The echoes of the past are visible all around us, but some are harder to find than others.
In the 1870s settlers to the Muskoka region founded a small community in the forests east of Gravenhurst, bent on transforming the wilderness into pastoral farmland. Like many settlers to Muskoka, they soon learned that the land is not easily tamed.
Dreams of agricultural abundance soon evaporated but the community of Lewisham was born.
“Lewisham was hard-scrabble and harsh for most families. But the hardships brought people together to create a tight-knit community,” says Andrew Hind, author of the new book Lewisham: Foundations in the Forest. “So much so that many proved reluctant to leave, even after it became clear that Lewisham would never live up to its promise.”
Lewisham is now a ghost town, a one-time village now completely deserted and almost forgotten with little more than foundations in the forest to mark its existence, says Hind.
“Lewisham was founded on optimism in the late 19th century, when settlers carved the hamlet from the wilderness with equal doses of enterprise, determination, and hard work,” says Hind. “Never large, Lewisham was nonetheless a vibrant village where people coaxed crops from the soil, engaged in logging, and created the tight bonds for which rural communities are known. It was home.”
The book preserves the memory of the community by tracing its rise and fall, introducing readers to the families who bet their futures on its success, and sharing everyday tales of life and loss in early Muskoka. Dozens of never before published photos bring the village vibrantly back to life.
Hind is no stranger to chronicling local history, having written many books on Muskoka, including Exploring Hidden Muskoka, Muskoka Resorts: Then and Now and Ghost Towns of Ontario’s Cottage Country. In fact, Hind says it was while researching Ghost Towns of Muskoka more than 20 years ago that he first heard of Lewisham.
“I was fortunate enough to be given a tour of Lewisham by Jim Taverner, who grew up in Lewisham in the 1930s. He pointed out where farms and businesses once were, and had an anecdote for most of them,” says Hind. “Fast forward several years, and when Jim passed I realized all of that knowledge was going with him. I felt compelled to write a book to preserve the memory of Lewisham. It just took me much longer to complete the project than I expected.”
Hind says he’s been collecting information on Lewisham, on and off, ever since. However, it wasn’t until five years ago that he got serious about the project.
“There was a lot of time in libraries and archives, scrolling endlessly through old newspapers, and leveraging resources like Ancestry.com,” he says. “Tracking down descendants was difficult because many Lewisham families caught ‘Prairie Fever’ in the early 20th century and went west. Some of those I interviewed were as far away as British Columbia.”
Hind says the challenges faced by Lewisham residents are part of what made it such a unique community.
“The hardships brought people together to create a tight-knit community. So much so that many proved reluctant to leave, even after it became clear that Lewisham would never live up to its promise. The final holdouts left in the early 1950s,” says Hind.
Signed copies of the book are available through Hind at [email protected]. Unsigned copies are vaailabe at Artisans of Muskoka in Huntsville, Birchbark in Bala, Manticore Books in Orillia, and Amazon.
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