The true history of the McLaughlins on Halls Lake, Haliburton County

Taxidermied deer and snowshoes on a wall

My grandfather, William Charles McLaughlin, liked to tell a good story. Generally known as Charlie, and more formally as W.C., Grandpa was proud of many accomplishments, but perhaps most proud of establishing his family on Halls Lake in the 1920s.

He was, he said, the first outsider to build on the lake. This translated down in family lore to mean that Grandpa was the first cottager on the lake. He never disputed this.

My father, Frank, W.C.’s only son, passed on some of the stories. Like father, like son, I suppose. He told me once that Grandpa had first come to Halls Lake cruising timber for the Gull River Lumber Company in 1921. W.C. liked the fishing in Halls Lake and brought his family back to camp there, Dad says. We were raised with the understanding that Grandpa built the first cottage on the lake in 1923. The second cottager built right beside him, we were told, so Grandpa bought 45 acres across the lake, enough so that no one but family would be able to build beside him in the future.

We were told a lot of things.

We heard often about a bear that Grandpa and Billy Cooper had caught with a fishing spear, in the narrows between Big and Little Hawk Lakes. The bear rug was on the cottage floor. It wasn’t until my grandfather had died that we heard the true story, that another man with a gun, coming down Big Hawk by boat, had shot the bear when he found my grandfather and Billy (neither of whom could swim) in a rowboat being dragged up the lake by an angry and frightened bear with a fishing spear in its shoulders. Grandpa wouldn’t let go of the fishing spear. My dad found the spear years later and put it on the cottage wall. It’s still there.

Frank McLaughlin age 3, sitting on a bear that was supposedly killed with a fishing spear in the narrows between the Hawk lakes, 1929. Photo courtesy of the McLaughlin family.
fishing spear mounted on wall
The fishing spear, currently on the wall of the log cabin over the window, still makes a good story.
Photo courtesy of the McLaughlin family.

Telling the true story of the McLaughlins on Halls Lake has dispelled some illusions for me. My grandfather’s own writing has discredited some of the stories. My dad eventually cleared up one or two as well.

We are fortunate that my grandfather liked to record his accomplishments and details of family history. His account of the family’s arrival at Halls Lake was first written down probably in the late 1930s for a guest book that was preserved in his second cottage. In the 1970s, Grandpa wrote down more of his story. In that later document, there are some discrepancies with the earlier account and a hint or two of how the story was shaping up to be a good one.

Grandpa’s earliest account states that grandpa’s father, George Henry McLaughlin, along with R.J. McLaughlin, “were invited by the Gull River Lumber Co. to survey some timber limits on Hawk Lake. Headquarters were made at James Welch’s on Halls Lake. On their return they were very enthusiastic about Hall’s Lake and the abundance of fish.”

couple standing in front of a house
James and Sarah Welch at their home on Halls Lake, undated. Photo courtesy of Nancy and Rick Lowes.

So, in fact, W.C. first travelled to Halls Lake in May 1922 with his wife, Pamela, and his brother and sister-in-law, Carl and Olive McLaughlin. It took them eight hours to drive up from Toronto. They stayed again at Welch’s, and “caught fish with a copper line attached to a reel made of two pie plates.” They vacationed in Muskoka that summer at Torrance, and didn’t revisit Halls Lake until the summer of 1923, when they rented a tent, setting it up on the “north shore of Hall’s Lake, just east of the Welch homestead.” This would have been a bit to the east of where the Cadge Road meets the Halls Lake Road, we think. There are stories about Grandma cooking and serving food on a big flat rock at their campsite beside the lake. There are a couple of possible rocks, and we are not sure which one was the table.

“We were quite popular at the square dances with our Coleman lantern as apparently, ours was the first in the community,” Grandpa reports. My dad says the dances would have to end when Grandpa wanted to walk home. When I knew him, Grandpa was pretty straight-laced and not much of a partier. I bet he sent everyone home early. When I was young the dance hall[i] was not used but still stood beside Highway 35 either south of The Chip Shop or north of the Coopers’ stone house. My sister and I remember it differently. It was pointed out to us as children because that is where our mother and father met.

In 1923, W.C. made arrangements with W.J. (Billy) Cooper to buy a 100-foot lot on the north-west corner of the lake, down the hill from the present-day Loralea Lodge, at 50 cents per foot of lake frontage, according to the first memoir. In 1924 Grandpa and Grandma camped on their lot in another large, rented tent. “This time we had our meals in the tent, and slept at Coopers’,” he writes, because they had guests with them. Mrs. Cooper took in summer visitors. That’s where my mother’s parents first stayed on the lake in the 1940s. Mrs. Cooper’s stone house still stands, just north of The Chip Shop.

Hillcrest Lodge exterior
Hillcrest Lodge owned by Billy and Amy (Welch Gartshore) Cooper[ii] until the 1950s. Photo by Joan Hamilton 2016.

During the summer of 1924 plans were made to build a cottage that fall. “The stonework was ready by October, so once again the McLaughlin Family journeyed north, and with the help of local labour we were living in the cottage at the end of ten days, being the first outsider to build at Hall’s Lake.” This cottage, nestled on the lakeshore, was named Shady Nook.

The family at this point consisted of W.C., his wife Pamela (Carrette), and their two daughters, Pamela aged eight, and Elinor aged five. Frank was not born until 1926.

In his later memoirs, the story improves. Grandpa records buying two lots from Billy Cooper, totalling 200 feet for $400, and planning to build a cottage in 1922. “Being the first outsider to locate at Halls Lake the cottage went up in four days,” he writes. “Prior to this we camped in a tent on the north shore for our holidays. Mother did not take to camping so we gave up that idea.” Don’t be confused. Mother refers not to his mother, but to his wife, Pamela. I think she was a trooper.

“This cottage and land cost $700,” Grandpa notes. “We sold for $1,200 in 1932, due to the fact that other people were building too close.”

couple in a boat
William Charles and Pamela (Carrette) McLaughlin on Halls Lake, undated. Photo courtesy of the McLaughlin family.

The move away from those other people was in the works from November 4, 1931, when W.C. purchased the large point on the south side of the lake, all of Lot 12, Concession 7, plus a right of way, “approximately 47 acres, from Allen C. Hewett of Minden”. Hewett (Grandpa probably should have spelled it Hewitt) was a relative of Joshua Davis, he notes, who received a patent from the Crown for this parcel of land in 1874. “The consideration was $400 or $8.51 per acre,” when Grandpa purchased it.

A new cottage with seven rooms and a two-piece bathroom was completed in October 1932 by carpenters, plumbers and painters sent up from Toronto, “together with some local labour,” Grandpa says.

“We soon found that we were comparatively free from mosquitoes and black flies due to the prevailing winds from the west and north, so we gave our cottage the Indian name of Ano-a-tok, meaning ‘The House of the Winds’.”

It was a habit at the time, of course, to appropriate Indigenous names at will. I can’t tell you where the name really came from. I can tell you that there’s lots of wind on this side of the lake, and especially on this point. The McLaughlins liked this because “it was good for working,” I was told as a child. I spent my summers with my mother’s family on the west side of the lake, where there was not as much wind and it was good for sitting and reading.

W.C. wasn’t finished building on the lake. In April 1936 he set his sights on a remaining parcel of land on the point and applied to the Department of Lands and Forests to buy another “six acres more or less for the sum of $150, being at the rate of $25 per acre, the sale being subject to the erection of a building valued at $500 within 18 months from date of sale.”

family on a picnic
The Mclaughlin family in the early 1930s, left to right, Elinor, Pamela (wife of W.C.) Frank and Pamela (daughter). Photo courtesy of the McLaughlin family.

He decided to build a log cabin with a stone foundation, prepared a plan, and then went looking for logs. Poplar was all that was readily available, he says, and wouldn’t do because of the amount of shrinkage that would lead to. (This is a small reminder that so much of the area had been logged off by then or burned over. Poplar, a fast-growing new growth, was all that could be had. This part of the point when Grandpa bought it was almost bare of trees. Old photos show this. Grandpa planted the point with red pine, some of which still survive. In general, white pine now has taken over.)

Grandpa wanted an old log house to take apart for his cabin but found none that would fit his design. “We toured all over the country in search of suitable structure,” he wrote. Finally, Grandpa was bested by Grandma. “Mother’s eagle eye,” spotted an old log barn “at the rear of Hick’s grocery store in Carnarvon. She made a bargain with Mr. Hicks to sell the barn for $75.” I swear that when Grandma told this story to us, the price was only $50, but that’s storytelling for you. She very much liked the fact that she had been the one to strike this deal.

“Jack MacCallum made the inspection and okayed the timbers,” Grandpa’s account continues. “He then dismantled the barn in the fall of 1937, drew the logs up to Halls Lake, dumping them into Oliver’s Beach. When all the logs were assembled, a boom was made, and the logs floated across the lake to our bathing beach. There the logs were re-hewn (squared) to a uniform thickness of eight inches.”

The building was completed in the spring of 1938, and W.C. received the patent, or deed direct from the Crown. Frank, then 12 years old, suggested “The House Jack Built” as the name, and so it became.

The log cabin still stands. It came to my father, Frank, and is now owned by my sister Mary and me. The cottage built in 1932 went to Frank’s sister Elinor and is now owned by her daughter Pamela. My Aunt Pam, Frank’s other sister, was given land to build her own cottage on a warm and sunny bay on the west side of the point. Her son Tim Wright lived there for many years, but this land was eventually sold out of the family. For the most part the shoreline of the point is still undeveloped the way Grandpa would have liked it and is owned by W.C.’s descendants.

Young man with a fresh deer kill
Frank McLaughlin, age 16, with his prized kill, near the cottage property, 1942. What’s interesting about this photo is how small the trees are in the background. So much of the area was logged or burnt off in a forest fire in the early 1900s. Photo courtesy of the McLaughlin family.

So, that’s a good story, right? My dad was the one to tell the truth about Grandpa not catching the bear with the fishing spear. But almost until his death Dad held onto Grandpa’s story about being the first cottager on the lake.

The summer before Dad died, my husband and I were riding bikes one day over on the far side of the lake, on the Halls Lake Road, east of where the McLaughlins first camped. At one point I asked some women who were out walking what they remembered of an old one-room school along that road that my dad used to take us to see. It had long gone under the grass. Where had it been?

The women didn’t know but pointed me to a man sitting on the porch of a cottage built a bit back from the lake, back from the road. There was the lake, the road, and then a string of cottages. Remember that.

This man, they said, knew all the local lore. So, I went over and had a chat. I wish I remembered his name. He was kind and very knowledgeable and told me lots of local history. I thanked him and said I’d been interested because my grandfather built the first cottage on the lake.

“Did he?” said the historian. “What year?”

“1923,” I said, remembering my grandfather’s account of things.

“Well,” said the man. “That cottage was built in 1920.” And he pointed to the cottage beside his own.

“So maybe my grandfather wasn’t telling the truth,” I said.

“Maybe he wasn’t,” the man agreed.

I went back around the lake, and, as I always did when I had something to figure out, I talked to my dad.

“Dad, is it true that grandpa built the first cottage on the lake? I met a man this afternoon who showed me a cottage built in 1920.”

“Really?” he said. He took a pull on his pipe. There wasn’t even the hint of a smile.

He said, “What side of the road was it on?”

McLaughlin Point Lane road sign
Photo by Joan Hamilton

Although this lane is named for W.C. McLaughlin, he was not the only early cottager whose property is now accessed by this road. The Hyslops were here in 1931[iii], the same year W.C. purchased land on this side of the lake. A local resident told me this point has been called “the fishing point” for a lot longer than the road name has existed.

By Susan Charters, with Mary Cook and Pamela Marsales, edited by Joan Hamilton

Story copyright October 2020 by Susan Charters

[i]  See Halls Lake Dance Hall info on the Algonquin Highlands Heritage Map

[ii] See story “Most of the Cottagers were once a tourist”…. except for Garth Mole’s family by Joan Hamilton as told by Garth Mole

[iii] See story “Recollections from Summers at Halls Lake” by Bob Mills