History of Fancy Free Island, Big Rideau Lake
An early watercolour by William Price. Image courtesy of Robina Laney.
The oldest cottage standing on Big Rideau Lake, Fancy Free’s origins date back to the late 1870s. The cottage was originally built as a family retreat by the Washburn family of the nearby town of Smiths Falls. Letters from the early 1900s show that the Washburns would travel frequently by boat back and forth from Smiths Falls to Fancy Free, and the family lived on the island for the entire summer. The cool lake breezes and sparkling water provided hours of fun for these otherwise serious Victorians, who remain vividly present in early photos that show them happily at play in the water around the cottage in canoes, rowboats, skiffs, sailboats and graceful wooden boats with small newfangled gasoline powered motors.
The Rideau Canal
The artist William Price and his wife, Ruby Smith Price on a visit to Fancy Free (undated). Image courtesy of Robina Laney.
Fancy Free’s history is intertwined with that of the Rideau Canal. Although originally built in the 1830’s by the British military for reasons of defence, the Rideau Canal came into popular use as a recreational waterway in the late 1800’s as the introduction of the new internal combustion engine made excursion vessels popular. With its calm water passages and its system of locks that bypass rapids, the Rideau Canal was (and is) perfectly suited for public and private recreational boating.
The invention of motors for boats made the lakes accessible by water in the late 19th century, and residents of the nearby towns and villages built unique summer residences along the shores of the Rideau waterway. Big Rideau Lake, the largest and most spectacular of the many lakes along the Rideau route, attracted not only local residents but also people from Ottawa, Kingston, and the eastern seaboard of the United States. Soon an active colony of summer cottagers (especially mothers with large broods of children) was established on the Rideau lakes, their lives characterized by boating, swimming, fishing, camping and socializing with one another.
Postcard of the Rideau Queen.
The Rideau Queen, a large steamer capable of holding about 300 passengers, plied the water of Big Rideau Lake on day trips, noting on its bill of advertisement that Fancy Free was among the sights to be seen.
The flavour of a summer of cottage living on the Rideau in those early days has been captured in “A Boy’s Cottage Diary, 1904,” written by Fred Dickinson and annotated by Larry Turner. “It was a summer full of camping, fishing, boating, and all around fun, the kinds of summers experienced by youngsters in Ontario lakelands where families of country, town and city found relief from work-day life.
Building Fancy Free
Fancy Free Cottage, 1915
Like many of the other older cottages on Big Rideau Lake, Fancy Free was built from lumber barged in from Smiths Falls. Early photos show that Fancy Free was built in several stages in the expanding “pagoda” style typical of the era. The original cottage was a classic rectangular two storey clapboard structure with a centre gable and wrap-around porch. At a later date, a gabled bedroom was added to the back of the house (built entirely by women according to family lore), and the two windward sides of the porch were enclosed to make the kitchen and the breakfast room. Another addition provided extra space for the bathroom and tool shed. In the 1930s electricity was added- the cable being laid underwater through the channel between Fancy Free and the mainland for a cost of $25.00. In the mid 1960’s Arnold Gough and his teenaged sons divided the upper storey (previously an open concept sleeping area) into five bedrooms, finishing them with mahogany doors and veneer panelling. The telephone line was put through to the island in the 1970s, connecting the cottage to the mainland for purposes of communication after almost 100 years.
The Washburns (and later the Goughs) were devout Baptists, and for many years in the 19th and early 20th centuries, Fancy Free hosted Sunday religious services for lake residents. A pump organ was installed on the porch, and people from miles around came by boat to the sheltered little channel that separates Fancy Free from the mainland. The congregation stayed in their boats, gathered together in the sheltered channel, while the preacher and organist conducted service from shore, voices and music carrying easily over the quiet water.
A postcard of Fancy Free from Nellie Washburn dated August 31st 1914, addressed to Mrs. A. N. Frith, 53 Lees Avenue, Ottawa, refers to her worries that the annual Baptist convention would be disrupted by the First World War, which was on at the time:
”How is my dear Mrs. Frith?
This is just an excuse for a letter which will come later. Have been busy ever since returning home. We are still at Fancy Free but expect to get back to our town home about end of September. Will the War affect our convention this fall? With lots of love to all, thanks for the kind invitation to visit you this summer.
Yours lovingly, Nellie.”
Tom, Ruth, and John Gough with their mother and Aunt Margaret Washburn, circa 1952. Footloose Island in background.
Margaret Washburn, (born 1876) one of the daughters of the original family, summered on Fancy Free for almost every year of her life, spending much of her time tending the glorious gardens that ringed the island. She never married, and upon her death in 1967 she bequeathed the cottage and island to Arnold and Margaret Gough, close family friends and fellow Baptists from Smiths Falls. Prominent members of their community, Arnold and Margaret had previously owned Grandy Isle, the island just north of Fancy Free, for many years, and their three children (John, Tom, and Ruth) ran back and forth between the two islands via a roughly constructed bridge. In the late 1980s, Arnold and Margaret passed on the island to their children, who shared it for a period of several years. Ruth and Tom eventually moved to Toronto and John moved to Calgary. Tom (with his wife Pamela) bought the island from his siblings in 2001. Fancy Free has been in existence for more than 120 years without being sold outside the family.
Arnold, John, Tom, Margaret and Ruth Gough circa 1958
Because of the continuity of the families that have owned it, Fancy Free has changed little since it was first built. Like many a cottage described by Larry Turner in A Boy’s Cottage Diary, 1904, “the past is always present...the whole place evokes a living tradition in sense, smell and texture. Pictures, artefacts, furniture, tools, games, blankets, plates, and the dim light fixtures are a constant reminder of a family tradition. It was a tradition of... robust leisure and productive relaxation.”