Saturday 13 October 2018

The early days of Guelph Bay

Have you never heard of Guelph Bay? In spite of delving into the history of the city of Guelph for a number of years, neither had I. Yet, there in front of me was a photo of that very place, with four smart, gabled cottages whose generous verandahs overlooked Ahmic Lake, near Magnetawan, Ontario.

The picture is the front of a real-photo postcard (RPPC), a photograph printed on postcard stock to be sent through the mail. Unfortunately, there is no message, address, cancellation stamp, or other specific dating information on the back, so it is hard to say when this picture was printed.

Adding to the mystery, although Ahmic Lake is easily to be found in online maps, "Guelph Bay" is not. Even so, a connection seemed likely just because "Guelph" is not a common place name and all the other "Guelphs" in North America are closely connected with the Royal City.

To make a long story short, there is indeed a close connection between Guelph and Guelph Bay and it takes us back to the early days of settlement of the Parry Sound district.

Prior to the arrival of Europeans, the district was inhabited by Algonkian-speaking peoples later identified largely with the Ottawa, though the area was a confluence of Objibwa, Huron, and other indigenous groups (Lovisek 1991). It afforded opportunities for fishing, trapping, and passage between Georgian Bay and the Ottawa River by canoe.

Early in the 19th Century, there was some official notion of recognizing the region as a reservation for indigenous peoples. However, the region was opened for settlement in 1868 with the Free Grants and Homestead Act, providing free land to would-be farmers while the Crown retained lumber and mineral rights. Soil conditions did not favour agriculture but the lumber trade prospered and train and steamboat travel were established in the Magnetawan river system by 1880. By 1886, a series of locks on the river had made it straightforward for people to take the Grand Trunk Railway to Burk's Falls and then ride a steamboat to any number of locations on Ahmic Lake. As a result, the region experienced a boom in the tourist trade.

Along with other southern Ontarions, several Guelphites took an interest in the district. In Looking Back with the Magnetawan Women's Institute (1997), we get the following information:

Thomas Gowdy and two friends first came to Ahmic Lake in the summer of 1889. They found some crown land in the area now known as Guelph Bay. His patent was issued in 1893.
The identity of the two friends is suggested by a notice in the Guelph Mercury the next year (24 July 1890):
Mayor Gowdy and family, comprising eleven members, and Mr. C.W. Kelly and family left this afternoon for Guelph Bay, Parry Sound. Rev. Mr. Turk intends to join them this week, if he is sufficiently recovered.
It appears that the three amigos who founded Guelph Bay were Thomas Gowdy, Charles. W. Kelly, and the Reverend George Turk.

Thomas Gowdy was then the Mayor of Guelph. Born in Toronto in 1831, he located to Guelph in 1853. Young Thomas had a good head for business and became a wealthy and important member of the community. Gowdy started out as a plasterer in the building trade and entered into a partnership with builder John Stewart. He got into the building materials business, becoming president of the Toronto Lime Co., a position he held until his death in 1913 (Mercury, 11 Dec. 1913). He was also on the board of directors of many Guelph concerns, such as the General Hospital, the Dominion Life Co. and the Guelph Junction Railway. He was perhaps best known as the owner of Thomas Gowdy & Co., Agricultural Works. Gowdy took over Cossitt's factory at Suffolk and Yorkshire streets in 1880 and ran a tight ship, described as follows (Industries of Canada 1886, p. 108):

The works contain the latest and most approved machinery, which is turned by a 50-horse power engine. Over 40 skilled workmen are employed, all under competent foremen. The firm manufacture all kinds of reapers, mowers, sulky rakes, fanning mills, land rollers, root cutters, turnip sowers, straw cutters, sulky ploughs, gang ploughs, single ploughs of all kinds, harrows, lawn mowers, etc.
He served as an alderman (councillor) for many years and was mayor in 1889 and 1890.

(Thomas Gowdy, ca. 1890, courtesy of the Guelph Public Library, F38-0-4-0-0-6)

Gowdy's mayoral ambitions were nearly derailed when his opponents reminded voters of some unfortunate comments Gowdy had made about Irish people after returning from a visit to the Emerald Isle in 1881 (Nash-Chambers 1988, p. 101):

The Irish were a lazy, drunken lot who if they did more work and drank less whiskey would never need to come as beggars to the civilized world.
Having reconsidered his views of the Irish en masse, Gowdy apologized and was successful in his electoral bid.

Charles Wesley Kelly (always "C.W. Kelly") was born in Guelph in 1856. His father John (always "J.W.B. Kelly") was a successful cabinet maker who had located to town in 1842. According to the Wellington County Historical Atlas (1906), the Kelly family was for a time owners of the Priory, where C.W. probably lived as a boy. A Methodist family, they hosted Methodist services there prior to the construction of the Methodist church (now Dublin Street United).

J.W.B. had a store/factory at the west bank of the Speed River near the Eramosa bridge. The firm diversified into selling and repairing the contents of cabinets, such as sewing machines, melodeons, organs, and pianos (Mercury, 8 Apr. 1947). Although he tried his hand at agriculture, young C.W. was drawn back into the music business. In 1877, he founded the firm of "C.W. Kelly" on Quebec Street, where the Masonic building now stands. The store sold a variety of musical instruments and accessories. The Atlas states that Kelly was one of the first dealers to sell Guelph-made Bell pianos and organs and eventually controlled Bell's whole retail piano and organ trade for Guelph, South Wellington and Halton. As sales of Bell pianos and organs were brisk in the 1880s, Kelly's local monopoly was undoubtedly lucrative for him.

Although not a politician, C.W. was active in running of Guelph in other ways. For example, he was a long-time member of the Board of Education. He was also Chairman of the Light and Heat commission when the incandescent system was installed in 1911. He had the honor of pushing the button in Trafalgar Square that turned on all the new lights downtown simultaneously (Mercury, 15 Jan. 1948).

Here is a picture of C.W. from the Historical Atlas of 1908:

Although the Rev. George Richard Turk plays only a brief role in the story of Guelph Bay, his appearance does confirm the ties that bound him, Thomas Gowdy and C.W. Kelly together. Rev. Turk was born in Vienna, Ont. in 1857, and took an early interest in the Methodist church. By 1888, he had been the pastor of a number of Methodist churches in Ontario, moving in that year from Galt to the Dublin Street Methodist (now United) church in Guelph.

Both Thomas Gowdy and C.W. Kelly were members of the church. In fact, J.W.B. Kelly had been on the local Methodist Church board when the Dublin Street church was founded in 1874. Thomas Gowdy's daughter Isabella was married there to James Talbot on 24 Aug. 1889 by Rev. Turk himself. So, the three of them had much in common.

By 1891, Rev. Turk had moved on to Owen Sound, one of the many positions he held on his way to the prestigious pastorates of Grace Church in Winnipeg in 1892 and Carleton Street in Toronto in 1897. Upon his move to the Queen City, the Toronto Globe observed (1 July 1897):

He is noted for the eloquence and effectiveness of his preaching, and for the indefatigable and successful character of his pastoral work.
In addition, the Globe published the following drawing.

So it was that Thomas Gowdy, C.W. Kelly, and George R. Turk travelled to the Parry Sound district in the summer of 1889 to enjoy its sights and amenities and to bring a little bit of Guelph with them.

At this point, the matter of the location of Guelph Bay comes back into focus. Happily, Margaret Welliver pointed me in the right direction. Mrs. Welliver is a great grand-daughter of Thomas Gowdy, and met her husband at the Gowdy cottage in the 1950s. Guelph Bay is still labelled on the Ahmic Lake Cottagers Association map, which places it at the location below:

Guelph Bay is the horseshoe-shaped bay lying between the main shore along the bottom and Kelly's Point sticking northwestward into Ahmic Lake. If you zoom in, you can make out the cottages in the postcard at the end of the bay. Zoom out for more context.

It appears that the three men established camps on the spot and obtained a patent on the land from the Crown. Land title was purchased in 1908, with taxes imposed back to 1893, suggesting that the cottages may have been built at that point.

The early appearance of these cottages is shown by an early photo taken from the southwest, courtesy of Margaret Welliver.

Each cottage is a simple, two-storey, gabled wooden structure, apparently finished with board-and-batten siding. No verandahs are yet present. Stumps are visible in the foreground, suggesting the newness of the clearing in which the cottages sit. The cottage on the right-hand side belonged to Rev. Turk, the middle one to Thomas Gowdy, and the left-hand one to C.W. Kelly. At the left-hand edge of the photo is a tent, perhaps suggesting what the original encampments would have looked like.

Later photos show two more structures, one on either side of the original three cottages, along with lawns, paths, and extensive docks. For example, here is a postcard issued A.J. Collins of Burks Falls, issued around 1910. (Courtesy of the Toronto Public Library, PC-ON 1693.)

Guelph Bay became a hot spot for summering for well-to-do Guelph families, where they enjoyed fishing, boating, hunting and, no doubt, beautiful sunsets. For example, the social page of the Toronto Globe records the following item (19 Aug 1901):

A big pickerel.
Rhoad’s Island, Aug. 17.—Mrs. D. Young while trawling to-day with her husband, the Principal of the Guelph Public Schools, caught an enormous pickerel, the largest caught here. It weighed six pounds, measured 27 ¼ inches in length and 13 inches around, and was weighed and measured by Mr. Sam Gowdy of Guelph and Mr. McCalum, Bursar O.A.C., and afterwards photographed by Mr. Gowdy at Guelph Bay. It was caught in Ahmic Lake, near Rhoad’s Island where Mr. Young and his family are spending the vacation.
A propos of fishing, there is a photo of C.W. Kelly with a fine catch from Ahmic lake, taken at the steamer dock at Kelly's Point (to which Kelly relocated in 1908), courtesy of Nora Kelly, great granddaughter of C.W.:

Another pickerel?

Of course, socializing was also a central occupation. Visitors could be entertained and the cottages were rented out from time to time. For example, there was this notice in Acta Victoriana, the yearbook of Victoria University in Toronto (Oct. 1905):

Mr. C.B. Kelly was summering at Guelph Bay during July and August. In that vicinity there were upwards of twenty young ladies, while C.B. was the only man. He claims to have had his hands full. Only your hands, Belfry?
Charles Belfry was a son of C.W. Kelly.

Visitors to Guelph Bay included the formidable J.B. Reynolds, president of the Ontario Agricultural College from 1920 to 1928, after whom the Reynolds Building was named. Sir William Hearst, Ontario Premier 1910–1919, and his wife spent July of 1928 at Guelph Bay, according to the Globe (5 July 1928).

Perhaps the visitor best known today was John McCrae, author of "In Flanders Fields." In his reminiscences about McCrae (The Torch 1940, pp. 7–17), Henry Hewitt recalls time he spent with McCrae at Guelph Bay around 1890:

One summer father sent the family to Lake Ahmic. Accompanying me was a young friend of mine who with myself had collected an arsenal, which we proposed to use in the north country. Jack McCrae who was spending the summer with us was sent along to keep us out of danger. We lived together, fished together and hunted together for nearly three months, and when we returned, all of us in the pink of condition, he had endeared himself to everyone, especially to my friend and myself.
At Lake Ahmic one night the weather suddenly became cold and my friend and I went out to get wood. It was rather a tedious job to cut down a tree, as we returned with a supply of wood we had taken without permission from a neighboring site. I remember he laughed and apparently suspected where we obtained the wood. On attempting to use it, the logs were found to be too long for our fireplace, so they had to be cut. A saw was borrowed and we were about to use it when Jack asked, “Where did you get the saw?” We told him. “Where did you get the wood?” We told him. It happened to be the same place.
Then he said, “I don’t mind you stealing his wood, but I’ll be damned if I’ll let you borrow his saw to cut it with.” That decision was final.
During this visit, John McCrae drew a pencil sketch "From the Pier Guelph Bay Magnetawan", in a sketchbook in the possession of the Guelph Civic Museums (M1968X.449.1, p. 38):

The cottage on the left appears to be that built for Rev. Turk.

Though Guelph Bay continues to be a favored summer residence for people from Ontario and the Midwest, its connection with the Royal City has faded from the memory of Guelphites, though the link remains yet in the captions of photos and postcards of former years.

Thank you to Margaret Welliver, Nora Kelly, John Macfie, and Andy Hauser for sharing their knowledge and photographs of Guelph Bay and its cast of characters. I hope that much more of the history of this charming place will be told soon (including perhaps in the comments below)!

How did Gowdy, Kelly, Turk and others get from Guelph to Guelph Bay? The short answer is by train and steamship. Smiley's Canadian Summer Resort Guide (1907) reveals that one could get to Guelph Bay by first taking the Grand Trunk train to Burk's Falls. From there, travelers could ride a small steamboat along the Magnetewan and get off at a variety of docks along the route to Ahmic Harbor. The fare to Guelph Bay from Hamilton was $10.35, the same as to the neighboring sites of "Cedar Croft," "Camp Kentuck," and "Forest Nook."

A lovely show of what it was like to travel this way along the Magnetewan is provided in the slideshow "Sailing along the Magnetewan", by the Almaguin Highlands Digital Collection. Do have a look at the exhibit, which features many period postcards. Click on the image below and pay special attention to the Wanita (shown):