Speedy Mail Service Boosts Roaring Twenties Muskoka
Ever since Muskoka opened for settlement in the 1860s, the district embraced, in addition to Indigenous peoples, two distinct societies. They were first known as settlers and cottagers. Today we might call them full-time, and part-time, Muskokans.
Both are connected to the District. Both had, and still have, different needs and expectations. This produced a traditional economic life for those living in the community year-round, while in tandem, a parallel vacation economy emerged.
Is there overlap? Of course. Are they connected? Intrinsically. But let’s explore this further.
Summer Regattas & Fall Fairs
One way to recognize this social dichotomy are two classic Muskoka events: the summer regatta, and the fall fair. For seasonal Muskokans, generally city people, water athletic competitions sponsored by cottagers associations have been, ever since the 1870s, a highlight event of summer. The Muskoka Lakes Association owns the North American record for longest continuously operating summer regatta.
Meanwhile, for year-round Muskokans, the local folks, fall fairs organized by the District’s agricultural societies became enjoyable communal events, young and old and everybody else drawn together and savouring the best of Canadian rural life – collecting red, blue, or white ribbons for prize-winning cookies, bread, pies, and cakes, livestock, fabric creations, floral and vegetable entries, poultry, honey, and art, devouring candy apples and hot dogs and candy floss, riding the Ferris wheel and merry-go-round, inhaling the scent of horses, chatting up old flames.
There is some overlap in participation, but the activities, conversations, dress, and ethos of water sport regattas and fall fair adventures sure do go a long way to portraying two distinct communities and their separate universes in a single District.
A Two-Sector Social Economy & Muskoka Postal Service
Now, with this concept of two-sector social economy in mind, let’s explore another example – postal service.
You might say a letter is a letter is a letter. But peeling back the layers of what a mail system is all about reveals another dimension of Muskoka’s two solitudes dwelling in one place yet different universes.
Settler communities that prospered and grew got post offices which not only instituted postal service but offered a community gathering place. Going to fetch the mail meant reading public notices, seeing friends, catching the latest gossip. For many small centres, the post office was a pleasant social hub because it did not come with the expectations of being in either the general store or the church.
Meanwhile, back at the lake, Muskoka’s summer vacationers, whether holidaying at resorts or their private lakeside estates and cottages, ardently wanted mail service on a par with what they had in the city.
And here’s where the vacation economy kicks in, with Muskoka entrepreneurs ready to supply whatever city folk expect. Summer resort operators, marine services centres, and shops in Muskoka’s wee communities applied to Ottawa for a summer post office.
Seasonal Post Offices for Seasonal Muskokans
The townies and villagers, Muskoka’s permanent residents, could carry-on as usual with their established post offices, while these convenient part-time post offices could be fitted up for Muskoka’s part-time community. Designed for vacationers and tourists under Post Office regulations, summer post offices would be open from spring (May or June) to early fall (September.)
Now here’s the thing. There was no other region in Canada with a greater proliferation of summer post offices than the District of Muskoka. Once again, the numbers show this tiny district, because of its unique location on the southernmost part of the rugged Canadian Shield, had acquired an outsized role providing an accessible escape from urban pressures in the northern hinterland.
It did not happen by being passive. This was the activist entrepreneurial response of full-time Muskokans strengthening the pillars of the District’s distinctive vacation economy.
Around the rim of lakes Muskoka, Rosseau, and Joseph, and to the north, lakes Mary, Vernon, Fairy, Peninsula, and Lake of Bays, and south around Sparrow Lake and west at Georgian Bay, summer post offices proliferated. “They appeared,” as postal historian Susan Sheffield put it, “in both small and grand resort hotels.”
Letters, postcards, newspapers, parcels, and other shippable goods were received and despatched through an intricate network of mail routes actively serviced by Muskoka steamships on the lakes, railway companies operating many trains daily through Muskoka, and dozens of Post Office contractors moving bags of mail. Mail taken to the Huntsville, Utterson, Bracebridge, Gravenhurst, or Kilworthy train stations for the southbound morning train would arrive in Toronto and be received by the addressee that afternoon.
Postcards such as this one preserve Muskoka’s historical record. A Grand Trunk Railway train, already through Huntsville, Utterson, Bracebridge, and Gravenhurst, steams past the Kilworthy Post Office and General Store in south Muskoka on its way south to Toronto, carrying the mail.
Muskoka’s 51 – yes, 51 summer post offices, to serve seasonal Muskokans, enabled hundreds of thousands of people to relax in the northland’s rustic splendor while keeping in contact with city families, friends, and businesses.
Post Offices at Muskoka’s Summer Camps?
Anybody who know about Muskoka’s vacationland also knows the District is a cherished home for dozens and dozens of summer camps. So in addition to summer post offices at resorts, they were next even extended to Muskoka camps.
Mail was really the only good way, in the 1920s, because telephone service was not just limited, but a phone call destroyed the psychological distance someone had achieved in escaping to Muskoka. Letters preserved distance, extended time, and could be read or ignored.
But there was a problem with the camps.
A century ago, envelopes were addressed without much detail. Postal codes did not yet exist, but even street addresses or post box numbers might not be included because the sender didn’t know them and just assumed the post office staff knew the intended recipient and would get the letter to them. It was a good assumption. Even into the 1950s, letters in Bracebridge, for instance, could be addressed simply: Pat Boyer, Town – and I’d get it.
However, when this folksy smalltown practice, fairly common across the country, applied to someone attending one of Muskoka’s many summer camps, the Post Office faced the challenge of undeliverable mail. It could not forward a letter to a camp if no post office locale had been written on the envelope. Letters often just gave the intended recipient’s name “Brian Green” or “Betty Black” and the camp’s name, for instance – Billie Bear, Forest Rock, Glenokawa, Kawagama, or Ro-bruin – without even adding Huntsville, Utterson, Port Sydney, Dorset, or Baysville, where those camps were located.
This required – in a time when postal service really meant what that term implies – not consigning such mail to the dead letter box or stamping it “Return to Sender,” but taking service further by preparing a list of all Muskoka camps with summer post offices, showing both name and post office location, then distributing this guide sheet to every post office’s mail-sorters.
The Portage Flyer connects at the Lake of Bays wharf with steamships Iroquois and Mohawk Belle, where mail, passengers, and freight are transferred for the short train ride up to Peninsula Lake and steamers connecting with Huntsville.
Steamships and Steam Trains the Backbone of Muskoka’s Speedy Postal Service
The Age of Steam reached its zenith exactly when Muskoka was opening up for development. As steamships and their counterpart steam trains became the efficient connectors in lakeland Muskoka’s vacation economy, they provided the key to exceptional postal service in a remote setting.
In 1866 the first inland waterways mail contract for Muskoka was awarded by the Post Office to A.P. Cockburn, who was operating Muskoka’s first steamship, Wenonah. The mail contract covered service on the route between Bracebridge and Rosseau – one trip per week, ten trips total for the season. It was a start; these were early days.
Decades passed. Muskoka’s vacation economy expanded. The number of waterway contracts climbed, and mail service was no longer once a week but daily. At the Royal Muskoka Hotel, owned by the Gravenhurst-based Navigation Company with financial backing from the railway, mail service operated twice a day with the Company’s own steamships calling at the summer resort’s busy wharf on Lake Rosseau.
Over the years many Muskoka vessels carried mail, an additional source of income for steamship operators fulfilling their role in Muskoka’s vacation economy. Aboard the Royal Mail Ship Segwun, her name often abbreviated to RMS Segwun, passengers can mail a letter or postcard and it will be stamped and delivered – in keeping with long-standing practices of Muskoka’s postal service economy. The Segwun, operated by Muskoka Steamships & Discovery Centre from her home port at Gravenhurst, is now the only remaining twin-screw steamship running in North America.
Royal Mail Ship Segwun steams out from Muskoka Wharf at Gravenhurst. She is the only such steamer still operating in North America – a heritage link, including with on-board postal service, to the golden age of Muskoka’s inland water system for mail delivery.
On Muskoka’s northern lakes, the Huntsville & Lake of Bays Navigation Company provided steamer service during navigation season. Such vessels as the Empress Victoria, the Gem, the Mohawk Belle, the Joe, the Algonquin, and the Iroquois served people around Mary, Fairy, Vernon, and Peninsula lakes and the Lake of Bays, carrying mail, passengers, and freight between communities and resorts.
Steam trains were essential partners with the steamships in efficient Muskoka mail service. The mighty Grand Trunk railway ran a dozen trains north daily through the Huntsville station at the height of summer’s vacation season. But little Portage Flyer, the world’s shortest commercial railway, running only between Lake of Bays and Peninsula Lake, was part of this network too, carrying dozens of mail bags between the two lake systems, which steamships on Lake of Bays daily delivered to and collected from a dozen resorts and settlements.
On the main lines, Post Office employees in specially designed mail cars received and opened mail bags and sorted and stamped the posted items at counters with destination cubicles while the train sped to the city.
Speed and efficiency in picking up, forwarding, and delivering mail gave everyone concerned an esprit de corps making reliable postal service a key economic driver. At stations where trains had no scheduled stop, they nevertheless slowed down passing through town. Onto the station platform a mail car worker would drop a mail bag for that town, then a little further along the tracks snag another bag with outgoing mail from a sling close to the rails.
End of Censorship, Parcel Post, and Mail Ordering Boost 1920s Mail Volumes
Five other things about Muskoka postal service in the Roaring Twenties were hallmarks of a strengthening vacation economy.
All Canadians had heightened appreciation for unfettered postal service after four grim years of war when mail censorship restricted freedom of speech and limited communication. Now in peacetime, letters to and from loved ones in military service no longer spilled from re-sealed envelopes like cut-out paper dolls after army sensors’ scissors had sliced out names, locations, numbers, dates, and criticisms. In an era when mail was still the principal form of communication between people, the end of censorship underpinned the joyful upsurge in letters flowing through Canada’s postal service.
A second change, also resulting from the war, was extensive mailing of parcels. In February 1914 Ottawa introduced parcel post to expand mail service. Six months later world war began and soon thousands of Canadian soldiers and nurses overseas began receiving parcels from the Home Front. In Muskoka patriotic associations, Red Cross chapters, the Women’s Institute, and families flooded the postal system with packages containing medical supplies, Christmas cakes, knitted socks and scarves, quilts, cigarettes, candy, and newspapers. Millions of parcels being mailed from 1914 to 1918 had acculturated people to use the postal service for more than letters.
Third, businesses increased the volume of mail being delivered. Purchasing by post became popular as people in remote and rural regions, including many parts of Muskoka, shopped from mail-order catalogues national retailers were now distributing to ever more people showcasing their wide-range of products.
Promoting Muskoka through the Mails
A fourth use of the mails helped Muskoka’s vacation economy rebound after the war. Telephone service was coming in, but long-distance calls were still a challenge so for booking reservations at Muskoka’s resorts, mail was still most reliable. But the District’s resorts not only mailed back reassuring confirmations. They also began mailing flyers to prospective vacationers, and running ads in Canadian and American city newspapers promoting the Muskoka Cure at their summer facilities – their postal address the only method for contact.
Of course “word-of-mouth” advertising is best – hearing directly from somebody you know about a new product, special service, or remarkable place to go on vacation. Without doubt, one of the biggest boosters for Muskoka’s vacation economy was the little post card. This was the fifth factor.
Not hundreds, but thousands, of different Muskoka scenes were printed on postcards. This practice developed long before the war, but in the 1920s postcards skyrocketed in popularity. Vacationers daily mailed a picture with a message to scattered friends across North America about their coveted holiday in Muskoka. “This incredible scene is where I’m enjoying the time of my life. Wish you were here! Love, Billie.” These brief messages – the tweets and selfies of the Roaring Twenties – enabled individuals to celebrate Muskoka, boast about having a destination holiday, and, by stirring envy, recruit even more vacationers to summertime Muskoka.
These idyllic postcard images, their accompanying messages, one-cent postage stamps, even the post office cancellation stamp, are enduring records of Muskoka’s development, transportation, tourism, fashions, commerce, technology, speech idioms and human emotions. Many history books include these postcards.
Bruce MacLellans’ two charming books of Post Cards from Lake of Bays encapsulate cultural, social, and natural history through five decades of well-chosen cards from his extensive personal collection. The years from 1900 to 1950, Bruce says, “were the glory years for postcards, starting with the prosperity of the Edwardian Era, followed by growing travel and tourism, the opening of successful resorts, and advances in printing technology.”
With so many of these photographic gems arriving through the mail, families kept albums. “Even in 1915,” MacLellan has documented, “with Canada’s population less than eight million, people mailed more than 65 million post cards.”
Yes, postal service was a catalyst for Muskoka’s vacation economy. The District’s year-round residents knew the importance of summer camps and lakeside resorts and seasonal cottages. They weren’t municipal entities that qualified for a post office in the traditional pattern. But everybody saw the social, cultural, and economic advantages of extending reliable mail delivery and pick-up service to where half Muskoka’s population was to be found through spring, summer, and fall.
Hey – You’ve Got Mail!