Not too long ago we took a look at the history of the greater Muskoka area. This week we will look into the history of the town of Huntsville!
Huntsville is the largest town in the Muskoka Region of Ontario. It is located 215 Km north of Toronto and 130 Km south of North Bay. It is located in the hilly terrain of the Canadian shield and is dotted with many lakes. Due to its natural environment and natural resources, Huntsville is a tourist destination drawing people from around the world. In 2011 the Toronto Star ranked the town as the number 1 place to take a summer trip in 2011. The town also acts as the western gateway to Algonquin Provincial Park and was host to the 36th G8 summit in June 2010.
The original people of this land were the Anishinaabe, or in English, Ojibway, also known as Chippewa. Traditionally Algonquin speaking people, “the good people” were generally peace – loving woodlands inhabitants with advanced social, governance, trade, and family structures. Settlers who arrived when the area was opened for European settlement under the authority of the “Free Grants and Homestead Act” of Ontario in February 1868 were primarily subjects of the British Empire, which at that time spanned the globe. Due to the fact that settlement in Huntsville occurred relatively recently in human social history, we have many well documented narrative accounts of the generosity of First People toward the newcomers. They helped them learn the waterways, the flora, fauna and aided them in coexisting in their new and sometimes harsh environment. This racial tolerance appeared to be reciprocated, for the most part, in the early days when people needed each other to survive.
Especially important to early settlers were deer, berries and maple syrup which are still abundant in the region. Mucho of the free grant land proved to be impossible to farm, yet the area continued to grow as settlers embraced the tourism industry, and the restorative nature of the place.
Huntsville’s founder George Hunt was born on July 26th, 1830, on the Mediterranean island of Corfu. The Hunt family moved to Sorel, Quebec, where George joined the British militia and attained the rank of Captain. When Hunt heard about the free land grant, he had a vision of creating a commercial and manufacturing centre and a tourist paradise. Hunt came to this area on May 20th, 1869, to choose his piece of the free land grant. After registering his choice in Bracebridge, Hunt’s first task was to build a log shanty, clear some land and plant some crops. This was begun on what is now the northwest corner of John and Main streets.
Captain Hunt worked tirelessly to help his neighbours and promote his dream. Huntsville’s economic development was stimulated by the engineering of a navigable water route north from Port Sydney. Huntsville residents lobbied tirelessly for rail service to their community, and their efforts were rewarded in 1885 with a railway route from Gravenhurst built by the Northern and Pacific Junction Railroad. The same year Huntsville was officially incorporated as a village, named after its first Post Master, Captain George Hunt. Unfortunately, Hunt did not live to see this, as he died of pneumonia on February 16th, 1882.
In 1894 Huntsville suffered a great fire, from that day forward, all downtown buildings had to be made of brick. The remaining buildings, today, add greatly to Huntsville’s charm. Another result of the great fire was the determination that “rose from the ashes” and an attitude of “spirit and resolve” which remains prevalent in Huntsville’s culture today.
In the early days Huntsville’s main industries were Lumber and leather, the latter used hemlock bark in the tanning process. Huntsville’s tannery boasted the internationally acclaimed and award winning Anglo Canadian Leather Company brass band. The tannery manager at the time, American industrialist C.O. Shaw, imported cheap immigrant labour, often from Italy as these workers could sometimes play classical instruments and music. Due to this workforce, Huntsville has one of the Province’s first pasta factories on Main Street.
The town as long appreciated its heritage, with the formation of the Muskoka Museum in 1958, which morphed into the Muskoka Pioneer Village in the 1970s and today is known as Muskoka heritage Place. Huntsville is also a key sporting and arts community, with a proud heritage of excellence in many disciplines especially lacrosse. Some famous locals in sports and arts are: Dara Howell, Hawksley Workman, Jack Bionda, Roy MacGregor, Ethan Moreau, Les Stroud, George Selkirk.
Resorts and tourism are the main industry in Huntsville. This has grown from early settlers opening their homes as guest houses to make ends meet, and to satisfy a need for accommodation for hunters, fishermen, and those seeking the tonic of clean, crisp air as prescribed by doctors, especially for tuberculosis patients of the early 20th century.
There are three large lakes within the township boundary, Mary Lake, Lake Vernon, and Fairy Lake, as well as countless smaller lakes. Peninsula Lake, Skelton Lake, and Lake of Bays lie directly outside the town. The Muskoka River winds through the city’s downtown, while the Big East River empties into Lake Vernon. The Arrowhead Provincial Park is also located within the city limits. In addition to the city centre, there are numerous communities located within Huntsville’s municipal boundaries.