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Preserving the rich heritage of Lake of Bays

When you have an area as rich in heritage as Lake of Bays, preserving the pieces of its past and natural beauty is imperative to its future. This is what links us to the stories of our roots.

They can include something treasured, like an old photograph of our grandparents picnicking at Langmaids Island, or a hand-drawn Ted Hungerford wall map of Lake of Bays, dating back to 1965. Perhaps it’s your late uncle’s sailor outfit when he was deckhand on Cameron Peck’s legendary Naiad. It is treasures like these we hold dear in our heart, that provide us with windows to our past and that we want to ensure are saved; so future generations can continue to enjoy them.

For the Lake of Bays Heritage Foundation and its sister organization, the Lake of Bays Heritage Advisory Committee, the rivers, lakes and the land that surrounds them are held in the same regard. There are aspects of these bodies of land and water that represent the past and these organizations want to be sure they are preserved. While long-term preservation is their main focus, often they work alongside each other, doing what is best for the Lake of Bays area.

Together, they are a preservation powerhouse that focuses on the natural, the built and the cultural heritage of the area.

The Lake of Bays Heritage Foundation began in 1985, when Robin Cumine, president of Lake of Bays Association at the time, came up with the idea of creating a foundation to preserve the area’s history. Since then, it has become an active non-profit, community-based, registered charitable organization that is operated under a board of directors by volunteers from each of the communities that surround the Lake of Bays.

It’s the heritage foundation that creates and enforces the policies while focusing more on preserving the natural and structural aspects of the area. One of its objectives is to educate within the communities by offering nature programs. It is also a certified member of the Ontario Land Trust Alliance and is a registered charity, so tax receipts can be issued for donations.

Lower Oxtongue River begins at Marsh’s Falls and runs all the way down into Lake of Bays. This beautiful part of the river is recognized by the District of Muskoka and the Township of Lake of Bays as an important natural heritage area. Also rich in cultural heritage, this area was once the traditional canoe portage for our First Nations to go around Marsh’s Falls. Years after, it was where the first steamboat on Lake of Bays was built by Capt. George Marsh.

Judith Mills, president of the heritage foundation, is proud of what she feels is one of the groups ongoing achievements.

“Over a period of six years, we purchased three contiguous properties on the lower Oxtongue River,” says Mills. “The 150 acres of mostly wooded land and 6.5 km of shoreline on the lower Oxtongue River, is now protected from development and over use by ATV and snowmobiles.

“Volunteers also work hard on freeing the wetlands of an invasive species such as phragmites and protects various habitats, especially the species at risk,” Mills continues. “Parts of the 150 acres are used for guided nature hikes, usually with a specific species focus. Other parts are only accessible by naturalists or people undertaking scientific observation.

“The best way to experience Marsh’s Falls is to join in on the legendary Silent Boat Rally, where one can bring their canoe, kayak or paddleboard and join in on 8 km self-directed eco-tour. It really is one of the most beautiful settings in the township.”

The heritage foundation has played an important role in reviving Lake of Bays’ favourite steamship, the former Bigwin ferry. The SS Bigwin began on Lake of Bays in 1925, as a ferry boat for vacationers and golfers for Bigwin Island Resort. When the resort closed in 1966, she spent her next 20 some years, partially submerged in her berth in one of the island’s boathouses.

In1991, Mark McLean, then president of Lake of Bays Heritage Foundation, happened to see the vessel submerged in its waters and decided it needed saving. The heritage foundation then secured the lake’s beloved ferry and made a plan to develop its eventual restoration. Years later, when restoration was about to begin, ownership was transferred to the newly created Lake of Bays Marine Museum, where they restored her to the magnificent vessel she is today.

Much of what the heritage foundation does goes unnoticed to the public. For example, there is the partnership with Ontario Heritage Trust, to be the steward of the 100-acre Pyke property near Brown’s Brae. It has also purchased one mile of natural shoreline and 47-acres of forest at Port Cunnington, protecting both properties from future development.

Each year, the heritage foundation profiles a small community around the lake, to be recognized. Booklets are made and a documentary film is made with interviews of the people of the chosen community.

Heritage awards are also presented to owners who maintain and enjoy the heritage value of their property. At present, there are more than 30 property owners and 250 historic buildings that have been awarded plaques for heritage protection.

Wanting to reach out to the communities, the heritage foundation has established the Harriet T. Weaver Memorial Trust, which awards two yearly bursaries to financially assist one student from both Bracebridge and Huntsville high schools with their first year of university or college.

While a board of directors operates the heritage foundation, the heritage advisory committee works under the umbrella of the Township of Lake of Bays and focuses more on the cultural/historical tourism aspects. The latter committee has been said to have the best record of success in all of the District of Muskoka at attracting properties into designations for protection, according to chair of the committee, Jacquie Godard. This could have a little bit to do with the property tax relief offered to these landowners that encourages and supports them to be stewards of their own heritage properties. At present, the Township of Lake of Bays is the only municipality in Muskoka that offers this Heritage Tax Relief Program.

The advisory committee has a more of a hands-on approach, working closely with the communities in Lake of Bays. To date, they have produced three walking tour booklets on the historic aspects of Dorset, Dwight and Baysville, and have awarded government plaques to heritage-designated buildings and properties. They participated in the Huntsville / Lake of Bays Chamber of Commerce Doors Open weekend to promote cultural tourism for Lake of Bays.

In October of 2017, the heritage advisory committee hosted an afternoon cruise onboard the S.S. Bigwin as well as a luncheon for 26 elders and members of the Chippewa of Rama First Nations. It is their ancestors who travelled through the waters of Lake of Bays – hunting, harvesting, fishing and trading on a regular basis.

In 1923, their traditional rights were taken away through the Williams Treaties and have only been restored as part of their negotiations with the Crown, within the last couple of years. On behalf of the heritage advisory committee, two provincial heritage plaques were unveiled in the Heritage Park at Dorset Narrows in honour of recognizing the importance of the local history of the Anishinabek in the Lake of Bays area.

With 120 people in attendance, the heritage advisory committee, along with the Chippewa’s of Rama First Nation and Ontario Heritage Trust, together unveiled the provincial plaque. It was a proud moment for all parties involved and dubbed by the heritage
heritage trust employees as the most successful provincial heritage plaque unveiling ever.

In 2011, the Township of Lake of Bays was awarded second place in all of Ontario for the Lieutenant Governor’s Ontario Heritage Award in Community Leadership for exemplary leadership in conservation and promotion. It recognized the hard work and dedication and many achievements by the heritage advisory committee.

The community of Lake of Bays, as a whole, is very fortunate to have such a great assembly of people working on their behalf. If it weren’t for both the heritage foundation and the heritage advisory committee, many old structures and the land around them would be just another collection of over-developed land and outdated wooden buildings, eventually to vanish or be damaged or replaced. If that were to happen, the magic of Lake of Bays history would be lost forever.

Article by Judy Vanclieaf / Photography by Kelly Holinshead



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