The Canadian Art Database

Robert Stacey and Stan McMullin

Massanoga: The Art of Bon Echo

from the catalogue published by Penumbra Press Archives of Canadian Art, 1998
[ 18,589 words ]


This book was originally commissioned in the late 1980s by Denice Wilkins, then chief naturalist and interpreter at Bon Echo Provincial Park. She had asked that the poet Stuart MacKinnon serve on the board of the Friends of Bon Echo Park as a result of her discovery of his 1980 poetry collection, Mazinaw. From him she learned of the paper I had delivered at the 1980 University of Toronto conference on Walt Whitman, entitled 'The Art of Bon Echo: Is there a Mazinaw School?' Would I be interested in expanding it into something more substantial? I eagerly agreed to revive my long-dormant project, which, some time before, the poet, anthologist and Whitmanite, John Robert Colombo, had also prodded me to develop beyond its initial lecture format. Neither I and my long-suffering publisher, John Flood, nor the Friends of Bon Echo Park, which agreed to sponsor a book on the art history of Mazinaw Lake and its great Rock, suspected at the outset just how challenging and time-consuming it would be to tell in words and pictures the full, many-chaptered, novel-like Bon Echo story.

Over the next decade, it became clear that no single volume could tell the rich and complex tale of the extraordinary cultural phenomenon planted on the rocky shores of Mazinaw Lake by Flora MacDonald Denison, the pioneer feminist, and her playwright son, Merrill Denison. My own detailed account was written first, followed by a separate treatment of the Bon Echo pictographs, but this collaborative overview, co-authored by another mainstay of the Friends, Stan McMullin, is being published in advance to serve as a general introduction to this magical place. The full story of Bon Echo includes not only the painters' Mazinaw, but also the Mazinaw of photographers and filmmakers, playwrights and poets, eulogists and ethnographers. The Mazinaw Effect and its companion volume, The People of the Pictographs, are still awaiting the touch of the funding fairy-godmother's wand.

Massanoga is a small sampler of the vast Mazinaw image bank — a Whitmanian 'presage', of the wonders awaiting the intrepid searcher through the many rooms and hallways of this outdoor gallery. Our hope is that it will not only tempt the reader to explore the wonders of Bon Echo Provincial Park itself, but actively assist in the pursuit of further probes both within and beyond its borders.

Far too many persons and institutions helped the authors conduct their investigations to thank them individually here. However, three names stand out as being particularly instrumental in making Massanoga a reality: Stuart MacKinnon, Denice Wilkins, and Bon Echo Park Assistant Superintendent Gary Sharman, to all of whom this book is gratefully dedicated. I would also like to acknowledge the assistance and encouragement of John Robert Colombo and Cyril Greenland, Fred and Karl Hagan, Louise Comfort, George and Jessie Falconer, Robert and Colleen Koolen, Stan Bevington, Stan McMullin, and John Flood. And, not least, megwitch to my companion and editor, Maggie Keith.

 — Toronto, February 1998



This book is inspired by a lake in eastern Ontario, Canada, whose Algonkian Indian name, Mazinaw (sometimes spelled Massanoga), is believed to mean 'painting' or 'painted'. Such a designation makes sense when you consider the hundreds of prehistoric, red-ochre pictographs running along the base of the lake's dominant feature — the great granite lakeside cliff, known as Bon Echo Rock for its sounding-board qualities. But the aboriginal name is doubly appropriate, because Mazinaw Lake, and especially the 'Rock', has been one of the most frequently painted landscapes in all of Canada since the turn of the century.

Geographically, the Bon Echo Rock is a striking feature of the Pre-Cambrian Shield: a 300-metre (1,000-foot) fault in a granite / gneiss formation, with a sheer, exposed face 100 metres (350 feet) in height above the waterline of Mazinaw Lake, itself more than 130 metres (435 feet) deep. This body of water may be the deepest we know of in Ontario, apart from the Great Lakes.

The vertical face of the Bon Echo cliff is also the site of a remarkable botanical discovery. It is home to many gnarled and ancient white cedars, which have sustained themselves through natural adversity for centuries. Their corkscrewed formations made these trees worthless to the loggers who ravaged the area in the second half of the nineteenth century. So on the cliff face we have the remains of an undisturbed ecosystem, part of a true old-growth forest, with at least one tree over nine hundred years old.

Located at the headwaters of the 'Canadian', or 'Little Mississippi', which flows eastward to the Ottawa River above the national capital city of Ottawa, Mazinaw Country lies at a height of land and at a dividing of waters — often a mark of spiritual and cultural significance for seekers of truth and beauty. To the unknown First Nations peoples who inscribed 260 or more of their cryptic signs along its length, it undoubtedly had sacred significance. They may have thought of it as the residence of manidos and animal spirits to which they made offerings or with whom they communed on vision quests. Certainly, this is the most numerous collection of Algonkian rock paintings, or pictographs, yet found in any single location east of the Rockies.

Since the 1850s, when the colonisation roads were hewn out of the white pine forest, the Mazinaw site has continued to attract visitors and to generate mythology. Among the many folk legends associated with Bon Echo are those describing the Indian treasure cave supposedly discovered by Captain John Meyer in the 1820s. As the captain was never able to return to his find, stories of its silver trove still raise the pulse of treasure-seekers.

The rock was also the reputed scene of battles between local Algonkian and raiding Iroquois tribes for control of the once-rich fishing grounds between the Mississippi and Madawaska watersheds. However, archaeological digs at the Rock do not indicate any long-term aboriginal settlements.

One of the most interesting features of Bon Echo is the dedication 'to the democratic ideals of Walt Whitman' carved into the base of the rock face in the summer of 1920 at the command of Flora MacDonald Denison. She was born Flora Merrill in 1867, of Scottish-Canadian parents, in a logger's shanty on the Skootamatta River in Frontenac County, not far south of Mazinaw Lake. As Flora Denison, she went on to become a journalist in Detroit and Toronto and to operate a successful dress-making business. A theosophist, spiritualist, feminist and Whitmanite, she played a major role in the winning of votes for women in New York State and Ontario. In the course of her campaigning travels, she met with the likes of Emmeline Pankhurst, Susan B. Anthony and the American novelist Charlotte Perkins Gilman.

In 1910 Flora and her husband, Howard Denison, purchased the Bon Echo Inn from its Cleveland based builder and owner, Dr. Weston A. Price, a successful dentist originally from Belleville. Price and his bride had fallen in love with this remarkable place during their honeymoon in 1899 and formed the idea of building a 'fresh-air' resort for smoke-choked city-dwellers. Their rustic inn, designed by a Cleveland architect, was completed by local artisans within two years. Charlotte Perkins Gilman was a guest at the inn in August 1911, staying in a cottage that was afterwards named in her honour. Flora Denison also enticed the prominent Toronto landscape and portrait artist F.M. Bell-Smith to Mazinaw Lake in the hope that he would be inspired to capture the grandeur of Bon Echo in paint.

History, legend and archaeology aside, the Bon Echo Rock is an object of impressive grandeur, particularly in the rays of the setting sun. Among the other well-known artists who sketched at Bon Echo during the Flora Denison period (though not necessarily as her guests) were the political cartoonist J.W. Bengough, C.W. Jefferys, best known as an historical illustrator and muralist, and J.W. Beatty, who taught several generations of Canadian painters at the Ontario College of Art.

Unlike these two younger artists, Bell-Smith returned to Bon Echo on several occasions. He was present in August 1919 to witness the dedication of the Rock in honour of Walt Whitman on the centenary of his birth.

Both Flora and Merrill Denison, her American-born son, were devotees of this poet and champion of democracy. Flora tried to emulate Whitman's ideals by creating a colony at Bon Echo modelled on that of her friend Elbert Hubbard's Roycrofters, an arts-and-crafts community he operated as a successful business at East Aurora in upstate New York. Other models included the Spiritualist summer camp at Lily Dale, New York, where Flora visited as a speaker, séance participant and librarian, and the camp that still runs each summer at Chautauqua, also in upstate New York. She hoped to attract like-minded writers, artists, architects, musicians and theatre people, as well as fellow feminists, socialists, spiritualists and advocates of free love, to her Bon Echo Inn retreat.

To realize her dream, Denison founded the Whitman Club of Bon Echo in 1915, the same year that she joined the newly established Canadian branch of the Whitman Fellowship. The following year she held the first meeting of the Whitman Club and launched the first of six issues of the 'house' magazine, The Sunset of Bon Echo, a curious blend of promotional and inspirational prose and poetry in which she advertised her resort and her favourite causes with equal enthusiasm. For a time she even managed to persuade the Canadian Pacific Railway to distribute the journal through its travel agencies. The attractive front-cover design was the work of a talented young illustrator and painter named Frank H. Johnston, who had met Merrill Denison at the University of Toronto and later renewed his acquaintance in Pennsylvania. Johnston, one of the original members of the Group of Seven, would later design some handsome advertising brochures for Denison.

The culmination of Flora Denison's efforts at Bon Echo was the celebration she organized there in August 1919 for the Whitman centenary. Although she had even more ambitious plans for her property, including a Whitman library, she did not live to realise these idealistic schemes. She died on 21 May 1921 of pneumonia, which was blamed on an unseasonable snowstorm during her last visit to Mazinaw Lake. Merrill Denison inherited the inn and its debt-load. He and his fiancée, Muriel Goggin, whom he appointed as manager, immediately began setting in motion their own ideas about what Bon Echo could be. His work as a playwright-in-residence at the University of Toronto's Hart House Theatre and his membership in the Toronto Arts and Letters Club brought him into contact with a younger generation of painters and writers, many of whom accepted his invitation to stay as guests at the inn. In exchange for free or reduced room and board, Denison acquired artwork for promotional materials from several of these colleagues, who bought time to paint by working weekdays as commercial artists and designers in Toronto. The authors of the letterpress for these brochures and pamphlets were Denison and Muriel Goggin, herself a journalist who later became a successful writer of children's books. Other members of the Group of Seven who accepted this offer, besides Frank Johnston, were Arthur Lismer, A.Y. Jackson, Franklin Carmichael and A.J. Casson.

Group of Seven founding member Arthur Lismer (1885-1969), his wife and daughter paid two artistically productive summer visits to Bon Echo in 1921 and 1922. In honour of their stay, the Denisons named one of their guest cabins the Lismer Cottage. Although he moved on to other, more rugged Ontario landscapes, Lismer remained closely associated with Merrill Denison, acting in his play From their Own Place at its 1922 premiere and designing the sets for his Mazinaw-based The Weather Breeder in 1924, again at the Arts and Letters Club.

Jackson spent several weeks during the winter of 1924 at the inn with Denison, painting a number of snow-bright oil landscapes in his characteristic manner, as well as helping his host lay out some advertising materials. On his return to Toronto he began work on a commissioned poster, which was printed by Rous and Mann from a tempera design, using the new silk-screening process introduced to Canada by the firm of Sampson-Matthews. The result is one of the most striking examples of applied graphic design produced by a Canadian artist during the 1920s. Ironically, this brilliant publicity stroke was to hasten the downfall of the inn as a business, for the Denisons' inability to pay the printer's bill led to a lawsuit that resulted in bankruptcy. This did not prevent Merrill Denison from begging a brochure and letterhead design from Jackson, who by then had largely abandoned commercial art for full-time painting.

In that same winter of 1924, Denison also enjoyed the company of the wildlife painter-illustrator Arthur Heming, who fancifully incorporated aspects of the Mazinaw landscape in his popular survivalist yarn, The Living Forest, published in New York and Toronto in 1926. At one point in the 1930s Heming, who exhibited widely, could boast of being the best-known Canadian artist outside Canada.

The last and perhaps most effective brochure was designed for Bon Echo Inn by the youngest member of the original Group of Seven, Franklin Carmichael, an extraordinarily gifted hand-letterer and designer, as well as one of Canada's best practitioners of the exacting medium of watercolours. Produced in 1928 by Sampson-Matthews, this publicity piece features interior line drawings by Carmichael and a dramatic nocturnal impression of the Rock in stencil-like blues and blacks.

The summer of 1924 also saw the return to Mazinaw Lake of Doris Huestis Mills, a self-taught woman painter from Toronto, who had visited the previous year without trying her hand at any landscapes. Buoyed by the encouragement of her friends Lawren Harris and J.E.H. MacDonald, two senior members of the Group of Seven, Mills used her stay at the inn to fill a small sketchbook with simple, schematic drawings, which she worked up into oil panels, canvases and linocut prints in her studio. Though clearly the work of a gifted amateur, her images convey something of the spiritual dimension of the landscape. Her poster-like flattening of forms illustrates the degree to which the bold palette and radical simplifications of the Group had come to dominate Canadian landscape painting by the mid-1920s.

Another Toronto-based artist who responded to the visual stimulation of the Mazinaw landscape was the Scottish-born Charles F. Comfort (1900-1994), who emulated Harris, Carmichael and others not only in depicting northern subject matter but in financing his painting career through commercial art. Comfort may first have visited Mazinaw Lake in 1927 with the objective of producing a poster or brochure for his friend Merrill Denison, but for some reason — possibly the forced closure of the business in the Crash year of 1929 — his two art-deco-style designs went no further than the maquette stage. However, Comfort had fallen in love with Bon Echo and its mysteriously compelling cliff, the subject of his intensely coloured Great Rock, Bon Echo.

Mazinaw Lake remained in Comfort's thoughts over the next few years, though he was unable to revisit the site of his first 'northern' sketching trip. He even evoked the place in a studio canvas in 1932 entitled Young Canadian, a portrait of his painter friend Carl Schaefer as a victim of the Depression, and one of the iconic images of the 1930s. Close examination of this powerful work reveals a stylized version of the Great Rock looming in the upper right.

In 1936, the year of the inn's destruction by fire, Comfort returned to Bon Echo with his wife, Louise, his studio-partner and sketching companion, Will Ogilvie, and the painters Bobs Cogill Haworth and Peter Haworth. Mysteriously, no sketches or canvases by any of these artists have come to light from that visit, but the trip is recorded in colour photographs taken by the Comforts.

Although unable to paint again at this locus of inspiration until fifty years after his discovery of the lake, Comfort resorted to memory and imagination in painting Promontory, an unlikely nude-in-the-landscape against the Big Rock, which he later destroyed. But first he used it in 1938 in the background of a portrait of his sculptor friend Emanuel Hahn. Comfort chose to edit out the frame around the painting by cutting down the canvas, which in effect placed Hahn in a landscape he seems never to have visited in person, but with which he would have been in tune.

In 1966 Comfort made another visit to Bon Echo. Following this, he had slides printed from the roll of colour film he had shot at the lake in 1936. This led to an attempt to salvage more of the memories evoked by this exercise through a painting entitled Whitman Monument, based on his 1927 sketch panel Bon Echo Rock. In making this version he 'heated up' the cool blue hues of the source image to create a dreamlike vision of the cliff swimming in sunset glow. Ten years later Comfort and his wife would make a nostalgic last pilgrimage to Mazinaw Lake on the fiftieth anniversary of the painter's first exposure to this memorable landscape.

A.J. Casson (1898-1992), who replaced Frank Johnston when he quit the Group of Seven in 1924, followed the pattern of his older studio-mate, Franklin Carmichael, in coming to Bon Echo in 1927 as a commercial artist. He was not able to return until the summer of 1932, but then he made up for lost time by executing a number of ambitious, highly structured watercolours. The unusual vantage point of Lake Mazinaw places the viewer dizzily atop the cliff, looking straight down and out across the windswept water. A more conventional composition, but strong and subtle in colour, is an oil-on-canvas from 1960 entitled Bon Echo Rock.

Frederick Hagan (b.1918), who first came to Mazinaw Country in 1945, was an even more ardent returning visitor. The following year he was appointed instructor of arts and crafts at Camp Mazinaw, an 'alternative' summer boys' camp before its time. This northern-Ontario native, strongly influenced by German Expressionist painters and printmakers, ranged over the local landscape, making lithographs, watercolours and ink drawings more varied in subject than any other interpreter of this terrain, its inhabitants or its often-ignored history of fur-trapping, lumbering and mining. Hagan last painted at Mazinaw Lake in 1978. In August 1993 the painter, by then in his early 80s, was on hand for the unveiling in Bon Echo Park of an Ontario Heritage Foundation plaque honouring the artists and writers who helped put the place on the cultural map.

The English-born Eric Aldwinckle (1909-1980), another versatile and multi-talented member of the Toronto Arts and Letters Club, visited Bon Echo in 1960. He too painted the Rock from various angles, chiselling its declivities into severe, geometrical planes that reflect a knowledge of Cubism as well as the influence of Lawren Harris and Charles Comfort. (Though a close friend of Merrill Denison, Harris seems never to have stayed at Mazinaw.)

The Bon Echo property entered a new phase in its cultural history when Merrill Denison transferred the deed to the Ontario Department of Lands and Forests in 1959 to preserve it from development. Certain buildings and lakefront were reserved for the use of the Denisons until their death.

By the late 1950s landscape painting was not favoured by younger artists, who had switched their allegiance to the New York-based Abstract Expressionist School. Since then, Bon Echo has largely escaped the attention of image-makers other than amateur photographers, though there are welcome traces of reviving painterly interest.

Mazinaw Country began its return to the literary map when Stuart MacKinnon, a poet and librarian, 'discovered' the Mazinaw story while sorting the Merrill Denison Papers at Queen's University. In 1980 he published a poetry collection entitled Mazinaw — another remarkable example of the power of the Rock to inspire artistic production.

For a concluding image to this survey of the art of Bon Echo, Robert Stacey approached the American-born, Toronto-based photographer, writer and multi-media artist David Hlynsky in the hope that he would agree to visit the lake to record his own impressions. When he learned about the Big Rocks pictographic picture gallery, he leaped at the challenge of adding to his recent series of photo-generated northern-Ontario landscapes by creating two virtual 'pictomyths'. Design for Crystal That Catches Good Echoes and A Lake Is Not Where it Seems Before and After Newton evolved from a doodle drawn on a hotel napkin, which he redrew in ink for digital scanning and then digital blending with a colour photograph he shot on the ice of Lake Mazinaw in March of 1993. Hlynsky and Stan Bevington, the genial doyen of Toronto's Coach House Press, modified the resulting image so as to create a twentieth-century version of the primitive, mysterious picture language of the first inhabitants of this land. Hlynsky describes his computer-drawing as

an electronic map: a diagram for a simple crystal radio whose essential parts could have been fashioned from stone similar to this one. With this truly magical assemblage I might hear the disembodied voices of distant friends and the echoes of ancestors...I am certain that they are always here...always speaking someplace underneath this silence.

The tradition of art at Bon Echo continues into the present through the activities of the Friends of Bon Echo Provincial Park. This group of dedicated volunteers, committed to telling the natural and cultural story of Bon Echo, was convened in 1988. Over the years it has promoted artist-in-residence programs — one recent beneficiary being the Ontario landscape painter John Mortensen — and, beginning in the summer of 1996, has organized an outdoor art show in the park. The Friends have also arranged readings from Whitman, public presentations of relevant research, and outdoor productions of some of Merrill Denison's plays with local settings.

With the impressive lichen- and pictograph-mapped Bon Echo Rock and the looming presence of 'Old Walt', Mazinaw is layered with multiple meanings. Like the growth rings of the ancient cedars that tell a 900-year-old story to modern scientists, the Rock bears the incremental record of generations of human contact and response. It has inspired canvases that have carried its message to the art galleries of Canada, to the boardroom walls of the corporate elite and, through reproductions and photographs, to the living-rooms of the general public. This book hardly scratches the surface of the Bon Echo phenomenon. In the pages to follow, you will find visual reflections of this unique landscape, accompanied by short historical sketches. The authors hope that you will want to know more about Mazinaw Country, will visit these sites, will pay them due reverence — and will move beyond them in the quest to live their lesson and carry forward their spirit.


Pictographs and Petroglyphs, prehistoric paintings executed with the finger in red ochre (pictographs), and carvings (petroglyphs) incised, abraded or ground by means of stone tools upon cliff walls, boulders and flat bedrock surfaces. They have been discovered throughout Canada. "Rock art" constitutes Canada's oldest and most widespread form of artistic expression, and is part of a worldwide genre of prehistoric art which includes the cave paintings of Spain and France. No foolproof method for the precise dating of rock art has been discovered, other than speculative association with stratified, relatively datable archaeological remains. While the tradition of rock art was no doubt brought into Canada by the earliest Indians some 25,000 years ago, it is most unlikely that examples of antiquity will ever be found.

Rock art in much of Canada is linked with shamanism, a widespread religious tradition in which the shaman's major tasks are healing and prophesy, along with the vision quest; and with the search for "helping" spirits. ...Although sites at Bon Echo Provincial Park in southern Ontario and at Lake Superior Provincial Park near Wawa, Ont., are well known, the majority of pictograph discoveries have been made in Quetico Park and at Lake of the Woods in northwestern Ontario.

 — Joan M. Vastokas in The Canadian Encyclopedia, 1995.


J.S. Harper, a government land-surveyor based in Bytown (Ottawa), was the first to map the Mississippi headwaters scientifically and was probably the first to describe Mazinaw Lake, the Big Rock and its mysterious pictographs. In 1847 he recorded that the now-faded images were colourful enough to be visible several miles away, and that aboriginal peoples in the area 'suppose the paintings were executed before any Indians existed, probably by the presiding spirit of the rock, as they place pieces of tobacco, [pine or spruce] gum etc. in the cavities aspresents to his supernatural holiness.'

The rock art in the Bon Echo 'gallery' of about 260 images is the finest such grouping in Ontario, and perhaps in eastern North America. In an 1879 article, A.J.B. Halfpenny of Renfrew, Ontario, tried to decipher these mysterious 'writings':

Animals, men, deer drawing sleds, hunting scenes, and various devices are clearly depicted in red, to a scale of one-fifteenth the original size. But what seems strange is that one of the pictures is that of a veritable camel, bearing armed men; ahead of the camel is a dead-fall; and to one side are some armed men waiting in ambush...There are some other odd pictures, but they were submerged by water at the time we visited the rock in June, 1878.

Other visitors came and went, but there to see some special shape...,' as he himself admitted, the Boyle drawings are a valuable early record.


In August 1895 R.J. Drummond, manager of the Perth branch of the Bank of Montreal, and William 'Clyde' Caldwell, a prosperous mine-owner and Liberal politician, paddled up the Mississippi River to Bon Echo. Drummond, an amateur watercolourist, must be credited with the first artistic rendering of the Big Rock on Mazinaw Lake.

The two men set out in birch bark canoes and after three painful days of paddling and portaging finally arrived at 'Missanogo', the headwaters of the Mississippi River. Their reaction to the great rock was published after their trip:

Through a little current and over four miles of that lake we sped with eager dip, and an overcoat for a sail. The steamer was puffing at Billiard Snyder's portable mill and a large heap of sawdust showed that it had some business to do. Johnnie Bay's, the Indian's house, and Gilmour's lift for logs was on our left, and away to the north, on the right, with the blue hills beyond it, was the rock. The water washed merrily past our birch bark canoe and the boys sang in the other, and the rock grew higher and broader as the locomotive enlarges approaching a station. We felt now, not victims of the paddle, but holiday seekers with our pleasure ground in view. And the rock grew higher still, till at the camp at its foot we felt its imposing grandeur. The frosts of a thousand years had fractured out of its face rifts from summit to base, debris to make a city of stone, but the silent water lapped yet on a wall with no shore, and the summers of a hundred years had nursed the few cedars on its face, but yet they were baby trees and the rampikes on the summit were like a few grey hares scared at the tales the rock could tell.

Drummond's untitled watercolour view presents the Big Rock from the north shore of the 'Narrows' with a suspender-wearing canoeist — Caldwell? the artist himself? — in the right foreground. The striations and mineral discolouring of the gneiss and granite escarpment are tellingly rendered, but Drummond chose topographical accuracy over artistic effect in recording such telling data as the lowered lake-level indicated by the horizontal waterline running along the base of the Rock and the charred rampikes at the top — both legacies of the intensive lumbering activities that by the mid-1890s had done their damage, and which had sent the industry into irreversible decline.

Tourist operators were already moving in to occupy the vacuum left by the departing lumber trade, but five years would pass before the construction of the Bon Echo Inn, an event that coincided with a new century and a new focus on outdoor recreation and the cult of the North.


Mazinaw Lake witnessed a range of activities in the nineteenth century. Silver and other semi-precious minerals were mined nearby. In exploiting the dense stands of red and white pine along its shores, lumber barons had devastated the region. The thin soil of the cleared land was depleted through inappropriate agricultural settlement. By the late 1890s the Mazinaw area had been abandoned to subsistence farming.

The modern history of Bon Echo began soon after with Dr. Weston A. Price, a young Canadian who had trained as a dentist in Cleveland. As a boy he had camped on Mazinaw Lake, and years later he and his schoolteacher bride came upon the site while canoeing up the Mississippi River on their honeymoon. Despite the ravaging impact of clear-cut logging on the shores of the lake, the couple were so taken with the majesty of the Rock that Price immediately bought the remote lakeshore frontage from the original settlers and named the spot Bon Echo for the acoustic effect. A year later he began the construction of an inn and several free-standing cottages, which were open for business in time for the next summer season. In 1901 Flora and Howard Denison and their young son, Merrill, were among the guests staying at the inn. 'I remember many of the details as vividly as if they had happened yesterday,' Merrill Denison wrote many years later:

There was the drive over the bald mountains...surely bald at that time, almost as bald as the glaciers left them except for the bleached stubs of ancient pines that rimmed the horizon like a giant's picket fence.

Then came the drive through the old villages of Northbrook and Cloyne to Snider's Depot at the foot of Lake Mazinaw with its huge empty log warehouses left to rot by the Canada Lumber Company...I remember too...the impression made on me by the first sight of the Big Rock, bathed in golden sunlight...

I had heard from my mother about the Rock and the legend of a treasure cave of silver...My mother knew the Skootamatta well and grew up with its legends for she was born in the midst of a February blizzard in 1867 in a lumber shanty about two miles north of Bridgewater...

To return to Bon Echo itself: father, mother and I first saw the glorious panorama at July, 1901 when we rode up through the narrows and were welcomed at the immense (or so it seemed to me) north dock by Dr. Price himself. Father had reserved the royal suite: the tower room commanding a magnificent view of the Rock and the entire lake...

The doctor...employed an architect to design a hotel similar to those to be found in the Adirondacks and along the coast of Maine. The result was a quite imposing...frame structure providing for...sleeping rooms on the second and third floors, with lounges on the first and second floors and the dining-room, kitchen, storerooms, and an apartment for the doctor and his wife on the first...the Inn, as built, contained about twenty-eight bedrooms on the two upper floors.

As I recall the story told me by the outdoor workmen, the Inn was built during the season of 1899, a feat which never could have been accomplished without the indomitable persistence of Dr. Price...

Consider, too, the actual location of Bon Echo itself — twenty miles from the nearest railroad and forty miles from the nearest market town in which meat, vegetables and building materials could be obtained. However, mileage alone does not fully tell the story because of the condition of the Addington road between Kaladar station and the site chosen by the Prices to build Bon Echo Inn. Such roads were maintained for only a few years by the government after which they were left to the settlers who had taken up lots along the road...

I have always found it impossible to piece together the succession of events between 1899 when the Inn was reputedly begun and 1901 when I came to know it as a fully developed summer resort.

At that time, a main building had been constructed and along with it, five cottages, a separate staff house, several tent platforms together with several service buildings. There was a boathouse in which a fleet of twenty-five rowboats, canoes and launches spent the winter, a laundry, an icehouse, a combined water-tower and workshop with quarters for the staff on the upper floors. In addition to all this, Dr. Price had found time to build a rustic bridge across the narrows and an iron stairway to the top of the Rock, string a telephone line from the Inn to Kaladar station and construct two large docks, flanked by covered pavilions on the lower and upper lakes.

How did Price manage to do all this in two seasons and at the same time manage to conduct a successful dental practice in Cleveland?

So far as I was able to discover, one of the very first steps was to locate a portable sawmill and move it to Bon Echo...The Inn itself, the cottages and service buildings were constructed mainly of undressed pine lumber sawn at the portable mill from the great quantity of logs left on the property by the lumbermen. The main building was finished in dressed lumber, which had to be brought in. The same applied to every article of manufacture needed, stoves, kitchen equipment, plumbing fixtures, glass and china. There was even a piano, which fell off a lumber wagon on the Bald Mountains and spent a night in the ditch.

Denison recalled that in 1910 he and his parents

ventured into the backwoods of Ontario with the first motor car ever driven north of Bridgewater [now Actinolite]. We reached Bon Echo to learn of the death of the Prices' ten-year-old son a week or two before. The Doctor and his wife were anxious to sell and my mother bought the property. Weston Price used the money he received from the sale of Bon Echo to embark on a research project that later won him world renown in the pioneer study of dental caries [i.e., cavities] among aboriginal children.

Flora Denison bought Bon Echo in the hope that the remarkable site would attract writers, artists and progressive thinkers who would form an inspired, if ultimately short-term, community. But for some years she was too busy running her dress-making business in Toronto, editing a weekly page on labour issues in the Toronto Sunday World, and fighting for women's suffrage, fully to develop her vision. Once the First World War had ended and women had won the privilege of full citizenship, Flora Denison was eager for further affirmations of democracy. The works of Walt Whitman, the radical American writer, gave voice to her deepest beliefs about human freedom and fellowship, life and death. She dreamed of making Bon Echo a memorial to this great poet and humanist, seeing in the granite mass of the Rock the same elemental, ageless qualities she found in his autobiographical epic, Leaves of Grass.

In the summer of 1919 Flora Denison invited the late poet's biographer and friend Horace Traubel and other lovers of art and liberty to gather at Bon Echo to dedicate the Rock to the spirit of Walt Whitman by naming it 'Old Walt'. The following summer, an inscription from Whitman's poem Song of Myself was carved on the face of the Rock about six feet above the waterline by two stone-cutters brought from Aberdeen, Scotland:

My foothold is tenon'd and mortised in granite,
I laugh at what you call dissolution
And I know the amplitude of time.

Merrill Denison had designed the giant lettering. Overgrown until recently with decades of lichen and moss, the now-cleaned chiselling is visible today from the far shore of the lake, though not legible with the naked eye.

John Robert Colombo tells us in Mysterious Canada that Bon Echo was allegedly visited by the spirit of Walt Whitman on several occasions at the time of the dedication. While sitting with a friend on the inn veranda, Horace Traubel claimed to have seen the head and shoulders of the dead poet rise above the Rock and to have heard Whitman invite him to 'Come on.' Less than two weeks later, Whitman's ghost appeared, in company with the apparitions of his literary executor, the Canadian Dr. Richard Maurice Bucke, and the American free-thinker Robert G. Ingersoll, and again invited Traubel to join him. To complete the image, a screaming eagle circled the Rock.

Traubel, who had been in poor health, accepted Whitman's invitation by taking to his bed and dying. An eye witness reported that, just before the moment of death, a faint light appeared, grew in intensity and engulfed both men. Traubel's body was transported to New York City for a religious funeral service, in spite of his well-known rejection of Christianity for humanism, and his warnings that disaster would befall if his wishes were ignored after his death. During the service the church caught fire and his body had to be rescued from the flames. It then received a peaceful burial in New Jersey beside the Whitman grave.

After Flora Denison's death in May 1921 at the age of fifty-four, Merrill Denison and his fiancée, Muriel Goggins, began active management of Bon Echo Inn. They operated it until 1928, when financial difficulties forced its closure. From 1929 to 1934 the property was leased to Camp Mazinaw, a boys' camp operated by Kenneth Ketchum, who later became headmaster of St. Andrews College. Then in 1936 a lease was arranged for Leavens Brothers, an aviation company whose members were long-time summer residents of the area. That year the main inn building erected by Dr. Price burned down. Even after their move to New York, the Denisons continued to summer at Bon Echo, which they hoped to convert into a conference and study centre for professional foresters, conservationists and nature-lovers. Unfortunately, they could not raise the necessary funds to operate this facility according to plan.

The Ontario Department of Lands and Forests took over the Bon Echo property in 1959, combining it with Crown and purchased land. Bon Echo Provincial Park was officially opened in 1965 with the unveiling of a bronze plaque mounted on the Point, which honours Merrill Denison and his second wife, Elizabeth, and which also commemorates Flora MacDonald Denison and Muriel Goggin Denison, Merrill's first wife.


During the time of the Denisons' active management, the grounds of the Bon Echo Inn sported a number of rustic summer cottages and cabins rented out to guests. Some carried the names of famous people who had stayed there, such as the Arthur Lismer and Charlotte Perkins Gilman cottages. One by one, these buildings have disappeared. Now only three structures from the Denison days are left in the park. Dollywood, a log cabin built for rent or lease by Merrill Denison, now serves as the interpretive centre for the Ministry of Natural Resources. The small cottage high on the bluff behind Greystones may still be rented from the Ministry. Greystones itself is the most interesting of the three.

In the opinion of Lisa Horowitz, a graduate student who has been researching the history of this cottage in the course of a planned restoration, solid facts are often hard to come by. She explains that the original log structure that makes up most of Greystones Cottage is said to have been built by Jimmy Deline, who lived across from Bon Echo on the shores of Campbell's Bay. The one-room log building was apparently intended to serve as a schoolhouse for his family of eighteen children from three marriages, but no teacher could be found for his isolated homestead. According to oral history, Merrill Denison bought this log building for $25, dismantled it and took it across the ice in about 1921 for use by the Bon Echo Inn. However, the extensive Denison Papers at Queen's University in Kingston make no reference to the relocation of what is clearly the oldest component of Greystones Cottage.

The second-storey bedroom was likely the first addition to the log section of the present building, with other elements added over time. In its present form, Greystones Cottage exhibits a distinctive blend of regional and outside influences. The Denisons and their friends brought the ideas and attitudes of urban North America to an isolated part of Ontario, but the physical labour was provided by local tradespeople whose ideas and skills would also have influenced the built form. These two distinct perspectives mingle in an unpretentious structure that overlooks the majestic Mazinaw cliff from its rocky, tree-covered site. As the epitome of the Canadian rustic retreat in harmony with the natural environment around it, Greystones justly deserves restoration.


J.W. Bengough was a caricaturist with an established reputation for the political cartoons that skewered politicians in the satirical journal Grip and in newspapers such as the Toronto Globe. His best-known publication was the two-volume Caricature History of Canadian Politics (1886).

In later life Bengough was famous for illustrated 'chalk-talks' on a wide range of economic, social and political topics, such as women's suffrage and temperance. As a supporter of progressive causes and a participant in the artistic life of Flora Denison's Bon Echo Inn, he would have been a welcome guest. His pen-and-ink portrait of Horace Traubel appeared in The Sunset of Bon Echo for May and June 1920, accompanying a poem in celebration of Traubel's visit to Bon Echo to take part in the dedication of the Whitman memorial.

Bengough has left us with one of the most detailed descriptions of an artist's first visit to the Bon Echo Inn, which was published in The Sunset of Bon Echo (April 1920). The usual route to the inn was by the Canadian Pacific Railway's passenger service to the station at Kaladar. There, guests were met by the inn's driver and handyman, Johnnie Bey — 'a man mighty economical of words and hopelessly bankrupt in laughter.' As Bengough learned later. Bey was a local Iroquois who had fought heroically in the First World War, excelling as a sharp-shooter. However, as an ambassador for the inn he made a bleak first impression throughout a silent, bone-shaking drive of two hours, which ended at the foot of Mazinaw Lake. J.W. Bengough describes the rest of the trip:

From the hands of the taciturn John I was passed to those of another young man who was not silent but cynical. He was a finely formed chap wearing Khaki breeches and an air of the educated back-woodsman, but his outlook on life was not cheerful...However, he landed me safely at the Bon Echo Inn wharf...I had imagined a summer hotel of quite up-to-date pattern; a roomy sort of cottage with broad verandahs around it, something of the bungalow order, with slippery floors of hardboard, the sort I heartily detest, oak-finished modern finishings. I had seen myself going up to the polished counter and putting my name in a new-looking register as an addition to a small company of guests — for I supposed not many people knew even as much as I about this remote resort.

Well, I was charmed at the very first glimpse to see the whole pictured anticipation vanish away. As I walked up the little hill from the landing place, passing between the two restful old arbours that overlooked the water, I found myself following a beaten path through a delightful grove of beech and maple trees. Every tree standing straight and lofty as though conscious of its own beauty. Enough of those beauties had been sacrificed, however, to make space for a tennis court and a croquet ground; and a quoiting crease had been provided also — a playground that had a charming look of amateurdom. But here was the Inn itself, for the path was only short and my pleasure was great to see a big, roomy, straggling, old frame building, instead of the artificial hotel of my dream. The spacious verandahs were there, on three storeys, but they had a home-like look of weather-beaten wear and tear that no polish could match. And there was no disillusion on the inside. A large room with a wide, hospitable fire-place and a homey atmosphere; that of the days of the old settlers, created by the pillars and joists of rough birch logs and the wall-papering of birch-bark, instead of the waxed chancing surface I had apprehended. So it was throughout the whole house — the rusting, camping-out idea, with freedom and comfort as the prime consideration.


Bell-Smith was a lively and liberal-minded lover of people and a friend to all the arts. A British-born painter, illustrator, photographer and art teacher, he was also admired as a co-founder of the Society of Canadian Artists, and as an amateur actor and producer.

His visits to Mazinaw Lake in 1911, 1912 and later, resulted in a series of large, atmospheric landscapes, such as Silent Sentinel of the North, Highlands of Ontario, the hit of the 1912 Ontario Society of Artists' annual spring show; Bon Echo Rock, Hazy Morning, included at the Royal Canadian Academy's exhibition the same year; and Grey Day, Highlands of Ontario (Bon Echo Rock) at the 1912 Canadian National Exhibition.

The Denisons bought at least four of Bell-Smith's Mazinaw pictures. The Silent Sentinel, a favourite painting of Flora's, was acquired in 1916 for the main hall of the Bon Echo Inn. She spoke of this work in The Sunset of Bon Echo: 'The hanging of the massive picture gave us great satisfaction. Mr. Bellsmith [sic] has painted many pictures of Bon Echo, but this splendid masterpiece of "Old Walt" will take a premier place in the Whitman Hall that is to be built in days to come.' Unfortunately, this picture and the other three by Bell-Smith had to be sold over time to deal with financial problems, and the Whitman Hall and library were never constructed.

Bell-Smith's life interacted with Flora Denison's in other ways. The two may well have become friends through a joint acquaintance. Dr. Benjamin Fish Austin, who was a central figure in Flora's life. Austin was the first principal of Alma College for Women in St. Thomas, where Bell-Smith was the director of fine arts from 1881 until 1901. Austin had been a fellow-student of Flora's psychically and mathematically gifted sister at Albert College in Belleville. A convert to Spiritualism, Austin experimented with spirit communication at Alma College. After he preached a sermon directing his parishioners to keep an open mind about psychic phenomena, a sensational trial brought about his excommunication from the Methodist Church. Later, in Los Angeles, California, he became a leading figure in the North American Spiritualist movement. His friendship with Flora led to his publication of her book Mary Melville: The Psychic (1900), which described the strange life and death of her sister, thinly disguised as fiction. Austin also published What Converted Me To Spiritualism (1901), which included personal testimony from Flora, whose commitment to Bon Echo was based on visions of her dead sister and of a Whitman-like union of the inner and outer life.

No evidence exists that Bell-Smith was a believer in spirit communication, but he did join Flora's Whitman Club of Bon Echo and participate in its activities. Through his friendship with Austin, the London-based Bell-Smith may also have met Richard Maurice Bucke, Walt Whitman's literary executor, who founded the School of Medicine at London's University of Western Ontario.


Toronto-born Frank Johnston apprenticed as a jeweller before studying art at the Central Technical School and the Central Ontario School of Art and Design. After a first job at the engraving firm of Brigden's, he joined Grip Engraving in 1908. At this time he and Merrill Denison seem to have met through common friends or Johnston's technical work on plates for Torontonensis, the University of Toronto's student magazine, to which Denison contributed some graceless cartoons.

Soon after, Johnston went to the United States to study art at the Pennsylvania Academy. By 1914 he was sketching with Denison, who was now at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Architecture. Flora was seriously annoyed, as perhaps she was intended to be, by Merrill's next birthday gift — an oil study of her cherished boy as a piratical, cigar-chomping voyageur in a red bandanna, which Merrill had encouraged Johnston to paint, possibly as a gesture of independence.

Both young men moved to New York City, but when it became apparent that World War I would not end quickly, Johnston returned to Toronto, while Merrill went overseas with the American Ambulance Corps. During this period Johnston visited Mazinaw for the first time, in the winter of 1916 or 1917. One of his most important early works, dated 1917, A Northern Night, has only now been identified as a view of the Narrows painted from a South Lake vantage-point at about the same angle selected by C.W. Jefferys at about the same time.

Once Merrill had returned to Canada in 1919, Johnston began to receive commissions from the Bon Echo Inn. The earliest seems to have been the front-cover design for The Sunset of Bon Echo, which was used on all six issues, alternately printed on buff or pale blue paper. Although the illustration is unsigned, it can safely be attributed to Johnston on the basis of the bookplate he designed for Merrill Denison in 1919. Showing a section of the Bon Echo Rock just as it appears on the Sunset cover, it is initialled 'F.H.J.' on the lower left. Johnston chose to treat the subject by illustrating the title with an enormous sunset cloud billowing up behind a line drawing of the Big Rock. (However, the escarpment runs almost due north, and even in high summer the sun goes down much further to the west, almost directly behind the eastward-facing inn.)

Two brochures advertising the inn also feature Johnston's work. The first dates from about 1921, the year of Flora's death. Printed on brown paper in two different formats under the title Bon Echo: A Summer and Autumn Resort, it features ink drawings of the inn, the cliff and the views from the point, looking north and south. The cover of the second brochure, printed in 1927, is a handsome art-deco illustration in vivid scarlets and blues, which suggests the name of Bon Echo through the device of an Indian brave who has risen in a canoe to throw his voice against the cliff face on which his shadow falls.

After his split with the Group of Seven, which became formal in 1924, Johnston taught art in Winnipeg and in Toronto, where he continued to work as a book and magazine illustrator. Although, as a popular landscape painter, he became associated with the conservative, pastoral side of Canadian art, he also created bold arctic works and imaginative pieces. In painting thesd to life and work in the intense social atmosphere of the Bon Echo Inn in Flora Denison's day. Nevertheless, he found his way to Mazinaw Lake, and two watercolours and a graphite sketch record his visit.

As one of the older pioneering generation that began to paint 'clear, northern light' and Canadian subjects in the 1890s, Jefferys was eager to explore the pictorial possibilities of the Ontario Shield country. From 1892 to 1904 he regularly contributed to the annual Toronto Art Students' League calendars, which impressed Tom Thomson and the future Group of Seven with what could be done in the way of exploring distinctive national themes. Starting in 1901, Jefferys visited the wilds of Muskoka, the Lake of the Woods, the Kawarthas and Lake Temagami on canoeing and sketching expeditions, and made occasional painting trips to the prairies. As a commercial artist, he designed resort and railway posters and brochures that incorporated typical lakeside scenes.

His only visit to Mazinaw took place in 1916 as the guest of Robert Glasgow, the owner of a cottage near Bon Echo on Mazinaw Point and co-publisher of the Chronicles of Canada series, for which Jefferys was the picture-editor and principal illustrator. At this time the Glasgows subscribed to The Sunset of Bon Echo and occasionally dined at the inn, although relations worsened later, owing to the predictable tensions between cottagers and resort owners.

A transitional figure in the history of Canadian landscape painting, Jefferys sought lucidity and clarity above all, avoiding what he saw as the excesses and garish palette of the Group of Seven, while dissociating himself from the growing conservatism of the Royal Canadian Academy. The watercolours and single drawing he produced at Bon Echo give a cooler, more distanced interpretation of the Rock than most of the Mazinaw images. This effect is partly due to a vantage-point on the western side of the lower lake looking north-west, near the site of what used to be Camp Mazinaw. This angle sets Jefferys apart from the inn-based painters of the Big Rock, who were forced into a more immediate confrontation with the looming cliff. Instead of concentrating on the rock-face, he focused on the play of sunlight and cloud-shadow on nearby foliage and the brow of the headland far up the lake. In his meticulous graphite drawing Mazinaw Point, Jefferys managed to avoid the Rock altogether as his focus shifted from close-up detail to middle-ground silhouettes to distant outlines. Like all of his landscapes, these are reticent in their avoidance of romantic excess and their preference for facts over fancy. They are Flora Denison-era pictures only by virtue of their date.

A sceptic, Jefferys did not follow in Bell-Smith's footsteps by joining the Whitmanite rites at the inn. Although he admired Whitman in his own way, and his name appeared on the Sunset of Bon Echo's subscription list, he was never a believer in Richard Maurice Bucke's theory of Cosmic Consciousness. In the 1920s Jefferys would extend his range to Muskoka's Peninsula Lake and to the Haliburton Highlands around Bobcaygeon and Gull Lake, but he never returned to Bon Echo.


J.W. Beatty, of Toronto, was strangely impervious to influences, apart from those of the Canadian north and the fellow artists, usually younger, who loved it. While seizing every opportunity of learning more about painting and drawing, he survived in his early years by working as a house painter, a bugler in the l0th Royal Grenadiers, and a fireman. In fact, as one of his friends observed, the aggressive and irritable Beatty 'was always a fireman, forever rushing away to some new blaze.' Even when he had given up painting houses and blowing bugles, if not rushing about, Beatty survived, like most artists, through a patchwork of teaching and commercial art — largely illustration for the Canadian Magazine — and the occasional sale of a painting.

He studied art with F.M. Bell-Smith and at the Central Ontario School of Art and Design, beginning the new century with a Paris year at the Academie Julian. Later, he returned to Paris for more study, then went to London, and then toured Europe.

Beatty's first painting excursion to northern Ontario occurred in the spring of 1909, when he sketched in Haliburton with Lawren Harris. The following October he headed for Fort Mattagami on the Abitibi River, and in March 1914 sketched in Algonquin Park with J.E.H. MacDonald and A.Y. Jackson. Later that year he moved into Lawren Harris's Studio Building, and painted in the Canadian Rockies with Jackson. These acquaintances and expeditions did more than all his European studies to modernise his style, but, as Jackson observed, he could never fully free himself from traditional ways of painting.

The time of Beatty's sole known visit to Bon Echo is uncertain, but his one recorded Mazinaw picture is thought by its owner, the Glenbow Museum, to have been painted between about 1916 and 1920. It was strongly influenced by the style of Tom Thomson, who drowned at Canoe Lake in the summer of 1917. However, Beatty's name does not appear in the inn's guest registers or cards. No evidence exists for a winter visit, except the painting itself.

Beatty would have known Merrill Denison through the Arts and Letters Club in Toronto, and may have received an invitation to stay at Mazinaw Lake and paint the scene in its winter aspect. Or perhaps, like Jefferys, he was a guest of the Glasgows, or some other cottagers. Whatever the explanation for his presence at Bon Echo, it seems likely that the visit took place before the 1920s, when his style became more conservative and he reverted to placid, pastoral themes.

Beatty did not visit Bon Echo alone. He was accompanied by Alice Amelia Innes, who was his pupil, disciple and chauffeur. Her Northern Rocks in December, on a small birch panel, clearly dates from that trip and must have been painted by his side.

Born near Woodstock into comfortable circumstances, where the arts were appreciated as accomplishments for ladies, Innes commuted to Toronto for a weekly piano lesson at the Royal Conservatory of Music and used the opportunity to take private art training. Refusing to study nursing, she entered the Central Ontario School of Art and Design in 1911.

About 1913 she began to help Beatty in his summer classes and painted with him at the Studio Building, where she also became a friend of A.Y. Jackson's. Innes's independent income allowed her to join artists' societies and take sketching trips across Canada. Her work was accomplished enough to be included in the Canadian Pavilion at the 1939 World's Fair, but, like her mentor, she was an old-fashioned painter, sticking to landscapes and floral studies in a lyrical manner, when others were exploring ideas from abroad. After Beatty's death in 1941, she dropped out of the Toronto art scene.

Innes made a clean break by moving to British Columbia in 1950, where at last she developed her own style, expressing her emotional response to the mountains through profound blues and warm pinks laid on with her usual free and fluid brushwork. Forced back to Ontario about 1955 by her arthritis, she settled in Woodstock, where gradually she sank into depression, losing faith in her own talent and destroying much of her work. She died in the St. Thomas Psychiatric Hospital, a victim of the barriers that stood between gifted women and full accomplishment, but a few of her pictures survive in private collections.


According to a Bon Echo Inn guest card, Mrs. Doris Mills rented the North Cottage from 5 to 19 July 1923. A note adds, 'Paints, recommended by Jackson and Lismer.' Another card indicates that Mr. Gordon Mills, his wife and sister-in-law spent two days at Bon Echo during the summer of 1924, but fails to give the month.

Doris Huestis Mills was born in Toronto, the second daughter of Archibald Huestis, manager of the Methodist Publishing House (later named the Ryerson Press), and Florence Gooderham Hamilton Huestis, a member of Toronto's established, non-conformist upper class. Born out of wedlock, Doris's mother had been reared by her grandparents, which gave her a special perspective on the life of privilege. Like her mother, Florence became a social activist, fighting alongside Flora Denison for women's rights, a better life for poor people and improvements in public health.

Doris Huestis was educated at Havergal Ladies College in Toronto, which she entered in 1902, one year after Muriel Goggin. She took 'Special Drawing' at the age of sixteen from a teacher who informed her that she would become an artist. Illness brought her formal education to an end in 1915, but she continued her education through serious reading at home. Though drawn to her mother's social activism, she responded more to her father's literary milieu, resolving to become a writer.

Her interest in art had been kindled by her visits to museums and galleries during a tour of Europe in 1912. In 1916 she married Gordon Mills, an amateur writer, musician and member of the Toronto Arts and Letters Club, whom she had met on a train. An accountant by training, Gordon Mills eventually joined the T. Eaton Company and moved rapidly into its upper offices. In 1918 the young couple joined the First Church of Christian Science in Toronto, where they met members of the Group of Seven and their friends and families. As part of this cohesive circle, the Millses developed an appreciation of the writings of Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman.

Around 1923 Doris Mills received private instruction in the academic discipline of drawing plaster casts and fruit in charcoal. She became eager to try her hand at painting and, on the advice of A.Y. Jackson, she bought supplies and set to work at home and on sketching trips in the summer. That fall, her friend J.E.H. MacDonald invited her to share space with him in the Studio Building, clearing out his storage area for her use. She also took twelve private lessons from F.H. Varley before his move to Vancouver in 1926.

Thus launched, Mills ventured off on the sketching excursion that took her to Bon Echo in July 1923. The only record of her first stay at Mazinaw Lake is a letter on Bon Echo Inn stationary to a cousin, telling him that she was enclosing a few miscellaneous poems, mostly written by her husband. She also sent a sample of her own free verse. If she did sketch or paint during the 1923 stay, no results have surfaced. If, as the second guest card indicates, Mills spent only two days in the summer of 1924 at the Bon Echo Inn, her seven recorded Mazinaw Lake oil panels, six linocuts and twenty small sketchbook drawings were a remarkable output. It seems more likely that her second visit was longer. Years later, she remarked to a friend: 'At Bon Echo we had a cottage...Every evening Merrill Denison, the writer, would come and sit on the step. "Let me see everything you've done today," he would say.'

Though strikingly hued and reduced to basic abstract forms, Mills's Sunset Light shows her lack of training in its failed perspective. Her linocuts are more successful, especially those that present the cliff in total or partial silhouette, for this inexpensive medium makes a necessary virtue of simplicity, flatness and lack of halftones. These interpretations of the essential theme of cliff, reflection and tree are the most openly modernist of the entire Mazinaw Lake picture gallery.

ARTHUR LISMER (1885-1965)

Another native of England, Arthur Lismer received his art training at the Sheffield School of Art, but also studied in Antwerp at the Academie Royale des-Beaux-Arts. On his arrival in Toronto in 1911 he found a position at Grip Engraving, where he met and worked alongside J.E.H. MacDonald, Tom Thomson, F.H. Johnston and Franklin Carmichael. Liking the job, the people and the landscape, he encouraged Frederick Varley, an art-school friend from Sheffield, to come to Canada.

His career as an art educator began when he accepted the position of principal of the Victoria School of Art and Design in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where he also worked for the Canadian War Records by recording images of returning troopships in the last years of World War I. After the war he came back to Toronto to become vice-principal of the Ontario College of Art and a founding member of the Group of Seven, along with Varley and some of his old companions from Grip.

As an occasional contributor to The Canadian Theosophist, a lover of Whitman's poetry, a member of the Arts and Letters Club and an active collaborator at Hart House Theatre, he could have met Merrill Denison through any of these interests, but his first to visit Bon Echo took place in August 1921. 'Arthur Lismer came up today,' Denison wrote to Muriel Goggin, 'and I took him out under the Rock...a great artist's reaction. He looked and looked and could do nothing but gurgle uneffectual nothings. He is one of the elected because Old Walt silenced his tongue.'

Lismer's second visit a year later bore fruit in December 1922 when he exhibited three Bon Echo subjects at the Art Gallery of Toronto. In Grey Rocks the effect of eliminating all foreground foliage is to remove the implied presence of the artist or any other human being. The rock face has been flattened by distance into a sheer stone wall with diagonal faultlines in the rock face that draw our eyes to the centre of the picture without forcing the painter's skill on our notice. The Big Rock is simply there, needing no further emphasis.

We can learn something about how a real artist works by examining the way Lismer created his major canvas Big Rock, Bon Echo, now at the National Gallery of Canada. He started with two rough planning sketches on a notebook page inscribed 'The Big Rock — Bon Echo.' These concentrate on the section of the Rock known as 'Egyptian Head', where the Whitman memorial had been carved on a smoothed-off surface. Based on the upper planning sketch, the first oil sketch, probably executed on the spot, roughly blocks in the basic forms, including the clouds in the upper left; the band of pollen just above the waterline; the shadowed headlands; and the large patch of sunlight.

Next comes a detailed panel of the same size with the clouds more defined and the rock shapes built up with shading or bright touches of colour to give them depth. This is a finished work, but Lismer took the process even further. The final version, was exhibited in the annual show of the Ontario Society of Artists in 1922.

According to Norah McCullough, a smaller 1923 version of The Big Rock, entitled Bon Echo Rock, is a studio painting, possibly done for the newspaper owner and art collector, H.S. Southam. Here, both the blues and the greens are more intense, but Lismer has brought back some of the lightness and freedom that give the original sketches their charm.

A.Y. JACKSON (1882-1974)

Like many artists of his day, the Montréal-born A.Y. Jackson received his basic artistic training from a combination of part-time lessons and on-the-job experience with commercial lithography firms in Montréal and Chicago. In 1907 he travelled to Paris, where he studied for several years at the Academie Julian. By 1913 he was sharing a studio in Toronto with Tom Thomson and developing friendships with the artists who were to form the Group of Seven in 1920. Between 1915 and 1918 the strongly nationalist Jackson served in the Canadian Army as an artist with the Canadian War Records but, once back in Toronto, he returned to his life-long interest in painting northern landscapes.

Jackson likely met Merrill Denison at the Arts and Letters Club, possibly through Frank Johnson or J.E.H. MacDonald, but his autobiography, A Painter's Country, records only that his first visit to Bon Echo took place on 24 January 1924. He agreed to design a poster, brochure and letterhead for Merrill Denison as a special concession to a friend, for by this date he had suspended his career as a commercial artist. After his return to Toronto from Mazinaw Lake, in the spring of 1924, he personally oversaw the production of a handsome five-colour poster at Rous and Mann, based on his wild, bright original painting. This was the most ambitious assignment he ever undertook for Denison, who hoped that the poster would be extensively circulated by the Canadian Pacific Railway.

Bon Echo Inn on the Mazinaw Lakes is one of the finest Canadian artist-produced posters from any period, a rare example of the happy marriage of design and state-of-the-art technology. The parasol-shaded passenger in the canoe adds an oriental touch to an otherwise robustly posterish treatment of the Mazinaw Rock, giving a human presence to the landscape while indicating the scale. The flat patterning of the sunlit and shaded areas of the cliff and the angular trunk of pine in the foreground suggest that Jackson was familiar with Japanese woodblock prints.

At Denison's request, Jackson also designed a brochure and letterhead for the inn, featuring the great rock, with a stippling effect achieved by flicking paint on to the drawing with a toothbrush. Like the brochure featuring F.H. Johnson's drawings and lettering, the folding brochure is mainly illustrated with photographs depicting the inn's setting and amenities.

Jackson's work at Bon Echo shows the Big Rock's seldom-painted winter face just at the point of spring's arrival. 'I'm very glad the place is to be painted in its winter garb by a fine painter,' wrote Merrill Denison to Muriel Goggin in February 1924, shortly before Jackson's arrival at the inn. It is clear from this letter that Merrill found Jackson a good companion. 'Jackson's a joy,' he observed.
'An ample man who has read, who grasps life and is a profound painter. His influence is...stimulation. He is really painting the place for the first time and will get some notable canvases.'

Surprisingly, Jackson's small but interesting body of work from Bon Echo has not received much notice. The most important Mazinaw painting, a dramatic night view of the cliff called Bon Echo, Lake Mazinaw, Ontario, cannot now be located, and only two pieces from his one visit have entered a public collection. Of the eight Mazinaw Lake oils by A.Y. Jackson, seven are sketch panels, probably painted out-of-doors as was his custom, even on the bitterest winter day.

The artist's eye was also drawn to the distant vistas of the South Lake, as viewed from bare ice out in the bay or glimpsed from behind a barricade of stumps or through a lattice of slender birches. More than most interpreters of the place, Jackson looked beyond the Rock to other, less dominant features, such as woodland interiors. Birches, Bon Echo gives full expression to his love of fat ice-creamy snow against aquamarine skies and patches of meltwater. His masterly use of colour brings out birches in purest white against faintly blue-green ice and snowdrifts.


Born into a conservative Toronto milieu, Dorothy Stevens received her education at an English boarding school until the age of fifteen, when her obvious artistic talent and her parents' blessing got her into the Slade School in London and then the Academie de la Grande Chaumiere in Paris. Although she won prizes for drawing and painting, her etchings were most admired, and were exhibited in both London and Paris. On her return to Canada she turned to oil painting, specialising in portraits and figure work.

Stevens, who was prominent in Toronto's upper social circle, did not mingle much with the Denison crowd of radical artists and thinkers. As a woman, she could not have been a member of the Arts and Letters Club, and although she was elected to the Ontario Society of Artists in 1914, this was a practical organisation focused on affording its members opportunities to show and sell their work. It may be that she was courted by the Denisons because of her connection with the moneyed world of potential patrons and vacationers.

Although her name does not appear in any Bon Echo guest register, a 1926 on-the-spot photograph by Brigden's (our frontispiece) shows her smiling over her shoulder, elegantly self-possessed beneath the deep brim of her hat. In front of her stands an easel bearing a now-lost oil sketch of a shingled building. Her three Mazinaw paintings that we know of are undated and enter the record in November 1931 at a 'little pictures' show of the Ontario Society of Artists, where Stevens exhibited a pair of oils, both called Bon Echo. A small painting now entitled Bon Echo Rock may be one of these. Obviously painted at the site, it shows a free and radiant view of the cliff at the Narrows, with a deep-blue canoe front and centre, in contrast to the touches of unmixed crimson, green and black on the rock wall behind.

Nudes on Rocks was the third Mazinaw piece in the 1931 exhibition. Stevens had made a daring speciality of sensuous female nudes in outdoor settings, but social attitudes in Ontario at the time would have meant that such pictures could only be studio work. Here the bathers are posed with their backs to the viewer in front of the rock, which darkly sets off the pale bodies.

For a portraitist and figure artist like Stevens, the Bon Echo Rock was not the draw that it was for a landscape painter, and the bohemian atmosphere of the inn may not have been to her taste, although she would have concealed this at the time with her ready wit and charm.

No mere social butterfly, she taught portrait painting at the Doon School of Fine Arts, near Kitchener, and at other classes through some of the many associations of which she was a member. Stevens also held office or was otherwise active in women's organisations, including those concerned with classical music and the broad cultural life of Toronto, as well as fine art. Women of talent may well see Stevens as a role model, for she lived without sacrificing her art to her life or her life to her art.

FRANKLIN CARMICHAEL (1890-1945) & A.J. CASSON (1898-1992)

The Orillia, Ontario-born Franklin Carmichael received his earliest training in industrial design as a boy working with his father, a carriage-maker. For more formal instruction he turned to Toronto's Central Ontario School of Art and its successor, the Ontario College of Art. He apprenticed at Grip Engraving but spent his weekends on sketching trips with MacDonald, Thomson, Lismer, Varley and other older but like-minded painters of Canadian subjects. By 1913 he had saved enough money to sharpen his technique with a year's study in Europe — like Arthur Lismer before him, at the Academie Royale des Beaux-Arts at Antwerp.

On returning to Canada he shared workspace in Lawren Harris's Studio Building with Tom Thomson until Carmichael's marriage and move to north Toronto. Never a full-time painter, he supported himself and his family as an art director at Rous and Mann and then at Sampson-Matthews. As a graphic designer, he specialized in lettering and illustrating, ending his life as head of graphic and commercial art at the Ontario College of Art.

After his parents' move to Hamilton, Ontario, the young A.J. Casson studied at the Hamilton Technical School, then apprenticed at Laidlaw Lithography in the same city. He returned to his birth-city, Toronto, to work as a freelance illustrator by day and take classes by night. Carmichael became his mentor and major influence during a seven-year period as the older artist's assistant at Rous and Mann. In 1927 he followed him to Sampson-Matthews, where he eventually replaced him as art director.

The two artists arrived at Bon Echo Inn late in August 1928 for a working family holiday at reduced rates. At this time they were painting mostly in watercolours, but they returned to oils for their Bon Echo assignment of creating a series of sketches in tones of black and white for advertising purposes. If they fulfilled their commission, Carmichael and Casson each painted ten pictures during their four days at Bon Echo, but only a few of these paintings can be located today.

Carmichael's Bon Echo Camp was bought by its present owners at an exhibition of forty small oils and watercolours from the artist's estate in October 1964. The Toronto Globe and Mail had dated the painting to 1926, but Casson corrected this misinformation, explaining that the oil had been painted in sepia tones so that it could be used in a two-colour brochure. Carmichael had arbitrarily added the dark silhouette of a hill on the far right to balance the composition.

As described by Stuart MacKinnon in his poem, 'Mazinaw, Mazinuhigun, Mazzinabikon,' quoted as this book's epigraph, the robust oil sketch, Bon Echo, is a loose and confident revelation of Carmichael's grasp of tonal relationships in nature. It was painted from an unusual angle, looking down on the inn buildings from the heights of the Rock. Carmichael's hand-drawn map, with its streamlined lettering and suggestion of pirate treasure, shows the international manner he adopted earlier in the 1920s.

Best of all is Carmichael's coloured cut-out image for the back and front cover of the one published brochure that resulted from this visit. The starlit Big Rock in black, pale green and three shades of blue embodies the artist's idyllic vision of Canada as the landscape of inspiration. It is an outstanding example of advertising art, as pure and passionate as any Carmichael painting.

Where are the rest of Carmichael's and Casson's now-dispersed series? As the sale value of these pieces at the time of production would have been minimal because of their lack of colour, the artists may not have felt they could afford to keep them around. If so, or if they were dissatisfied with their quality, they would have scraped them down or painted over them, since prepared art board was expensive during the 1930s.

Although they would have seen each other at the Arts and Letters Club over the years, Casson's next artistic connection with Merrill Denison did not come until 1949, when he designed Denison's first 'corporate biography', Harvest Triumphant, the history of the Massey-Harris farm implement manufacturer. This project may have led to an invitation to stay at Bon Echo in 1951 and again in 1952. At any rate, Casson returned to paint the landscape on a number of occasions throughout the 1950s and 1960s, producing a sizeable body of Mazinaw Lake watercolours, including the 'cool high windy' one praised by Stuart MacKinnon. Casson's reputation has suffered as his later work became increasingly predictable. Continually described as the last surviving member of the Group of Seven, he had become a kind of icon of establishment art by the end of his long life.


Charles Comfort, born in Edinburgh, Scotla he won first prize in watercolours and an invitation from Frederick Brigden, the contest judge, to apprentice at the Winnipeg branch of Brigden's Ltd. In his spare time, Comfort studied art, winning the T. Eaton Company's 1919 country-wide competition for catalogue covers. His prize money paid for a trip to Toronto, where he joined the Arts and Letters Club and was inspired with the goal of breaking out of commercial art by the works of the Group of Seven, which he first saw at their exhibition at the Art Gallery of Toronto. A year of study in New York and a presence in several exhibitions at the Winnipeg Art Gallery moved him a few more steps on his way.

In February 1926 Comfort, now settled in Toronto, heard Merrill Denison read one of his plays at the Arts and Letters Club. He would also have encountered him in May of the same year at the Toronto Whitman Fellowship's celebration of the poet's 107th birthday. Through the literary editor of Saturday Night, William Arthur Deacon, Comfort was introduced to the Toronto Writers Club, where once again Merrill Denison was a member, along with the leaders of the Toronto literary world.

Comfort first visited Bon Echo towards the end of July 1927, accompanied by his wife and William A. Ogilvie, a colleague at Brigden's. Since, in 1926, Brigden's had sent two photographers to Mazinaw to document the inn, Comfort and his friend may have been there to design a never-published brochure.

In his unpublished autobiography, Comfort notes that he and Ogilvie set out for Bon Echo in his Ford Tudor while his pregnant wife made the trip by train to Kaladar, where the motorists met her. The road to the inn proved to be one of the roughest and most primitive ... we had ever driven over. It heaved across igloo-sized boulders and twisted through hazardous rocky denies in an endless succession of bone-shaking lurches. I was terrified throughout that phase of the journey.... I did want my child to be born at the scheduled time and not on a Lennox-Addington County road.

Only three Bon Echo views are definitely recorded in the Comfort inventory for 1927: Bon Echo Rock, a small oil-on-panel; and The Great Rock, Bon Echo, which formed the basis for the large and more muted The Great Rock, with a greater focus on the surface of the cliff. After being included in the sixth exhibition of the Group of Seven in February 1928 and at the art gallery of the Canadian National Exhibition the following August, the larger canvas become lost and was recovered in bad shape, years later, from a Salvation Army store. The Great Rock, Bon Echo, in the most vivid colours, shows a solid, simplified rock form, haloed at the top with bands of deepening blue, with a rush of white-capped waves in the lower right and centre.

After his successful, if rainy and mosquito-ridden, visit Comfort wanted to return to Mazinaw, but the Depression had closed down the inn. In July 1936 he visited Bon Echo with his wife and the husband-and-wife painting team of Bobs Cogill Haworth and Peter Haworth, but by then the inn had burned down. Although no paintings made during that visit have come to light, Comfort took colour photographs, which inspired a new round of studio-painted Mazinaw images when he had them developed thirty years later.

On a nostalgic visit to Bon Echo in 1977, Comfort and his wife had to correspond with Bon Echo Provincial Park in order to find the site of the inn, so much had the trees grown up. In order to get a clear view of the Big Rock across the bay, he was forced to place his easel on the north beach, but the result was a fine painting, Whitman Memorial Rock, Lake Mazinaw.


Eric Aldwinckle, a painter and designer born in Oxford, England, showed an early aptitude for art and music which his family encouraged, but with the death of his father in 1921, the boy was sent to Canada to live with an aunt. He was apprenticed at the lithography firm of Rolph-Clark-Stone in 1923, moved through a number of firms in Toronto, and finally ended up at Sampson-Matthews, where he worked under Frank Carmichael in 1928. Beginning in 1929, he described himself as a freelancer. Despite being self-taught in art, his diverse abilities must have impressed his old supervisor, since he assisted Carmichael as an instructor in design at the Ontario College of Art from 1937 to 1942.

Aldwinckle's early paintings reflect the influence not only of Carmichael but of Lawren Harris, Bertram Brooker, Charles Comfort, Frederick Varley and an eclectic range of American and European masters, most notably Rockwell Kent and Charles Burchfield. Naturally curious, enthusiastic, and a ceaseless experimenter with materials, Aldwinckle mastered not only oil painting but egg tempera, watercolours, charcoal, graphite, pen-and-ink and scraper-board drawing. As a natural man of the theatre, the dashing and elegant artist participated in dramatic productions as an actor as well as a designer in plays at Hart House Theatre and other venues.

Merrill Denison appears to have met Eric Aldwinckle through the Arts and Letters Club, which owns a prized cartoon by Arthur Lismer depicting a judicially bewigged Denison conducting 'Interview Stuff,' while an over-eager Aldwinckle leans forward from the crowd to get a word in. During the 1950s and 1960s the gifted Aldwinckle's versatility found new outlets in mural painting, calligraphy, typography, illustration, heraldry and the design of medallions and coinage (including the Great Seal of Canada in 1952, and the swan symbol of the Stratford Shakespearean Festival).

Merrill Denison may have played host to Aldwinckle on his one visit to Bon Echo in the 1960s as much because of his interest in the stage as because of his painting. Perhaps because the topography is so different from that of the Killarney area where he had painted previously, Bon Echo did not bring out the best in Aldwinckle. The landscape lacks the anthropomorphic qualities of the La Cloche 'mountains,' with their fleshy mounds and curves, and he presented it straightforwardly as an assemblage of pleated planes and volumes highlit with dabs of brilliant red. In Bon Echo, Haliburton [sic] the crisp, short brushstrokes are built up in a precisely textured fashion reminiscent of the Winnipeg painter / teacher L.L. FitzGerald's backyard vistas and still lifes of the 1930s. It is clear that a certain amount of artistic license also went into an untitled oil-on-board in which the cliff, viewed head-on, is foregrounded by a rocky peninsula airlifted from Georgian Bay.

Now housed in Greystones at the Bon Echo Provincial Park is a brown-ink (or perhaps felt-tipped-pen) sketch by Aldwinckle of a boulder-strewn woodland interior, simply entitled Bon Echo. If the medium is felt pen, as the uniformity of the width and saturation of the strokes suggests, this is an unusually early use of this now-common drawing instrument.

Trapped in an increasingly anti-figurative era, Eric Aldwinckle was a decorative realist with skills and abilities for which the mid-century had no appreciation. His arts-and-crafts technique and his romantic idealism worked against the once-handsome and self-assured artist, who died in 1980 as a near-recluse embittered by a lack of recognition all too characteristic of his generation.


To find work, Fred Hagan's cabinet-maker father had to leave the land his grandparents had pioneered in Muskoka, but in summer he and his family exchanged Toronto for the district of his many stories. On school trips to the Art Gallery of Toronto, Hagan found in the titles of paintings by the Group of Seven such familiar names as Algonquin, Georgian Bay, Algoma and Temagami, which were already part of his life and his own attraction to 'rock country.'

In 1931, when Hagan was thirteen years old, his father's death forced him, like Jefferys, Lismer, Comfort and Aldwinckle before him, to work to put food on the family table. Four years later, he built a studio in his garage and, after studying drafting in the evenings at Central Technical School, he entered the Ontario College of Art, graduating from the night course in the spring of 1940. When he was rejected for military service in the Canadian Army, he tried to fill the gap with a few more months of training in printmaking at the New York Art Students League.

In 1941 Hagan had been teaching arts and crafts at Pinecrest, a YMCA camp near Bala in Muskoka, when the camp's distinguished director, C.R. Blackstock, recognised his remarkable character and abilities. Through 'Blackie,' he got a similar position at Pickering College in Newmarket during the school year, and then in 1944 at Camp Mazinaw, the boys' camp that had been revived on the west shore of South Mazinaw Lake. For Hagan, Mazinaw was a 'Canadian artist kind of place with serious painting possibilities' — many of them not noticed by earlier artists.

During the 1946 summer season Hagan concentrated on making quick wash studies as the basis for later lithographs. He abandoned the familiar shoreline altogether to show the Mazinaw back country west of the lake in Swamp Plains, where the road, culvert and telegraph pole remind us that human contact has altered the landscape. The pattern of sketching on-site in black ink and sepia wash, and then producing lithographs in his Newmarket studio, was repeated in 1947. Once again Hagan looked beyond the lake to the surrounding countryside and its lingering remnants of settlement, from old swaybacked barns to the dilapidated Kaladar Station, always choosing the particular over the general, the foreground over the distant vista.

Hagan did not experiment with wet-wash watercolours at Mazinaw Lake until 1951, after which he alternated that medium with lithographs. These pictures are evidence that he saw blues and greens, greys and browns, yellow-golds and orange-reds that no other painter has captured at Bon Echo. From 1951 to 1956 and then again on several occasions in the 1970s and 1980s, he painted every conceivable aspect of the shoreline, including the Rock itself, but he also roved inland, where at nearby Buck Lake, for example, a swamp tangle caught his eye. He found a paintable essence in humble buildings along the highway near the outlying villages of Northbrook and Cloyne, subjects never noticed by pilgrims to the Rock.

In the latter 1950s through the 1960s, Fred Hagan's teaching load at the Ontario College of Art forced him to resign his position at Camp Mazinaw. He did not return to Bon Echo until the winter of 1970, some forty-six years after A.Y. Jackson's February-March stay with Merrill Denison, and then again in 1971 and 1974. Like Jackson, he occupied himself with snowy shoreline views and woodland interiors, but in loosely painted, freshly tinted watercolours, rather than the older artist's oils. In painting snow, Hagan correctly lets the white paper do much of his work for him, supplying shape and form by means of shadows. In 1974 he launched a new series of Bon Echo lithographs on such seasonal themes as Spring Run-Off, Summer's Night and October Hills, with the last of these airily capturing the fleeting effects of sun and cloud-shadow on the fir-clad headlands and shoreline of North Mazinaw Lake, seen, as in earlier views by Carmichael and Casson, from the top of the Rock.

In 1981 Hagan resurrected the brush-and-ink method of his first Bon Echo drawings. His most recent Mazinaw watercolours date from 1982, when he reaffirmed his interest in two favourite motifs: the shoreline woodland interior and the distanced view of the Rock. On 1 August 1993 Hagan was rightly in attendance at the unveiling of the Ontario Heritage Foundation plaque honouring all those who contributed to the cultural enrichment of Bon Echo.


In 1993 the Friends of Bon Echo Provincial Park decided to establish the voluntary (unpaid) position of artist-in-residence, awarding this honour first to the Bancroft, Ontario painter Margaret Ford, and to John Mortensen. Born in Bismarck, North Dakota, into a cultured household, Mortensen's painter mother encouraged his early artistic ambitions by arranging some informal training for him with his uncle, an immigrant artist of the German Expressionist school. In the course of his travels through Western Europe and Greece in the late 1960s, the young Mortensen reaffirmed his wish for a life in art. In moving to Canada in 1969, he consciously rejected the growing violence of American society, as expressed in popular and political culture and foreign policy.

Mortensen worked and studied in cities and smaller centres as diverse as Montreal, Winnipeg, Vancouver and Aurora, Ontario, exploring different media and artforms, grappling with the perennial challenge of buying the time to make art. He and his wife settled in the town of Roslin, where he set up Clear Creek Studio in 1988.

Ready for a different experience, he applied for the position of artist-in-residence at Bon Echo. Looking back over a difficult first year, he reflected on the challenges of space, light, silence — the otherness of nature and his need not to impose an interpretation, but to accept whatever nature has to offer.

His work on this sacred ground is strongly influenced by the Group of Seven, whom he felt he had learned to know, years before, through his membership in the Arts and Letters Club. His painting reflects some of the 'poster-esque' qualities found in canvases by Group members, but he often chooses the unusual viewpoint favoured by Comfort or the less-obvious subjects often chosen by Hagan. He hopes to paint at the park for years to come, alternating his visits with working holidays sketching in the south of France under different light and in a gentler landscape.


From time immemorial —or at least since the last Ice Age — the granite face of Bon Echo Rock has risen above the waves of Mazinaw Lake. With the movement of sunlight and shadow, the cliff's multifaceted surface changes in mood and message: it broods, it radiates, it remains, in spite of the levelling forces of frost, rain, snow, wind and, now, acidulation, which chisel continuously at its resisting face. Tenon'd and mortised in granite, a footstep on the larger landscape, quietly it knows the amplitude of time.

The Bon Echo Rock is a stone thrown into water to generate ever-expanding circles of meaning for the generations that have found spiritual grace in its gneiss and granite reality.

The first circle of meaning lies in the ancient trees, lichens, rocks and minerals that form a microcosmic ecosystem unique in itself. Next comes the circle of Algonkian artists who used its sombre planes as raw canvases on which to draw mythical forms embodying the spirits of the place, direction signals, news bulletins, or their own dreams and nightmares.

The circle of exploitation follows next — first, the loggers who clear-cut the shores and the uplands, herding their logs down Mazinaw Lake past the cliff into the upper Mississippi watershed. Then came the prospectors, seeking elusive caves of silver and gold, not guessing that the real treasure of this hinterland would be cultural.

The next concentric ring encompasses the first 65 years of the twentieth century. During the Denisons' time, events at the foot of the silent sentinel travelled far beyond the shores of Mazinaw. Painted images of the Rock made their way into private homes, public galleries and corporate boardrooms. Like the unique features of Algonquin Park and Georgian Bay, the Rock became an icon of 'Northernness,' anchoring an emerging sense of national identity for Canadian artists in search of a new tradition.

For a brief period the inn across the water from the scarp attracted radical thinkers who debated such ideas as women's suffrage, free love, equal rights, cultural nationalism, the evils of organized religion, and the need to conserve and preserve, to change and move onward. Inspired by this landscape, Merrill Denison wrote plays about Canada for the Hart House stage and, later, for the CBC. The inn drew to it those who celebrated the democratic vision of Walt Whitman and the ideals of the League of Nations. Things thought, things said, things done at Bon Echo resonated across Canada and into the northern United States, and beyond.

The last concentric ring emanates from within the boundaries of Bon Echo Provincial Park itself. Today, Mazinaw is subject to public policy made at Queen's Park in Toronto and to economic forces that threaten to tear apart the legacy handed down for safekeeping by the Denisons.

Those who are drawn to the Rock now are more likely to carry cameras than paint-boxes. They may be members of an alpine club testing their limits on the climbers' rock-face, scientists struggling to unfold the mystery of the pictographs - or vacationers in search of a good campsite. But whatever their purpose, all who come in contact with Mazinaw are compelled to acknowledge its allure. Campers still troop to the amphitheatre on summer nights to hear tales of the Rock and to wonder if the ghost of 'Old Walt' might still be stopping somewhere waiting for them.

The message of Bon Echo is centred in the power of place to create cultural energy. In Canada, much money and effort have been expended in defining national identity; elections may be lost or won on questions of who and what we really are. We seek broad national definitions, then try to shoehorn in all the regions. As defining mythologies, we have tried the Canadian Pacific Railway, the Constitution, the National Hockey League, the Canadian Football League and the social safety net. None of them is a custom fit. Always there is the exception: the province that doesn't sign; the city without a team; the town that has lost its rail service; those who want less government, but not fewer amenities.

Do we contradict ourselves?
Very well then we contradict ourselves,
(We are large. We contain multitudes.)

It is time we turned from broad schemes for nationhood and focused on the individual regions and communities of Canada, each of which can be a seedbed for fresh and living culture. If the Bon Echo story proves anything, it is that culture begins at the grass-roots and rises to the national level, never the other way around. We need to rediscover the power of place to shape new visions and common goals. Each region and community can inspire its citizens to explore where is 'here.' From those many centres, culture can then move outward, as the growing rings from the splash of a stone spread to wash against distant shores. The dominant culture, if it is alert, will appropriate the best of the local vision for the nation's, and the world's, enlightenment. The concentric circles around the Bon Echo Rock will continue to expand as this special place inspires awe, creativity and spiritual renewal in generations yet to come. Here we must preserve for them the opportunity, as Whitman said, to

...see the place of sagas,
...see pine-trees and fir-trees torn by northern blasts,
...see granite boulders and cliffs,
...see green meadows and lakes...



1848 February: J.S. Harper, a Bytown (Ottawa) surveyor, becomes the first white man to describe the Mazinaw pictographs.

1854-67 Ebenezer Perry surveys and constructs North Addington Colonization Road.

1858 Mazinaw Lake property described as containing 82 acres patented to W.H. Elmer.

1864 Elmer property on Mazinaw Lake conveyed to Robert W. Gray.

1866 George Merrill and family settle in Bridgewater (now Actinolite), Ontario.

February: birth of Flora Merrill, one of eight children, in a logger's shanty on the Skootamatta River, near Bridgewater (Actinolite).

1879 A.J.B. Halfpenny publishes article on Mazinaw pictographs in Canadian Antiquarian and Numismatic Journal.

1882 Flora Merrill leaves school, becomes schoolteacher at French Settlement, North Hastings Township; later moves to Toronto, then Detroit, Michigan.

1885 December: birth of Muriel Goggin, Winnipeg, Manitoba.

1891 January: George Merrill reports his 'discovery' of the legendary Meyers' Cave silver mine at Mazinaw Lake in the Weekly British Whig.

1892 August: Flora Merrill marries Howard Denison in Detroit. She becomes interested in Walt Whitman.

23 June: birth of Merrill Denison in Detroit.

1895 August: Flora Denison joins Robert Simpson Company as a buyer and begins writing for Saturday Night magazine.

September: R.J. Drummond and W.C. Caldwell canoe up the Mississippi River from Perth to Mazinaw Lake. David Boyle examines Mazinaw Lake pictographs.

1896 David Boyle publishes illustrated report on Mazinaw pictographs in Archaeological Report, 1894-95; Appendix to the Report of the Minister of Education, Ontario (Toronto: Queen's Printer, 1896).

1899 Bon Echo Inn property bought by Weston Price after he and his wife visit the area during their honeymoon.

1900 R.H. Gray's Mazinaw Lake property sold to W.H. Reynolds for taxes. Construction of Bon Echo Inn and several cottages begins. Flora Denison publishes Mary Melville: the Psychic (Toronto: B.F. Austin, 1900).

1901 Inn completed. Late spring: Bon Echo Inn opens (or 1902?); iron bridge across Mazinaw Lake Narrows and staircase up Mazinaw Rock constructed.

1902 W.H. Reynolds' Mazinaw Lake property conveyed to Dr. Weston Price.

1904 Bon Echo visited by Denison family, who purchased six acres of land in the area for $90.00.

1906 Flora Denison elected secretary of Dominion Women's Enfranchisement Association.

1909 Flora Denison begins writing column for Toronto Sunday World.

1910 Weston Price sells Bon Echo Inn to Flora Denison, following the sudden death of the Price's young son.

1911 Bon Echo Inn managed by Howard Denison (Flora's husband) until their divorce. Artist F.M. Bell-Smith and novelist Charlotte Perkins Gilman visit.

1912 Flora Denison elected president of the Canadian Suffrage Assembly; attends International Suffrage Alliance Conference in Budapest and conducts European speaking tour with son, Merrill. Bell-Smith paints Silent Sentinel.

1914 Merrill Denison moves to New York to study life drawing; fall: transfers from the University of Toronto to the School of Architecture, University of Pennsylvania; renews acquaintance with future Group of Seven member Frank Johnson in Philadelphia. The two sketch together.

1915 Flora Denison founds Whitman Club of Bon Echo, joins newly formed Canadian branch of the Whitman Fellowship.

1916 Artist C. W. Jefferys visits Robert Glasgow at his cottage on Mazinaw Lake. Artist J.W. Beatty probably visits Bon Echo in winter in company with his student, Alice Innes. First of six issues of The Sunset of Bon Echo is published. Merrill Denison joins the American Expeditionary Forces in France and serves with the American Ambulance Field Service.

1917 Merrill Denison returns from Europe to enter field artillery officer training in Kansas; later transfers to Mechanical Transport division. Flora Denison moves to New York State to work with the Women's Suffrage Campaign.

1918 Merrill Denison sails for Europe as officer with AEF; becomes commander of prisoner-of-war escort and labour company at Beau Desert, France in October.

1919 Flora Denison joins Toronto Theosophical Society. Merrill Denison demobilised in August. 'Old Walt' dedication by Walt Whitman Fellowship of Canada and the Whitman Club of Bon Echo. Horace Traubel, Whitman's literary executor, is the guest of honour. The artists J.W. Bengough and F.M. Bell-Smith are among those present. Traubel dies at Bon Echo after seeing visions of Walt Whitman. Merrill Denison accepted at the University of Toronto to complete Bachelor of Applied Science degree.

1920 Merrill Denison invited to join Hart House Theatre as dramaturge by artistic director, Roy Mitchell; begins first play, Brothers in Arms, set at Mazinaw Lake, which premieres in 1921.

1921 Death of Flora MacDonald Denison in May. Her property is bequeathed to Merrill, who soon abandons an architectural career in favour of his writing and the operation of the Bon Echo Inn.

Summer: artist Arthur Lismer makes his first visit to Bon Echo in 1921, returning in 1922.

1922 Merrill Denison's play, From their Own Place, premiered at Arts and Letters Club, Toronto, with Merrill Denison and Arthur Lismer in the cast.

1923 Greystones Cottage is built around an old school-house by Merrill and Muriel Goggin as their own residence. Publication of Merrill Denison's The Unheroic North: Four Canadian Plays, with dust-jacket design by J.E.H. MacDonald.

1924 Artist A.Y.Jackson visits Bon Echo and designs poster, letterhead and two brochures. Merrill Denison joins Arts and Letters Club, where his play The Weather Breeder is produced with sets by Arthur Lismer. Doris Huestis Mills paints at Bon Echo.

1926 Merrill Denison and Muriel Goggin marry. Dorothy Stevens paints at Bon Echo. Greening family of Toronto takes out 10-year lease on Greystones Cottage.

1927 Private company 'Bon Echo Inn Limited' incorporated to sell shares, with Muriel Denison holding 51% and Merrill Denison, Dr. D.J. Goggin, Oswald Fowler and Donald Moffat holding the remaining 49%. Artists Charles Comfort and Will Ogilvie make their first visit to Bon Echo. Publication of Merrill Denison's Boobs in the Woods.

1928 Artists Franklin Carmichael and A.J. Casson visit Bon Echo. Dollywood Cottage constructed for A.H.C. Proctor of Toronto on l0-year lease basis. Lawsuit for non-payment of a printing bill forces Bon Echo Inn into bankruptcy.

1929 Bon Echo Inn is closed. Property leased to Camp Mazinaw for Boys, operated by Mr. and Mrs. Kenneth Ketchum. Merrill Denison's play The Prizewinner is performed at Hart House Theatre.

1931 Merrill Denison writing radio plays for CBC's Romance of Canada series, directed by Tyrone Guthrie, who later became the first artistic director of the Stratford Shakespearean Festival.

1932 Merrill Denison and Muriel Goggin Denison take an apartment in New York City.

1934 With defeat of Conservative government in Ontario, Denison's plan for a 'forestry research centre' at Bon Echo dies a quiet death.

1936 Bon Echo property leased to the Leavens Brothers, an aviation training company, who use it as a summer hotel.

July: Charles Comfort, Bobs Cogill Haworth and Peter Haworth paint at Lake Mazinaw. October: the main Bon Echo Inn building is destroyed by fire.

1938 Mike Schwager hired as caretaker for the Bon Echo Inn property (to retirement in 1954).

1946 Spring: Fred HagaMerrill and sponsored by Labatt Breweries of Canada, to determine the future uses of the Bon Echo property. Merrill Denison moves to Montreal.

1955 Walt Whitman memorial re-dedicated during meeting of the Canadian Authors' Association at Bon Echo on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the publication of Whitman's Leaves of Grass.

1957 A.J. Casson paints at Lake Mazinaw. Merrill Denison marries Elizabeth Lisa Robert Andrews of Washington, D.C.

1958 Selwyn Dewdney records Lake Mazinaw pictographs.

1959 Bon Echo property transferred to Ontario Department of Lands and Forests for use as a provincial park, with certain buildings and lakefront reserved for the use of the Denisons until their death.

1960 Artist Eric Aldwinckle visits Bon Echo.

1965 Bon Echo Provincial Park officially opened to the public.

1970 Winter: Fred Hagan paints at Mazinaw Lake.

1973 June: Dick Macdonald's Mugwump Canadian: The Merrill Denison Story published.

1974 Belated premiere of Merrill Denison's play, Marsh Hay, set at Mazinaw Lake.

1975 12 June: death of Merrill Denison, La Jolla, California.

1976 Canadian Conservation Institute, Ottawa, begins study and recording of Mazinaw Lake pictographs.

1977 May: Charles and Louise Comfort pay first visit to Lake Mazinaw in fifty years, returning again the following August.

1980 Publication of Stuart MacKinnon's Mazinaw.

1988 Friends of Bon Echo Provincial Park founded.

1990 Bon Echo Provincial Park Preliminary Management Plan published by Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources.

1991 November: Bon Echo: Dreams and Visions exhibition opens at Agnes Etherington Art Centre, Kingston.

1993 Artist-in-residence programme established at Bon Echo Provincial Park. Ontario Heritage Foundation plaque unveiled, establishing the site and buildings as having cultural-heritage significance.

1996 Friends of Bon Echo hold their first outdoor art show in the park.

1997 Merrill Denison's Marsh Hay presented at Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario.

1998 Merrill Denison's Brothers in Arms presented at the Shaw Festival.


Bon Echo Provincial Park. Toronto: The Division of Parks, Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, 1992.

Bon Echo Provincial Park: Facilities, Services and Programmes. Toronto: Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, published annually.

Boyle, David. 'Rock Paintings, or Petrographs: Rock Paintings at Lake Massanog.' Annual Archaeological Report of Ontario: 1894-95. Toronto: Printed by order of the Legislative Assembly of Ontario, 1896.

Brown, Gene, Nadine Brumell, and Elsie Snider, eds. The Oxen and the Axe: Collected and Edited by the Pioneers. [Cloyne, Ont.]: The Pioneers, 1983. Third edition.

Brown, Ron. 50 Even More Unusual Things to See in Ontario. Toronto: Stoddard Publishing Co. Ltd. / A Boston Mills Press Book, 1993.

Colombo, John Robert. Canadian Literary Landmarks. Willowdale, Ont.: Hounslow Press, 1983.

Cook, Ramsay. The Regenerators: Social Criticism in Late Victorian English Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1985.

Denison, Flora M., Mary Melville, the Psychic. Toronto: Austin Publishing Co. Ltd., 1900.

 —, ed. The Sunset of Bon Echo, vol. I, nos. 1-6 (March 1916-April / May 1920).

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 —. Boobs in the Woods: Sixteen Sketches by One of Them. Ottawa: The Graphic Publishers, Ltd., 1927.

 —. Plays from Hart House, Volume One. Toronto: Macmillan Co. of Canada, 1926; New York: Samuel French, 1932.

 —. The Unheroic North: Four Canadian Plays. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, Ltd., 1923.

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Gorham, Deborah. 'Flora MacDonald Denison: Canadian Feminist.' In A Not Unreasonable Claim: Women and Reform in Canada, 1880s-1920s. Ed. Linda Kealey. Toronto: The Women's Press, 1979, pp. 47-70.

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Herrington, W.S. History of the County of Lennox and Addington. Toronto: The Macmillan Co. of Canada, Ltd., 1913; Belleville, Ont.: Mika Silk Screening Ltd., 1972.

High Pines Trail Guide: Bon Echo Provincial Park. Toronto: Queen's Printer for Ontario, 1988.

Keith, John, ed. MazinawCountry. Boulder, Ont.: Pinecone Publishing, 1993.

Kishkebus Canoe Trail: Bon Echo Provincial Park. Illustrations by Gary Sharman. Toronto: Queen's Printer for Ontario, 1987.

[Mabee, Barbara.] 'Through Artists' Eyes.' Bon Echo Provincial Park: 1991 Facilities, Services and Programmes. Toronto: Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, 1991.

MacDonald, Dick. Mugwump Canadian: The Merrill Denison Story. Montreal: Content Publishing Co. Ltd., 1973.

MacKinnon, Stuart. 'In the Attic at Greystones.' Friends' Newsletter (Cloyne: Friends of Bon Echo Park) (19 December 1990).

 —. Mazinaw. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1980.

McMullin, Stanley E. 'Walt Whitman's Influence in Canada.' Dalhousie Review 49 (Autumn 1969): 361-68.

Rayburn, Allan. 'The Other Mississippi.' Canadian Geographic (March-April 1994): 80.

Rolleston, Bryan, ed. County of a Thousand Lakes: The History of the County of Frontenac, 1673-1973. Kingston: Frontenac County Council, 1982.

Savigny, Mary. Bon Echo: The Denison Years. Toronto: Natural Heritage / Natural History, 1997.

The Shield Trail: Bon Echo Provincial Park. Cloyne, Ont.: Published by the Friends of Bon Echo Park in cooperation with the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, n.d. (1991).

Stacey, Robert. The Canadian Poster Book: 100 Years of the Poster in Canada. Toronto: Methuen, 1979.

 —. 'MASSANOGA: The Art of Bon Echo' In SoftQuad SGML World Tour (CD-ROM). Toronto: Seybold/SoftQuad, 1994.

 —. 'Head Upside Down Between the Legs: The Park as Art Gallery at Century's End' Alberta Museums Review 23 (Summer 1997): 24-27.

Unto These Hills, Belleville, Ont.: The Intelligencer, published by the Pioneer Club, Cloyne, 1978.

from the catalogue published by Penumbra Press Archives of Canadian Art, 1998

Text: © Robert Stacey and Stan McMullin. All rights reserved.

The Centre for Contemporary Canadian Art
The Canadian Art Database: Canadian Writers Files

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