McMurtry retreat a place to bond
Muskoka cottage was the glue uniting ex-chief justice’s family
“The cottage has been such a central part of our lives for so many years.” ROY MCMURTRY
Ask Roy and Ria McMurtry about life at the family cottage, and he says “relaxing,” she says “chaotic.”
But they both agree the Muskoka island retreat has been the glue that’s kept their six children, 12 grandchildren and one newly added great-grandchild close.
“The cottage has been such a central part of our lives for so many years,” explains McMurtry, 85. “It made a great contribution to the solidarity of our family.”
Once described by a Star writer as a “big, shambling, heavy-lidded, slow-talking bear of a man,” McMurtry enjoyed a 50-year career that included many titles: lawyer, CFL commissioner, solicitor-general and attorney-general for Ontario, high commissioner to Great Britain, and chief justice of Ontario.
Being away from all that, at their cottage, “was a wonderful, relaxing atmosphere. It’s soothing to be surrounded by water.”
Ria, meanwhile, kept the home fires — and campfires — burning during his long work days and trips out of town. Rainy days when the kids stayed inside and mealtimes during large get-togethers stand out in her mind as noisy and hectic.
But “it was wonderful,” she adds about their half-century at the secluded getaway a 10-minute drive from Bracebridge and short boat ride from the mainland.
The couple bought the “very attractive” property on Eilean Gowan Island on Lake Muskoka, in 1966, camping out until the pan-abode cottage was built in 1968.
Tongue-and-groove red cedar was shipped from the West Coast for the four-bedroom cabin situated on the peninsula along their 270 metres of shoreline.
But as cottage season comes to a close this year, it may mark the end of what Roy calls a “very long love affair,” following the family’s decision to sell.
“To everything there is a season,” Ria reflects, adding they have photo albums packed with memories.
One of the “very special aspects” of the island is a protected 100-hectare nature reserve abutting their 1.5hectare property, Roy says. Daughter Jeannie McMurtry remembers spending endless hours there with her “very sporty” three brothers and two sisters. “We made up our own games in the forest, running around, chasing and hiding from each other.”
That’s when they weren’t building tree houses, canoeing, swimming, sailing or playing on the sandy beach.
As the siblings grew up and had children of their own, the cottage’s four bedrooms and 1,400 square feet of living space were augmented by three bunkies built nearby.
The new generation’s memorable events even included a sunrise marriage proposal on the 18-metre dock, Jeannie says.
Her father often settled into his favourite spot in a corner of the sunroom where he could look out at the water and paint.
An accomplished landscape artist, McMurtry’s output has amounted to several hundred paintings — many of which he donated to charity auctions. Some were the product of time spent with “a great friend of mine” — A.J. Casson.
McMurtry met the Group of Seven artist about 40 years ago, when Casson was an expert witness in art fraud cases.
Their friendship saw the pair go off on sketching trips in the Huntsville area.
On one beautiful fall day, they spent hours on a hill with a farmer’s dog barking in the background.
It prompted Casson, who died in 1992, to write “Barking Dog Hill” on the back of McMurtry’s canvas. He added the words “a great place to paint if you can put up with the racket.
Work often followed him to the island, recalls the progressive-minded jurist who was an early champion of same-sex marriage and legalizing marijuana.
When he was attorney general from 1975-’85, the cottage’s rustic pine furniture sometimes cushioned the backsides of policy advisers who’d come up for meetings.
At one point during that decade, the OPP believed McMurtry was the target of an assassination plot and installed an emergency button on the dock to alert police in Bracebridge. He remembers one summer when back trouble from an old football injury kept him in bed.
The reading he did then led him to found the Osgoode Society for Canadian Legal History that went on to publish more than 100 books, he notes proudly.
His own opus, Memoirs and Reflections, published in 2013, was written
An accomplished landscape artist, McMurtry’s output has amounted to several hundred paintings — many of which he donated to charity auctions
over several years at the cottage.
All of which points to a place that’s been “very well-loved and wellused,” according to Toronto designer Alexandra Assaf who was”hired to do a makeover before it went on the market. The updated and refreshened property is now showcased on the website muskokaislandretreat.com. Furnishings are included in the $2.395-million asking price and the McMurtry originals hanging on the walls are “negotiable,” their creator says.