GRAVENHURST, ONTARIO – In one corner is a mock-up of the glorious Segwun steamship, symbol of Muskoka. In the other corner is a fabulous re-creation of an old-time Muskoka resort, complete with a front porch. In the middle are wonderful old-style postcards and a gleaming wooden boat from the days when craftsmanship was more than a marketing buzzword.
Mary Patterson, a delightful historian, is giving me a tour of the Muskoka Boat and Heritage Centre on the Gravenhurst waterfront. It’s a fun spot with interactive displays that not only show wonderful wares but tells great stories of both society’s elite and hard-working Muskoka folk, including a pioneer woman who was one of the best boat mechanics in the world.
Patterson has visited 85 countries in her day but loves Muskoka the most. She also knows not everyone wants to spend time at a museum, even on one of those rare rainy days.
“I like to say we have streakers, strollers and scholars,” she explains. “The streakers just zip through. The strollers wander around from place to place. The scholars stay a while.”
The main display, with the Segwun, the resort front and the wooden boat display, are the three pillars of the museum, Patterson explains. They’re also the pillars of Muskoka itself; symbols of what’s made this area one of North America’s favourite playgrounds.
We take turns pulling on the air horns of various types of ships and admire old boats. We check out pieces of pottery from glamorous old resorts and admire a wall that shows some of the great entertainers who have played in the Muskoka area; everyone from Louis Armstrong to Duke Ellington and Canada’s own Guy Lombardo.
One of the great delights of a small museum is that they reveal so much more about people than, say, the ROM or the Louvre. The boat and heritage centre is no exception, with wonderful vignettes about Lady Eaton and hard-working women who opened resorts to try to help kids with breathing disorders.
One area of the museum offers videos where former workers on the steamships talk about their careers. One woman tells the story of working on the steamship Sagamo in the 1940s, selling chocolate bars and newspapers. She relates how the cook was a master butcher but that he was also “a little terrifying” with a knife in his hands. She also smiles and recalls the story of once serving movie star Myrna Loy on board. She was intimidated at first, but found Loy to be a lovely woman who was quite interested in the area.
“It was the best possible summer job anyone could ever have,” the woman says.
My favourite story comes near the end of my visit when I find a display about a woman racer/boat mechanic named Lorna Wilson, called “the leading lady of international powerboat racing for two decades. Wilson, according to the display was “equally at home on the Opera stage and the race course” and that she “braved society’s disapproval by becoming Harold Wilson’s riding mechanic in his pre-war race boats, winning with him Canada’s first world championships in 1934 and 1935. She cemented her reputation as the world’s fastest woman afloat in the 120 mph Miss Canada II and Miss Canada III Gold Cup race boats.”
Later in my visit a museum volunteer, Bob Grosskorth, shows me an old Minett boat from the 1920s that someone has grafted a Rolls Royce windshield onto. He also explains how the luggage used to go in a space in the back of the boat, several feet behind the driver or pilot. Sometimes it was used for baggage and sometimes for servants, he tells me.
“Of course, a lot of folks call the mother-in-law seats,” he says with a smile, the idea being that if a man was driving the boat he wouldn’t be able to hear his mother-in-law over the roar of the engines and the rushing water.
Grosskorth tells me how the wooden boats were often made of mahogany from the Philippines or Honduras and that they were varnished over and over and over again, many times with a brush made of badger hair that didn’t leave unsightly lines.
When I visited in early June they were putting the finishing touches on a huge, new kids area that will feature electyric trains, Lego blocks, a water play area, a flight simulator and more.
At the north end of Lake Muskoka, in Port Carling, is the charming Muskoka Lakes Museum. It’s a smaller facility than Gravenhurst, with a focus on the boating industry and pioneer days.
You’ll find cool displays about how rich folks from Detroit, Toronto and Pittsburgh made this their summer home. They also have old wedding dresses, beautiful wooden canoes and gleaming regatta trophies on display. I enjoyed reading the story of a husband and wife who ran the Port Carling phone operator service for years, as well as displays of old books such as “Arabian Nights,” “Swollen-Headed William” and “The Girl’s Own Annual.”
Another thing I loved were a series of old-time postcards of classic Muskoka Resorts, including Stanley House and The Belmont House, both on Lake Joseph. You’ll also find a 1938 coal oil stove on display, and they have a nice gift shop and also a kids’ play area with markers and crayons.
Next door is an old log cabin from 1875 with a lovely, photogenic garden out front. You’ll find old kitchen implements down below. Upstairs in the attic you’ll find an array of old clothes you can try on for goofy photos that are perfect for Facebook or Instagram.
I’ve always enjoyed the Muskoka Lakes Museum. But as I wrote this story I kept thinking back to a display in the Muskoka Boat and Heritage Centre. There was a gorgeous, tiny wooden ship called a Middy on display that was built in 1931.
On top of the boat, someone had placed a small sign saying “Do Not Caress.”
The Muskoka Boat and Heritage Centre is open seven days a week from June 3 to Oct. 13. Saturday hours are 10-4 while Sunday to Friday hours are 10 to 6. From Oct. 15 to June 2, the centre is open four days a week; Tuesday to Saturday from 10 to 4. You also can call and make other arrangements. Admission is $7.50 for adults, with discounts for seniors and kids. Family passes for two adults and two kids are $18.50. Admission is free for passengers who take a trip on the marvellous Muskoka Steamships.
The Muskoka Lakes Museum is usually open from the Saturday of the Victoria Day weekend in May until the Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend. Hours are 10 to 4 Wednesday to Saturday and noon to 4 on Sundays. It stays open until 5 p.m., however, in July and August. Admission is $2.50 per person and $2 for seniors and students. A family pass is $8. Kids five and under are free, as are museum members.
The lovely Taboo Resort is on Lake Muskoka just a couple minutes north of downtown Gravenhurst. They have activities galore; everything from canoeing and kayaking to beach volleyball. There’s a great beach for kids and shallow, warm water in summer. They also have hiking trails, and you can get great package deals for golf at Taboo, right across the street. It’s a lovely course with plenty of natural ponds, beautiful bunkers, exposed rock and challenging holes. Our room overlooked Lake Muskoka and had a porch with two weathered Muskoka chairs; perfect for sipping a glass of wine and watching the sunset.
FOOD AND DRINK
They do a great breakfast at Creative Plate, nestled on the shoreline of Lake Muskoka about 15 minutes north of Gravenhurst, on the way to Bala. Sawdust City is a craft brewery in downtown Gravenhurst that makes fabulous lagers and IPA’s in a fun, lively spot. You can order your lunch from a food truck outside and they’ll even bring it into the brewery for you. I had a tasty Korean beef sandwich during my visit; a nice match for their hoppy IPA’s. Grand Electric is a fun and trendy restaurant on the water in Port Carling and is an outpost of a popular Toronto spot. Inventive and tasty tacos, great drinks and more. They’ve also opened a lively, new spot just steps away called Frankie’s Surf Club, also on the water.