History Day in Kagawong celebrates Lake Huron’s past to packed houses

Authors Cris Kohl, left, and Joan Forsberg spoke about numerous adventures while on the hunt for shipwrecks all over Georgian Bay. As they shared their seafaring tales, they displayed video footage and photographs of past expeditions deep beneath the blue waters of Lake Huron. (2019 Kagawong History Day) photo by Warren Schlote

KAGAWONG – There was a lot to cover at this year’s History Day in Kagawong event which saw packed houses for both the afternoon and evening sessions featuring three presentations about local history.

Authors Joan Forsberg and Cris Kohl began the event with their discussion of past, present and even possible future shipwreck discoveries in the Great Lakes. They also announced and unveiled their newest book, ‘Shipwreck Tales of Georgian Bay,’ with this gathering serving as the first stop on their book tour.

“You can see history at the bottom of these lakes. We have the best-preserved shipwrecks here,” said Mr. Kohl. “It’s like an ice-water museum.”

They shared how Georgian Bay has been referred to as the sixth Great Lake and that  it was, in fact, called Lake Iroquois as recently as an 1846 map. They also referred to the ongoing search for La Salle’s ‘Le Griffon’ which was the subject of a Discovery Channel episode of Expedition Unknown that featured Ms. Forsberg and Mr. Kohl. The two estimated that only half of the shipwrecks in the Great Lakes have ever been discovered.

They spoke next to footage of past dives and indicated that they had several promising clues for the as-yet undiscovered wreck of the ‘Asia.’

“It’s one of the most hunted shipwrecks in the Great Lakes and certainly the most in Georgian Bay. Everybody wants to be the one who finds it,” said Ms. Forsberg.

Next up, Harbour Island’s new owner Rob Chandler shared his plans for the deteriorated resort in the North Channel which had been a popular spot for the rich and famous through history.

He described how his childhood cemented his love for the water. At age 14 he found himself strolling the shores of Harbour Island and, little did he know until many years later, his grandparents Grant and Elizabeth Rogers were the original owners of the property.

In his 20s, Mr. Chandler learned of maternal family history on Manitoulin Island and their past ownership of the property. However, he recalls his grandfather had passed on before he learned of the history and was unable to ask him any questions about the island.

It was nearly 75 years to the day of Mr. Rogers’ original purchase of the island that Mr. Chandler signed his own offer to purchase the island. Mr. Chandler travelled from Tennessee and went out on the water in late November to see the property in its current state. Despite the decay, he still described it as his paradise.

“Some say I purchased a mound of rotting buildings and poison ivy for far too much money. I say I purchased a piece of my heritage back at a bargain. I purchased the buildings that contain the wood and the nails that my grandfather and great grandfather helped fashion into what would become a colorful piece of Canadian history,” said Mr. Chandler.

Now, Emmett ‘Sonny’ Woods and Mr. Chandler, friends through Masonry, have partnered on these plans. They will donate the roughly 10 acres of Harbour Island containing the resort buildings and marina to their charity. They will form a non-profit with the aim of restoring the resort as close as possible to its original condition through merchandising, donations, loans and grants.

Their intent is to run the resort primarily as an off-grid youth camp for those who struggle to find their way; create a sort of ‘living museum’ for boaters, families and groups; offer the site as a counselling location for those afflicted with PTSD, drug and alcohol abuse and grief; raise money for Shriners Hospitals and other charities; and teach survival skills alongside Indigenous culture and the history of bonds and friendships with neighbours.

Mr. Chandler said his wife’s loss of her daughter when she was two years old was a major motivation to make a change.

“I’ve seen first-hand how people carry (grief). If we can do some good, that’s all I can hope,” he said. 

Mr. Chandler and Mr. Woods plan to not sit on the board and not draw any salary. They are seeking people to serve on the board of directors and welcome inquiries from those looking to help out. He is seeking to raise $500,000 and attract people with experience in securing public funding who may be able to help locate money for the project.

“It is our intention to establish a trust to ensure this gem of the Great Lakes continues to provide safe harbour long after our time on Earth is done,” said Mr. Chandler.

Finally, Old Mill Heritage Centre curator Rick Nelson spoke about the progress made by the museum to celebrate its 10th anniversary. He presented a slideshow of major milestones in its history such as the relocation and rehabilitation of the post office museum, special exhibits, historic events and barbecue fundraisers—both summer and winter. 

The museum will be throwing an anniversary barbecue on August 24 from 11 am to 3 pm at the pavilion to “give back some appreciation for keeping history alive here in Billings Township.”

Mr. Nelson said he was happy with the turnout. Close to 300 people attended the day’s sessions, the topics of which were chosen due to their relevance in the community.

“Harbour Island was just purchased and Rob has a lot of plans for it, so we thought we might help out with sharing those plans in a presentation,” he said.

The museum’s focus at the moment is trying to acquire a new exhibit from Ottawa about shipwrecks. Mr. Nelson said he was looking forward to finding out whether they would be able to secure it.