History of Fancy Free Island, Big Rideau Lake

An early watercolour by William Price.
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.

Fancy Free was built as a summer home by Jeramiah Washburn, a milliner living in  nearby Smiths Falls. 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.

Big Rideau Lake provided hours of fun for these Victorians, who remain vividly present in early photos still hanging on Fancy Free’s walls, showing them happily at play in canoes, rowboats, skiffs, sailboats and graceful wooden boats, some with small gasoline powered motors.

Postcard of Fancy Free from Bill Price collection ca 1912.

The Rideau Canal

The artist William Price and his wife, Ruby Smith Price on a visit to Fancy Free (undated).
The artist William Price and his wife, Ruby Smith Price on a visit to Fancy Free (undated). Image courtesy of Robina Laney.

The Rideau Canal is central to the history of Fancy Free . 

Although originally built in the 1830’s by the British for defence, the Rideau Canal system, running from Ottawa to Kingston by way of linked lakes, became popular as a recreational waterway in the late 1800’s when the introduction of  internal combustion engines made excursion vessels popular.

The Rideau system, with its calm water passages and its system of locks that bypass rapids, is perfectly suited for recreational boating. The invention of motors for boats made the Rideau Lakes accessible by water in the late 19th century, and residents of the nearby towns and villages built summer residences along the shores of the lakes in the Rideau.

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. By 1880, an active colony of summer cottagers was established, their lives characterized by boating, swimming, fishing, camping and socializing.  

Postcard of the Rideau Queen.
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 from Kingston, noting on its fliers that beautiful Fancy Free Island 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 the late Perth historian Larry Turner.  “It was a summer full of camping, fishing, boating, and all around fun.”

Building Fancy Free

Fancy Free Cottage, 1915
Fancy Free Cottage, 1915

Fancy Free cottage was built from lumber barged in from Smiths Falls circa 1878.  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 main dining room. Another addition provided extra space for the bathroom and tool shed.

Island life was simple and “off-grid” for the first 50 years. The Washburns built a windmill on the northwest side of Fancy Free Island to pump water. Aside from that, the sun was the main energy source for years and Fancy Free still has some of its original kerosene lamps from the Edwardian years. 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. The telephone line was put through to the island in the 1970s, connecting Fancy Free to the outside world almost 100 years after it was built.

Early Days

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:

Old Postcard
A postcard of Fancy Free from Nellie Washburn dated August 31st 1914.

“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.”

From the Washburns to the Gough family  

Tom, Ruth, and John Gough with their mother and Aunt Margaret Washburn, circa 1952. Footloose Island in background.
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. Upon her death in 1967 she left the cottage and island to Arnold and Margaret Gough, close family friends and fellow Baptists from Smiths Falls.

Prominent citizens of Smiths Falls, Arnold (a mayor for many years)  and his wife Margaret Gough had previously owned Grandy Isle, the island just north of Fancy Free. Their three children (John, Tom, and Ruth) ran back and forth between the two islands via a roughly constructed bridge, the vestiges of which remain today.

Arnold, John, Tom, Margaret and Ruth Gough circa 1958
Arnold, John, Tom, Margaret and Ruth Gough circa 1958

In the late 1980s, Arnold and Margaret Gough passed on the island to their adult children, who shared it for a period of several years. Ruth and Tom eventually moved to Toronto and John moved to Calgary. Tom and his wife Pamela bought the island from the siblings in 2001. Fancy Free has been in existence for more than 130 years without being sold outside the family.

Because of this continuity, Fancy Free cottage has maintained a remarkable amount of its original look as a classic Victorian cottage. Entering it is like stepping back in time since updates have been discreetly done to keep the heritage elements of the building intact.

As 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… are a constant reminder of a family tradition. It was a tradition of… robust leisure and productive relaxation.”