Up the Gatineau! Selected Articles
The following article was first published in Up the Gatineau! Volume 37.
Memories of Meech Lake Summers
by Margaret Coleman
I have had a long love affair with Meech Lake, beginning in early childhood and continuing right up to the present. This beautiful lake in the Gatineau Park, about 25 kilometres from downtown Ottawa, is where I spent some or all of every summer since 1947, with the exception of a year when I was living abroad. At the first sign of spring, we started to count the days until the move up to the cottage after school ended. Not surprisingly, we looked forward less enthusiastically to Labour Day, knowing that it spelled a return to the more structured life of the city.
My earliest memory of the lake dates back to late autumn 1946. My father, Walter Duffett, had found a cottage which interested him, and he wanted my mother, Isabel, to see it. He stayed home one afternoon with my 18-month-old sister, Bar ara, and she took me (aged three) with her to see it. All I really remember is that the cottage was cold and dark, and that a woman offered me cheese on a cracker. We returned to our warm kitchen in Ottawa, where my father was waiting for the verdict. My mother had liked the place, and had been charmed by the seller's claim that while it was cold on that particular day, we would be grateful in the heat of summer for the "heavenly breeze" that came out of the woods in the evening. My parents bought the cottage, we moved in the following spring, and "a heavenly" became part of the family vocabulary.
The cottage, situated about halfway along the road that runs the length of the lake, was a two-storey wooden building, with three bedrooms upstairs and a kitchen extension across the back. The kitchen was a goldmine for mice, which came and went at leisure through cracks in the floor and walls. I can still see my sister picking some cheese out of a mousetrap, with consequences she hadn't anticipated.
In 1952, my parents sold that cottage, and we moved to another one about half a kilometre farther along the road. They were attracted by its long view down the lake, the extra space afforded by a couple of sleeping cabins, and a dug well with a hand pump, which provided excellent water. The one-storey cottage consisted of a main room with other rooms leading out from it. My father derived great pleasure from the well water, and spoke of it fondly as though it were a great wine from a vineyard at "Chateau la Pompe." Others liked it too, and neighbours came with empty bottles to fill.
In the 1940s and 1950s, there were few year-round residents at the lake. Mel Alexander owned a number of log houses around his own home, near the beginning of the lake, and some of them were occupied year-round. Farther along the road, Art and Eve Worden had converted a cottage to a white stucco house which is still standing near the old McCloskey Road, where the National Capital Commission (NCC) now has a boat-launching site. On the hillside, directly above them, Dave and Moiya Wright converted the Wright family cottage to a permanent home in the mid-1950s. Apart from these, all the properties were summer cottages. Most were on the "road side" of the lake, but there were (and are) some cottages on the other side. Those who occupy them park their cars on the road side and cross by boat. Until the arrival of the cell phone, visitors honked their horns in a particular pattern (such as 3 long and 1 short) to "call" for someone to pick them up.
Getting to the lake in the 1950s was a longer process than it is today. We crossed the Chaudière Bridge, and made our way through the streets of Hull (now part of Gatineau). At the edge of town, St-Joseph Boulevard became Highway 11 (now Route 105). We passed a lovely old farm where car dealerships now stand. At the intersection with Old Chelsea Road, we turned west and drove through Old Chelsea and into the Gatineau Park, passing St. Stephen's Church and school, the old town hall and the general store run by Gerry Murphy, who sold wonderful ice cream cones. When we entered the Park, the road became gravel and it was dusty with stretches of "washboard" to watch for. Just before the lake we went by Kincora Farms, with its attractive house and barn, and then we came down a hill and could see the lake. We were almost there! I remember how grown-up I felt, in those pre-seat-belt days, the first time I sat down in the car all the way from Ottawa to the cottage. Barb and I often stood up, sometimes with our arms around our cat who usually sat on the back of the front seat.
Cottages then were simpler than they are today, although life was not necessarily easier. Before the Gatineau Power Company brought in electricity in 1951, we used oil lamps and wood stoves, and we kept our food in ice boxes. We climbed the hill to the outhouse behind the cottage, and we watched out for animals such as porcupines, which were attracted by salt deposited on the wooden seats by warm bottoms. I remember my mother and my widowed grandmother, who spent summers with us, doing the ironing with heavy sad irons heated on the Quebec heater in the living room. The ice box was located outside on the verandah. The ice man came regularly, and with his big tongs, he carried blocks of ice up to the cottage and put them into the ice box. The ice had been cut out from Meech and nearby Kingsmere lakes the previous winter and stored in a large icehouse just inside the Park. In our first summer there, racoons managed to open the ice box door one night, and by morning it was a complete mess. My mother was particularly sorry to lose some bacon, which was still subject to postwar rationing. We kept our old ice boxes for years, but finally donated them for sale at the 2010 Historical Society auction.
Amusements were also simpler. My sister and I and our friends played by the waterfront and mooched around in the woods. There were usually swims morning and afternoon. We had a "hospital" tent on the lawn beside the house and we loved playing doctor, nurse and patient. Once we had learned to read, we spent hours at it. Sometimes my father brought fresh supplies of books from the library in Ottawa, but we also loved to read our comic books with Little Lulu being a particular favourite. And I am amused when I remember games like "egg-toss" that my parents and their friends sometimes played. It involved them holding raw eggs in their hands and tossing them to their spouses, taking a step backwards with each throw, until the egg broke and that couple was disqualified.
With electricity, life became easier. While we cooked with propane, we enjoyed the electric light, we sewed our clothes for fall on an old portable sewing machine, and we eventually got a 5-gallon hot water heater which allowed us to wash dishes without first boiling the water. But the power supply in the early days was unpredictable. I remember how, in the late 1950s, we brought our 14-inch television to the lake for the summer. By then, more people were cooking with electricity, and the farther you were along the road, the weaker the power became around dinnertime when the evening meal was being cooked. The picture on our TV screen, which was small to begin with, became smaller and smaller as demand for electricity increased. We were about two-thirds of the way along the lakeshore, and we used to wonder how much power was left by the time the wire reached the last house on the road.
While most families had water pumps and running water by the 1950s, virtually no-one had a bathtub or a washing machine. At the time it was generally thought that moving water renewed itself, and so, with no concern about putting soap into the lake, many of us bathed and washed our hair there. I don't think my mother washed clothes in the lake, but some people did. And I know of at least one old wood-burning cookstove which went for a ride with a man in a boat out to the middle of the lake and only the man came back. Of course, none of this would be acceptable today.
In the 1950s, most families at Meech Lake moved "up" to the cottage for the summer, and the fathers went to "town" to work. Two-car families were unusual, and so those left at the cottage didn't have access to shops. For many years, Hull City Transport (Transport Urbain de Hull) maintained a recreation centre for its employees at Meech Lake, not far from our original cottage. During the summer they not only transported their employees to it, but they also ran a commuter bus into and back from town every morning and evening. The bus turned at McCloskey Road, a former road, now walking trail, between Meech Lake and Ridge Road, near the present NCC boat-launching site. My father occasionally took the bus into town so that my mother could have the car, and he sometimes car-pooled with a friend. Mothers often swapped babysitting so that they could accomplish more during a day when they had a car than they would have otherwise.
There were, nevertheless, some food deliveries. Clark Dairy brought dairy products, and the Morrison Lamothe Bakery truck came regularly. Baking facilities were limited in many cottages, so a lot of people bought baked goods as well as bread from the driver. In my mind, I can still summon up the taste of a lemon cake which my mother sometimes bought, and ginger cookies were a great favourite. A vegetable truck came along the road, and, in addition, "Old McDonald" (as we called him) grew berries and vegetables up behind his cottage not far from us. The then-elderly Charlie McDonald, whose grandson Steve has converted the cottage to a permanent home, sold his surplus produce to neighbours. I loved the raspberry pies my grandmother made after we had visited the McDonald cottage.
Another convenience for cottagers was home delivery of two newspapers, the Ottawa Citizen and the Ottawa Journal, brought to us by boys who wanted to earn a little pocket money. However, for many years, we didn't have a telephone at the lake. The first telephone I was aware of was in the mid-1950s when a pay phone appeared at McCloskey Road. I remember being allowed to call a friend once, and just as I began, my mother asked me to hang up because Senator John Connolly, who had a cottage on the other side of the lake, needed to use the phone. I complied, but, not knowing about the Senate of Canada, I wondered what the big rush was since the hockey Senators didn't play in the summertime. Shortly after that, we acquired our own phone, on a party line for several years. The phone rang in all the cottages on the line, with individual rings to identify the house being called. Our ring was "one long, one short." We were often aware, from the sound of breathing or the occasional laugh, of other "parties" listening in. Our number was Parkway (PA)7-2297, which later became 827-2297.
There were a lot of boats on the lake in the 1950s. They ran the gamut from the Klotz's beautiful mahogany inboard to sailboats, canoes and rowboats. At first we had a skiff, as well as a much-loved cedar-strip canoe given to my mother by her parents for her 21st birthday. About 1950 we acquired a dinghy, which was fun to row, and we subsequently got a small but noisy Viking (Eaton's brand) motor for it. The boat came with a mast, a sail and a rudder, and it provided much pleasure over the years. That old boat was virtually untippable. The only person who ever succeeded in turning it over was my husband, John, who, many years later, flipped it when a strong gust came up as he was "coming around" in front of a dock full of people in lawn chairs watching him. They applauded.
When we bought the second cottage, a cedar-strip boat came with the property, along with a 10-hp motor, which my father proudly described as sporting a "built-in starter and other modern features." That motor was eventually replaced by a slightly larger one, and with it, children could be pulled on a surfboard or water skis. Many of the motorboats on the lake at the time were fast, and there was much water-skiing, especially on weekend afternoons. John Clifford, a Canadian downhill, cross-country and water-ski champion, had a cottage on the "other" side of the lake. In front of it he had a water-ski jump, and we loved to watch him roar up the slope of the jump and fly through the air before landing smoothly on the water again.
There was a lot of happy but noisy activity on the lake during the week also, with many kids, especially boys, roaring around in boats with small motors on them. Many of the boats were of the flat-bottomed variety, and the boys loved to go round in circles, bouncing over their own wake and making as big a bang as they could in the process. Sea Fleas were even louder. These little boats, precursors of today's Sea-Doos, scooted across the water at high speed and they made an even more satisfying bang as they bounced over waves. My father loathed these noise-makers. I will never forget his look of satisfaction when, one happy day, someone in a Sea Flea, circling in front of our cottage as we ate lunch on the verandah, suddenly hit a wave with such force that the motor flipped off the back of the boat and sank quickly into the deep. The silence was deafening.
Not all was noise, though. There was a fleet of Y-Flyer sailboats on the lake, and on the weekend, there were frequently races involving eight or nine boats. There were also many rowboats and canoes, and small boats for fishermen. People often headed for quiet spots on the far side of the lake to enjoy a picnic. We did this ourselves, initially with our parents, and later with friends. What we called "the old mill," built about 1911 on Meech Creek by local resident and inventor Thomas "Carbide" Willson, was a favourite destination. I remember as a small child sitting in the bottom of the canoe with my sister as we paddled down to a beach where we left the canoe and followed a trail to the mill. There was rarely anyone around, and it was fun clambering around on the rocks, and sitting beside the waterfall enjoying our lunch. The mill had already fallen into ruin at that time. Another favourite area was at the west end of the lake where there were several rocky areas or natural clearings suitable for picnicking.
A happy memory of the period around 1950 is that of the Capucin brothers, out on the lake in the evening, singing hymns in canoes or rowboats. The sound rose up and echoed off the hills and across the water. It was wonderful. The Capucin brothers, a branch of the Franciscan Order, had established a retreat at Meech Lake near where NCC Trail 36 comes out to the water, and in the 1950s, at least, they also had a summer camp for boys. I remember the boys jumping off the dock and diving tower in their black wool bathing suits with the tops which came up over their shoulders. In the mid-1950s, the Capucins built a new log chapel beside the lakeshore, and from that time on, a memorable feature of Sunday mornings was the sound of Roman Catholic cottagers revving up their motorboats for the run to the chapel for mass.
One of the highlights of the season was the regatta held at the summer home of Dr. Joseph Gilhooley. At the time, there were no public beaches at the lake where events like this could be held, and he allowed the Meech Lake community to use his boathouse, diving board and swimming area for races and competitions, and his large and beautifully maintained lawn for yet more races and other activities. (The house, originally built by "Carbide" Willson, is now known as Willson House, a government conference centre.) People brought picnics, prizes were given out, and "a good time was had by all." The first race I remember participating in was the "armpit race" for the smallest children. The children walked into the water until they were in up to their armpits, and then ran back to shore. The first one on the beach won. I remember my parents' amusement at the rowing race for women in flatbottomed boats, because in those pre-politically correct days, it was known as the "flat-bottomed ladies' race." The last race I took part in was when I was about 16, and it was a swim from the Worden's dock to the other side of the lake and back. Much to my mother's embarrassment, I waited while everyone else had started off vigorously doing the crawl, and once no-one was kicking water into my face any more, I set out like a dignified old lady doing the breast stroke. However, it was the story of the hare and the tortoise: by the time we got back to the starting point, many swimmers had collapsed or slowed right down, and I kept right on going in my sedate way and won the race, at least for the girls. I think it was the only time I ever won a swimming race.
Thought of the regatta brings to mind a sad event in 1949 which would not have happened even a decade later. One of the kids playing around at the regatta was 12-year-old Christopher Klotz. Within a very few days, he had become ill with polio and died. I don't actually remember him, but I do recall the sympathy for the Klotz family, and the terror of other parents that polio, which was thought to be water-borne, would spread to other children who had been at the regatta that day.
Much has now changed at Meech Lake since those days in the 1940s and 1950s. Beginning in the 1960s, the NCC bought many cottages when they came up for sale, and demolished them. The result is that there are now fewer occupied properties along the lake. Mel Alexander's "community" has disappeared, although the Worden and Wright houses still stand, and are now occupied by new families. Most houses are now year-round dwellings, some occupied by people like me, with deep roots here.
There are far fewer motor boats on the lake, and the Y-flyer enthusiasts have moved to other pursuits. All that remains of the Capucin retreat is the Chapel. Regattas are a thing of the past and so is polio, at least in our part of the world. My mother's canoe was stolen in 1997; the new fibreglass one has never felt quite the same. The NCC has established a public boat-launching site, and visitors to the lake now put in their canoes and kayaks and other selfpropelled craft all summer long. Thanks to the establishment of this and the O'Brien and Blanchet beaches, non-residents are able to enjoy the beauties of the lake, which wasn't the case in the 1950s. Autoroute 5 has considerably reduced the commute time to Ottawa or Gatineau. And as for our cottages, the first one was converted to a house about a decade ago, and the second one, which had been built in 1918, was on its last legs by the 1990s. In 1997, after my father had died and my mother was no longer able to go there, my husband, John, and I demolished the cottage and built the house where we have lived ever since.
Much, however, remains the same. The deer and the racoons still visit regularly. Large numbers of people continue to enjoy summer at the lake for the walking and hiking, the swimming and boating, and the pleasure of poking around in the quiet bays where heron and beaver and other wild creatures can often be seen. Our three children, who also grew up here, love to come with their families. We still have several old oil lamps around the house and they are still useful when a tree falls on an electric line and knocks out the power. And, last but not least, the "heavenlies" really do come out of the woods on hot summer evenings, and we continue to delight in them.