By Sarah Ryeland
Back in the 1940s and ‘50s, the summer season in Port Carling was just a busy as it is today. Filled with tourists, local residents and summer workers, the “Hub of the Lakes” was buzzing with life – particularly at night.
The place to be after dark was the 21 Club. An all-ages nightclub that featured bands playing the most popular music of the day, the club was open every night during the summer and offered the best dancing in town.
“It wasn’t fancy,” says Janet Ranney, a Torontonian who spent two weeks in Port Carling in the late 1940s. “You could show up in a t-shirt and slacks. It was very informal, but I thought it was wonderful. We went there every night.”
Ranney and her friends stayed at a nearby resort, walking over to the club every evening.
“The boys in the band were from Toronto,” she remembers. “We made friends with them. I have such fond memories of the place.”
Ranney says the club was busy every night of the week. While she and her friends were just there to dance, some club-goers had other things in mind.
“That was back in my young days, when I was chasing girls,” laughs Milford Bay resident, Carl Clarke.
Clarke and his friends would go to the Port Carling hotspot every summer, usually on Saturday nights. While guys and gals would arrive separately, the hope was that they’d leave in pairs.
And that’s not even the juiciest part.
Port Carling was considered a “dry” town back in the 1940s, with no liquor stores. The club itself had a snack bar, but didn’t sell alcoholic beverages, so Clarke and his friends improvised.
“We’d smuggle mickeys in under the table in brown paper bags,” he laughs. “Everybody was doing it. It was no big secret.”
It might have been common practice for some, but Ranney says she was completely oblivious.
“We just had snacks,” she insists. “People might have been sneaking in alcohol, but I was probably too naïve to notice.”
Booze or no booze, a good time was had by all. Popular bands of the day would set up at the 21 Club and play until the wee hours of the morning, delighting dancers with music from the big band era.
“They would play popular songs from the radio,” says Ranney. “That was before Rock and Roll.”
Ranney never returned to the club after her summer trip to Port Carling, but Clarke and his friends frequented the club until the early ‘50s. Eventually, people started getting married, or taking off for the big city like Clarke, and the group stopped partying at the Port Carling hotspot.
In 1953 the club’s roof collapsed, leading to the sale of the building. The space was used to store boats before finally being torn down in 1984.
Although the club has become a distant memory, it’s a lovely one. Both Ranney and Clarke remember their nights at the 21 Club fondly, and are glad to have spent their youthful summer evenings at one of Muskoka’s most beloved haunts.