Dr. R. P. Little, "Some Recollections of Tom Thomson and Canoe Lake", Culture, 1955
I first went to Algonquin Park in 1910 as one of the boys at Mr. George G. Brower’s Camp Waubens, situated on the large island opposite the Highland Inn on Cache Lake. On one of our numerous trips we passed through Canoe Lake, and I well remember seeing the red brick walls of the old Gilmour lumber mill standing with the galvanized iron roof intact. At that time the former village of Mowat, which once had some 600 inhabitants, a school, and a hospital, was a ghost town.
The postmaster of Mowat, Mr. J. S. Fraser (Shannon) lived with his wife and family in the old hospital building on the hill. A storehouse and a former boarding house for lumbermen, both in fairly good repair, stood below and on the right of the horse barn; in front lay the great mill yard, bare and desolate, with its 30 acres of sawdust and pine slabs. Across the mill yard by the lake shore stood the ruins of the Gilmour mill and some three houses in good repair. The one farthest to the right once belonged to a foreman but was then owned by Mr. Bletcher, a furniture manufacturer of Buffalo, New York. To the left of this was a log cabin, formerly a school house, but then owned by Mr. C.O. Anderson of Cleveland, Ohio. Beyond this stood a cottage, at one time a shelter hut, but then owned by Mr. Hugh Trainor, a walking foreman of the Huntsville Lumber Company.
Mr. Trainor had two comely young daughters, Winnifred (the elder) and Marie. Marie later studied nursing at St. Luke’s hospital, New York, and married a Dr. Roy McCormick, who was a fire ranger on Canoe Lake during his student days. Winifred, tall and dark, was friendly with Tom Thomson. Some say that Tom was much too wrapped up in his work to care much for women [...]
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Actually however, Tom did have a girl friend – the comely Winifred Trainor. They were frequently seen together, and Tom would go to Huntsville to visit her. [...]
In 1910 the permanent inhabitants of Mowat were very few. They consisted of Mr. Fraser’s family (wife, daughter, mother and father-in-law- the old Mr. J.E. Stewart), all of whom lived at the hospital, and George Rowe, a one-time champion typesetter, later mill worker, and now guide and woodsman, who lived with Larry Dickson, a retired shantyman, in a cabin situated on a low sandy point at the mouth of Potter and Joe Creeks. [...]
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[...] In 1914 I was again at Mr. Brower’s camp. We passed through Canoe Lake on a trip with an Indian guide named Peter. Canoe Lake looked the same as when I had seen it before – a wild deserted spot. Beaver swam in the lake, deer walked across the mill yard, and there was no better place in the Park to see wild animal life. At the end of August, because I wished to remain after the camp had closed, Mr. Brower sent me to see Mark Robinson, the ranger stationed at Joe Lake. I was Mark’s guest for a week, and I was much interested in accompanying him on his rounds through the woods and watching him trap live beaver. About September 7, Mark Robinson told me that Shannon Fraser of Canoe Lake was starting a tourist lodge. I therefore paddled down there in a canoe to see about getting accommodations. It was on this trip that I first saw Tom Thomson. Tom was camped in a grove of birch trees situated on the north shore of Canoe Lake immediately opposite the old mill. This site had been selected for the Park headquarters but later abandoned. The ground had been dug up and some lumber was piled to one side. Tom was living in a tent amid his Hudson Bay blankets, panels, pots, and provisions (including a sack of flour). What a horse is to a cowboy, a 16-foot canvas-covered canoe was to Tom. (This canoe was made by the Chestnut Canoe Company of New Brunswick).
I first met Tom by the shore near Mowat Lodge. He was dressed like a woodsman in Mackenaw trousers. I asked him if I could camp with him. Tom said he had no
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objections but doubted if I would like the cooking as he lived largely on bacon, flapjacks, fish and potatoes. He suggested that I see the Frasers. [...]
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The photograph of Tom and Arthur Lismer seated together in Tom’s canoe was taken by Bud in front of the Smoke Lake shelter hut in 1914. [...]
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[...] I was at Canoe Lake the summer and fall of 1915 and from June, 1916, till October, 1917, and Mrs. Fraser, who lived at Canoe Lake, permanently, confirms me in saying that Tom never lived in a so-called “Artist’s Hut.” Tom usually camped out when the weather permitted, from April till the first snowfall in October or November, and he was perfectly at home in his gypsy tent. Tom would hardly have bothered with a cabin unless someone had given him one. In early spring and late fall Tom lived with the Frasers as one of the family. He frequently kept his panels in the former hospital. In 1914 this cottage was full of panels because all the artists made use of it.
I very much enjoyed watching Tom and his friends at work. Among these were Jackson, Varley, and Lismer,
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who were later members of the “Group of Seven.” Tom Thomson was generous and openhearted; he would often give away his panels for the asking or to pay for some minor obligation. The Frasers had several. Among them I recall a beautiful scene of the hills of Smoke Lake in the autumn colours; one of Tom’s canoe resting by the shore; and another, a view of Canoe Lake. While Tom lived and worked a great deal alone, he was by no means unsociable but shy and reserved as woodsmen often are. He was too much wrapped up in his work – a jealous mistress – to waste time in idle conversation but was always ready to help others and frequently aided the Frasers put in their vegetable garden in the spring. One year (1916) he designed the cover of the Fraser’s booklet announcing Mowat Lodge. When requested by George Rowe he painted a pennant on the bow of George’s canoe to identify it. Tom took great pride in his own Chestnut-brand canoe, which, like a centaur, was almost a part of him. The story is told of how he added a whole tube of very expensive artist’s paint to a can of canoe enamel in order to get the exact shade that he wanted.
[...] When I returned to Canoe Lake the following July, 1915, Tom was painting in the Park; Mowat Lodge was a going concern, and the Frasers had converted the adjoining storehouse into a kitchen and dining room. Larry Dickson had rented his finished cabin to Mr. and Mrs. Cunard of South Carolina. George Chubb was now Mr. Fraser’s storekeeper, and he also carried the mail. In September Messrs. Chubb and Cade put up a shack in which they slept during the following winter. Tom
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came back the last of September and stayed with the Frasers till the middle of October.
Mr. Callighen said that in the spring of 1915 Tom was lamenting the fact that he could not enlist in the Army. Tom remarked that he would “get over yet,” but certain persons interested in Tom objected to his abandoning his art career to go overseas.
[...] Tom Thomson came up early in April, 1917, while the Frasers were putting in the ice. It was this spring that he painted the picture of Larry’s cabin (“The Artist’s Hut”). [...] The two figures in the foreground are Mrs. Fraser (green) and Mrs. Crombie (red). Mrs. Crombie was the wife of Lieut. Robert Crombie of the Royal Engineers. He was then in Canada because of illness. He and his wife were at Canoe Lake on their honeymoon.
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In May Tom put all the panels he had painted that spring on the walls of the Fraser’s summer dining room. They made a real art exhibit. Tom told Mrs. Crombie that she could have any one she chose. The only reason I did not take one too is because I did not want to impose on Tom’s generosity.
Tom seemed in excellent spirits that spring. He commented on how much my health had improved, remarking that I had a very different face when he had seen me previously. For several days in May Tom worked hard at putting in a vegetable garden for the Frasers back of the Lodge, and he also put in one near the mill for the Trainors. This is one of my last recollections of Tom.
About the middle of July, 1917, when on a canoe trip, I stopped at Canoe Lake, and as I was walking up to the Lodge I met Charlie Scrim of Ottawa who excitedly asked me if I had heard that Tom Thomson had been drowned.
Exactly how Tom met his death probably no one will ever know. The following is the account given me by Mrs. J.S. Fraser (now of Whitney, Ontario) – (1953), with whom Tom was living at Canoe Lake when the tragedy occurred. Tom was staying at Mowat Lodge. On Sunday, July 7, 1917, he made preparations to go to Tea Lake dam to fish, and he left with his lunch at about 1.00 p.m. Mr. Fraser last saw him as he was letting out his copper fishing line while paddling through the narrows to the right of the twin islands. About 3.00 p.m. when Martin Blecher and his sister Bessie went down the lake in their little put-put motor boat, they saw Tom’s empty canoe drifting near the far end of the second twin island (belonging to Dr. Bertram and Mr. Pirie). They
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did not stop but on their way back towed Tom’s canoe back to Mowat Lodge and put it in their boat house. Nevertheless, they did not mention the fact, probably thinking it belonged to the hotel on Joe Lake. Tuesday morning Charlie Scrim discovered Tom’s canoe in Mr. Blecher’s boat house, and then the hunt for Tom began. The canoe contained Tom’s lunch (consisting of bread, butter, and jam), some supplies, and cooking utensils, which Tom always carried, while the paddles were placed as if for portaging but this could have been done by Martin Blecher to hold them in place. The copper trolling line was missing. Everybody hunted all over, and word was sent to Tom’s brother George, who came up immediately. Dynamite was exploded in the lake without result. Ten days later Dr. Howland of Toronto, who was staying at Little Wapomeo, saw something floating in front of this island. Retrieved by George Rowe and Larry Dickson, who were then passing by in a canoe, it proved to be Tom’s body. The copper line was broken but some strands were wrapped about one of Tom’s ankles. The inquest was held at Mr. Blecher’s house, and the verdict was accidental death. The body was put in a steel casket and buried in the graveyard at Canoe Lake. Mr. Blecher, Sr., conducted the funeral service. Two days later the body was exhumed, put in a sealed casket, and reburied at Leith near Owen Sound.