Book Review: “Ghost Towns of Ontario’s Cottage Country” by Andrew Hind
Andrew Hind’s Ghost Towns of Ontario’s Cottage Country was not quite the book I was expecting, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. As a former resident of Barry’s Bay, Ontario, I thought the “cottage country” related to the book’s title would apply to the area where I grew up. Not quite. This book is centered on telling the tales of 13 former hamlets that existed in an area stretching up from Bracebridge to Parry Sound to the North Bay region — and doesn’t wander further east than that, which means looking at any Barry’s Bay-area ghost towns, such as Craigmont or Foymount is out of the question. However, when recently talking to my mother, it appears that these places may have already been included in other books about ghost towns in Ontario. Books of this nature, it turns, out are a bit of a — pun intended — cottage industry in Ontario. Even the author of this book currently up for review has previously published other books about ghost towns: places in Muskoka and, as I understand it, the Niagara-on-the-Lake region. Thus, writer and historian Hind isn’t exactly reinventing the wheel here. However, that doesn’t mean that this book isn’t intriguing. It is. Especially given that Hind was able to interview former residents of these long-ago towns before they passed on — some of the interviews go back as far as 20 years, so there’s a real gold mine of information sitting here in this book.
While Hind notes in his introduction that he chose communities that were unique or different from each other — for example, including a German settlement but then a French one, and so on — each place essentially follows the same template. This means that the book can get a little repetitive and one wishes that there might have been a bit more variety in the telling of these tales, but that might not be the author’s fault for, again, he did seem to go out of his way to shake things up a bit. However, if you were going to tell the general story of ghost towns in this region of Ontario, it would go like this: Starting in the 1840s, the government of what would become Ontario was suffering from a population crisis. Most of the arable land in what’s now southern Ontario was already taken, and immigration was at an all-time high. In the year 1847 alone, the region saw the immigration of 100,000 Irish settlers fleeing the potato famine in their home country. Thus, the government decided to open land for settlement in the north-central part of the province for free. As immigrants settled in these areas, they would strike spades into the ground to begin farming and develop the land only to find the rock of the Canadian Shield. They would still break their backs trying to farm in the summer, and the logging industry would provide adequate employment during the winter. However, fortunes would change with the dawn of the 20th century. Either the community would deplete its timber resources, be destroyed by fire — usually started at the local sawmill — or it would slowly vanish once railways were constructed in their region that would strangely bypass the communities entirely, causing shut-in residents to throw up their hands and give in. All that now remains in most cases is a few farm buildings, churches, schoolhouses, and general stores — if they haven’t rotted on their foundations.
Hind is a natural raconteur and doesn’t pass up the opportunity to tell tales about each community. One memorable one is where he recounts that one child of these hamlets didn’t make it past Grade 6 at the local one-room schoolhouse because, in the winter, the snow would pile up so high that the roads would become unpassable. This student wound up missing most of her classes, which is why she was unable to progress further at school. Another interesting yarn is of a young woman who got pregnant out of wedlock and then walked into a nearby lake in shame and took her own life. Having had two moral strikes against her (at the time of her death), the community put her grave and gravestone outside of the local cemetery. Other times, Hind relates the struggles and hardships that these residents endured and their attempts at resilience and perseverance that often met in failure when tragedy struck. However, by the 1950s or so, many of these hamlets and small communities would be a thing of the past. That’s what makes this book so astounding and important: it attempts to tell the tales of Ontario settlements that would have been otherwise lost to history.
Included in this book are a bevy of unpublished photographs that are striking and can be gazed at for moments as readers remember and honour the past lives of the individuals who populated these communities. Hind also includes driving directions so visitors can check out what remains for themselves — though with the caveat that much of this land now exists on private property, so care needs to be taken and “No Trespassing” signs respected if one decides to make the journey to any of the places in the book. However, if you’re just content about reading about these places, your expectations are going to be more than met. Ghost Towns of Ontario’s Cottage Country is a fascinating read, one that will transport readers back into a distant, nostalgic past where time moved a lot slower, and things seemed to be simpler. (However, this was a time that was not without its share of hardships as Hind notes that some of these early settlers lost their lives in hunting or sawmill accidents.) One hopes that this book doesn’t mark the end of further investigations into Ontario’s communal past by Hind, and — should the sales figures be good — one hopes that he has the makings of a franchise here. There is a bevy of tales to be told about small towns in Ontario that didn’t quite make it, and their history deserves to be preserved and remembered. Books such as this one only further that sentiment and does so with extreme gusto. Ghost Towns of Ontario’s Cottage Country will, no doubt, be highly recommended reading on deck chairs in north-central Ontario this summer.
Andrew Hind’s Ghost Towns of Ontario’s Cottage Country will be published by Dundurn Press on May 2, 2023 (Canada) and on May 30, 2023 (U.S.A.).
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