Winter and the Summer Cottage

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This is the tenth post in the Winter in Canada series edited by M. Blake Butler and Ben Bradley.

Seasonal recreation homes have a long history in Canada, but for most of that history, “seasonal” has really meant “summer.” Such are the burdens of this country’s winter that many Canadians have chosen to escape the ice and snow by fleeing to resort communities further south.1 And although ski chalets today represent an important segment of Canada’s recreational property inventory, most date from the late twentieth century onwards. Thus, in a land so defined by winter, it is the summer home that has long been the quintessential seasonal residence. Even so, for those fortunate enough to own a summer home, winter was never far from mind. Indeed, the need to recover from the previous winter and prepare for the next one helped dictate the rhythms of cottage life.

During the postwar decades, highway expansion, increased holiday time, a government land sale program, and general conditions of prosperity transformed cottaging in Ontario from an elite privilege into an affordable option for middle- and even some working-class families. Whereas earlier generations had built grand summer homes on large lakes that were accessible by rail and steamboat, postwar Ontarians got to the cottage by car, following rough, winding access roads to lakes that were smaller and more remote.2 The cottage season typically ran from the May long weekend until Thanksgiving, with most summer homes sitting empty and at the mercy of the elements during the off-season.

Snow Covered Island with Home and Dock, courtesy of Duncan Rawlinson.

As often as not, postwar cottages were simple structures that owners had built themselves, or purchased as prefabricated kits.3 Such building techniques contributed to the affordability of postwar cottaging, but they weren’t always up to the challenge posed by the Canadian winter. When erecting his small cottage on Oxbow Lake, Muskoka, in the late 1940s, John Robertson made a common mistake. Unfamiliar with the region’s heavy snowfalls, he built a gently sloping roof that failed to encourage winter run-off. Following a particularly harsh winter several years later, he discovered that the roof had caved in, taking several walls with it.4 Similarly, Toronto newspapers frequently alluded to prefab cottages collapsing during the winter because they were not designed to withstand heavy snow loads.5 Wishing to avoid such mishaps, many cottage owners hired local handymen to shovel off their roofs during the winter.6

Headline from the Toronto Daily Star, 12 February 1959.

If snow posed one winter threat to recreational property, frozen lakes represented another. The waterfront was the centre of activity during the summer months, and many postwar cottagers had docks that rested upon wooden cribs filled with boulders. During the spring break-up, however, the receding lake ice could pull these cribs apart, causing docks to float away. Rebuilding the dock was thus an annual chore for many cottagers.7 Yet lake ice also had its benefits. At a time when many summer homes lacked electricity, some cottagers relied upon ice houses to preserve their food. For enterprising locals, cutting blocks of ice out of the lake and restocking cottagers’ ice houses became an important source of income over the winter.8

Throughout the cottage season, many owners engaged in a series of maintenance and improvement projects, often with an eye to winter. For example, the process of opening up the cottage each spring involved dealing with the residue of unwelcome winter visitors. Inside, cottagers tidied up from mice and other animals that had nested in the building during the off-season.9 Outside, they fixed damage caused by winter weather, and what they saw as human intruders. In Temagami and elsewhere, for instance, postwar cottagers had a running battle with ice fishermen, whom they accused of damaging property and depleting fish stocks.10 The end of the cottage season brought a new list of tasks. Property owners had much to do in preparation for the coming winter, from hauling boats ashore, taking pumps out of the lake, bleeding water lines dry, shuttering windows, and covering chimneys and other entry points that might prove enticing to wildlife.

For much of the postwar period, it was unusual for Ontarians to visit their cottages over the winter. The buildings themselves were uninsulated, and the access roads leading to them were impassable once the snow fell. Thus, in 1966, when a Muskoka cottager wrote about using snowshoes and cross-country skis to get to his cottage, there still was considerable novelty to his story.11 Yet developments were underway that would change the relationship between family cottages and the winter. Starting in the mid-1960s, the cost of buying, building, and maintaining a summer home began to rise sharply, thanks to factors such as a dwindling supply of waterfront property and dramatic increases in property tax.12 Given the larger financial investment required, many Ontarians began to wonder whether it made much sense to use their vacation homes for only a few months each year. By the 1970s, therefore, there was a growing interest amongst cottagers to winterize their summer homes for year-round use.

Postcard view of “A Scene Near Bracebridge, Muskoka, Ontario, Canada,” mid 1960s. Author’s collection.

The snowmobile helped to bring these dreams to fruition. Once Bombardier began mass-producing Ski-Doos in the 1960s, Ontarians gained not only a means to access their cottages during the winter months, but also an exciting recreational activity to amuse them once there. Over the next decade, commentators noted that the cottage season increasingly extended well beyond the Thanksgiving weekend, a shift that they attributed largely to the snowmobile.13 Snowmobiles would not be welcomed equally in all parts of cottage country, with critics raising safety and environmental concerns.14 But there is no question that, for many Ontarians, they transformed the cottage into a destination that was as attractive in winter as it was in summer.

“In a land where winter hangs in as relentlessly as a chaperone at a teen-age dance, the coming of summer seems to bring on a kind of national madness,” declared Maclean’s magazine in 1977. “And nowhere have we brought the science of summering to such ritualistic heights as at the summer cottage …. If there is one culture trait peculiar to Canadians, life at the cottage is it.”15 Such words perhaps capture part of the appeal of cottaging during the summer months, but they failed to acknowledge how technology and changing social conditions were altering the relationship between second homes and the winter. In fact, the summer cottage was well on its way to becoming the year-round vacation home.


1 Godefroy Desrosiers-Lauzon, Florida’s Snowbirds: Spectacle, Mobility, and Community Since 1945 (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2011).

2 Peter A. Stevens, “Cars and Cottages: The Automotive Transformation of Ontario’s Summer Home Tradition,” Ontario History 100, 1 (2008): 26-56.

3 Peter A. Stevens, “‘Roughing it in Comfort’: Family Cottaging and Consumer Culture in Postwar Ontario,” Canadian Historical Review 94, 2 (2013): 234-62.

4 Hal White with Barry Johnson, “How NOT to Build That Summer Cottage,” Canadian Homes and Gardens 39, 6 (June 1962), 24-25; and interview with John Robertson (pseudonym), 21 July 2003.

5 Toronto Star, 17 May 1952, 19; 30 May 1960, 3; and 29 August 1960, 5.

6 Interview with Mary Dawson (pseudonym), 15 August 2002; interview with Ruby Jameson (pseudonym), 13 August 2002; Robertson interview.

7 Jameson interview; Dawson interview; Huntsville Forester, 26 March 1964, 1; and 9 April 1964, 1.

8 Andrew Watson, Making Muskoka: Tourism, Rural Identity, and Sustainability, 1870-1920 (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2022), 93.

9 Huntsville Forester, 30 July 1953, 5.

10 Temagami Lakes Association Directory (North Bay, Ontario: Beatty Printing Limited, 1969), 4-5; Huntsville Forester, 9 September 1965, 3; Bruce W. Hodgins and Jamie Benidickson, The Temagami Experience: Recreation, Resources, and Aboriginal Rights in the Northern Ontario Wilderness (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1989), 206.

11 “Cottaging: A Twelve Month Affair,” in Sixmile Lake Cottagers’ Association Archives, Sixmile Echoes newsletter, November 1966 issue, n.p.

12 Peter A. Stevens, “A Little Place in the (Next) Country: Negotiating Nature and Nation in 1970s Ontario,” Journal of Canadian Studies 47, 3 (2013): 42-66.

13 Huntsville Forester, 17 October 1963, 3; Toronto Star, 4 April 1970, 17; Financial Post, 15 May 1971, 1 and 8.

14 John Michels, Permanent Weekend: Nature, Leisure, and Rural Gentrification (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2017), 99-104.

15 Hartley Steward, “The Cottage Country,” Maclean’s (11 July 1977), 22-32.

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Peter A. Stevens

Professor of Liberal Studies at Humber College
Peter A. Stevens is Professor of Liberal Studies at Humber College in Toronto. He has published on various topics in Canadian leisure history, including the origins of Canadian Thanksgiving Day, and the history of family cottaging in postwar Ontario. Since 2021, Peter has served as one of the Book Review Co-Editors for NiCHE. He has a Ph.D. in History from York University.

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