Muskoka Heritage Curators - Bala's Museum
Article by J. Patrick Boyer / Photography by Andy Zeltkalns
For preserving and perpetuating Muskoka’s heritage, the saga of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s 1920s Muskoka novel The Blue Castle and Bala’s Museum, opened in 1992 by Linda and Jack Hutton to celebrate both author and book, is a study unto itself.
On July 14, 1922 the writer renowned world-wide for her series of Anne of Green Gables novels, already in five foreign-language editions with a dozen more translations yet to come, motored two hours north from Leaskdale with her husband and sons to Bala for a half-month Muskoka respite, booking into Roselawn Lodge. Montgomery did not intend to begin a new novel, just inhale the district’s curative air and savour Muskoka’s mystique.
Yet charmed by Muskoka and dreaming in solitude on Roselawn’s verandah, a plot began to percolate. An unmarried and unhappy 29-year-old woman, Valancy Stirling, would escape henpecking and humiliation by retreating to her romantically exotic castle. This was drawn from Montgomery’s own fantasy experience but now her castle would be on an island in Lake Muskoka. Shards of plot and features of characters crystallized in her mind.
On July 30, she diarized: “What a lovely name is Muskoka! Music – Charm – Wonder – it suggests them all.” Realizing the importance of names, she added, “Suppose Muskoka had been called Udora! Or Stouffville?” She wrote a friend saying Muskoka was “a fairyland,” totally different from Leaskdale and Prince Edward Island.
On July 31, again relaxed on the verandah, she dreamt the core plot and “picked out an island that just suited me. I built thereon a summer cottage and furnished it deluxe. I set up a boathouse and motor launch. I peopled it with summer guests. We spent a whole idyllic summer there.” As usual, “there” resided in her imagination, yet in Muskoka. Her new work-in-progress was not only a book for adults but would be her only one not set in PEI.
Good writers use the material they have, to tell stories they believe need telling. In The Blue Castle, Lucy Maud Montgomery works her magic showing adult paradoxes – how social respectability entraps life, how death can be a miracle worker. Completing her manuscript in Leaskdale, she added the subtitle A Love Story of the North Woods, distinguishing it from her other novels and connecting to enchanting mystical terrain.
Published in 1926 at Toronto by McClelland & Steward, The Blue Castle opened a necessary fresh dimension for Montgomery – grappling with serious adult conundrums and uncannily portraying Muskokans as everywoman and everyman.
As a schoolgirl in Sarnia, Linda Jackson thrilled each afternoon when her Grade 6 teacher read a passage from Anne of Green Gables. She was captivated by Montgomery’s literary universe. In 1990, after she and Jack Hutton married aboard R.M.S. Segwun, they honeymooned on Prince Edward Island “because I wanted to see where Lucy Maud Montgomery lived and wrote and I wanted to see Green Gables.”
Linda “sat with Jack on a long pier, where lobster boats were tied up” and read him Anne of Green Gables. “Jack was hooked. He was losing his male bias about LMM’s writing. Some sort of island spell had captivated him.”
If Muskoka’s mystique captured Montgomery in 1922, Montgomery’s PEI cast its spell over the newlywed Muskokans in 1990. “Lucy Maud Montgomery,” says Linda, “was working in our lives.”
Returning to Bala, the postmaster handed them a general inquiry letter from Mary Rubio, a University of Guelph literature professor, inquiring about Montgomery’s turning-point experience in 1920s Muskoka. They were stunned to learn the author in whose aura they were freshly basking had even been in Bala. Their investigation, aided by supportive and intrigued Rubio, official biographer of L.M. Montgomery, began.
In June 1991, Linda and Jack purchased the building that is now Bala’s Museum. They opened it on July 24, 1992, the 70th anniversary of Montgomery’s arrival in Muskoka. Their museum is centred on Montgomery’s connections with Muskoka, her stay in Bala, and The Blue Castle.
They investigated every angle of Montgomery’s engagement with Muskoka. Their co-authored, richly-illustrated, 68-page book, Lucy Maud Montgomery and Bala – also subtitled “A Love Story of the North Woods” – is a gem of Muskoka heritage. They have written also about their museum’s unique story and contents in many publications dedicated to Montgomery’s life and literary prowess, including The Lucy Maud Montgomery Album, a definitive 531-page 1999 masterwork.
For over three decades, Jack Hutton and Linda Jackson-Hutton have proven in stellar fashion that you do not need to be an institution to curate Muskoka’s unique heritage.