Muskoka Heritage Place is all about Huntsville’s early history. On its own, it’s fun to wander through the museum and village and take a ride on the Portage Flyer but you gain a new level of respect for both the property itself and the former inhabitants of its buildings when you know some of the history behind it all.
Creating the Museum and Pioneer Village
The Muskoka Museum’s original site wasn’t where it is today. It started life thanks to local Women’s Institutes, who collected pioneer artifacts in the years following World War II and displayed them in the upstairs rooms of the then-arena. When the former Huntsville Public School building on Caroline Street became available, it was purchased by the Rotary Club to house the artifacts and the Muskoka Museum was born. It opened in 1958 but the location was short-lived – the building needed to be torn down to make way for a new school building.
Jack Laycock, the principal of Huntsville Public School at the time, envisioned a pioneer village to preserve local buildings as artifacts, too. In 1961, the town approved the purchase of 31 acres, the village’s current location, and by 1964 three buildings had been moved to the site: the Hill House, the Hares House and the Darling House. It was a painstaking process. “All of the buildings had to be dismantled at their locations and reassembled onsite like a jigsaw puzzle,” says Sara White, Collections Coordinator at Muskoka Heritage Place. “Only Ashworth Hall, which arrived in 1985, was moved intact by truck.”
In some cases, the houses were changed to reflect the time period of the village – 1860 to 1910. “They back-stepped remodels,” says Sara. “For example, the Bray House was a two-story Gothic Vernacular but when they dismantled it the log cabin was discovered in the summer kitchen. They just built the rest of the house up around it. One of the children that was born there didn’t even realize the log house was still part of it. Unlike the Darling House – when the new house was built, the old house became the turkey coop.”
The Rotary Club made the pioneer village its centennial project and the museum as it is now opened in June 1967. More buildings were moved onsite as they became available. The Portage Flyer train station was the last of them in 2000. It’s not an original but rather a compilation of what train stations of the time would have looked like.
Remaining true to the past
Someone needed to ensure that the buildings arriving at the village and the artifacts within them were as close to life during that time period as possible. That role now is filled by Sara.
We want the buildings to look like someone just stepped over to a neighbour’s for a cup of sugar.
Sara White, Muskoka Heritage Place Collections Co-ordinator
Back in 1971, it was the Friends of Muskoka Pioneer Village who took on responsibility for the artifacts. The group was led by Maureen Hunt, with the mandate of researching and furnishing the buildings and cataloguing the museum collection.
The collection, which is now almost 60,000 artifacts strong, depends on donations – the museum has no budget to acquire items from the community. Not everything can be accepted, however. They have only so much storage space and see many of the same types of items over and over. “We have more irons than we need,” laughs Sara.
Pump organs are another, perhaps surprising item, that the museum can no longer accept. “Pump organs were something that people really took care of,” says Ron Gostlin, Manager of Muskoka Heritage Place. “They were expensive, and they were central to family life – they were entertainment and a showpiece all in one.”
The museum will accept items outside of its time period if they are specific to an event, however. “We want those ephemeral items, but they’re things that people don’t usually keep,” says Sara.
Of those 60,000 artifacts, which includes furniture, clothing, kitchen and farm tools, photographs and the buildings themselves, about 40 per cent are on display either in the museum or in the village. The remainder are stored in controlled environments to preserve them for the future.
One of the challenges of preserving the artifacts on display at Muskoka Heritage Place is the place itself. “The village is not a museum in a box,” says Ron. “The buildings and their contents are already 100 years old and they are at the mercy of the weather, insects, rodents and vandals.” Repair and maintenance are constant to protect them as much as possible.
Getting to know the people
Costumed interpreters and activities give visitors to Muskoka Heritage Place a taste of what life would have been like in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Here are some interesting things to consider the next time you’re in the village:
Caroline Hill, Reverend Hill’s wife, was the local midwife. When a woman went into labour, they would place a white sheet in the window to signal for help, says Sara. Neighbours would do the same and Caroline would follow the trail to the home.
The Hill House is reportedly haunted, as is the doctor’s office, which many people know. But have you ever noticed the second floor door on the Hill House that goes nowhere?
If a building wasn’t finished, they didn’t have to pay taxes. Many families left a second floor door that led nowhere – making the house unfinished – as a way to get out of them. It’s kind of funny that the upstanding Reverend was one of the ones to do it.
Ron Gostlin, Manager of Muskoka Heritage Place
The log homes were made of hand-hewn square logs and the families would only have had a few snow-free months in which to build them. “It’s why working bees were so popular,” says Sara. “Many hands make light work.”
Ask the interpreters for more on what life was like in the pioneer village. And don’t forget to say hello to the animals – Abby the donkey turns 18 this year. Staff will be holding a birthday party for her in August.
The pioneer village may seem old, but as we approach Canada’s 150th birthday remember that none of built Huntsville existed at that time – there were First Nations peoples, a few trappers and not much else. Some of that rich, pre-settler history is reflected in the village’s First Nations’ encampment and trapper’s cabin to remind visitors of what life in the area was like before the Town of Huntsville was established.
“The village is so current,” says Ron. “It’s not like somewhere in Europe where the local pub is 900 years old. Here, there are direct descendants of early pioneer families like the Maws and the Darlings walking around the community today. It’s one of the really neat things about Muskoka Heritage Place.”
With notes from Huntsville With Spirit and Resolve, by Susan Pryke. Photos courtesy of Muskoka Heritage Place except where noted.