Entertainment at the Cottage
circa 1936-1950
By Bill Johnson

The closest neighbours being 1 1/2 miles away, we spent our summers at the cottage (and as much as possible of the other seasons) in quiet isolation. During the polio epidemics of the 30’s and 40’s, our summers were lengthened into September almost every year — until around 1952, when Salk invented a vaccine. A number of our friends died of that scourge, so perhaps those extended summers at the cottage, that were so important to our parents, meant even more to my sister Liz and me.

Long summer days could be dull, and moved slowly, but in retrospect, they were wonderful family years. We ran down the hill (200 ft.+ high) once or twice a day to swim. How I loved that crystal clear Georgian Bay!

When I was old enough, I would use the old cedar strip boat and trusty VIKING (Eaton’s) five horsepower, to travel to Christian and Beckwith Islands, to fish and camp; and to Cedar Point, to meet girls.

In winter, just the trip north sure could be exciting — whether or not it could be classified as “entertainment” — four or five hours up Highway 11 (with the 400 still far in the future). Having to stay at the hotel in Elmvale when the road to Toronto was blocked with snow, or finding a farmer to pull the car out of the deep mud hole at the bottom of the Randolf Hill on # 6 (unpaved and often presenting major obstacles from one end to the other).

When there was too much snow to drive to the hill behind our cottage on the 20th, Calixte Robitaille, who built the cottage, would meet us in Lafontaine with a large, straw-filled sleigh and four Percherons, then off we would go: ten freezing, often blizzardy miles, running beside the sleigh, when necessary, to stay warm in our breeches and leather boots. Who says sleigh-riding is fun?

We almost always had company on weekends, winter and summer. Farm neighbours would turn up on Saturday nights with accordions and violins, with my father occasionally joining in on the out-of-tune Rosewood baby grand, and of course the singing was French at its best. Gradually, my father’s business friends built similar cottages along the top of the hill. Each of them, in turn, became regulars on Saturday nights.

We had no television (or electricity, or running water), so entertainment was often someone spending the whole evening telling in detail the story of a book they had read (Bugle Annie, recounted by our neighbour to the south, Guy Buchanan, is best remembered). Often it would be a re-telling of an entire movie, which seemed to go on into the small hours. Sometimes “discussions” / arguments would last all night on important subjects such as “How many peaches are there in a can?” — requiring the opening of every can in the house, to prove a point. Neighbour to the north Stan Fitiz, from Northern Ireland, who had served as a Chief Engineer in the Royal Navy in the First World War, would hold us spellbound with war stories, such as “How I saved the ship at sea”. As the evening advanced, Stan began to slur his words and the story became “How I shaved the ship at shee”.

We did have a battery-powered radio, strictly reserved for my father’s use, to hear the news. The batteries seemed to weigh a ton, were very expensive and didn’t last very long. So, Liz and I were unable to hear our favourite radio programs: “Speed Gibson, “Little Orphan Annie”, “The Shadow”, “Vic and Sade”, “Amos and Andy”, and many more — all, in retrospect, much better than TV, which was not to be available for 20 more years.

Instead, Uncle Ed would take me groundhog hunting just after supper — performing a great service to farmers, as groundhog holes were a threat to horses’ legs. To be honest, when I think back, I never did hear of any horse anywhere breaking a leg by stepping into a groundhog hole. When Ed joined the army and moved away, he gave me his beautiful Savage ‘22 rifle, as he’d always promised. I was overjoyed. But, strangely enough, I never went hunting again, as killing any animals just didn’t seem right.

As I reflect on it now, it must have been a very risky decision by my parents to spend money (that they didn’t have) in the midst of the Great Depression to buy land and build the cottage. Virtually every other house on our street in Toronto was on “relief”.

And perhaps the isolation of those cottage days made us grow up a little naive, but I do not regret a minute of it. We love this place and always will, and know that it will give joy to our family far into the future.

Our cottage entertainment remains in some ways the same: swimming, fishing, visiting the island, long walks in the “enchanted forest”, reading... Sometimes we watch a video or go to a movie in Midland (no satellite dish, so still no TV). But the quiet still remains, particularly in winter — as it was 65 or so years ago — almost deafening.