Kagawong celebrates annual History Day

This year’s Kagawong History Days included live music performances, mainly by Lyle and Darrel Dewar, but including a number of guests. photo by Warren Schlote

KAGAWONG—It was standing room only in the Kagawong Park Centre last Wednesday, August 9 as local residents and descendants of the town’s founders came together to read old letters, sing songs, share stories and remember bygone days.

“There’s so many great stories,” said Rick Nelson, curator of the Old Mill Heritage Centre Museum in Kagawong, which organized the event. “It’s rich in history—veterans, pioneers, we have it all here.”

Miranda MacKay hosted the first half of the event, dedicated to Kagawong’s early settler history. She is working at the museum as a summer student and organizing the event was part of her duties.

“I have lived in Kagawong all my life and I was familiar with the history, so it made sense for a summer job,” she said.

The settler history portion of the event started with a brief introduction by Marcel Beneteau. He told of the first settlers and their log cabin on Lake Kagawong, describing the mood of a cold winter’s night in rich detail.

“We can imagine him picking up his concertina and entertaining his family with a few tunes,” he said. As he finished that sentence, Mr. Beneteau picked up his own concertina and treated the audience to a French song.

After that opening performance, Ms. MacKay returned to the stage for a brief overview of the Henry family’s presence on the Island. The Henry brothers, Robert and William, founded the town of Kagawong and opened a mill at the top of Bridal Veil Falls. She also described how they built a church which was intended for Methodist use only; however, since it was the only church in the area, many members of other faiths worshipped in the space as well.

Ms. MacKay gave an overview of the ferry trip from Owen Sound to Manitowaning which proved to be fatal for both Robert and William Henry. On May 18, 1882, Robert was travelling on the S.S. Manitoulin, when the engine room caught fire. Robert jumped overboard to help the other passengers, but died in the water.

Less than a year later, his brother was making the same trip aboard the S.S. Asia. It got caught up in a major storm, capsized and sank. Only two people aboard the vessel survived. William’s body washed ashore near Parry Sound.

The loss of both ships was not entirely in vain, however. The growing number of wrecks fostered new regulations that required an adequate amount of lifeboats. The waterways were also re-charted to ensure safer passage.

George Stewart Henry, the son of William Henry and his wife Louisa Stewart, went on to become Premier of Ontario between 1930 and 1934.

The next speaker was Catherine Henry MacRae, William Henry’s great, great granddaughter. She read from a letter written by George S. Henry.

“I remember playing on the chute that brought wood to the mill,” he wrote. The letter offered some more context into why his uncle Rob drowned in the wreck.

“My uncle was a strong swimmer and jumped into the water to save other passengers, but drowned.”

Now, roughly 15 minutes into the presentation, the focus shifted towards early pioneer life in Kagawong.

“We are fortunate to have descendants of these settlers here to tell some stories,” said Ms. MacKay.

Peter Gordon was the first individual to speak on this topic.

“For miles around in every direction, little houses were starting to emerge in the woods,” he said. Mr. Gordon also outlined some of the furnishings within the houses, a very simple set of a kitchen table and chairs, and a stove. Those without stoves had a large fireplace to heat their homes.

He also mentioned the process of producing basic necessity items for the settler families.

“For many years, the farmers’ wives made their own clothes, often by candlelight.”

Mr. Gordon said despite the massive amounts of work, the early settlers still took time to gather and socialize with friends and neighbours. That set up a nice segue into a performance by Lyle and Darrel Dewar, who provided music that incorporated piano, fiddle, mandolin and vocal elements.

Ethel Newburn, a descendant of the Foster family, spoke next. She described the ferry trip between Collingwood and Kagawong on the Northern Belle, now a port in its own right.

“The boat fare was three dollars,” she said—a clear indicator of the time period considering the mode of travel, destinations and fare.

New settlers could not dawdle on beginning their new lives, as winter was always fast approaching.

“They wasted no time and put in what crop they could,” said Ms. Newburn.

The next speaker was Don Lloyd, whose great grandfather Moses Lloyd was among the first to arrive in Kagawong in 1879. They arrived on the Northern Belle and had no permanent place to stay. Their family resided in the Kagawong boarding house until their father had finished building their house.

Some things have not changed in the nearly 140 years since the Lloyd family arrived: “The mosquitoes and blackflies were something terrible!”

Mr. Lloyd said in the fall of 1879, an epidemic of diphtheria hit Kagawong and many children died. Come winter, temperatures were often 40 to 50 below.

“There was one thing the women always did, but men took credit: They always got the schoolhouses and churches built,” said Mr. Lloyd.

Following that remark about the churches, the Dewars led the room in a sing-along version of the hymn ‘How Great Thou Art.’

Next up was Candy Tracy, whose ancestors ran the Havelock Hotel in the late 1800s. She said there were members of her family on the S.S. Manitoulin as it burned, and wondered if Robert Henry helped save their lives. They lost all of their possessions in the incident, but the community helped them.

“Neighbours took them in and kept them alive that first year,” she told The Expositor after her presentation.

Billings became known as a musical community, as many of the older people living in the area were talented musicians who loved to dance. There were many house parties and sleigh rides in the winter which, as Ms. Tracy said, “were the start of many romances.”

The Dewars treated the room to a square dance, followed by a rendition of ‘My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean.’ Following this final performance was an intermission. Visitors were welcome to sample blueberry biscuits, a traditional settler treat that museum board members prepared for the event.

As the programming pressed on, Mr. Nelson took over the presenting duties as he explored the Dodge family story.

Daniel Dodge was only three when his father John Dodge died in 1920. John was co-founder of the Dodge Motor Company. Daniel’s mother Matilda worked in the Dodge office and raised three children: Daniel, Frances and a daughter who died at only three years of age.

“Daniel Dodge spent his summers up here on Manitoulin in a place known as the Dodge Lodge,” said Mr. Nelson. It was on Manitoulin that he met Laurine MacDonald, local telephone operator and daughter of a tugboat captain. Her house used to stand where the Gore Bay public library now is.

She was considered a lower-class individual compared to the mass wealth of the Dodge family, and Daniel’s family did not approve of the marriage. Out of spite, they refused to put together much of a wedding. By contrast, Frances was treated to an opulent wedding, complete with musical performances by the Tommy Dorsey Band and Frank Sinatra.

Not to be deterred, Daniel and Laurine were married on August 3, 1938, and had their honeymoon on Manitoulin. However, only 13 days into their marriage, Daniel died.

He had found a stick of dynamite and was playing with it in the garage. He lit the fuse which burned much quicker than he expected, and it exploded. Daniel, Laurine and caretakers Frank Valiquette and Lloyd Bryant were hurt. They decided to seek doctor assistance in Little Current. The fastest route to get to Little Current was by boat, so the four jumped into Daniel’s beloved speedboat and set off. “Daniel had burns, a fractured skull and his arms were ripped from his body,” said Mr. Nelson.

Laurine began driving the boat with her broken arm, but gave up halfway there. The others in the boat tried to help, including Daniel, who tried to get to the front of the boat. While he was moving, he fell overboard and could not be rescued. His body was found three weeks later after an exhaustive search that almost included a submarine.

On August 26, Laurine made a statement to the coroner, 10 days into her stay at the Mindemoya hospital. A man entered with the coroner, who posed as the coroner’s lawyer. However, that man was a Toronto Star reporter who had bribed the coroner to let him get an inside scoop on the story, which was largely hushed. The coroner was later fired.

In the first week of September, Daniel’s body was found and loaded in the Dodge’s float plane for a final trip to Detroit. Laurine faced a number of troubles during the settlement because of the Dodge family’s distaste towards her. She ended up getting $2.5 million in the end.

After Daniel’s passing, Laurine went to school in St. Thomas. She was a golfer, traveller and a favourite subject of paparazzi. She married a plastic surgeon who was cruel, physically and psychologically abusive. Later, she remarried to an army captain named John Van Etten. That was a happier marriage that lasted for over 50 years, until Laurine’s death in 2003. John died a week later, “probably of a broken heart,” said Mr. Nelson.

Laurine had sold the Dodge Lodge in 1951, and the current owners are the Schwarzli family, the owners of the Beaver vending machine company.

A special guest in attendance was Roger Weber, a former reporter with NBC’s Detroit affiliate WDIV. He made a report on the Canadian side of the Dodge story, and started off his presentation with a light comment.

“I want to say first of all, in all my years as a reporter, I’ve never employed the tactics of that Star reporter,” said Mr. Weber.

He showed the report he had made on the Dodge tragedy that, at four minutes in length, is considered quite long for television news. In his retirement, Mr. Weber runs a podcast called Mismatch, in which he explores things that “don’t always fit together neatly.”

With that, the event had finished and Mr. Nelson thanked everyone for attending. He also gave a special mention to Brad MacKay who ran the sound board. He is a volunteer firefighter and Mr. Nelson said he was very worried that he would have had to leave during the show.

Mr. Nelson said he was happy with how the event turned out.

“I’m very proud of my presenters. They did a fantastic job,” he said.