By Andrew Hind
Ancestral cottages are precious family heirlooms. They’re cherished not just because of their age and history, but because they’re rich in memories and steeped in tradition – a bond tying generations of a family together.
Few places in Muskoka speak to this truth as well as Beachgrove Island, a 17-acre paradise on Lake Muskoka wholly owned since 1887 by descendants of George Taylor Denison II, a wealthy Toronto landowner, politician and militia commander. This year, as many as 100 members of the extended family – from young children to the 90-year-old matriarch, Libby Wright – will gather at the island to celebrate 125 years of summer fun and priceless memories.
“If Beachgrove means anything to me it’s family,” says Tess Dempster, representing a fourth generation of the family. “As kids, we always looked forward to the summer to see our cousins who we might otherwise only see a few times a year, and now my grandchildren are the same. The island has a way of pulling the family together and creating traditions that span the generations.”
These traditions began in 1887 when Frederick Charles Denison, the son of George Taylor Denison II, purchased most of Beachgrove Island. The younger Denison was a prominent Toronto lawyer, politician and militia officer, and undoubtedly needed a place to escape the stresses of his everyday existence. Beachgrove became that haven. His sister Esther Borden Denison completed the purchase of the island in the family name by buying the east parcel in 1889.
“In those days, the Denisons really roughed it,” said Susan Ashley, who has vacationed on the island every one of 60 years. “Their cottage was an old logger’s shanty and the children slept outside in tents. Even though they were wealthy people, Beachgrove was primitive and that’s how they liked it.”
“The whole ethos handed down from them to successive generations was to rough it in the bush. That was part of the appeal of cottaging in those days. We roughed it and we loved it.”
Well into the 1970s the family brushed their teeth in the lake, used an outhouse and relied on candles and lanterns before electricity was brought to the island.
“When the sun went down we turned in because you didn’t want to use up your lantern fuel,” said Ashley. “I read late into the night by the light of a candle – even though I wasn’t supposed to – and I’m convinced that’s why my eyes went bad. I wouldn’t have changed any of it.”
Days at Beachgrove were filled with swimming, playing cards and dominoes, sailing, canoeing and collecting wild things in the woods. Since it was an island with little chance of getting lost, children had free rein to explore and would wander off by themselves for hours without adult supervision. It meant freedom for youngsters, teaching self-reliance and independence.
“The only rule was ‘stay together,’ and that still applies today for my grandchildren,” explains Tess, who still goes up to the island every summer.
Most of Carole Swetman’s Beachgrove memories centre around her father Gordon Wright, who passionately loved Muskoka.
“Dad was a real naturalist,” said Swetman, a great-grandaughter of the island’s first owner. “He taught his three girls how to canoe like men – kneeling or with one leg up – and hold the paddle in the correct position. I was the biggest so I got the stern position, which allowed me to order my sisters about. He also took us on long nature walks where he explained everything we saw – plants, birds, wildlife. We got our love of nature from him.”
“Muskoka was a refuge for him and he passed that on so that we still feel the same way today,” she says. “Beachgrove is a mindset and here all your stresses are forgotten.”
At an active 90 years old, Libby Wright has longer memories of Beachgrove than anyone still alive. She has missed visiting only one year since marrying into the family in 1945, and then only due to the summer birth of her eldest daughter. She’s eagerly looking forward to attending the celebration this year and reliving cherished memories spent there with her late husband.
“I vividly remember my first visit to the island. I was from the Maritimes and met my husband there while he served in the Navy. He brought me home after the war and it was at Beachgrove that I first met his family,” she recalls. “We crossed over to the island in a launch called the Beachgrove; it was the biggest launch you’ll ever see. The only cottage then was the old logger’s cabin, which the older generations stayed in. My husband and I slept in a tent in a single cot, if you can imagine. I didn’t mind, at least until centipedes started crawling over me in the middle of the night! We don’t have centipedes in the Maritimes! But it was OK because I had the love of my life.”
“I remember in the morning going into the old cottage for breakfast,” Libby continues. “The family thought everyone in the Maritimes was a fisherman, so they assumed my father was a fisherman as well. They come out with a huge platter of fish caught on the lake especially for me, thinking it would make me feel at home. I don’t like fish! But it was a warm welcome into the family and the beginning of many beautiful summers at Beachgrove.”
As part of this year’s celebration, members of the “Beachgrove family” will embark upon the Segwun for a commemorative cruise. Beachgrove Island and the Segwun have a long, shared history. The Segwun – originally known as the Nipissing II – was launched the same year the Denison family arrived on Beachgrove, and for almost three-quarters of a century the family took the Segwun or another steamship to get to the island.
Even after a private launch replaced the steamship as the means of crossing to Beachgrove, the Segwun remained beloved by the cottagers. The majestic ship would routinely pass by the end of the dock, and another member of the family, Gordon Cyril Denison (1885-1977) would go down to the dock and lower the Union Jack in a show of respect. A toot of the ship’s whistle inevitably sounded in reply. This tradition carried on until recent years, and still children race down to the dock to wave enthusiastically as the ship gracefully slides by.
Beachgrove’s anniversary has been more than a year in planning, allowing family members plenty of time to consider the island’s significance. Susan Ashley believes she’s nailed down why it’s so beloved.
“In rural areas, people had the family farm that was the touchstone of the family, a place that members would return to and refer to as ‘home,’” she says. “That’s Beachgrove for our family. It’s an ancestral history, part of the core of our being.”