. The cash was split equally with Macaulay getting the extra cent. Macaulay kept three scrappers.

Village councillors then appointed a licence inspector, granted five tavern licences and set licence fees for dogs ($1) and billiard tables ($10). Councillors next abolished statute labour, commuting the service to payment of 75 cents per day that citizens otherwise would be called out to work on roads. They appointed a road commissioner. A new road to Gravenhurst was planned, to avoid hills and shorten the distance.

To make Bracebridge an industrial centre, as Muskoka historian Robert Boyer reported, council wanted bonuses ($2,000 each) for tanneries, woodworking industries and iron foundries, which citizens approved in a referendum. Councillors, finding themselves empowered to speak officially for a single community operating as a distinct municipality, soon enticed the Beardmore Tannery to the village, substantially expanding the local economic base.


Huntsville’s first village council quickly got down to business in 1886. At their first couple of meetings, Muskoka historian Susan Pryke noted, councillors passed bylaws to impose order and safety on the settlement: regulations for building fences, standards for constructing chimneys, rules to restrain dogs, prevent weeds and ban firing guns in the village.

Many settlers were religiously devout and those rising to municipal office amidst the hills of Huntsville saw a local opportunity “to build New Jerusalem upon a shining hill.” The new council imposed Christian values for “Preservation of Public Morals” under its fourth bylaw, banning the full catechism of licentious living, such as giving a child apprentice or servant intoxicating drink without consent of the child’s parent, master or legal protector; circulating indecent pictures, writings or placards; publicly uttering profane oaths, obscene blasphemies or grossly insulting language. The prohibition of an obscene “public utterance” gave rise to a legal dodge of merely “cursing under my breath, your honour.”

Bylaw 4 also prohibited disorderly conduct at Huntsville public meetings, on village streets or other public places. Gambling and prostitution, already offences under criminal law and beyond municipal jurisdiction, were nevertheless reinforced by village councillors prohibiting anyone from keeping “a gambling house” or “a house of ill fame” or “allowing gambling on his or her premises” or harbouring “persons of bad character.”

Showing one’s body in the community commons could amount to “indecent exposure” under Canada’s criminal law. However, cleanliness being “next to godliness” in the ranking of Christian virtues and pragmatic councillors also understanding that washing counteracted the era’s nauseating body odours, they masterfully crafted an “expedient and necessary” measure to allow public bathing under the cover of darkness. “No person shall indecently expose his or her person by bathing or washing near any public highway between the hours of 7 o’clock in the morning and 8 o’clock in the evening,” making skinny dipping at dawn and naked bathing parties at night popular with Muskokans.


Booming Gravenhurst achieved village status in 1878 and was incorporated as a town within the decade. Following May 1887 celebrations, councillors ensured during that hectic summer that events got scheduled, permits were issued and Gravenhurst’s busy sawmills, rimming Muskoka Bay, gave the town the nickname “sawdust city” and most buildings were of wood. 

Then overnight, on September 21-22 of that year, town councillors’ agendas were suddenly transformed. As far away as Manhattan, a city paper, carrying “all the news that’s fit to print,” reported that Gravenhurst’s entire business section had been turned to ashes. “Aided by a strong north wind,” said the New York Times, “Main Street was completely swept. Every business place in the town was destroyed, and fully 50 families are without food and shelter.”

The fire started around midnight in a foundry, when workers were absent and townspeople slept. Most buildings were of wood and built close together. A strong north wind spread the flames fast. Someone began ringing the fire bell furiously at 1 a.m. The Gravenhurst fire department’s engine failed. By the time Bracebridge firemen arrived with their equipment by train, the devastation had claimed its trophy, the heart of Muskoka’s senior community.

Support poured in from all quarters. Numerous financial donations appeared, including from Bracebridge and Orillia councils. Gravenhurst council set up an emergency committee to co-ordinate the aid and deal with immediate necessities. On September 24, as Gravenhurst historian Cecil Porter detailed, Mayor John Harvey summoned Gravenhurst’s council to assess the damage, review mistakes that contributed to the devastation and make plans. To resume business activity, council permitted immediate construction of wooden structures on a temporary basis only. New fire regulations were imposed, with a code for construction requiring brick or stone, tin to shingle roofs and shed sides.

Whatever the era, fate can reorder a council’s agenda and priorities.

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