Love’s labour al­most lost deep in the On­tario woods

Af­ter years of ne­glect, ad­vo­cates in Muskoka work to re­store a ded­i­cated U.S. cou­ple’s elab­o­rate me­mo­rial

The Globe and Mail Metro (Ontario Edition) - - NEWS - ROY MACGRE­GOR

Russ and Au­drey Black went out for a drive last week.

They headed up On­tario’s High­way11from Brace­bridge, took the High­way 60 turnoff, then 11B north out of the town of Huntsville to a cross­roads where a cou­ple of turns in the back­road would take them in to the lost ham­let of Wil­liamsport. Here, once a small com­mu­nity and sawmill stood. And for those who know where to look, there is a rather-worn sign that says “Dyer Me­mo­rial” down a chal­leng­ing, deeply-rut­ted dirt road.

Mr. Black is 87. He was an en­gi­neer, then a lawyer, and is now an hon­orary direc­tor of the Muskoka Con­ser­vancy. He has lived long enough to know that while the past isn’t what it used to be, nei­ther is the fu­ture.

There are as many twists in the road to “per­pe­tu­ity,” it turns out, as there are to reach the Dyer Me­mo­rial.

Mr. Black first came here in the mid-1960s. A friend, Doug McFar­land, drove him in and once they crossed the bridge over the Big East River and drove up the then­well-main­tained road to the park­ing lot, he knew he had come upon one of the great sur­prises of his life.

“I didn’t be­lieve it,” he says. “Here was this beau­ti­ful English gar­den way back in the bush.”

Betsy and Clifton Dyer were from Detroit and spent their 1916 hon­ey­moon on a ca­noe trip to Al­go­nquin Park, where this me­an­der­ing, charm­ing river has its source.

Twenty years later, with Clifton a very suc­cess­ful at­tor­ney, they re­turned to the area, bid on a large acreage owned by a then­strug­gling lum­ber com­pany and soon built a year-round cot­tage on river.

The Dy­ers were as old-fash­ioned a love story as could be told.

“Doug McFar­land’s fa­ther had been roads su­per­in­ten­dent for the town­ship,” Mr. Black says. “He told me that as a kid he’d jour­neyed out here with his dad to talk about build­ing a road in and said he found it kind of ‘sick­en­ing’ to see such old peo­ple – the Dy­ers would have been in their 50s around this time – hold­ing hands all the time and call­ing each other ‘dearie’ and things like that.”

The Dy­ers had prop­erty, they had money, they had each other, but they had no chil­dren. When Betsy died in 1956, Clifton com­mis­sioned a spe­cial me­mo­rial to be the fi­nal rest­ing place for her ashes. The tow­er­ing me­mo­rial is reached by a long, breath­tak­ing climb over wide con­crete steps. The tower, built of quartz-and­mica-flecked gran­ite, stands 14 me­tres high and rises, al­tar-like, above the sur­round­ing pines.

For two years, ex­ten­sive land­scap­ing was added: ex­quis­ite flower beds, im­mac­u­late lawns and lovely ponds that once held small fish. The de­sign was such that var­i­ous sec­tors sym­bol­ized the four el­e­ments – earth, wa­ter, wind and fire – and were to re­spect the First Na­tions who had orig­i­nally hunted and fished in these lands.

In 1959, Clifton passed away and his ashes were also added to the top of the tower.

A plaque reads:

Just be­low, in smaller let­ters, is added: “An Af­fec­tion­ate, Loyal, and Un­der­stand­ing Wife is Life’s Great­est Gift.”

Clifton Dyer’s de­ter­mi­na­tion was that his then-vast es­tate would main­tain the grounds for­ever – in per­pe­tu­ity. And for decades it seemed to be work­ing. The me­mo­rial be­came a pop­u­lar tourist at­trac­tion, some­times hun­dreds of cars a day mak­ing the twist­ing jour­ney in to the park­ing lot. Wed­ding photos were taken by the ponds. Fam­i­lies gath­ered for pic­nics. Peo­ple came alone to sit and med­i­tate on the benches. On Satur­day nights, the park­ing lot be­came a pop­u­lar, and highly ro­man­tic, place for lo­cal teens to ex­plore the back seats of their par­ents’ cars.

That the me­mo­rial re­mained a place of ex­quis­ite beauty into the next cen­tury was largely the re­sult of one man’s ded­i­ca­tion. In the early 1980s, Floyd Bartlett, a lo­cal handy­man, be­came groundskeeper and guide to what would be­come his life’s project. A shy, life­long bach­e­lor, he could be found there any given day from early spring un­til late fall. He main­tained this rou­tine into his 80s.

“God bless Floyd,” says Mr. Black. “He kept the place go­ing.”

Mr. Bartlett said he met rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the Detroit law firm han­dling the Dyer fund twice in all the many years he worked there.

They paid him reg­u­larly, but he re­ceived ab­so­lutely no feed­back.

“They never phone me or any­thing,” Mr. Bartlett once told a lo­cal re­porter. “They never say, ‘Do this,’ or ‘You’re do­ing a good job, you’re do­ing a bad job.’ Don’t say a word, just give me a cheque.”

In 2007, with Mr. Bartlett’s health fail­ing, he was “ter­mi­nated,” ac­cord­ing to a rel­a­tive. He died in 2013 at the age of 87.

“It was af­ter Floyd be­came phys­i­cally un­able to con­tinue that the Dyer started to go down­hill,” says Mr. Black.

Not only was the me­mo­rial de­te­ri­o­rat­ing, but the road was ne­glected and sig­nage poor. Peo­ple still find it through di­rec­tions avail­able on Google, but the lack of a reg­u­lar groundskeeper and vis­it­ing tourists even­tu­ally saw the park­ing lot be­com­ing a pop­u­lar par­ty­ing area. There was van­dal­ism. Neigh­bours along the road be­came dis­en­chanted and, from time to time, heated signs were posted about park­ing and pri­vacy.

The de­tails of the Dyer trust fund are not known. At­tempts to reach the Detroit lawyer charged with dis­pers­ing the funds were un­suc­cess­ful. It be­came clear, at one point, that a pitch was made to have the District of Muskoka or the Town of Huntsville take over the site and turn it into, once again, a pop­u­lar tourist des­ti­na­tion. How­ever, prepa­ra­tions were un­der­way for the G8 Sum­mit, held in 2010, with new money avail­able for flashy new projects. Re­fur­bish­ing a fad­ing me­mo­rial was not seen as a pri­or­ity.

Ge­orge Young, a Huntsville town coun­cil­lor at the time, was the one who pre­sented the of­fer made by the trustees, but it was not ac­cepted. “It was a fair of­fer,” re­mem­bers Mr. Young. “But there wasn’t the ap­petite around the coun­cil ta­ble to make the in­vest­ment and com­mit­ment to the up­keep.”

The Dyer Me­mo­rial might have faded back into the wild had it not been for Mr. Black and his fel­low con­ser­vancy mem­bers. When the of­fer even­tu­ally came to them, they de­cided to act, tak­ing over the prop­erty in 2010.

The Muskoka Con­ser­vancy ex­ists to pro­tect and care for Muskoka’s nat­u­ral lands. It is land trust and mem­ber­ship-based reg­is­tered char­ity that cur­rently pro­tects 39 prop­er­ties to­talling some 2,500 acres, more than 400 acres of im­por­tant wet­lands and 40,000 feet of sen­si­tive shore­line.

While the fo­cus of the Dyer Me­mo­rial will al­ways be the tall mon­u­ment and the sur­round­ing two acres or so of land­scaped prop­erty, the con­ser­vancy con­sid­ers the larger trea­sure the 155 acres on both sides of the Big East River and the1.5 kilo­me­tres of undis­turbed shore­line. (More in­for­ma­tion is avail­able at http:// muskoka­con­ser­vancy.org/pro­tected-prop­er­ties/dyer-nr/)

There are lo­cals who be­lieve the trustees failed the Dy­ers, but, in fact, some $680,000 re­mains in the fund that was trans­ferred over. The money is fully com­mit­ted to the up­keep of the me­mo­rial – even if it will never re­turn to the glory days of Floyd Bartlett’s ten­der lov­ing care.

Scott Young, ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of the or­ga­ni­za­tion, says there are plans that in­clude ev­ery­thing from re­pairs to the long stair­way to the plant­ing of oak trees in mem­ory of oth­ers who have passed on and wish to con­trib­ute to con­ser­vancy.

“We hope per­pe­tu­ity will last a very long time,” Mr. Young say.

As for Mr. Black, he has be­come deeply in­volved over the pass­ing years, al­most as a new Floyd Bartlett. “On my 80th birth­day,” Mr. Black brags, “I was stand­ing on the very top of the thing.” He had climbed up the scaf­fold­ing to put a con­crete coat­ing on the top layer to pre­vent leak­ing.

The man-made ponds are not sched­uled for re­pair. “They aren’t nat­u­ral,” he says. “Mother Na­ture does a bet­ter job than any land­scaper.”

As for the con­di­tion of the road in to the “English gar­den way back in the bush,” he doesn’t re­ally care if this sur­pris­ing me­mo­rial to love re­mains a some­times dif­fi­cult place to reach.

“As a mem­ber of the Muskoka Con­ser­vancy,” he says, “I have to think that any­thing that de­ters peo­ple from go­ing in there isn’t such a bad thing.”

I didn’t be­lieve it. Here was this beau­ti­ful English gar­den way back in the bush. RUSS BLACK HON­ORARY DIREC­TOR OF THE MUSKOKA CON­SER­VANCY “ERECTED IN FOND MEM­ORY OF BETSY BROWN DYER 1884-1956

BY HER HUS­BAND CLIFTON G. DYER 1885-1959

AS A PER­MA­NENT TRIB­UTE TO HER FOR THE NEVER-FAIL­ING AID, EN­COUR­AGE­MENT AND IN­SPI­RA­TION WHICH SHE CON­TRIB­UTED TO THEIR MAR­RIED CA­REER AND AS A FI­NAL REST­ING PLACE FOR THEIR ASHES.”

The Dyer Me­mo­rial, com­mem­o­rat­ing the love of Betsy and Clifton Dyer of Detroit, stands 14 me­tres tall in an area north­east of Huntsville, Ont., that the cou­ple dis­cov­ered while ca­noe­ing on their hon­ey­moon in 1916. Though the Dy­ers died in the late 1950s, the me­mo­rial and its grounds were well main­tained through a trust fund un­til 2007.

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