150 years of pioneering spirit - Historic Baysville



Article by Judy Vanclieaf

One can still be witness to the traditional, small-town charm of Baysville every time they go through the dated doors of the historic building that houses Miss Nelle’s. From the suspended canoe that hangs above the cash to the original Langmaid’s sign proudly displayed in the dining area, everywhere you look, there is a reminder of the past.

Across the street sits the first brick home built by Baysville founder W.H. Brown and the building next door, which has the painted mural depicting Baysville’s first dam and the old Lincoln Lodge, was once the third post office built in 1896. Around every corner there is an historical building with a story to be told...150 years of stories to be exact.

In becoming Baysville’s founding father, Brown first came to the area in 1869 to scope out the perfect piece of land to claim under the Free Land Grant Act. A sawyer by trade, he knew as soon as he saw the falls that this would be “the spot” to set up a sawmill and create a little village. He headed back to Burford, his home town, and told the government his plans to build a sawmill. For that, he was given an additional 400 acres of land including water rights.  

Brown would return in June of 1872 with his family to clear a small parcel of land beside the river and erect the frame for the mill. But before he could set up his machinery, he had to wait an entire year before the promised and long-awaited road would be cut through from Bracebridge. Even after it was built, it was an onerous trip, hauling the equipment by oxen over the rough wagon track from Bracebridge to Baysville.

That first year, a municipal council was formed and taxes of $301.98 were collected to build the log schoolhouse. A church had not been built yet, so the schoolhouse would serve a dual purpose and be used for Sunday services. Today, both the first church (Bethune United) and the schoolhouse, which now serves as Parish Hall at the Anglican Church, are still actively used.

Brown had the village surveyed naming each of the streets after family members and early settlers, though the origin of the name University Street remains unknown. However, a survey map from 1879 shows that part of Baysville had not been developed yet. According to this survey map, Baysville was home to Brown’s Sawmill and Gammage Grist Mill which was located directly across the river from the sawmill. There was also a shingle mill on the west side of the river above the dam, three stores and a school. 

In 1873, the first bridge was built crossing over just above the dam from Baysville Terrace to Heney Lake Road. This bridge was very narrow with only enough room for a horse and buggy to cross. If one were to look in the river today, the cribs can still be seen on a clear day.

Before the first bridge was built, the only means of crossing the river was by a small cedar raft. The first death in Baysville occurred in 1872 when a father and son team drowned. Mr. Spong and his young son were crossing the river, making their way to their land claim, when the fast waters swept them over the rapids. Brown donated land for a graveyard making the Spongs, father and son, the first burials in Baysville. A wooden cross once marked the grave but has since been replaced by a cement gravestone paid for by the former Baysville Women’s Institute.

The second bridge which was made of steel was built in 1904, just north of the old bridge and dam. The steel structure was much more durable but it made a lot of noise every time a vehicle went over it.

Joy Seymour, who grew up on the east side of Baysville, remembers having to cross the bridge every day for school. 

“I would run across that bridge as fast as I could, to be sure to get to the other side before a car would come,” says Seymour. “The clanky rattling noise of the bridge would scare me as a child.”  

The steel structure would last another 55 years until 1960 when the provincial government put the new highway through complete with the present bridge.   

W.H. Brown played many major roles in the village. He served as Justice of the Peace in 1872, was Reeve of McLean from1876 to 1885 and was also Baysville’s first postmaster from 1874 to 1920.  His daughter, Helena (Lena) Campbell was the first telegraph operator and followed in her father’s footsteps serving as Baysville’s second postmaster for 11 years until her passing in 1931. The family tradition would continue with Lena’s son, Carl “Scotty” Campbell. Before becoming postmaster, Scotty would drive the stagecoach led by a team of horses to and from Bracebridge to get the mail. Scotty called it “the good ole days” when it used to take five hours to get to Bracebridge, then about seven hours back, as coming back was mostly uphill. Not only would the passengers have to walk up the steep hills, especially the one at Devils Gap on Stoneleigh, but often they would have to help the horses by pushing the coach to reach the top.  

When Scotty retired as postmaster in 1960, there was a 24-year break of the Brown family running the post office with Jack Thompson as postmaster. In 1984, Scotty’s daughter Bette Campbell became acting postmistress until her retirement in 1998. This put the tradition of Brown family members in the Baysville Post office collectively at 103 years.        

In 1872, W.H. Brown built the first brick house in Baysville. The bricks were brought in by oxen from Washago to Bracebridge and then to Baysville. Other materials for the house would come down by canoe across Trading Lake from Dorset. For almost 150 years, this brick house sitting at 3 Bay Street, has had four generations of the Brown family living in it. Currently, Shirley (our founder’s great granddaughter) and her husband Bob Burton now reside in this lovely old Gothic Revival home and each generation before that has kept much of its originality.

Looking at the front of the building, you will notice the original wavy pebble glass windows. The front door is also original and was made by Shirley’s great grandfather in his mill. Even the wooden trim, baseboards and the door frames are all original and came from Brown’s sawmill, 150 years ago. Lanterns from Scotty’s stagecoach are now modernized to serve as outdoor lights to illuminate the Burton home entrance.

Although W.H. Brown was the founder and had a major role in building this little community, the trailblazers were Mark Langford and three other young men. The Langford story is the most illustrative story in all the publications in Baysville’s history. 

The Baysville Tweedsmuir recites Mark Langford’s journey that began in September of 1870, as they trudged across the rugged lands to their property in McLean Township.

“We came here with the intention of taking possession of the promised land, the land flowing with riches.”  At least, that is what they were led to believe. “We had our blankets and axes and purchased supplies in Bracebridge – 50 lb. of flour, bacon, tea, sugar, tin cups, tin pails, plates, knives and forks.”  Although the young men were accustomed to very hard work, they found that their load on their backs was very heavy and cumbersome.  

The first day they made it seven miles and stayed with the Bruces on what is now Stoneleigh Road. The second day, they found themselves walking on a very poor footpath that led to two other dwellings, the last being the Hussey home. Between the Hussey home and their destination would be four miles of dense unbroke forest in which they trudged on with all their heavy gear on their backs. Not quite making it to their “promised land,” they got discouraged and turned around the next morning, heading back to Bracebridge, leaving everything behind.  

When Mark’s father, Thomas Langford, learned they had returned to Bracebridge, the father of 10 insisted that they go back and get the property ready for he was bringing the entire family to live there the following spring.

Young Langford (he was 17 at the time) and William Gammage headed back in October to clear the land and build the first rough hut. Together they cut and split trees to build two shanties. The fronts of the shanties were built facing a rock and were left open where a fire would be built at night, heating the rock which would deflect back into the house. They had one building almost finished and the walls were up and the roof on another by that Christmas. By then, the snow was three feet deep, but they had a good footpath that had been cut through. Several trips were made to Bracebridge to get supplies and on one trip, Mark carried a grindstone of 60 pounds on his back all the way back.  

The Langford family had no idea of the challenges they would face. In March of 1871, Thomas Langford, who was in a wheelchair due to an accident, decided that it was time to move in. He packed up his other nine children and their worldly belongings on an oxen and cart, trudging through four feet of snow. It would take them two weeks to get all their belongings moved. One cannot imagine the hardships they went through.

Less than a decade later, the lumbering industry began and the population in Baysville spiked. All the timber cut in the Lake of Bays district would pass through Baysville, making its way to other sawmills further down the river. Baysville became the headquarters for the lumbermen which saw a series of tents set up on the property of what is now Baysville Marina.

With the influx of lumbermen in Baysville, hotels began to pop up. At one point, there were seven thriving hotels in the tiny settlement. When boredom set in with seven hotels to choose from, excessive alcohol consumption became a problem. W.H. Brown and his brother-in-law Judson Henderson thought drinking was getting out of hand, so they called a local option bylaw in McLean and Ridout Townships to close all bars and prohibit all sales of alcohol.

So, what did people do for alcohol during this time of Temperance? Are we naïve to think everyone abstained? There have always been rumours about secret stills in the back bush making moonshine, but even to this day, you will hear, “you didn’t hear that from me.” If moonshine wasn’t available, one could still acquire alcohol from a doctor with a prescription from the drugstore. By 1919, it was made legal to purchase alcohol in McLean and Ridout again.

When the lumber industry began to taper off at the turn of the century, the population went down and most of the hotels closed their doors.

McLean and Ridout Townships in the early 1900s quickly became a popular tourist area. Farmhouses opened their doors to tourists, some putting on additions and even building bigger to accommodate the growing industry. Many hotels began to pop up with the likes of Pulford House, later to become Robertson Inn. Baysville House, Burlmarie House and Idlywyld bringing even more tourists to the area.

Steamships would service Trading Lake (now Lake of Bays), transporting guests to and from the hotels to the Portage Railway at the northeast end of the lake. Shelters were built on both sides of the river to accommodate guests waiting for the steamship to take them to their destinations. These shelters still stand on the Baysville town docks often used by families as shelter from the sun and the occasional place for kids to climb and jump into the water.

As the tourism industry grew, bigger and fancier hotels were being built around the lake – White House, Wawa and Bigwin would attract guests from all over the world.

Bigwin Inn was the reason the road from Bracebridge to Baysville was paved. In the late 20s when C.O. Shaw was operating Bigwin Inn, a Good Roads Association convention was held on the island. The road from Bracebridge was still in the modified wagon track stage. So, to impress convention delegates, the Provincial Government slapped a quick coat of asphalt over the dirt. Because of the rush to pave the roads, the workers would use whatever they could get their hands on to fill the holes... old tree stumps, logs and boulders. This would make the roadbed unstable causing the asphalt to heave and crack with the frost. Every year after, the roads crews would have to throw on more asphalt to keep the bumps manageable.

The main road from Baysville to Dorset, travelled along what is now known as the scenic route via Echo and Ril Lake. This route made Bigwin inaccessible by car, so a new road from Baysville to Bigwin was also constructed that same year.

Baysville, being the capital of McLean Township, had to have a town hall. Once located beside Baysville Hotel (Lincoln Lodge), it served as the centre of activity for the community. Fairs, Christmas concerts and dances were all held in the building. It was also home to the library, the council chambers and the jail, later to be sold to become the fire hall. 

The jail was housed in the basement during the 1940s to the 1960s. It was during this time that McLean and Ridout Townships hired their own municipal police to manage things. Constable Dan Watson’s hardest job seemed to be keeping the peace at Baysville dances, held every Saturday night at the community centre. These dances were well known for their fights and quite often someone would have to be thrown in jail to cool off for the night.

Dan’s other focus was to investigate cottage break-ins. To make his job easier in the winter, this officer built his own airboat that was designed to travel on both water and ice.

It is the progressive and often innovative thinking of people like Constable Dan Watson, trailblazer Mark Langford and founder W.H. Brown who have made a significant mark in Baysville’s history. 

Baysville celebrates its 150th anniversary this year and it is because of people like Watson, Langford and Brown, and many others throughout the last century and a half that Baysville is still thriving to be the great little historical village it is.