Thursday, July 2, 2009
This is a song of loss.
Paul White passed away last summer, after hosting his 105th birthday party. For 104 years, Paul lived on the Lake of Bays in his own house. It was decided he needed extra care. He moved into an apartment at his caregiver’s. Still on the lake.
At 105, you know the clock is ticking. Another friend, Yvonne, told us of her father, at 94, standing at another friend’s gravesite. Paddy, himself a sprightly 104, turned to him. “Do you think,” he asked, “with the time we’ve got left, it’s worth going home?”
“I don’t know about you,” her father replied, “I got a lot of living left!”
Paul told me magical stories. He knew my grandfather, and my father. He knew the lake. His own father founded Britannia, one of the great resorts of the great resort era. It boasted tennis courts, curling club, golf course, riding stables, live theatre, gardens, boats… My grandfather took the lake steamer across for a round of golf -- in 1926 playing the front nine on the 16th of January, he commented in his diary, “extraordinary weather.”
Britannia hosted the world’s elite. Margaret Hamilton, of The Wizard of Oz, bet young Paul he couldn’t jump off the bridge of the lake steamer, “SS Iroquois”. Paul beetled down to the lake, clambered onto the steamer, and – as she pulled away from the dock – dove into the water. Margaret was delighted. The Captain, less so.
He told me about sailing to England, 8 years old, joining the passengers lining the railings, waving at a passing ocean liner. He remembered her lit from bow to stern, dazzling, new, music playing across the water, her passengers waving back. He also remembered his ship turning around in the middle of the night, going back, spending the next few days picking up survivors and debris from the Titanic.
He knew, at 105, the clock would run out. He sorted his taxes, wound up affairs, and worked hard to complete his memoirs. Typical of Paul, the title was hopeful. “My First One Hundred Years.” He promised to autograph my copy, but at the end his handwriting was too shaky. I treasure it, even so.
About the same time that Paul was preparing to leave the lake, another piece of our history was also packing up. The Rotunda, at Bigwin Inn, was demolished this May. If you never had the good fortune to see this building, you are a tiny bit poorer for that. During the era of the great hotels, Bigwin stood with the very best in the world. She opened in 1920, and for the first 20 years, never showed a business loss. The Rotunda was the first building you saw, arriving by Steamer. Huge and dark, it grew from massive foundations of local Muskoka stone to its vast dark redwood interior. It was the centerpiece of the hotel, quite literally, anchored on one side by the Indian Head dining room and the Dance Pavilion on the other.
Its eight fireplaces could burn logs up to 5 feet long. The two end fireplaces soared upward as massive anchors to the design. They both had stone seats worked into the exterior sides, so you could sit on the wide verandah on a cool day and stay warm. A buffalo head watched from one side of the interior, a moose from the other. One was a local… the other, like the guests, was a visitor. Within the 26,000 square foot area you could find the reception desk, post office, telegraph. switchboard, safe, writing alcoves, nurse and doctor’s offices, hairdressers, barbers, beauty salons, children’s playroom, newsstands, offices and gift stores.
From the Rotunda, covered walkways called cloisters extended to the accommodations in the East and West residences, the lakeside dining rooms, the tearoom, swim dock, steamer dock, dance pavilion and tennis courts. You could, in short, go anywhere along these cloisters, never needing an overcoat.
These were built mainly by prisoners of war during the First World War. Not a bad gig – while the allied POW’s were housed behind barbed wire on short rations in war torn Europe, the German POW’s spent the day working at one of the world’s most beautiful islands. A quick swim after work, and off to the dormitory for a good meal and bed. Bigwin had its own farm – there was no shortage of food. On the down side, there were plenty of mosquitoes and blackflies. Serve them right.
It was not all fun in the sun, however. The water tower, which held 100,000 gallons of water, was built from cement – like the dining halls and the cloisters. To get this cement to the top of the hill, that was the task. Much of the required gravel came from Bondi, my grandfather’s farm at the head of Haystack Bay, where a convenient gravel hillside was close to the lake.
Gravel was moved by hand down across the field, loaded on a barge, and towed to the Island. Here, the barges were moored side by side – water from the lake was mixed with cement which had arrived by Lake Steamer and the gravel. The resulting cement was sent up to the water tower site in 5 gallon buckets, on a pulley system. It kept one busy…
From its opening in1920, Bigwin was THE place to go, attracting the likes of flying ace Billy Bishop, Group of Seven painter Franklin Carmichael; Glenn Gould, Ernest Hemingway, Donna Douglas, Clark Gable, the Rockefellers, William Wrigley (of Wrigley’s gum) and several Prime Ministers. During World War II, after the Netherlands fell, Her Royal Highness Princess Juliana spent her summers at Bigwin. The Constitution of the Netherlands was held in the office safe while she was in residence.
The Rotunda has left the lake, after all these years. Neglect and weather did the worst of the work. Some of the fireplaces and the foundations have been preserved, along with the tea house. The new owners have restored the big round dining rooms by the shore and reconstituted the golf course into one of Canada’s finest. The Dance Pavilion fell to weather and neglect just one year before plans were finalized to stabilize and preserve it. This is how we lose our past, a little at a time. And how we remember.
A memory of the Titanic passing in the night. A swan dive from the bridge of a lake steamer. Stone chimneys, towering into the Muskoka sky, a reminder of a different time.
Paul’s book, unsigned. The tea room, scheduled to be restored and reopened, with a plaque about the Rotunda.
The lake is quieter with these great characters gone, but still hopeful, like Paul’s book title, anticipating the next 100 years.