Aztext Press

Life Off-the-Grid

Micklethwaite’s Muskoka

By Cam Mather

I am very proud to have Micklethwaite DNA in me. My mom was a Micklethwaite and I recently wrote here about my late uncle Ian who had been such a positive influence on me while I was growing up. I also mentioned some of the photos in a book called “Micklethwaite’s Muskoka” published by Boston Mills Press in this post. The book is filled entirely with photographs taken by my great, great grandfather, Frank Micklethwaite.

Frank’s father was born in England, then moved to Ireland to set up a photo business. Frank immigrated to Canada around 1876 and after a few years here he also got into the photo business. Muskoka is a rugged, beautiful area 2 to 3 hours north of Toronto (by car) full of dozens of lakes and rivers. I point out the travel time today versus what it would have been in those days, which could have been a day or two, depending on where you were going. There were a number of large resorts in Muskoka where city people could spend their holidays. Their holiday would begin with a train ride from Toronto, then a steamer through Lake Muskoka and some of the other large lakes until they reached their final destination – their resort.

In the early 1900s, summering in Muskoka would have been the pastime of the wealthy. Frank eventually opened an office in Muskoka and spent his summers photographing rich people and events. Sorry to sound class oriented, but they were the only ones who could afford to vacation or own cottages there, and who had the money to pay him.

The book “Micklethwaite’s Muskoka” came about when publisher John Denison discovered the Frank Micklethwaite plates in the National Archives in Ottawa, which had purchased many of them. Denison was blown away with the quality of the plates and when you look at the black and white photos in this book, the quality of them is outstanding. Frank used a technology that produced the image on glass plates, which would have made the camera and gear insanely heavy to be lugging around in a canoe and small boat. And of course in those days he wasn’t dressed in the gortex and high tech breathable clothes of today. He was wearing heavy wool suits and always seemed to be wearing a tie. I can envision someone dressed like that drowning if their canoe capsized as they would be pulled under by the sheer weight of their clothes absorbing the lake water!

The other comment that John makes in the book is that he admires the quality of the images. Family portraits were Frank’s bread and butter and he captures them beautifully. Not only was his gear extremely heavy and cumbersome but in those days the camera that he was using caused the image in his viewfinder to be upside down and backwards. The book is beautiful and the photos are exquisite and it makes me very proud to be descended from such a talent.

I sometimes wonder what my great great grandfather would think of me being able to take exceptionally high resolution images on my light weight Nikon Digital SLR camera, load them onto my computer and print them or send them around the world in seconds. The mind truly boggles. I think this is when you get into the argument that the technology just creates more “stuff” and clutter out there.

The mind also boggles at this concept of how rapidly technology has moved our society forward. When Frank Micklethwaite was taking photos of people in Muskoka, it was quite a grueling ordeal to get there. Horse and buggy to Union Station in Toronto. Train ride to Muskoka. Disembark, and make sure your trunks get on the steamer to take you to your resort. I’m wondering if some people might have had to stay over in Gravenhurst before boarding a steamer.

Today, it’s less than a three hour drive from downtown Toronto to Gravenhurst, less if you speed, more on a Friday or Sunday night of a long weekend. And Muskoka is no longer the domain of just the rich. As unions demanded a bigger share of the pie and the middle class grew, and cheap oil and cheap cars allowed mobility, the middle class was able to afford cottages in Muskoka.

My grandparents (on the Mather side) bought a cottage in Muskoka about 50 years ago. For many of the years that I spent time there, the cottage didn’t have a hot water heater, or a shower, so you made sure to swim as much as possible. The cottage had an old woodstove that we stoked on cool mornings with wood that had washed up on the beach. There was a mish mash of dishes and pots, and an old-fashioned toaster that had doors on each side that you opened and closed. We toasted a lot of white scones from Don’s Bakery in that toaster. There was no TV – just well used Scrabble and other board games. It was heaven.

Those who fought for a more equitable distribution of income had a vision of family places like cottages. I grew up in a very middle class family but enjoyed the luxury of an escape from the summer heat of the city by heading to the cottage in Bala, Muskoka. I have lived a charmed life and realize what a lucky person I’ve been.

I spoke to John Denison, publisher of Boston Mills Press who gave me permission to use a few photos from the book to put on the web. It looks like the book can still be purchased at;

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  1. Larry

    Thanks Cam…that brought back a few memories. Driving to Bala to see Kim Mitchell at The Kee. Those were the days…and actual patio lanterns too. 🙂

  2. Huntington Christie

    I live near Titusville Pa USA and there was a famous Photographer named John Mather. He documented the early years of the oil boom in the 1860s. Any chance of you being related?

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