Beechcroft National Historic Site
Travel back to 1866, a mere year before Canadian Confederation, and meet Anson Dodge, a New York City resident with dollar signs in his eyes. The prolific forests of Georgian Bay and the Kawartha Lakes area were calling his entrepreneurial spirit, and he moved to Canada to make his fortune in the lumber industry.
Information compiled by Susan Buggey and John Jay Stewart, researchers with Parks Canada/the Heritage Canada Foundation, captured some of the detail.
Dodge began buying timber rights and small lumber mills in Ontario between 1867 and 1871, and formed the Georgian Bay Lumber Company in 1871. It earned him the title of “Lumber King of the North.”
With business booming, Dodge planned a grand summer residence to cement his mogul image. In 1869, he purchased a 115-acre property, including a 25-acre deer park, overlooking Lake Simcoe at Roches Point. No expense would be spared to create his legacy.
Over the next two years, Dodge’s three-storey, lakeside palace rose. Barrie’s newspaper of the day, The Northern Advance, called it “one of the most delightful villa residences in the vicinity of Toronto.” Dodge called his property Beechcroft and added an additional 110 acres in 1871.
Complementing the house would be a number of gardens, all displaying a colourwheel of flowers, trees and shrubs. And as Buggey and Stewart state in their research paper, “strong local tradition” indicates that American Frederick Law Olmsted was hired to create this garden paradise. Olmsted’s impressive credentials included designing New York’s Central Park, Brooklyn’s Prospect Park and Franklin Park in Boston.
Olmsted determined that given the size and setting of Dodge’s property, an English garden or “picturesque” style of garden architecture was appropriate. Groves of trees, what Olmsted called “areas of wildness,” would be distributed throughout Beechcroft’s manicured lawns, which swept toward the lake. Meandering walkways would lead from one “wildness area” to another.
Not any tree species would do in a “wildness” area. Colour and texture were keys to the effect. He favoured the deep “spiky” green of the Norway spruce, the grandeur of the chestnut and the showy red foliage of the beech. Dramatic white-barked birches would provide contrast.
The flower gardens would be situated closer to the house and would add a dazzling display of colour to the landscape. Dodge’s large greenhouse would produce all the traditional bedding favourites: roses, lilies, magnolia, hydrangea, larkspur, zinnia, begonias and asters. Climbers too — clematis, wisteria, and morning glories.
By 1872, the house and gardens were nearing completion. Dodge had become a naturalized Canadian citizen and was elected to represent the federal riding of York North. But the Dodge story did not end happily. Within a year, he was forced to resign