Highland Cottages: A labour of love on the south side of Halls Lake

A cottage with many windows in winter

Norm and Vi’s house on Highway 35, 1948-49

Have you ever wondered about Norm Wallace Lane, and how it came to be named this?  I am proud to tell you that Norm Wallace was my father, and together with my mother Violet, built a lovely family resort on the south shore of Halls Lake in the late 1940’s. Their story is one of bouncing back after difficult times, very hard work, perseverance and love for each other and their family.  Although they were newcomers to the area at the time, they made significant contributions to the community and were valued for their commitments to education, church and social activities.

highland cottages brochure cover

The first brochure, around 1947

a small cabin in the woods

“Glencoe” one of the first four cottages

blue brochure inside

Inside of Highland Cottages brochure

Dad was born in 1905 and grew up on the family farm in Grand Valley. His father died in 1930, his mother five years later. In the midst of the Great Depression he did his best to continue farming, although prices were so low it was next to impossible to keep going.  In 1935, he developed tuberculosis and was told to quit work immediately and prepare to go to the Hamilton Sanatorium.  At the time tuberculosis (previously known as consumption) was a dreaded disease that was very infectious and could wipe out families in a matter of months.  Farming was so poor that he could hardly give the farm away, so he rented it out for five years for the taxes.  Patients had to pay their own way at the time, and when money ran out, he was even asked to mortgage the farm. Refusing to do so, and in temporary remission, he left the San, but had to return in 1939.  There he underwent a risky surgery called extrapleural pneumonolysis followed by pneumothorax to keep the lung collapsed. Following a near-fatal relapse, he began to recover slowly.

street sign of Normal Wallace Lane

Norm Wallace Lane

The silver lining of this dark period of his life was that he met his future wife Violet Simpson who was a nurse at the San. Hospital rules prevented a patient from dating staff members, but as soon as he was discharged in 1941 he returned and asked her out.  Their courtship continued over the next couple of years, even when Violet herself became sick with pleurisy.  They were engaged and planned a wedding for June of 1943.

World War II was just beginning, and he wanted to do his part, but because of his history of tuberculosis, he was not accepted into the armed forced or the air force. Rather, the government paid for his training as a mechanical draftsman and machine shop practice, and he began working in St Catharines and later at Victory Aircraft in Malton, building Lancaster bombers.  Meanwhile, in 1943, Mom and Dad were married in Mom’s home town of Boylston, Nova Scotia.  (Figure 3) She had trained as a nurse at Aberdeen Hospital in Guysborough County, and obtained a nursing job in Hamilton, Ontario where one of her sisters had already moved.  She was well aware when they married that Dad’s future health could be in jeopardy, but they both felt it was worth the risk. Ironically, it was Dad who lived to the age of 93, and she who passed away at 66 in 1979.

a bride and groom

Norman Wallace and Violet Simpson on their wedding day in Boylston, Nova Scotia

They lived on Hazelbrae Lane in Swansea, which is now part of Etobicoke, but felt that eventually they would like to get out of the city, preferring a smaller community in which to live. When the war ended in 1945, all war workers were laid off, and Dad sold Fuller Brushes for a while. At the San, he had become acquainted with a man from Irondale, who spoke fondly of Haliburton County, and both Mom and Dad thought that it sounded like a nice area. Haliburton was just starting to become known as a tourist destination, and they decided to get into the tourist business in a small way.  Many of their neighbours expressed interest in visiting if they moved there.  Over a week’s holiday in Haliburton County they began looking around at various pieces of land, some crown land and some privately owned. They stayed at a resort on Head Lake, just outside of the village of Haliburton for their exploratory trip.

woman posing by a birch tree

Violet at Head Lake

Man smiling on a rock

Norman at Head Lake

They bought the north half of Lot 13, Concession 6 in Stanhope Township from Allan Hewitt on August 14, 1944, having looked at a number of properties. Some purchases from the crown and the township completed a package of lakefront and forest properties. Violet’s brother Roy Simpson and her cousin Will Martin also each bought lots, which were later sold back to Norman and Violet. They kept a diary as they began their Haliburton venture, which is the primary source of the following information.  (Dad later wrote down his memories, which have been compiled into a small book called “Norman Wallace’s Story 1905 – 1998; a selection of memories from Grand Valley to Haliburton”.)

April 1946

“The spring of this year finds us making a start. With lumber on hand for four small cottages we are prepared to get one cottage built in time to move by June 1st when we are to give possession of our Hazelbrae house to the Moffatts. Until July 1st we have rented the Higgins cottage next to our property (currently the property of the Breretons).

(Figure 8, 9 and 10)

At the time, there was no road from Highway 35 into their property, only a path, but there was apparently a wharf at Buttermilk Falls where a boat could be docked.  On their first foray into the Higgins cabin, they walked from the highway, and expected to use a boat that had been left at the cabin.

April 17, Wednesday: “Left home in Swansea at about 5 am with the car well loaded with various articles; we arrived in Minden and Halls Lake before noon. A fine warm day. We left the car at the road and carried in some food, etc. and Lassie, our cat. Tried to start outboard motor, no luck; rowed to wharf and back with load in boat. Back again and took motor to Harold Archer to start and came back with another load from car. Ate our first meal outside at back.”

Woman and cat by a large woodpile

Violet with Lassie at Higgins’ cottage April 1946

During that first spring, which judging by the diary was quite cold and wet,  they describe chinking the logs on the old cabin, going for milk and eggs at Elvin Johnson’s, getting a road permit, arranging to have logs boated in by Thomases and beginning construction of the first cottage (Sunnybrae) by laying logs on stone pile foundations.

Woman dipping a bucket in a lake

No running water. Vi hauling it from the lake in 1946

Man in suit paddling a boat with two others in it

Vi’s brother Roy arrives to help following war service 1946

By May 7, they were beginning to lay the floor, and by the 24th of May, they were shingling. At the end of May they returned to Toronto to arrange for the transport of their furniture by Hewitt Transport.   They were becoming acquainted with neighbours, and spoke often of socializing with Elvin and Ruby Johnson; in fact the anniversaries of both couples were celebrated together – their third on June 8th and the Johnsons’ second on June 17.  Night fishing with a fire on the shore of Little Hawk Lake was one of the recreational activities mentioned along with berry picking and sharing suppers.  Some evenings they would wind up the gramophone and “try dancing”. Violet even managed to have a garden, which despite being fenced was subject to deer grazing on the lettuce.

Meanwhile, road building had been going on in earnest; Violet’s brother Roy  (Figure 7) had come to help following his war service and among the three of them and some local men, hired Harold Archer’s truck, hauled gravel from Mr. McBrien and rocks from Elvin Johnson and worked hard at establishing a road that could be used by a car. By June 15, “finished with road for the present…drove car into our cottage… and drove over in car for milk”   On June 19th, “borrowed Harold Archer’s truck and brought in our furniture” On June 20th they “heard what was likely a wildcat during the night”.  That week was busy with putting on screens, cleaning windows, cleaning out cupboards to use in the kitchen and building the “little house” (outhouse).

On June 28th, they “moved over from Higgins’ cottage, had our first meal here at suppertime, ate out on the verandah”.  The plan was to live in the new cottage, Sunnybrae, while they built the next ones. Over the summer they cleared trees, hauled rock from shore using Elvin Johnson’s team of horses, and by August had completed two more cottages – Glencoe and Lochview; on August 8 Norm was making a sign for Highland Cottages and on August 9 they had their first customers, Mr. and Mrs. Hughson  and Mr. & Mrs. Jeffs and families.

Man standing by a sign for Highland Cottages

Norm with first sign at Highway 35 in 1946

Exterior of a white cabin with a canoe in the foreground

Glencoe in 2014

Wooden "Glencoe" sign on a tree trunk

Our new sign, 2017

During the same summer, they went to see Leigh Sisson’s field out on Highway 35, at Boshkung Lake. From the diary: “August 24: Norm and Roy went out to see Mr. Sisson. Arranged to buy highway property. Norm and Mr. Higgins went to a meeting at Hall’s Lake re organizing Halls Lake Cottagers Association.”  They began building that fall.  While they had originally thought it would be another cottage, they eventually decided to live there, and had the business office at the house. Many will remember the extensive vegetable garden by the road.

More road work occurred in the fall.  October 2nd,  and  4th: “Drilling stones on road in from highway, Had Leigh Sisson helping. Elvin helped in pm. …Had Hodgson’s bulldozer for the day. Made road to Roy’s point, and to Norm’s point and inlet (to the top of the hill at Sunnybrae and down the hill to the westerly lot – Glencoe) Widened road in spots.”  The cost was recorded as $45.

As they continued to work on building the ‘cottage’ on the highway, they mention going to Carnarvon to renew ration books (commodities still being restricted following the war), having frequent flat tires on the car, experiencing a theft of some of their lumber, and having to sleep in a truck borrowed from Charlie Watson to watch the site.

In the process of procuring food they helped Elvin slaughter a pig, shot ‘partridge’ occasionally, hunted deer in the fall and did some trapping.  They bought eggs and milk from the Johnsons. Cordwood cutting was shared with Wilfred Mason. Their nearest neighbours to the new house were Leigh and Minnie Sisson, who became close friends who later attended all of our birthdays.

A cottage with many windows in winter

Norm and Vi’s house on Highway 35, 1948-49

The new ‘cottage’ on the highway  (Figure 14) was eventually  insulated and wired, and they moved into it on December 17th, in the process getting the borrowed truck stuck and having to rely once again on Elvin Johnson’s team to assist.  That first winter the house was unlined, with no ceiling until near spring. It was a very cold winter with lots of snow.

Woman shovelling snow off an iced-over lake

Violet clearing ice for cutting, 1947

By Christmas they had moved, but were still working at Halls Lake, now to build an ice house and cut blocks of ice from the lake. They bought shavings for the ice house from Windsors’ in Carnarvon and had Wilfred Mason haul them in to the ice house.  It seems that there was an ice cutter that was rented to various families. While Norm, Roy and Violet had to keep the ice cleared off until it arrived, they also helped neighbours get in their ice – Leslie Coulter, Elvin Johnson, Camp Calumet and others. Their turn to use it came on February 15: “snowing most of the day, a wet snow. Cut and put in our ice, 767 cakes. Ice only fair quality. Had two Harrison men cutting ice. Wilfred Mason, Leslie Coulter and Howard Walker hauling and Leigh Sisson, Holly Ferguson and Bill Redgrave helping, besides Norm and Roy. Over to Sissons to hear hockey in evening.”

Two women standing in front of a lake

Vi and Minnie Sisson at Hall’s Lake, Spring 1947

By spring 1947 they were tapping trees for sap and the men were getting some outside work in the bush and as carpenters (including Applebys, Cranleys and Charlie Watson’s store and bowling alley at Buttermilk Falls, which opened for the first time in June 1948, and burnt down in 1951).

Man standing behind a pair of horses with a plough

Norman with Elvin Johnson’s horses preparing garden on Highway 35 in 1947

A garden at the house was ploughed with Elvin’s horses (Figure 16), and they continued expanding the cottage property.  They were starting to open up the beach area, building Burnside and Lochaven during that summer. These were being rented by the summer of 1948. A foot bridge across the inlet was begun on June 24, 1947. Boats were built by Alf Moore in Lindsay, and oars were ordered. Beds were built, mattresses were ordered, and inquiries were made to Sinclair Russell about fridges (ice  boxes).   The road down the hill to Sunnybrae was built with the help of Ed Hewitt’s team which pulled the grader; Sinclair Nesbitt, the McKnights and Welshes were hauling gravel, and Russell Packard, Wilfred Mason and Martin Davies were also helping out.  Road work continued on into the end of 1949. In October and November of 1947 they were cleaning up the beach, burning piles of brush and logs, straightening up the bank at the shoreline, and building a wall of stones to protect the bank.

They shared in opening up a new road which was called Highland Road, now Braeloch, which was put through as far as Hawk River the first year. The following year it was connected from the other end.

Violet worked on all aspects of the cottages, clearing brush, building, painting, oiling floors and sewing drapes. In addition, she looked after meals, gardening and preserving.  In her free time, she became involved with the Women’s Association (WA) at Zion United Church in Carnarvon, and socialized with the women of the community. Mention is made of the Sissons, the Irwins, the Cowans, the Adamsons, the Russells, the Nesbitts and the Archers. They had bought a canoe from Wilfred Mason, and speak of canoeing from Boshkung Lake and portaging at Buttermilk Falls to Halls Lake. Guests were coming and going during that summer, many arriving by bus.

A truck

The 1948 red Dodge truck

It is amazing to realize that for almost a year they accomplished so much without owning a vehicle. They had had to sell their car in February 1947 for $115 because it would cost more to have it repaired than it was worth, and in March 1947 put an order in for a truck.  It did not arrive until Friday April 23, 1948.  All of this time they had been walking, snowshoeing, boating or hiring others’ vehicles to get back and forth to the cottages or to town. (Figure 18)

Norm and Violet had their first daughter, Margaret, in June of 1949.  That month a hydro line was being put in around Halls Lake.   Until that time, the cottages would have had a small wood stove, along with a coal oil cooking stove, an ice box and coal oil lanterns for light. Norm continued working for others, in the bush, doing carpentry and shovelling snow. That year he began working with Frank Thomas on a log cabin for Jack Kirkconnell across the road at Boshkung.  Over the years, he built many cottages on Halls and Boshkung Lakes.

Children playing by the lake shore

The beach at Highland Cottages 1961

Children and their parents in the lake shore

The beach at Highland Cottages 1961 

At the end of 1949, the cottages were wired for electricity by Jack Swan.  Scone was built in 1951-52, after the birth of their second daughter, Dorothy.  In 1955 a shared road with Ross Brereton was built to the beach cottages, crossing in front of the waterfall.  The last cottage, Ayr, was built in 1956. A change in cottager demands was beginning, as “it will be finished with modern conveniences, which seem to be more and more in demand. It is going to be a financial pinch to finish it, sure hope it pays off”. Gradually all of the cottages were enhanced with running water and eventually indoor plumbing.  Although still fairly rustic, gone were the days of roughing it in the bush.

So in the end there were seven rental cottages that made up Highland Cottages. Each cottage had a name which reflected a Scottish theme – Ayr, Lochaven, Burnside, Scone, Sunnybrae, Lochview and Glencoe.   Renters would recall a close family atmosphere, with small children playing on the sandy beach and on the slide while the young teens would be jumping off the raft or rowing the flat-bottomed rowboats that were provided.  (Figures 19 & 20) Annual corn roasts on the beach were a source of great anticipation, and always included enthusiastic singing, thanks often to talented leaders such as Mr. Brown, Fred and Muriel Davies and the Gillies family.

Norm and Violet continued to be very active in the community. Norm was a Cub and Scout leader for many years, as well as a Sunday School superintendent at Zion United Church in Carnarvon. He sat on the local Board of Education in the 1950’s.  Violet was very active in the church groups, and was devoted to causes such as letter writing for Amnesty International.

All of the cottages still exist, and include our own cottage, Glencoe,  at 1103 Braeloch and six cottages on Norm Wallace Lane (one additional lot was later severed and built on by the Yowarts and is now owned by the Mirons). The cottage business operated from 1946 until my parents sold six of the cottages individually in the 1970’s, keeping the most westerly one in the family. (Figure 20) The cottages were sold in some cases to former cottagers who had spent many summers renting from them – the Brundages, Ronchkas, Barbers, Drummonds, Wellers and others.  Following the sales in the 1970’s the new owners continued to value and love this corner of Halls Lake that had attracted Norman and Violet years earlier.  Violet died in 1979, and Norman in 1998.

An older couple in a formal portrait

Norman and Violet in 1978

Norman, although greatly missing Violet, continued to live a fulfilling life, receiving Stanhope’s Citizen of the Year in 1986 (Martha Perkins of the Haliburton County Echo wrote an extensive article of his life at that time), volunteering in the Help a Village Effort Walk for Water, sitting on the library board, working in various capacities in Zion United Church, canvassing for other charities and driving for Meals on Wheels.  He continued to grow a big garden until he was around 90, and lived independently.  He died in Peterborough with his family just after his 93rd birthday.

A newspaper clipping with a photo of an older gentleman

Just after his 81st birthday

By Dorothy (Wallace) McCord