Manitowaning: Beach, marina and heritage hotspots highlight historic town

In Manitowaning’s Heritage Park and Marina, the beach is popular with residents of Manitowaning, Wiikwemkoong and farther afield. photo by Isobel Harry

by Isobel Harry

The beach in the village of Manitowaning, nestled on the southwestern side of Manitowaning Bay in the eastern Township of Assiginack, is a sprawling expanse of sand on a picturesque coastline that is steeped in history. All around this immense bay, over to the peninsula of Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory in the east, resonate the stories of the determining treaties, signed on these shores by the Anishinaabek and the British Crown almost 200 years ago, of the legends of an underwater ‘den of the Great Spirit,’ or ‘Manitowaning’ in Ojibwe, of the formidable efforts to settle the land.

To visit the town of Manitowaning is a multifaceted cultural experience that brings to life the struggles of settlement in this area. Preceding or following a trip to the beach, a stop in at the Assiginack Museum on Arthur Street and a look around interesting landmarks will paint a complex and fascinating historical panorama. 

Outside the museum stands a plaque commemorating the Manitowaning Treaty of 1836; it affirmed possession of Manitoulin Island by the Anishinaabek of the Island and the north shore of Lake Huron, under the control of the British Crown. In 1838, Manitowaning became the administrative centre of the government’s “Indian Department” and an Anglican mission, both dedicated to the “Europeanization” of the native population, Known as the Manitowaning Experiment, the settlement ultimately failed, 

When the 1862 Manitoulin Treaty was signed, it reversed the Manitowaning Treaty pledges of 1836, opened the Island to non-Indigenous settlers, and Manitowaning began to change.

The town plot was surveyed, lots sold and by 1879 (when this newspaper was founded and began publication here), there were three churches, a wharf, two hotels, trades, mills, residences, five general stores and many other businesses. 

The Assiginack Museum, in a former jail and jailer’s home, is itself a brimful treasure box of artifacts from this prosperous period, from collections of ornate porcelain, china and glassware, children’s toys, model boats and taxidermy to a leafy heritage park set with picnic tables among period log cabins. A modern facility for archival research is open year-round.

The Historic Walking Tour map of the village (free at the museum’s reception desk) guides a stroll through sites of homes, mills and businesses that flourished then, to the oldest existing Anglican church in Northern Ontario, built in 1845, and the lighthouse, still in use since 1886.

Located close to the beach in Manitowaning’s Heritage Park and Marina, the Manitoulin Roller and Burns’ Wharf warehouse were built in the 1880s, and the ‘Norisle,’ a steam-powered ferry built in 1946, carried passengers and cars between Tobermory and South Baymouth until 1974. photo by Isobel Harry

The old Mastin’s Store (1893) on Queen Street is now the renowned Wiikwemkoong-based Debajehmujig Theatre and Creation Centre (debaj.ca). Despite currently undergoing some building renovations on streetside, Debaj is offering guided one-hour walking tours of Manitowaning from the Creation Centre, Monday to Friday at 1 and 2:30 pm. To book your tour, call 705-859-1820 or email storytellers@debaj.ca. 

Across the street, in the pleasant green space known as Queen’s Park adjacent to the old Anglican church, it’s a pleasure to meet women’s rights activist and Order of Canada recipient Jeannette Corbiere Lavell hosting a family birdhouse painting afternoon for several of her “grands” at one of the picnic tables.

Don’t forget to bring your bathing suit as history continues on down to the beach. Drive, walk or bike down Queen Street toward the water and Bay Street, where stand the imposing frame structures of the Manitoulin Roller Mills (one of the finest examples remaining in Ontario) and the Burns’ Wharf warehouse (both built in the 1880s), sided by the Norisle, a steam-powered ferry built in 1946 that carried passengers and cars between Tobermory and South Baymouth until 1974, when the Chi-Cheemaun began her tenure of that run.

Now we’ve reached the Manitowaning Heritage Park and Marina, and the beach, richly deserved after touring through time. There’s ample parking and a bike rack and the beach is spacious and sandy; all along the beach locals from Wiikwemkoong, Manitowaning and further afield chat at several picnic tables; a long dock sees swan dives and cannonballs expertly executed off the boards; kids dig a hole atop a big hill of sand. On the far side is a sandy playground and a gazebo with more picnic tables, and by that side of the dock is a cordoned-off section of water for shallow bathers. 

There’s a sense of community here, even while minding COVID rules. All those natural elements at play—the sun, the sand, the water—have a universal relaxing effect. With all the usual, hotly anticipated events that Manitowaning is known for being canceled for the second year running due to the pandemic, this beach stands in for all that is most welcoming and neighbourly about this Island, 

In Manitowaning’s Queen’s Park, Jeannette Corbiere Lavell, centre, hosts a birdhouse painting afternoon for her “grands.” From right of centre is grand-niece Shayla, granddaughters River, Brianna and Eva, and grand-nephew Brett.  photo by Isobel Harry

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Facilities and services in Manitowaning include a bank, grocery store, pharmacy, arena and fairgrounds, marina, golf course and restaurant, gas, post office, library, auto and marine sales and services, LCBO outlet, motel and Loco Beanz Coffee House for “breakfast, lunch and baking.” Looks like the rummage sale at Knox United Church on Napier Street is running almost every day, for those whose mantra is, “You never know!”

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Shelley J. Pearen’s ‘Four Voices: The Great Manitoulin Island Treaty of 1862’ is available from The Expositor bookstore.