Summer cottages are wasted as status symbols

“Perhaps the picture-windowed, insulated, electrified, central-heated, air-conditioned summer cottage of today is a status symbol but only for parents. Nothing could make it so for children"

W. O. MITCHELL April 21 1962

Summer cottages are wasted as status symbols

“Perhaps the picture-windowed, insulated, electrified, central-heated, air-conditioned summer cottage of today is a status symbol but only for parents. Nothing could make it so for children"

W. O. MITCHELL April 21 1962

Summer cottages are wasted as status symbols


“Perhaps the picture-windowed, insulated, electrified, central-heated, air-conditioned summer cottage of today is a status symbol but only for parents. Nothing could make it so for children"

I HAD ALWAYS THOUGHT a cottage at the lake was a North American phenomenon that could be explained simply as an atavistic hunger of the city sparrow for the vista of leaf and water instead of asphalt and brick. Recently I have been told that I am wrong — that the lake cottage has become the newest status symbol of our time. 1 am reluctant to accept this judgment, but there is ostentatious evidence to prove it.

In British Columbia along the lovely Okanagan Lake the going price for a hundred-toot waterfront lot is ten thousand dollars. Where the Qu'Appelle Lakes string themselves out fifty miles east of Regina, a number of cottages have their own heated swimming pools attached; last summer the stonework was going up for a cottage that was to cost — lake rumor had it — over a hundred thousand dollars. In Ontario’s Muskoka district one cottager bought out a thriving boat factory on his lake to make

sure his own fleet of pleasure boats would be well looked after; and a New Brunswick summer resident regularly dispatched his private plane to Montreal to pick up the week-end groceries. There’s more here than city dwellers looking for a two-month sliver of the poetry of earth. Someone is trying to score on someone.

In my childhood not only was such luxury unknown, but most of the summer cottages I knew' would have been condemned outright as unfit for human habitation by the most indulgent of modern slum inspectors. No running water — you walked half a mile for it to the hotel pump; no outside sanitation; no insula-

tion; fifth-grade shingles starred with sunlight, for the cottage of course had no ceiling, displaying its stud and rafter ribs to all within. These cottages never twinkled with a pane of glass, just screens and their shutters. During a sudden rain or wind storm, the shutters could be lowered by their ropes, although sometimes they clattered down automatically — generally after dark when you were playing pinochle with your grandmother in the luke light of a lamp with its body-odor smell of kerosene.

For my grandmother and me the cottage kindled a sort of inebriation that lasted all through July and August. I hate to think what this black Scot in her


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“My grandmother, in her mid-eighties, went to the beach each Sunday. Hundreds watched her bathe"

mid-eighties would have thought of today’s summer cottages. A Presbyterian stoic, crippled with rheumatism, she would not have approved even of the sybaritic comfort of not having to thread her way past the sawhorses and the woodpile, through the birches and to the convenience.

We traveled the ninety miles to our cottage at Lake Carlyle, in a great McLaughlin monster driven by my oldest brother. My mother and grandmother sat in the front seat with him. my two younger brothers and 1 in the back, strewn over the tops of trunks and suitcases and cardboard boxes. Quite generally it rained when we entered the Kisbey Flats and 1 was car sick and threw up.

I can see my grandmother clearly now with her great arthritic knuckles clenched over the top of her cane, the cameo clarity of her hawk face over the black velvet band that circled her throat — quite expressionless anil wordless as we slid and slodc and slod and sind over the greasy Kisbey Flats.

Several miles before the actual revelation of water, there occurred what was a wonderful thing for a Saskatchewan prairie boy, the live smell of it plain upon the July air. Then I appreciated how an Arab with very dry nostrils feels when he approaches an oasis. Soon we were enclosed by the true forest, musky with the smell of leaf mold presently mingled with another fragrance: the wild smell of buckskin and the bitter-sweet of willow smoke and Old Chum pipe tobacco impregnating clothes. That was Sheep Skin, a patient and quiet-humored Indian with a deep and mystic current of alien amusement, seated in the shade by the road where it turned off to our cottage, surrounded by lard pails of saskatoons anil wild strawberries and wild raspberries. He held his youngest child in his lap. her black velvet bonnet adangle and agleam with hundreds — no -—thousands of dimes. It stunned the imagination: an Indian baby not yet old enough to walk, in a bonnet jeweled with a thousand thin dimes, not to be spent, just to be worn!

The frogs’ revenge

My grandmother loved the cottage: she sat on its screened veranda and watched the vacationing world on its way to Sandy beach. Crescent beach. Long Beach. She played more cards — casino, euchre, cribbage, rummy — dining the two months at the cottage, than she did during the rest of the year. And she went down to the beach each Sunday afternoon to bathe, making it with my arm and her cane to the water’s edge. She sat then in the lake, to her navel, and she bathed — literally. The soap foam lapped about her middle as she w'ent over her neck and face a nil arms and legs w ith the wash cloth. C hildren splashed and dogs paddled around her. Several hundred people on the beach watched her. They were compelled to. finas well as her skirted cotton bathing suit, she wore her velvet neck band anil the attached lace piece that hid her goitre. She was the only bather on the beach wearing a black velvet neck band and. a Queen Mary hat. a high, black turbanish affair with a polished jet gadget like a miniature coach lamp, fixed to the top rim.

After her bath, she would sit in the shade of the birches at the top of the beach, anil give me a dime to buy two of those great monolithic suckers cast in the shape of a cob of corn. She was very fond of these suckers: Sheep Skin was too.

To buy these suckers and ice cream

cones and pop. my brother and 1 went into business, the frog business, selling them at a cent a piece. We generally sold between a hundred and two hundred frogs an afternoon during the week, and as many as five hundred on a Saturday or a Sunday. This ran into a great many frogs, which we kept in a great reservoir behind the cottage. My brother was very good at selling.

so it was usually he who left the cottage with a large lard pail holding over a hundred frogs, and. strung on a stick over his shoulder, at least ten small jam pails, into which he could transfer each customer’s purchase: ten, fifteen, more often, twentyfive frogs.

Mail sorting time, two o’clock, at the front, or post-office part of the hotel was

a good place for frog sales. Here, just a they came up from the beach, people it their bathing suits and bath robes, usual!1 bare-footed, waited before the mail wicke Mostly they were young girls, anxious fo departmental exam results, Normal Schoo certificates, or letters from some boy \vh had stayed forlornly behind in their horm town. Among the proper ladies of the Iak

there were mutterings about the impropriety of all this feminine seminudity in the hotel at mail time. The beach was the place for it; a hotel was not. One August Saturday afternoon in 1928 my brother fixed that up for the balance of the summer.

Ordinarily he left the master frog pail down by the hotel dock, but for some reason he took it into the hotel with him that day. Between the grocery counter and the lattice covered with life-sized pictures of bathing girls with rubber roses and rubber butterflies on their rubber bathing caps, my brother stubbed his toe, or was tripped, and went flat on his face. The lard pail hit the floor and sprung its lid, emptying four gallons of water and two hundred frogs among the bare feet and legs of at least seventy girls. The girls leaped noisily; the frogs leaped, though silently. One of the Wcyburn MacIntyre girls made it from the top of the grocery counter to the top of a pyramid display of Rogers Golden Syrup tins, but only momentarily. The beautiful Boswell twins from Brandon scaled the lattice partition, and dropped lightly down on the ice cream parlor side, only to find more hopping frogs there; both jumped in unison to the top of a table where a honeymooning couple from Areola were .having a banana split. All this confusion did not help my brother, down on his hands and knees trying to recapture some of his merchandise. The owner of the hotel, who had the restraint of Buster Keaton, told my mother that frogs dead and alive kept showing up in the dining room, the ice cream parlor, the grocery and post office sections, for two weeks after. He also said that the next time my brothers or 1 turned over the canoe with its lateen sail and leeboards out in the middle of the lake, there would be a five-dollar towing charge for the hotel launch when it went out to retrieve us—up till that time the hotel launch had come for us for nothing. As well, we were not to sell frogs in his hotel or on the hotel dock any more. The latter was rather unfair of him, and we knew why; he had just bought his son a twenty-five dollar minnow net.

The frogs’ decline

Once the hotel owner’s son, Kenny, was in minnows, the bottom dropped out of frogs, for a minnow would outcatch frogs on pickerel or pike five to one. My brother tried his hand at several things. He dived underwater in the bay for sunken outboard motors at a dollar a dive. Until my mother found out, he rented hers, my grandmother’s. my Aunt Josie’s, my cousins’, and any other bathing suits he could find.

The hotel owner hired me to take the tickets in his great barn-paint red dance pavilion where Mart Kenney’s orchestra played nightly. This gave me prestige, especially with a Williston, North Dakota, girl scout (Troop Nine), who allowed me to kiss her in our green Peterborough canoe in the middle of the lake when I was fourteen, and another girl who had done bird calls with Chautauqua but had left the circuit to spend the rest of the summer with her aunt on Sandy Beach.

There seemed to be more people around the dance hall than inside it. They stood silent except for sharp slaps as they hit at mosquitoes, under the dark trees, lit with the phosphorescent wink of fireflies. Young men lounged with great bell-bottomed trousers enveloping their shoes from heel to toe. hair slicked back and lacquered with brilliantine. the aroma of their Millbanks carried upon the night air. The Indians watched too. Sheep Skin always among them with his pursed, down-curving mouth, and eyes dark with some inner amusement—at us. Every once in a while he would loose a bass grunt from deep in

his throat. Then, too, there was always the MacIntyre lookout, a boy or a girl sent outside to watch for Mr. or Mrs. MacIntyre, for they were Baptists and disapproved of dancing. They must have thought their girls attended a hell of a lot of wiener roasts and beach parties, for the MacIntyre girls never missed a night at the dance hall. The lookout was to whistle three short w'histles for danger, but the early warning system did not function too smoothly after a number of false whistlers discovered the delight of seeing a MacIntyre girl leave her partner in mid-dance.

For many of our earlier years at the cottage, our neighbor was an English lady old almost as my grandmother. She had a lark-happy laugh that slalomed down the scale and burst clear with the words: "how' love-leh!" She was an interesting person to me, for she said that her father had been personal surgeon to Charles Dickens.

She had a precise sense of property and one day firmly ordered my youngest brother and me to keep away from her chokecherries. We did, though we resented it.

I have realized in later years that she had no intention of being unfriendly or unneighborly; the chokecherries were not ten feet away from the convenience. The impropriety of two boys so near had offended her delicate feelings. My brother and I did not realize this as w'e sat on our back step and stared out toward her outhouse. a rather pretentious one for the lake, with a door that had what no other such door at the lake had—-a square glazed window.

I heard the screen on the cottage ne: t door slap at the drowzing August stillness; up the path, past the chokecherry bushes, our neighbor walked with upright dignity. The outhouse door opened and quickly closed. I slipped into the cottage, on heaven or hell knows what demonic impulse, and returned with my Little Daisy air rifle. My brother and I then besieged her, taking turns, with a satisfying ringing ping as the bee-bees hit the window. She u'as truly held at bay: modesty would not permit her to come out and confront us with the enormity of what we w'crc doing; yet the repetitive outrage was insupportable.

The door behind us opened; my grandmother held out her hand for the bee-bee gun; my brother, whose turn it happened to be, gave it to her. The outhouse door opened. As one, my brother and 1 dived under our cottage, whence w'e could see my grandmother confronted—the bee-bee gun in her hand—by the angry Sassenach. My grandmother did not squeal on us. I know' this, because I was invited into our neighbor’s cottage several times after the incident — but my grandmother w-as not ever again invited over for tea.

Perhaps the picture-windowed, insulated, electrified, central-heated, air-conditioned summer cottage of today is a status symbol—but only for parents; nothing could make it so for children. And there is a hidden dividend in a summer cottage. Last summer in the Okanagan I visited a Canadian journalist crippled with rheumatism. He sat on his front porch, surrounded by innumerable creepers and crawlers and toddlers and tree climbers and paddlers and teen-aged water skiers. There is no new thing under the sun. The summer cottage persists as a beautiful lure. When your sons and daughters have cut their life from yours, a cottage on the lake, with its cluster of satellite cabins, will draw them from anywhere on the continent with their babies and your grandchildren for the two summer months.

There’s this lovely sailing lake northeast of Vernon with a beach of purest white sand: waterfront property is still only thirty dollars a foot: clay and wattles are cheap in British Columbia, and for about six thousand dollars ... ★