Julie Druker | May 28, 2015
Long before it officially became a provincial park in 1965, the flavor of Bon Echo Park had begun to take shape decades earlier, thanks to the influence of three distinct personalities.
In a presentation titled "The Dentist, the Feminist and The Writer", local historian Margaret Axford spoke of the influence these three people had on the park, which continues to draw visitors from across the country and from all over the world.
The first was the dentist, Dr. Weston A. Price, who was born in Newburgh, Ontario, but who lived and worked in Cleveland, Ohio. Price's wife was from Brampton, Ont. and she taught in Ardoch. In 1898 Price began renting land in what is now Bon Echo in the summer months from a farmer named David Weese. In 1899 the couple acquired land in the area and Price decided to build an inn modeled on the tourist hotels of the Adirondacks. Axford stated, “He [Price] knew that the setting of the Mazinaw Rock would be a natural draw and it was the Prices who gave the name 'Bon Echo' to the area, and who gave birth to tourism in the region.”
Price, who was described by one observer at the time as a “wiry man, always rushing somewhere with a hammer in his hand” used local labor to build the inn, which consisted of the main building, five cottages, a separate staff house, a boat house, a laundry house, an ice house, numerous docks and a bridge across the Narrows. By the end of Price's second summer after purchasing the land, the Bon Echo Inn was complete. In 1901 a telephone line that originated at the Kaladar train station and ran along the old Addington Road became the first telephone line in the area.
Price hoped to attract like-minded nature lovers to the area, and because he was a teetotaler and a religious man, the inn was dry until Merrill Denison took it over decades later.
In 1901, Flora MacDonald Denison arrived on the scene at Bon Echo with her husband Howard and son Merrill, first as guests in the tower room suite of the inn. Axford said that “she would have bought the place at that time if Price had been selling it” but instead she bought a lot south of the Narrows, where she built a summer cottage. Flora and her family would spend the next nine summers there. Flora MacDonald Denison was born in 1867 in Actinolite, worked as a teacher near Actinolite, and as a dressmaker in Toronto. She later was a writer on women's rights and the suffrage movement.
It was on her annual trip to Bob Echo in 1910 that Flora learned that Dr. Price wanted to sell the inn. Differing reasons are given for Price's reason for selling. One was that his 10-year-old son Donald was ill at the time; he later died either of spinal meningitis or from a diving accident.
Flora paid Dr. Price $13,000 for the inn, Big Bear Island and numerous acres of land, and Flora's husband Howard ran the Inn from 1911-1913 until the two separated and their marriage ended. Flora then took it over and her intent was to create “a haven for artists and philosophers in an inspiring natural landscape with an incredible view of Mazinaw Rock, where visitors could renew their souls, their energies and their creative instincts.” Flora also celebrated the teachings and writings of Walt Whitman, the famed 19th century American poet. According to Axford, Flora “was caught up in his [Whitman's] democratic ideals and she saw Bon Echo as being a symbol of democratic freedom...that would always be enhanced by the spirit of Walt Whitman.”
It was Flora who had a large rock face on the lake inscribed with a dedication to “Old Walt”. As a practicing spiritualist and part of a group whose members claimed they could communicate with the dead, Flora held numerous séances at Bon Echo. One observer at the time recalled that guests at Bon Echo “often preferred a séance at midnight to a Sunday morning church service.” Under Flora's command the inn housed many notable guests, including James Thurber, Morley Callahan, Frank Lloyd Wright and the painters from the Group of Seven; the latter would often be guests when Flora's son Merrill took over ownership. Financially the inn ran at a loss, with “Flora's dreams always outstretching her financial capabilities”.
Flora died at 54 years of age on May 23, 1921 and a bronze urn holding her ashes was deposited in Mazinaw Lake just below the Whitman inscription. Her son, Merrill Denison, a writer and later a well-known radio personality, inherited the inn and its 10 square miles of property, and began some much-needed repairs. His contacts at Hart House and the Arts and Letters Club in Toronto put him in touch with many famous Canadians artists of the time, many of whom would become regular visitors to Bon Echo. Merrill's partner, Muriel Goggin, whom he would marry in 1926, ran the inn from 1923-1928 “like a general”, and it prospered during this time until the stock market crash of 1929. From then until 1934 it was closed to the public at large and became Camp Mazinaw, a boys' camp for Trinity College School in Port Hope.
In 1936 the inn burned down after being struck by lightning. A Toronto woman who was working at the inn at that time, when she was 16 years old, sadly recalled watching it burn. Though the inn was never rebuilt, Merrill and Muriel continued to spend the summers at Bon Echo after selling off some of the land. They kept less than 100 acres for themselves. Merrill's aim still was to preserve the area as “a meeting place as it was for the Alonquins, a center to which people would come to learn and discuss ideas in an inspiring natural surrounding.”
In 1959 he turned over the buildings and land to the provincial government to be used as a provincial park. The official ceremony did not take place until 1965. Merrill died in 1975 at the age of 81.
Axford ended her presentation defining the legacy that these three personalities left behind for all who continue to visit and enjoy Bon Echo Park. “The legacy they left was that the democratic spirit should prevail and the ordinary person must continue to have access to this wonderful place.” For those wanting a more detailed account of the history of Bon Echo and the personalities who helped to create it, a number of books on the subject are available at the Cloyne Pioneer Museum. They include "The Oxen and The Axe" (Brown, Brumell and Snider), "The Mazinaw Experience: Bon Echo and Beyond" (John Campbell), "Sunset of Bon Echo" (Flora MacDonald Denison), and "Bon Echo: The Denison Years" (Mary Savigny).