The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015. Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.
“If you can afford a holiday in Muskoka you’ve got it made!”
This was a commonly heard refrain in the early decades of the 20th century, when new resort hotels sprung up all over the Muskoka region.
The Grand Trunk Railway played a major role in promoting Muskoka, aiming their advertising at the upper end of the market, and encouraging vacationers to stay at least a week at the resorts, which combined the Canadian wilderness with luxury accommodation.
A full-blown Muskoka vacation was far beyond the means of most people. For those in Wellington, facilities closer to home, with far more modest amenities, sprung up at the same time as the Muskoka retreats.
These were privately owned parks, and there were three of them in operation by 1900: Puslinch Lake, Stanley Park in Erin, and Pike Lake at the very top of Wellington County.
Puslinch Lake drew heavily on visitors from nearby Guelph, Hespeler, Preston and Galt. Stanley Park, from the beginning, appealed to the excursion trade, who could get there easily by the Canadian Pacific Railway from Toronto.
The development of the Pike Lake resort in the 1890s was a remarkable circumstance at so early a date. There were no major population centres within easy reach. In fact, the area was going through a lengthy period of de-population. Both Grand Trunk and Canadian Pacific lines passed within two miles of the spot, but there was no station for Pike Lake.
Located on Concession 14, Lots, 8, 9 and 10 of Minto, Pike Lake has a surface area of some 110 acres, and is the second largest natural lake in the county, exceeded only by the much larger Puslinch Lake. The nearest towns are Mount Forest, four miles to the east, and Harriston, about six miles to the west.
The origins of the name are shrouded in mystery. There are no pike in Pike Lake. One tale, certainly apocryphal, is that all the pike died one winter when the temperatures fell so low that the lake froze solid.
In the 1850s, the Pike Lake area was a popular summer spot for the Indigenous population from the Southampton area. They could hardly be called vacationers, though. They spent their time hunting and fishing for food, and making baskets, which they sold in the fall to settlers on the farms and in the villages in the area.
The position of the lake, straddling three lots, meant that these were awkward holdings for agricultural purposes. It is probable that some of the land surrounding the lake never was completely cleared of timber. There were several disputes over property lines around the lake in the 1860s.
Early owners of the property were Thomas Chapman and William Reynolds. Even during their time, in the 1860s and 1870s, Pike Lake already was attracting people for fishing and boating.
Reynolds sold the lake property to Robert Grieves, who made a serious effort to develop it as a resort in the 1890s. He constructed a hotel, a very modest one by the standards of resort hotels, but nevertheless one providing home-like accommodation for those who desired it. Early photographs show the building with a large verandah on three sides.
The first cottages, perhaps a half-dozen of them, went up in the mid-1890s. Others who came to Pike Lake set up camp sites on the shore of the waters.
In 1899, Grieves launched a small steamboat named the “Lady Minto,” on the lake as an added attraction. There were suggestions at this time to make Pike Lake a public facility with open access, but publicly-owned parks were still something of a novelty a century ago.
Bill Schwartzmeier took over the property in 1901, and remodelled the hotel to increase its capacity. He also constructed several rental cottages as adjuncts to the hotel, and soon was able to handle 50 overnight guests at a time. With those staying in leased cottages and tents, the population at Pike Lake could swell to more than 200.
Much of the traffic, though, consisted of the day-trip trade: church and service groups and family reunions, largely from Mount Forest and Harriston, who found a day at Pike Lake, in the days before cold beverages and air conditioning, a refreshing diversion on a hot summer day.
Livery stables in Harriston and Mount Forest did a lively Sunday and holiday trade renting buggies to those people.
Others ventured to Pike Lake by bicycle, taking picnic lunches with them.
As a business investment, though, Pike Lake was not lucrative. The hotel had to sustain itself on the business generated between Victoria Day and Labour Day, with charges only a fraction of those charged by the Muskoka resorts. The day trip visitors generated little income: at most, boat rides and beverages at the hotel.
Most spent little or nothing, eating the lunch they brought with them, going for a swim on the muddy beach, and watching the boaters.
After 1900, Pike Lake began to see a lot of activity in winter, with crews cutting blocks of ice which were transported to Harriston for the cooling of butter and cream, which were shipped in quantity from the railway stations there. This continued until mechanical refrigeration made it redundant in the 1920s.
In 1931, Bill and Herman Downey, of Windsor and Detroit, became so enamored of the location that they bought the resort from the partnership of Reynolds, Abbott and Pritchard, who had operated it through the 1920s. After a time, Herman bought out his brother, and began living at the hotel year round.
Aware of changing recreational demands, and the increased mobility of people with motor cars, Herman Downey made extensive changes to the property, adding a nine hole golf course, and holding dances twice each week – square dancing on Tuesdays and ballroom dancing on Fridays.
Herman Downey sold out in 1951. Successive owners have built upon the work he did in the 1930s.
The golf course grew increasingly important, with regular tournaments held through the 1950s.
The Pike Lake Lodge restaurant offered lunches and full dinners. As well, it became a popular spot for banquets and receptions. A small steamboat plied the waters of the lake in the early 1960s.
More recently, the Pike Lake golf course expanded to 18 holes, and in the 1980s, cross country skiing became an attraction. Mobile homes now fill the niche occupied a century ago by the modest wooden cottages. Well into its second century as a resort, Pike Lake is attracting more visitors than ever.
*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on Aug. 4, 2000.