Rustic with Provenance
Finding unique, attractive and functional rustic furniture that was created in earlier eras is always a satisfying outcome of our hunt for antiques. Although all antiques have an origin story and a life history subsequent to our finding them, more often than not those specifics remain unknown to us. So it is particularly gratifying when we can trace the provenance of notable rustic furniture that we find, as we were able to do for these three tables in our current inventory.
These pieces – a dining table, a game table and a coffee table – originated at Nominigan Camp, a lodge built in 1913 on Smoke Lake in Algonquin Provincial Park, Ontario. We have a handwritten note from the previous owner of the tables stating that they were given to his mother by Dr. Mary Northway whose family once owned Nominigan.
At wilderness outposts, furniture was usually made onsite from local trees. In this case the softwoods around Smoke Lake’s Loon Point, where Nominigan (meaning “Among the Balsams”) was built, provided the furniture’s raw materials. The frames of the tables are made of bark-on white cedar poles, and the table tops are pine.
They are sturdily built with tight tenons, and have classic rustic style. But before providing more details about the furniture itself, it is worth delving into the history of Nominigan Camp, their original home.
Nominigan Camp was built as an outpost of a Grand Trunk Railway resort called the Highland Inn located on Cache Lake in Algonquin Park (est. 1893). The Highland Inn was built in 1908 during the height of the rusticator movement to accommodate tourists who could travel to the Park relatively easily via train from their urban residences in Montreal and Toronto. The railway and Cache Lake Station were located directly in front of the Inn.
The Inn started modestly, serving primarily as a way station for anglers and campers who went on to explore the interior of the Park.
It quickly grew in size, however, and gained amenities such as steam heating, modern kitchens and a formal dining room serving multi-course meals.
The expanded inn attracted a larger clientele who enjoyed the combination of a remote wilderness setting with the luxuries of a fine hotel.
As more guests brought families on vacations to the Inn, the owners saw a need and an opportunity to expand its entertainment options, so sightseeing trips became a favorite pastime. The most popular was the “Grand Outing” to Loon Point on Smoke Lake, which required traveling more than seven miles from the Inn via train, stagecoach, portage and boat.
Inevitably, the human urge to “make the wilderness comfortable” transformed Loon Point from a simple camping and day trip location to the site for a new lodge which became an official outpost of the Highland Inn, named Nominigan Camp. The following passage sardonically summarizes the genesis of Nomingan, which could also aptly describe the origins of many lodges and camps built by rusticators and those who served them during the late 19th and early 20th centuries:
Since it was already a beloved camping site … what was more appropriate than to put up a lodge to shelter these campers? Simple, of course – an outpost – only log buildings – but of course, we must include hot and cold running water, lighting and good meals. And there must be room to keep boats there, and perhaps a launch for sightseers who want more comfortable travel than by canoe, and good fireplaces to give cheer and… and… and… And so it was. (Northway, 1970a)
Creating Nominigan began with crews clearing a site to make room for log buildings on Loon Point, which became known forever after as Nominigan Point.
Within a year, Nominigan’s large main lodge and a row of six log cabins were constructed along the point.
The main lodge was a full two-story building situated just 30 feet from the shore of Smoke Lake. It had staff quarters, family quarters, 10 guest rooms and several bathrooms. The ground floor accommodated a kitchen and a massive stone fireplace that separated the dining room from the living room, each of which were 30’ long by 24’ wide. At capacity, Nominigan’s main lodge and cabins could hold nearly 100 people – 60 to 70 guests plus staff and guides.
Historical documents and early ads for Nominigan described its sturdy cedar log buildings as being created both in the style of “a log cabin camp similar to those of Maine,” and as “patterned along the lines of those constructed in the Adirondack Forest of the northeastern United States.” Clearly the owners were catching and riding the wave of elegant rustic style being popularized just south of their border. One ad stated: This sort of camp is new to the Highlands of Ontario. It consists of log cabins constructed in groups in the heart of the wilds completely furnished with modern conveniences, such as baths – hot and cold water always available.
The ads attracted many visitors to Nominigan, despite the relatively arduous journey to get there that culminated in a ride up the lake in a launch or canoes.
Visitors enjoyed what was exclaimed by brochures to be a lake “in the heart of the best fishing districts in Canada.”
In true rusticator spirit, vacationers sought and found respite from their busy urban lives in the comfortable wilds of Nominigan, as recounted in this poetic remembrance written by a guest in the 1920s:
At Nominigan’s Camp we stay; There is no work for all is play. We wander in the forest deep, With nature rendezvous we keep; We hear the loon’s despairing cry, And see the waterfowl skimming by; And in the forest’s depths we find, Health of body and peace of mind.
The Highland Inn’s outpost at Nominigan ran successfully for over a decade. Although a fire destroyed the guest cabins in 1926, the main lodge remained sporadically in use as an outpost for another five years.
Nominigan’s Middle to Final Years
The Highland Inn’s visitation dropped significantly during the Great Depression. Making matters worse, an essential Cache Lake trestle was condemned in 1932, so trains could no longer travel to the Inn’s doorstep. That is the year that the Canadian National Railway decided to close, and eventually sell, the Highland Inn.
At this time the Railway also sold its Nominigan outpost to a family whose elders, John and Kate Northway, had started summering at the Highland Inn with their two sons in 1913. Nominigan thus became the Northway family’s retreat from 1931-1962.
The Northways were a prominent family who owned a chain of clothing stores in Toronto and southern Ontario. One of John and Kate’s sons, Arthur Garfield (“Gar”) Northway, who ran the family business along with his brother Jack, purchased Nominigan and became its gracious host, along with his wife Jessie and daughter Mary, for legions of guests over the years.
Gar’s daughter, Dr. Mary Louise Northway (1909-1987), was 21 in 1931 and working as the program director at a girl’s camp when her father acquired Nominigan. It is thanks to her scholarly inclinations that there is excellent documentation of Nominigan’s history and rich personal stories.
Mary’s two books about Nominigan are filled with charming anecdotes about life at Nominigan and especially the comings and goings of local friends, hired help, and travelers from away who were both invited guests and canoe tripping drop-ins. Her stories comprise a treasured testimony of rustic summer home culture and lifestyle during that era.
After Gar Northfield’s death in 1961 Nominigan was bequeathed to his longtime friends and summer camp directors, Dr. Harry and Adele Ebbs. The Ebbs owned Nominigan until 1977 when its land lease was revoked by the Provincial Government which thereby acquired the lodge.
To fulfill a policy at the time of returning as much of Algonquin Park’s land as possible to a forever wild state, the Park usually destroyed the buildings it acquired by burning them. But the Ebbs persuaded Park administrators to dismantle their beloved Nominigan lodge instead, and transport its timbers to nearby Camp Kandalore for eventual reassembly. The logs were never resurrected into a lodge, however, so the pile gradually rotted into organic matter that nurtured soil not far from where the cedars originally grew.
Thanks to Mary Northway’s documentation of her family’s early years at Nominigan, we are able to date these three pieces of Nominigan furniture to originating around 1932. She wrote the following passage about that time period, which was just after her family had purchased Nominigan in 1931:
Over the next few years, the furnishings were improved and the gardens started. The downstairs was furnished with oblong and octagonal cedar tables and benches made by a fellow (from) near Churchill, Manitoba who was (known as) “a good worker when not drunk.” (Northway, 1970b)
Clearly she is describing the furniture we now own. The game table is indeed an octagonal cedar table, and the larger dining table is oblong. Although we do not know the name of the tipsy woodworker who built these tables, we do know that he did good work.
The coffee table shares the same design as the larger tables which all have a trestle base whose legs are inserted into half-round cedar logs, and pine tops.
If only antiques could talk, what stories these tables could no doubt tell. But even in their silence they evoke a sense of communality in a rustic setting.
The Nominigan Legacy
Mary Northway went on to become a prominent child psychologist and professor at the University of Toronto. In 1941 she and her partner Flora Morrison established a girl’s canoe tripping camp in the Haliburton Lakes region west of Algonquin Park. They believed that the self-reliance and respect for the environment that their female campers practiced in an adventurous context would build skills and values that they could draw on throughout their lives. She thus passed on to new generations all of the positive aspects of an outdoorsy life that she led, in part, at Nominigan.
We have paddled on Smoke Lake, and Jeff sometmes stopped on Nominigan Point as he traversed the lake during his summers as a canoe trip guide in Algonquin Park. We are therefore happy to be the temporary caretakers of this cedar furniture that originated in a beautiful location and now awaits a new chapter and setting.
Clemson, Gaye I. (2012). Nominigan and Other Smoke Lake Jewels. Campbell, CA: FastPencil.
Northway, Mary. (1970a). Nominigan, The Early Years. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Northway, Mary. (1970b). Nominigan, A Casual History. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Simone, Michelle F. (2001). Partners in the Community: The Legacy of Windy Pine 1941-2001. U-Links Centre for Community-Based Research. Peterborough, Ontario: Trent University.