Cottage Country and Sustainability

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I’ll be the first to admit that I come at my dissertation project from a fairly privileged and personal starting point. Each summer growing up, my parents took me and my siblings to our cottage on Lake Joseph in Muskoka. For those who do not know this area two hours north of Toronto, Muskoka was an exclusively Aboriginal place prior to 1850, was resettled by eurocanadians in the second half of the nineteenth century, experienced a brief period as a major centre for timber extraction and saw-milling before the turn of the century, and became Ontario’s premiere tourist destination as early as the 1880s. From an early age, I learned there was something special about our cottage and the place it occupied in Muskoka. The island where the cottage is located was purchased from the Crown in 1873 by a lawyer from Toronto named James MacLennan. MacLennan also bought several other islands at the same time in order to save them from logging. As a consequence, most of the woods surrounding our 125 year-old cottage is old growth forest. For many years, MacLennan and his guests reached the cottage by railroad and then steamer, which dropped passengers and their trunks off at a wharf that no longer exists, but whose cribs still rest on the bottom of the lake next to a point of land beside the cottage. In the late nineteenth century, MacLennan and his family came up and stayed for most if not all of the summer, bought supplies from local settlers, and seldom traveled more than a few kilometers. Although their reasons for being in Muskoka were much the same then as they are now (escaping the city, being close to nature), limited mobility and closer relationships with permanent residents distinguishes the past from the present.

Knowing a bit about the history of my own cottage quickly piqued my interest in Muskoka more generally, and how the area became such a popular place for cottagers and summer visitors. This lead me to a Master’s Thesis at Queen’s University with Colin Duncan on energy use in Muskoka between 1850 and 1920. While conducting research for my MA, I quickly discovered that Muskoka has a fascinating environmental history, which demanded further study. Thus, I am now working with Colin Coates at York University, on my doctoral dissertation entitled Poor Soils and Rich Folks: Societal Metabolisms and Sustainability in Muskoka, 1850-1920.

My project seeks to explore how life in Muskoka became more or less sustainable over time and place. Since nothing is completely sustainable, only more or less sustainable, what I hope to accomplish is to identify the ways of living and the particular arrangements between humans and their environment that were most sustainable in Muskoka during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. By taking the material and energy flows of everyday life as my starting point, I am attempting to assess the social, economic and environmental implications of life on the Shield for First Nations peoples, eurocanadian (re)settlers, tourists and cottagers, and the logging and tanning industries. My overarching take-away for the dissertation is that life on the Shield was (and still is) unavoidably reliant on inputs from outside the region, and that because of this the most sustainable arrangements and ways of living in Muskoka were those that maximized the consumption of local resources, for local consumption, made possible by locally-based interconnections. The most sustainable communities (socially, economically and environmentally) were those that learned how to benefit from the local rather than become dependent on exogenous imports.

In addition to Library and Archives Canada and the Ontario Archives, my research has taken me to numerous small public and private collections of documents. The curators and archivists of local museums, heritage centres, community archives and libraries have been extremely helpful in helping me dig up sources that would not have been available to me otherwise. Doing a microhistory project has enabled me to get to know many members of the community and develop a level of trust that most researchers do not experience. Muskoka is a place steeped in its own romantic and fanatical history. It is my hope that this project will enhance the sense of place people in Muskoka have already, and that through my work I may become an active member of the community able to demonstrate that an understanding of the past is useful and vital to shaping responsible and sustainable choices and policies for the future.

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Andrew is Associate Professor in the Department of History at the University of Saskatchewan. His current research includes the history of sustainability and tourism on the Canadian Shield in Muskoka, Ontario; the environmental, social, and economic history of coal in Canada; and the role of energy in shaping agroecosystems on the Great Plains of the United States. His first book, Making Muskoka: Tourism, Rural Identity, and Sustainability, 1870-1920, was published in 2022 with UBC Press.

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