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Leacock's summer home in Orillia, in peril several times, has led a charmed existence

60th anniversary of museum is an ideal time to reflect on the many 'ill winds that have threatened' Leacock's place

This week, the Stephen Leacock Memorial Home celebrated its 60th anniversary. Local author and former Packet & Times reporter Colin McKim traces the history of the iconic Canadian's summer homestead in this column about the famous Brewery Bay home.

Built in 1928, Stephen Leacock's gracious summer home on Old Brewery Bay has led something of a charmed existence over the years.

Like the kidnapped baby in Raising Arizona, it has survived unscathed as hoards of scoundrels, petty-minded wheeler-dealers, loud-mouthed rubes and blundering officials have churned up chaos all around it.

To see Leacock's lovingly preserved retreat musing peacefully in the summer sun surrounded by lush gardens, broad lawns and sheltering woods one would scarcely guess how often ill winds have threatened to blow the house down.

Like Nathan Junior giggling in his car seat in the middle of an Arizona highway, pursued by hapless villains and a Harley-straddling bounty-hunter-from-hell, the Leacock Home has weathered one potential disaster after another, swaddled in an aura of angelic invincibility. 

After Leacock's death in 1944, the 30-acre lakeside property was left to his infirm son, Stevie Junior. Maintaining the large, two-storey home was more than the troubled heir could manage and Stevie eventually moved into the servants' cottage, a modest building near the laneway that ran in through the thick woods.

Under Stevie's watch the home fell into disrepair and became a haven for squatters and teenage revelers. Dust and litter proliferated inside, while a tangle of weeds flourished outside the grimy windows.

The boathouse where Leacock took his tea at sunrise and conjured up comical masterpieces such as Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town tilted over and finally collapsed from the onslaught of ice.

Stevie eventually sold the ramshackle property to a Toronto businessman named Lou Ruby who drew up plans to demolish the home and build a lakeside subdivision on all 30 acres. In his plan a road was to run all the way to the point with waterfront lots on either side and others throughout the site as a whole.

The property's rescue in the 1950s thanks to the determination of the late Pete McGarvey has been well documented. McGarvey, then a CFOR radio newsman and popular alderman, made purchasing the property the sole plank in his election campaign. He topped the polls and a council that had first balked at the idea reluctantly agreed to purchase the property from Ruby.

The building was cleaned up and restored for its new life as a literary museum, an incarnation now spanning 60 years. After extensive lobbying, the federal government recognized the home with a National Heritage designation and efforts were made to recreate the appearance it would have had in Leacock's day.      

With limited funds and staff, museum curators slowly reclaimed lawns and gardens. But most of the property remained a thick woodland of maple and oak with narrow trails winding throughout.

At municipal budget deliberations the museum was a perennial whipping boy with council mercilessly berating curators for inevitable cost overruns while demanding more revenue. The first giftshop the city provided was a defunct city bus that was towed onto the site and parked obliquely beside the muddy parking lot.  

In the late 1980s the property found itself in the crosshairs once again. City council, led my Mayor Ted Emond (lately returned to politics as a council member) struck a deal with a developer to sell two-thirds of the estate for a seniors' housing complex and nursing home.

It is unclear whether the city planners of the day ever ventured onto the property to note the extent the proposed development would impinge on the historic property.

As it turned out, the proposed dividing line cut through the rose garden at the rear, and bisected the wooden arbour forming the garden's centrepiece. If approved, a four-unit condominium would have crushed the rose garden and the entire back lawn would have been replaced by a row of town homes.

Secretly encouraged by the museum's curator, the late Jay Cody, a citizens group formed to fight the development. It was Cody's hope the development could be pushed back behind a tall, double row of cedar trees which created a perfect natural buffer at the rear. This double hedge had been planted by Leacock to provide a private path for servants between their cottage and the Moose Beach side of the peninsula.

The Committee to Protect the Stephen Leacock Home attracted national attention and local disdain. Members of council dismissed them as “doorknobs and clowns”. The late John Palmer had succeeded Emond as mayor and there was hope that as a history teacher and pipe smoker he would rise to the home's defence.

But as fate would have it, Palmer held a grudge against the museum because his earlier scheme to display the locally-manufactured 1912 Tudhope roadster on the Leacock property had been turned down. Palmer, who wrote a popular newspaper column, also claimed to be a better writer than Leacock.

After a storm of protest from Canadian literati, council grudgingly agreed to buy back a portion of the land behind the home to preserve the rose garden and a sweep of lawn beyond the looming condominium shadows. But the old hedge remained on the portion sold to the developer and was razed soon after.

Typically, it is the newcomers to Orillia who fall under Brewery Bay's spell. The locals, for the most part, have little interest in the property or Leacock's remarkable literary legacy. It's like classical music: no mass appeal. Other than a photogenic setting for weddings, the property is off the radar for most of the town. (It would be unfair to say the average Orillian has no interest in arts and culture since native son and folk musician Gordon Lightfoot is something of a god in these parts and has been royally honoured with statues and the naming of public spaces.)

It was a newly arrived businessman, Jim Dykes, who visited the Leacock property in the early 1990s and was shocked and disappointed to find the boathouse was no longer standing. A doll-house-sized replica functioned as a piggy bank to raise funds for reconstruction of the boathouse, but little more than a few hundred dollars had been contributed.

Dykes co-opted builder Jim Storey and in 1995 they launched a remarkable campaign to construct a faithful replica of the boathouse as a community project. The idea caught fire. Donations of materials poured in, hundreds of volunteers lined up, the whole town pulled together and over one summer weekend the boathouse was rebuilt, this time on an ice-resistant cement pad.

This was the high point of local interest and involvement in the museum. Afterwards a more outgoing management raised the home's profile with events like summer humour readings and the Arts for Peace Festival. The Leacock Medal of Humour keeps the old humourist’s memory alive albeit for a somewhat select audience. 

But, for the most part, the Leacock Home has a small fan base. It's no Graceland and you won't find addle pated supplicants like Ozzie Osborne scrambling around on the roof and being chased by security. Paul Simon won't write a popular song about going there. The pilgrims are few.

But the home survives in its own magic world. If you listen carefully when the wind drops you can hear the rich, lilting voice of W. O. Mitchell echo in the front parlour. Peer into the shade under the catalpa and you might just see a pickled Ben Wicks sound asleep in the grass.

Leacock loved Alice in Wonderland, confessing he would sooner have written that whimsical tale than the whole Encyclopedia Britannica. If ever a game of croquet were to be played with flamingo mallets and hedgehog balls, the front lawn of the Leacock Home is the ideal location.

There is a timeless air of enchantment that hangs over the place and masks the grinding turmoil of the everyday world. And on soft summer mornings when the lake shimmers and the mourning doves coo in the eaves, Leacock's immortal spirit can be glimpsed through sleepy eyes striding toward the boathouse, bearing a tea tray, a notebook and a fountain pen.

Sitting at his desk on the second floor of the boathouse with the rising breeze rippling the water, he closes his eyes and takes a deep breath. When he opens his eyes, he is in Mariposa.

In the bay Peter Pupkin turns circles in a rowboat equipped with only one oar. “Two would have hampered him.” At the town dock, the Mariposa Belle sounds its whistle, preparing to cast off for its festive sinking. Hotelier Jos. Smith rumbles down to the pier with a picnic hamper full of “clinking” sandwiches.

At Brewery Bay, as in the storybook pages of Mariposa, the fear and darkness of the world is held at bay and life flows with a gentle innocence, forever brightened by “the sunshine of the land of hope.”