Heritage Curators – Lake of Bays Museums

Article by J. Patrick Boyer / Photography by Andy Zeltkalns

Dorset’s two museums bring their Lake of Bays community to life in ways that engage and reward the public. Both are easily accessible on the main street in buildings showcasing how heritage structures play roles intrinsic to their contemporary purpose.

Dorset Heritage Museum, operating since 2001, occupies a re-purposed 1928 Forest Ranger building. Still anchoring spacious grounds adjacent to the tourist-attracting lookout tower, the place maintains the community’s link to forestry and Dorset’s historic role as the location of Ontario’s Fire Ranger School.

Lake of Bays Marine Museum, opened in 2013 with legendary cruise ship Bigwin as its pivotal attraction, occupies the 1885 building and wharf where Huntsville & Lake of Bays Navigation Company and Bigwin Livery Company sold tickets. At that location, the company stored freight, distributed mail, operated the telegraph office and provided upstairs sleeping quarters for captains of steamships Mohawk Belle and Iroquois.

These separate and distinctive entities curating Muskoka heritage are complementary.

In the Heritage Museum, visitors enjoy a modern, clean, welcoming space. Diverse artifacts, photographs and storyboards artfully present Dorset’s colourful saga from settlement to modern times. Specific areas feature Indigenous presence, wildlife, summer camps, schooling, logging, farming, trapping, firefighting, service in wartime, commerce and time’s parade of innovations, from cash registers and cheese slicers to motor vehicles and radios.

Lighting throughout is soft, which adds a cozy atmosphere while effectively illuminating each exhibit. Glass panes encasing displays, for instance owls of North America, are immaculate. Most displays have no glass, allowing curious visitors to touch a turtle’s shell or a child’s schoolroom slate, a beartrap or snowshoe, achieving exceptional intimacy for a museum.

The Marine Museum’s inauguration a decade ago brought to life the impossible dream of heritage-minded individuals. The elegant S.S. Bigwin had been, in the words of authors Marijane Terry and Jeff Gabura, “the hardest worker at Bigwin Inn,” ferrying passengers and luggage to and from the island resort for decades. Her pathetic demise, then miraculous resurrection to a second life as today’s popular Lake of Bays cruiser, is superbly documented in their book A Muskoka Century / The Story of the S.S. Bigwin. Built in 1910, the Bigwin’s engine was converted in 1956 from steam to diesel, while her recent restoration entailed conversion to electric power, in all, a stellar example of sustainable heritage.

Because Bigwin’s role is best understood in her setting, the authors render a fulsome account of Lake of Bays history, just as the museum serves visitors with enriching artifacts and stories, selling pertinent books and providing helpful information with gift shop wall panels describing currently operating resorts.

Passengers aboard Bigwin also relish commentaries by Captain Chuck McClelland, who draws from his seven decades of experience on the lake, and Captain Jim Spier, also the museum’s hands-on general manager, who explains how the vessel was updated for safe operation while maintaining her classic authenticity.

The Marine Museum’s artifacts, photographs, and even the 1930s movie “Pleasure Island” shown in American theatres to attract guests north to Bigwin Inn, make the most of Bigwin’s new era on Lake of Bays. Gaining considerable media interest, its popular routes include Thursday evening dinner cruises to Port Cunnington Lodge.

“We are having an excellent year,” smiled Captain Speirs early in August.

Dorset Heritage Museum came into being when permanent and seasonal residents realized that Lake of Bays’ rich history would be lost if nobody acted. “We were fortunate to get the Lands and Forests Fire Ranger Station,” explains Norm MacKay, a past chair of the museum committee. “We converted it with free labour. Stu Barnes, employed at Beaver Creek correctional facility, brought minimum-security prisoners to work under direction of a carpenter, a drywaller, an electrician and a roofer to fashion a contemporary museum.”

Numerous artifacts were donated by Muskoka and Haliburton individuals and families. On July 6, 2004, when the province closed the Leslie M. Frost Natural Resources Centre (operating in the former Forest Ranger School), MacKay and John Clayton, another pillar of the museum’s development, went to the Centre and staked claim to a birchbark canoe, art and educational exhibits of birds, turtles, fish, and animal skulls – now exhibited in the museum.

Thematically displayed, “Each item and picture tell a story,” notes MacKay. His father’s book Early Days in Dorset, among titles on sale, records many such stories. So too do knowledgeable volunteers available as docents who answer visitors’ questions.

Both these new and vital heritage centres in Dorset are emblematic of the creative possibilities when citizens care about their community’s past, present, and future.