SHEGUIANDAH—It was never in the plans of the new owners of Sheguiandah’s Whitehaven Cottages, Matt and Laurie (Strain) Stillwaugh, to operate a tourist resort, but your past has a habit of coming to define your future—and that often proves to be a good thing.
“I spent 18 years trying to get off the Rock,” said Mr. Stillwaugh, “and the rest of the time trying to get back.” Mr. Stillwaugh’s parents, Eric and Liz Stillwaugh, operated Huron Motor Lodge during those early 18 years and Mr. Stillwaugh’s wife Laurie grew up on her parent’s resort, Bill and Linda Strain’s operation of Whitehaven Cottages.
The couple followed their own path, Mr. Stillwaugh founding Lively’s Matt’s Plumbing 13 years ago and Ms. Stillwaugh becoming a specialized radiotherapy technician in the battle against cancer.
“We both like to stay busy all the time,” said Ms. Stillwaugh. “That’s why we still live in Lively, to stay close to our 9 to 5 jobs.” Mr. Stillwaugh’s business has been quite successfully built up over the past decade and Ms. Stillwaugh’s specialized skills need to be plied in a major health facility.
But the couple has never escaped the draw of the Island and the tourist hospitality industry—you could say it is in their blood.
“We both grew up in the industry,” said Ms. Stillwaugh. “It really is a part of who we are.”
“When the opportunity came up to buy Whitehaven Cottages, it really was a great fit,” agreed Mr. Stillwaugh. “It is a great investment and we have wonderful staff that help make it possible. The plan is to keep working and to let the resort pay for itself and eventually retire here.”
So it’s work-a-day through the winter and summer weekdays, with vacations and summer weekends spent at Whitehaven—a schedule that really fits in with both of their personalities.
“Matt is such a social guy,” said Ms. Stillwaugh. “He really likes to cook for the camp at the weekly barbecue. I have always looked forward to our summer family arriving every year.”
Family is pretty much at the core of what defines the Whitehaven Cottages experience.
Not only are the Stillwaughs taking over from Laurie’s parents, but her parents in turn had taken over from Bill Strain’s parents.
“My father started the business when he built the first cottage for the quarry manager,” recalled Mr. Strain. “Then someone else at the quarry wanted one, pretty soon there was a whole little village going on here.” So successful was what was then primarily a fishing resort, that the elder Mr. Strain eventually sold his trucking business that had serviced the quarry to take on the resort as a full-time occupation. The rest is family history—and that family is quite extended.
“We often have people dropping by to visit who spent their summers as a child here,” said Ms. Strain. “There was one fellow who came by and was talking to me, telling me about some of the great memories he had here as a child.” When he eventually realized who she was, the visitor began to tear up. “He said there were so many memories of when he came here as a teenager,” said Ms. Strain.
“We have a lot of people from Ohio who come here,” said Mr. Strain. “These days there are a lot of their children who are calling to book here now too,” agreed his daughter. “This is where their summer dreams were made.”
Bill Strain worked through his career as a teacher and settled into running the resort in his turn.
“This is a transition year,” said Ms. Stillwaugh. “Dad and mom are staying around to help us get things set up, but next year they will be moving up the road to Bass Lake.”
The resort has evolved somewhat since the days Mr. Strain’s parents ran the operation. In those days Whitehaven Cottages was, like many resorts on Manitoulin, primarily a fishing camp. “Today, it is more of a 50/50 mix,” said Ms. Stillwaugh. “About half the people still come to fish, but the other half are just looking for a great place to relax and unwind.”
The Stillwaughs have quite a legend to live up to, but as the third generation to take over the helm the future looks to be in great hands. The handover was symbolically celebrated this weekend with the passing of the camp banner from Bill and Linda Strain to Matt and Laurie Stillwaugh, custodians of yet another generation’s summer dreams.