The log homes of Kawartha Lakes
Just in Time local history series
Nearly 150 years have passed since my great-great grandparents, Lauchlin and Isabel McQuarrie, put the finishing touches on their log house north of Argyle. Newly married, they were undoubtedly supported in the project by Lauchlin’s parents, James and Catherine, who – like other Scottish settlers in Eldon Township – had constructed a smaller log house of their own some two decades before.
The McQuarries’ new storey-and-a-half log house sported a main room that measured about 600 square feet and incorporated a kitchen, dining room, and sitting area. A pair of bedrooms measuring a little over 200 square feet rounded out the first floor; two more rooms were located upstairs. “Heating was [done] by a big cook stove in the kitchen,” recalled the late Kenneth McQuarrie, one of my grandfather’s cousins. “They later built a summer kitchen on the back of the house, but it was only used in the warmer weather,” Kenneth observed in his recollections.
As of 1894, Lauchlin and Isabel McQuarrie’s house was home to a family of ten – including eight children ranging in age from infancy to 19 years old. It may well have been overcrowded, yet according to Kenneth there was always plenty of room. By 1918, the family had moved into a comfortable red brick house, and in 1937 the venerable old log house was removed to another part of Victoria County.
Log homes such as those built by my great-great grandparents are often portrayed in art, film, and folklore as being quaint and rustic. The sight of smoke curling out of a log cabin’s chimney in a snowy clearing brings to mind memories of Christmases past, of cozier, simpler times spent by the hearth.
Yet log houses also reflected the challenges faced by those who toiled to build them. Foremost among these were the dangerous conditions and construction techniques involved in putting them up. Trees had to be felled, logs squared, cut to appropriate lengths, and moved into position. Notches were cut into logs, which in turn were arranged on top of one another – all by hand. Injury or even death could result from a wayward log or from a tool that was used carelessly.
Nevertheless, building a log house also built up a spirit of community. “It was in the year 1843 that the late Charles McPhadden came to Mariposa and took up about 200 acres of land about two miles south of Manilla,” noted a story in the July 13, 1925 edition of the Lindsay Daily Post. “The neighbours who came to help put up the log buildings came over the rough roads or in lumber wagons, or walked along the trails through the woods.” Many months could pass before a log house was completed, so the assistance of extended family, friends, and neighbours hastened a lengthy, labourious process.
Despite the blood, sweat, and tears that went into construction, those who lived in log houses often retained fond memories of their experiences. The late Ester Campbell spoke warmly of her family’s Cameron-area log house in a 1963 letter to the editor of the Watchman Warder: even after her family had moved away and the place stood vacant, Campbell recalled that “…we had to go and see ‘the old house’ – it never lost its charm for those who loved it!”
While most log houses were variations on the same basic plan, a few stood out for their size and grandeur. The most notable example in Kawartha Lakes is surely that built around 1838 for James Dunsford and his family on the north shore of Sturgeon Lake. This two-storey log manor house, known as “The Beehive,” boasted some twelve rooms (including an entrance hall) as well as four fireplaces, and is today the centrepiece of Eganridge Resort, Golf Club & Spa.
Though the art of building log homes never completely died away, those we associate with 19th century European settlement eventually gave way to larger, more permanent structures built of brick, frame, or stone. The log house of yore became an historical curiosity.
Indeed, by the 1960s, surviving log houses had become sought-after commodities – either for display at fledgling community museums, or to incorporate into educational programming at other venues. In 1967, a 150 year-old log house built by William Tough on Lot 24, Concession 7 in Eldon Township was dismantled and moved to the Greenland Road Public School in North York for use in teaching Canadian history classes. Closer to home, the Victoria County Historical Society spent over a decade in search of a suitable log house for their museum (which was then located west of Lindsay), and in 1976 acquired the Muir house, which had been built 108 years earlier in Digby Township. This building was subsequently relocated to Bobcaygeon’s Kawartha Settlers’ Village in 2002.
It’s hard to say for sure just how many log houses survive in this municipality. Nearly 20 examples were documented by the Lindsay Public Library in 1977, and half a dozen can be explored at Kawartha Settlers’ Village. Still others are concealed beneath a veneer of aluminum or vinyl siding; large, low windows, low-to-medium roof pitches, and the absence of windows in gables offer subtle hints of log construction – and of the cozy memories these beautiful old buildings hold for so many.