Sid and Nancy at the Portage

A new age of conversation

By Pamela Steel

In 17th century Paris everyone who was anyone whiled away their evenings at one of the influential salons in the city. Chic ladies of the era created environments conducive to chat of the heady rather than idle variety. Thus poets, philosophers and political junkies ushered in the age of enlightenment through thoughtful conversation.

And the clever couple that has bought and is restoring the Portage Inn want to create a similar atmosphere in Muskoka.

Nancy and Sid Kirkpatrick bought the inn on North Portage Road in Lake of Bays in June 2010 and have been restoring the grand old dame. The inn was originally built in 1889.

Nancy and her husband, best-selling author Sidney D. Kirkpatrick, moved to Muskoka from both California and New York.

Nancy has ghostwritten and edited books and Sidney’s books have been on the New York Times best sellers list.

He has appeared on the History and Biography channels and on A&E talking about his non-fiction books which include, A Cast of Killers, Turning the Tide, Lords of Sipan, the Revenge of Thomas Eakins, Hitler’s Holy Relics and Edgar Cayce: An American Prophet, co-written with Nancy.

The Kirkpatricks have a modest bed and breakfast operation at the 7,000-square foot inn, but plan to make use of the large central great room as a community hub and gathering place for games, workshops and festivities. The room is about 1,000 square feet and has a bar, a pool table and a double-sided fireplace built in the early 1900s.

The building had been empty and neglected for about three years when the Kirkpatricks first moved in. There was no running water or heat on the five-acre waterfront property when they began restorations.

“Neighbours were hoping someone would come along and save the old lady. We’re not official historical restorers, but we’re not changing any of the historical features,” says Nancy.

They have modernized the heating system.

“The very old heating system was oil with hot water – those pipes had burst – we tore them out and put individual propane heaters in each room.”

The salon concept has been given test runs during a Canada Day celebration and an art exhibit of the work of local artist Alma Rumball. These early tastes left the Kirkpatricks hungry for more.

“It’s still in the formation stage,” says Nancy. “We’re hoping to do one a month in the new year.”

They are already in conversation with Ghost Towns of Muskoka authors Andrew Hind and Maria Da Silva about being the guests of honour at an upcoming salon.

“We’ll try and make each one have a focal point,” says Nancy.

About 170 people visited the Rumball exhibit over the course of two days.

“It never seemed all that crowded,” says Nancy, adding that she had a great time.

“The hardest part was that we were so busy just signing people in, I didn’t have time to spend any real time chatting with anybody.”

Lake of Bays Mayor Bob Young was there though. He was the guy flipping burgers for the crowd.

The great room can accommodate about 30 people if they’re sharing a meal. If more people are clamouring at the gates, they will be welcome to join in after dinner.

“I’ve had a hundred people in the room, but it was standing room only and very crowded,” she says. Future salons will be kept under that number for everyone’s comfort.

The couple wants to have the salons, not as a source of income, but to build community by providing a gathering place.

“It’s so expensive – it can never be a money-making operation,” Nancy says of the inn.

They plan to have the events catered and will ask those attending to contribute something to cover their costs.

“We feel that in this day and age, people don’t really have a place to get together with friends. There are a lot of baby boomers moving up and they don’t have the community they once had,” she says.

The couple is sociable and as writers, are both storytellers. They love the old place and want to share it with others.

“It’s a very big place, we didn’t move here to be alone,” says Nancy.

She says she’s keen on community building and that bringing people together is a passion for them both.

“We know a great number of writers and lecturers in the U.S.,” says Sid. “We can provide a forum for people to meet and exchange ideas.”

Sid has been a member of writers groups since he was in his late teens and has invited several local book clubs to make use of the property.

Last Christmas, they had an open house co-hosted by Bob and Jill Young.

“Between their list and Pen Lake we managed to have about 100 guests,” says Nancy.

The couple encourages people with interesting ideas, art shows or literary events to contact them and make use of the space.

“If people find this venue interesting, they should not be shy about approaching us. It’s not a business,” says Nancy.

For information about upcoming salons contact info@portageinn.ca or call 705-812-1621.

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