By Andrew Hind and Maria Da Silva
“Seldom has our eye lit upon a lovelier scene, and never, to our mind, has Nature made a more effective use of her materials. Sky, and land, and water, here all combine to make a perfect picture, the effect of which, particularly when the woods are ablaze with the colouring of a Canadian autumn, is almost indescribable.”
That’s how George Munro described the scene upon arriving at Windermere in October of 1882.
The passage of 130 years has done little to dull the appeal. Whether you’re relaxing on a veranda, gazing out upon the gentle soothing waters of Lake Rosseau, or taking a stroll along a country road, surrounded by a painter’s palette of brilliant reds, oranges and yellows, October in Muskoka is still a time of unsurpassed beauty and surprising peacefulness.
Since the 19th century when Munro visited, Windermere House’s distinctive white siding, twin towers, and candy-striped awnings have come to symbolize the luxury of Muskoka. With the summer crowds having departed, Windermere House and its surrounding village are shrouded with serenity, and the brilliant foliage evokes the peace and tranquility for which the resort has long been known. It’s the perfect time to head over and visit, to walk about the quaint village and take the time to appreciate the history. The buzz of boats speeding by on the lakes has died down and the throngs of tourists have departed, allowing you to hear whispered secrets from Windermere’s past carried on the crisp autumn breeze.
Windermere House is among the most historic resorts in Cottage Country, boasting a proud heritage that dates back to the early days of Muskoka settlement.
Thomas Aitken was twenty-eight years old when he arrived in Muskoka in 1860, lured by the much-advertised free land being given away under the Free Grants and Homestead Act. When he claimed his two-hundred-acre bush lot he couldn’t possibly know that he would one day found a Muskoka icon, a summer hotel that came to epitomize the best qualities of a wilderness resort. At the time of his arrival, all he wanted was a fresh start. Clearing the forested land and turning it into a farm represented a task in which he could lose himself in order to forget the grief that hounded him. Just a year prior, Aitken’s beloved wife had died in childbirth along with the baby she carried. Fleeing his suffering, the young widower left Scotland and headed for Canada.
Around 1872, Aitken discovered he could make money by taking guests into his home for a few nights at a time. A little over a decade and several additions later, his home had become Windermere House. By 1902, the hotel had doubled in size and boasted the two towers and shaded porch that came to symbolize the property. The hotel could accommodate 220 guests, who spent their leisure hours in quiet pursuits such as croquet, tennis, or lawn bowling, or engaged in a game of checkers or dominoes. Boating was popular as well, since the beautiful waters of Lake Rosseau were one of the chief attractions that lured tourists to Muskoka. In keeping with etiquette appropriate to the upper-class society to whom the resort catered, “drinking parties, carousing, and objectionable noise” were forbidden.
Thomas Aitken died on December 23, 1919. He was an old man who had lived a remarkably full life, rising from a humble background to establish one of Muskoka’s iconic resorts. After Thomas’ death, his son Leslie took over, and in time he too passed it on, to his daughter Mary Elizabeth. In 1981, after a century in the Aitken family, Windermere House was sold.
The Windermere House of today retains the exterior appearance of the original building, as well as much of its charm. In fact, it looks so much like the original that many guests forget it’s an entirely new building, painstakingly rebuilt after a devastating fire during the 1996 filming of the movie A Long Kiss Goodnight.
“The evening of February 26 was miserably cold, with freezing rain. It was just after 11 p.m. when someone noticed the hotel was on fire. It spread so fast no one could really do anything about it. I remember watching the first tower fall and about an hour later the second tower falling and I knew there was no way to save the hotel,” recalls Jeff Brown, who worked at Windermere House for over twenty years before retiring in 2010. “It wasn’t until 5 o’clock the next morning that the fire stopped burning. By this point, the only things remaining were the veranda’s stone pillars. The fire had burned so hot that it disintegrated every porcelain sink and toilet in the building.”
Though Windermere House today is newly built, some links to the past remain within it. Workers discovered hundreds of square-headed nails that date back to when Windermere House was built. These nails have been hammered back into the new building. In addition, a piece of timber salvaged from the sunroom window has been fashioned into a time capsule that contains a selection of letters, photos, and newspaper clippings from the hotel’s past, intended to be opened in 2096, one hundred years after the new Windermere House was built.
In addition, there are believed to be spiritual links, in the form of spectral inhabitants, between the old building and the new. Many believe Thomas Aitken remains behind, lording over the hotel he built. He may be responsible for rocking chairs that creek back and forth on the veranda even when there is no wind, for phone calls coming through to the front desk from the no longer existing third floor, and for footsteps heard echoing down empty halls at night.
“We had reports of things being moved around rooms at night, shoes and clothes, that sort of thing. There were also mysterious knocking on doors and strange whispers,” says Jeff Brown, who believes he may have seen Aitken’s ghost in the main floor hallway at Windermere Cottage. He also believes Aitken is not alone in inhabiting the resort. “In the past, guests have mentioned waking up and finding a young girl standing beside their bed. She quickly vanishes.”
The ghosts are, thankfully, friendly and are part of Windermere House’s charm. Another part of its charm is the quaint village in which it sits, a village rich in history in its own right, much of it tied to the beloved resort that lies at its heart. It seems everywhere you look there’s a historical feature and a story behind it.
Just behind the resort, in a grove of trees and looming over Christ Church, is a concrete water tower that dates to at least the 1920s, but possibly earlier. The water tower was built to provide the hotel with a consistent supply of water for plumbing and washing. To the south of the tower and Christ Church is Windermere Cottage. Today it’s part of the resort, but it was formerly the home of Thomas Aitken after Windermere House took off and was turned solely over to the hospitality industry.
Christ Church, tucked away in the shelter of spruce trees and as attractive a place to worship as you’re likely to find in Muskoka, was built in 1904. The craftsmanship is breathtaking: note the hand-decorated doors and stained-glass windows. You’ll also notice a bench honoring Reverend Ronald Armstrong, a beloved clergyman associated with the church for many years. The bench was dedicated in 1995, after Rev. Armstrong died in a plane crash while performing missionary work.
The Windermere Golf and Country Club represents the last notable change to Windermere House during Thomas Aitken’s lifetime. In 1919, he sold of a portion of his original two-hundred-acre land grant to the Windermere Golf and Country Club, the first of its kind in Muskoka. Parting with the land may have been somewhat sorrowful for Thomas, but he knew it was a wise decision, as the addition of a golf course would make Windermere infinitely more attractive to wealthy summer visitors. Among the financiers was Mrs. Timothy Eaton, the widow of the department store founder and a frequent guest at Windermere House.
Opposite the Windermere Golf and Country Club is a small, rustic cottage that was built in 1921 as the home of Leslie and Maude Aitken. Their daughter and the last Aitken to operate Windermere House, Mary Elizabeth, lived there until her death in 1987.
Farther on, you come to Windermere United Church, built in 1950 to replace an earlier church dating back to 1884. This building contains a memorial window commemorating the Aitkens and other families who contributed much to Windermere’s development. On the other side of Windermere Road, just to the south, sits a squat concrete building. This was used as a garage to house and service guests’ cars, and in later years it became the Windermere House laundry. Today it is used as a maintenance building.
Finally, near the waterline, you’ll come to a row of luxury fractional cottages sold by Windermere House. This was formerly the location of Fife House, a resort founded by Thomas Aitken’s brother-in-law, David Fife. It was Aitken who convinced Fife to move to Canada. Fife House was built in 1889, and was a popular destination in its own right. In many ways Fife House and Windermere House enjoyed a shared identity, so it made sense when Mary Elizabeth Aitken purchased the hotel in 1960 and joined it with Windermere House.
Historical buildings are scattered throughout the entirety of Windermere village, forming the basis of an identity unique in Muskoka. And yet, sadly, few people take the time to slow down and listen closely enough to hear the stories these buildings contain.
A walk through Windermere is measured in years rather than kilometers, so rich is the history of the community. It is an experience that will heighten your appreciation of Windermere’s past and allow you to more deeply enjoy the iconic Muskoka resort.