The Historical Development of Recreation

 at Puslinch Lake to the 1930’s


by Alexander MacDougall










In 1978, young Alexander MacDougall, at Sir Wilfred Laurier University, composed an extraordinarily fine thesis for his honours Bachelor of Arts degree, entitled “The Historical Development of Recreation at Puslinch Lake to the 1930’s”.  If his thesis is indicative of his talents, Mr. MacDougall has very likely gone on to a career of achievement and distinction.  The thesis combines a wealth of impressively researched historical information on Puslinch Lake within the context of a theoretical discussion of the general model for early, pre-1930, recreational development within Ontario.   With an earnest acknowledgement of indebtedness, and the gratitude thereby generously due, now proffered the publisher, Sir Wilfred Laurier University, chapter 2, entitled “The First Recreation Boom” is presented.






Chapter 2


Early Settlement and Recreational Use:

 The First Recreation Boom.



The development of Puslinch Lake from the time it was first recorded to the first formal developments of recreational uses is a general history of pioneer homesteading.  The Puslinch Township settlement was late in developing because of the Clergy Reserve restrictions placed upon it.  It was not until 1831 that the first settlers, Alexander Lamont and his family, settled on the Lake.  Their parcel of land was concession 2, lot 6, a corner of which covers Little Lake.  The second concession lots to the north and east of the Lamont property were filled next.  This was most likely due to the poor quality of the land to the west of lot 6; it was mostly swamp.  It was 1840 before the lots of the first concession were settled.  Even then it was lot 6 and east that were settled first.


In tracing the original settlers of the lots immediately surrounding Puslinch Lake, it is found that many of them did not have a registered ownership of the land.  Crown grants often showed that those who were credited with the original settlement of various properties had no deed for them.  Instead, the crown grants were issued to sons or brothers, sometimes twenty years after the land had been cleared.  (2.)   For example, the Lamont property on the front section of lot 6, concession 2, was, according to all accounts, settled by Alexander Lamont in 1841.  The crown grant for this land however, was not registered until 1851 to Peter Lamont, a son of Alexander.  It could be assumed that land was leased from the crown as land on a clergy reserve prior to its being granted.  It is more likely however, that the grants were not registered for some years due mainly to human forgetfulness.






Use of Puslinch Lake as a recreational site does not become evident until 1840.  At this time, Harry Pierce opened a tavern on the second concession road at what is now the entrance to Butler’s Beach (area “B” figure 1).  Coach travel along the first con­cession road would have provided a route between Preston and the smaller communities of Puslinch and Aberfoyle.  Pierce’s Tavern could have been built as a stopover point enroute.  The tavern also began the trend of local people coming to the lake area.  Their recreational purpose was not so much that of relaxing along the lakeshore as we consider recreation to be today, but rather to get away from the farm and socialize with neighbours in a definitely relaxing manner.  The following year, 1841, a hotel was erected by Thomas Frame on the land strip between the two lakes.  Its original purpose was probably to service the coach travelers on stopover.  The records of this first hotel are now lost, but it would be possible to assume that some of the customers were from either Hespeler or Guelph.


At this point in time, much of Southern Ontario was in a pioneer settlement state. The smaller, outlying, urban centres were often little more than a general store and a coach stop, and people had no time for leisure pursuits.  However, the relationship between Puslinch Lake and the towns of Hespeler, Guelph, Preston, and Galt seems to be quite the opposite.  Having a close proximity to each urban centre, Puslinch Lake became the ideal spot for Sunday picnics or outings.  Pierce’s Tavern and the hotels which followed were in all likelihood a result of the interest in the lake shown by residents of the surrounding urban centres.






Use of Puslinch Lake from 1841 on, shows an increase in vacation and recreational pursuits.  This early start to laying the foundations of recreational activity around Puslinch Lake precedes the norm for the rest of the province.  According to R. I. Wolfe,(5.) the first vacation boom for most of Ontario began around the late 1850’s.  This gives Puslinch Lake a good fifteen years head start in the recreational field.


It should be questioned why a small lake in the middle of farming country could start to become a popular resort fifteen years before the more spectacular resorts of Niagara and the St. Lawrence Valley became popular.  The most likely reason for this is that of the location of the lake.  As has been noted already, Puslinch Lake is in close proximity to Hespeler, Guelph, Preston, and Galt.  Each of these towns were progressive and beginning to grow rapidly.  Their populations maintained a regular schedule of life which allowed for and included leisure time.  Use of open space during such leisure time was the norm among not only the rich but among the working class.  The urban parks filled this need to a certain degree as did the gardens of the private estates.  Yet there has always been an attraction for a body of water when one is seeking a relaxing situation.  Puslinch Lake conveniently provided this setting.  It was within a one hour buggy ride from each of the surrounding towns and provided ample open space for leisure pursuits, especially following the construction of the hotels.  Transportation though, is the key element.  Railways were only beginning their development so it was still the horse and buggy which provided transport anywhere in the province.  Distances had to be short, or they could not be covered in a comfortable time space.  The resorts of Niagara and the St. Lawrence were just too far away and those of Muskoka were still virtually inaccessible.  Puslinch Lake provided a resort setting with the same potential for recreation as did Niagara or Muskoka, but closer to home.






Credit for Puslinch Lake’s early beginning in recreation, may be given to the foresight of Thomas Frame.  Frame’s hotel established, perhaps unintentionally, a public awareness of the lake.  Other entrepreneurs, John Parks and George Sleeman, came later and capitalized on Frame’s beginning moves towards recreation at the lake.  Over the period from 1840 to 1900, each of these men recognized a potential at Puslinch Lake for a recreational resort and developed plans to capitalize on this potential.


Information on Thomas Frame prior to his arrival at Puslinch Lake is non-existent.   The information that is available deals with his operations of the hotel on lots 4 and 5.  As has been stated, Frame built his hotel in 1841, the year after Pierce opened the tavern.  For the first few years the hotel most likely catered to the overnight stay type of accommodation associated with being a coach stopover.  Patrons would arrive by personal carriage on a Saturday afternoon, indulge in the pursuit of their fancy, such as walks, boating, or croquet, have dinner and retire for the evening to quiet activities and bed.  The Sunday morning following, they would possibly attend church services at the Ellis Chapel and then resume the pursuit of recreational activity by the lake until it was time to go. Departure would have to be sometime in the mid-afternoon to allow for a return to town (Hespeler, Preston, or Guelph) before nightfall.  Such visitors would be infrequent.  Again, it is the hotel registers which would confirm this.  But as these registers have been lost, the actual account of what took place is unavailable.  The supposition that the hotel was a coach stopover and evolved into a resort must remain and be regarded as a possible explanation only.






Definitive evidence for recreational use of the hotel by Frame is found in 1848.  In that year, Frame purchased the big island, St. Helen’s Island, from a Father Sandarel and established a steamboat service to carry thirty passengers to and from the island.  Father Sandarel had been the priest in charge of the Roman Catholic Parish of Guelph.  He had purchased St. Helen’s Island from the Crown with hopes of establishing a monastery there .  In 1846, Father Sandarel ordered a monk by the name of John Shoeman to build the monastery.  Having provided the necessary funds to Shoeman, Father Sandarel promptly departed for an extended pilgrimage to the Holy Lands and the Vatican in Rome.  On his return to Puslinch Lake in 1848, he found the monastery to be unsatisfactory and sold the island to Thomas Frame.  Because of his outspokenness, Sandarel was shortly afterwards removed from the Guelph Parish and ended up walking on yet another pilgrimage to a monastery in Kentucky. (6.)  Father Sandarel can be given credit however, for his viewing Puslinch Lake as a place of peace and beauty in which to build a monastery, rather than as the harsh wilderness which the settlers saw and hated.


With the island fully at his disposal, Frame was able to provide an extremely wide and varied program of events for patrons to his hotel.  Sailboat excursions to St. Helen’s Island for picnics or croquet or just walking became a more favoured activity.  Boat rentals, swimming and bicycling were other common pursuits. (7.)  Evening activities included campfires, moon­light rides in canoes on the lake or musical sessions which were usually of an impromptu nature.  These activities tend to suggest a free and easy spirit amongst the participants, a luxury which only the richer and well-­to-do portions of the local population should have been able to afford.  Yet information obtained by interviews with the older long term residents of the lake area suggest that many different economic and social classes used the Frame Hotel facilities.  If such is the case, then Puslinch Lake is in contrast to the rest of Ontario where the resort life of the 1850’s and 1860’s was a pastime for the rich and social elite. (8.)






By the l880’s, the general recreation pattern as described by Wolfe had been well established at Puslinch Lake.  A hotel had been built on lot 3 (area “A” in figure 1) of the first concession at the north end of the lake by John Parks.  The activities offered by the Parks Hotel were similar to a degree to those of the Frame Hotel.  Boating, picnicking, croquet, and campfires were common, yet it is the Temperance Hall which adjoined the Parks hotel that made it different.  Dances, lodge meetings, organized group events, and even debates were held in the Hall.  In 1888, a debating society had been formed, its objective being “for the dissemination of knowledge and the cultivation of the Arts and Graces, so indispensable in public and private life.” (9.)


The story of the hotel on lots 4 and 5 of the first concession is perhaps the more interesting and better recorded.  In 1879, a fire destroyed the Frame Hotel and Frame was forced to sell the property.  The 1880 assessment rolls for Puslinch Township record a George Martin, farmer, as owner of all but 7 acres of the 57 acre property.  The assessment roles of 1883 record a George Sleeman, brewer from Guelph, as the owner of the property. What is known of George Sleeman himself, is that he was born in Guelph, the son of a brewer.  The Silver Creek Brewery, which the family owned, had been established in Guelph in 1851 by his father.  The family lived in a large house, known as “The Manor”, near to it, on Waterloo Road.  Sleeman was a business man and an entrepreneur of a classic form.  The brewery provided ample capital for investments of which the Puslinch Lake property was one. (10.)  The recreation boom of the late 19th century was beginning and Sleeman recognized the potential of Puslinch Lake in catering to the local population.  It provided facilities close to home rather than the need to travel the long distance to Muskoka.






In 1883, when Sleeman purchased the property from George Martin, he rebuilt the hotel and installed a fifty passenger steamboat called “The City of Guelph” to carry passengers to and from St. Helen’s Island.  Information gathered from a newspaper article suggests that Sleeman had a partner in the venture, John Davidson, a retired army colonel and insurance agent.  A newspaper article from the Galt Evening Reporter states that Davidson “owned the island in the centre of the lake” and that,  “a reported $300 per week was made by charging passengers 10 cents each” for passage to and from the island. (11.)  The assessment roles for the township record in 1880 through 1884, a John Davidson, occupation, agent, as owning 7 acres of land on lot 4 at the rear of concession one.  Yet in 1885, Davidson is no longer listed and his 7 acres appear on the assessment of George Sleeman.  No positive documentation has been found to verify the partnership and considering the time interval involved, it is unlikely that any permanent partnership plans were made.






With full control of the lake property, Sleeman began to work on plans and methods to direct as much of Guelph’s recreational business as possible towards the new Lake Hotel, as it had been renamed.  Sleeman had been mayor of Guelph for the three years of 1880, 1881, and 1882.  During this time he had furthered his influence as not only a prominent citizen of Guelph, but also as a well known figure around the whole of the Wellington and Waterloo county areas.  Being familiar in the areas surrounding Puslinch Lake, Sleeman was able to attract even more business than that of just Guelph.  Those who came to the Lake Hotel ranged from factory workers through shopkeepers to the wealthy and affluent of not only the Wellington and Waterloo County regions but those of Toronto and London.  Actual documentation of who came to the hotel, in the form of registers, has been lost.  However, an interview with Mrs. Alice Simpson of Hespeler provided substantial evidence.  Mrs. Simpson is the daughter of William Marriot who operated the Lake Hotel for Sleeman and later for the City of Guelph from 1895 to 1911.  In Mrs. Simpson’s estimation, there was a general mix of people who came to the hotel.  The duration of a visit varied from a weekend to a week’s vacation.  Verification of this comes from another interview with a Mrs. Ruth Schultz of Preston (Cambridge).  Mrs. Schultz is the granddaughter of John Parks and supplied much the same information about the Park hotel as Mrs. Simpson did about the Sleeman hotel.






The activities of the guests were for the most part initiated by the guests themselves. Individual and small group recreational pursuits such as canoeing or badminton or fishing were common occurrences.  Yet there were also large scale activities which the guests organized themselves.  Things such as campfires, impromptu concerts, small firearms or rifle clubs and even picnics were done solely on the initiative of the guests.  The hotel management did have a hand in organizing such events as Thursday night dances and hoe-downs or for an orchestra to come and play on a weekend. (12.)  Organized picnics for special groups were also a common function.  Figure 2 shows the Guelph City Council at Puslinch Lake just prior to World War I.





(The caption translated ─ The picture was taken just before World War I and shows city council members, civic officials, and representatives of the press at one of the council’s annual picnics to Puslinch Lake.  This was an event that was very popular in those days; this particular event was during the term of Sam Carter as mayor of the city.  Among those in the group are Mark Dulmage, George D. Hastings (mayor 1909-1910), Herb Steele, Fire Chief Smith, R. E. Nelson (mayor 1899-1900), T. J. Hannigan, Sam Penfold, Charles Burgess, and Eddie Taylor.)





The exact date is not available for this photograph, which was reproduced in the  Guelph Mercury newspaper of January 16th 1960.  However, group outings such as this, to the Lake Hotel or Parks’ Hotel were common from 1880 to 1914.  The picture is from the Seiford collection. (13.)






Advertisements such as the one in figure 3 also expound the virtues of Puslinch Lake.




Figure 3:

  Hotel Advertisement –Pre World War I



The advertisement transcribed:


This sheet of water is beautifully situated in the middle of one of the finest agricultural districts in Western Ontario and is one of the most pleasant summer resorts.  Is 9 miles from Guelph, 2 miles from Galt, 2 miles from Hespeler and a short drive from the Mineral Baths of C. Kress, Preston.  The fishing is excellent.  The large lake is 1 1/4 miles long by 7/8 miles in width, and has five islands dotting its surface; the largest covers six acres and is laid out as a Park with Walks, Croquet Grounds etc. but the natural beauty is not spoiled.  Every convenience is provided for the amusement of visitors.  Dancing floor, Bowling Alley, Swings and quoits etc.  A well stocked refreshment booth caters to the wants of the visitors in that line.  The Steamer CITY of GUELPH plies between the hotel and the island park.  She carries 50 and has life saving apparatus for the entire load.  There is also a large fleet of small boats for hire.  The hotel on the mainland is second to none and is fitted in every way for the comfort and pleasure of its guests.  RATES REASONABLE.


S. WHITMER, Manager.

Address ─ Hespeler P.O.







Figure 3b

(front side of advertisement)


















From the mid 1860’s on through the early 1900’s, Canada was a nation obsessed with railways.  The role of the railway in recreation is documented by Wolfe’s article at the introduction to this paper.  Just as railways carried passengers to the Muskokas and Kawarthas, a railway was planned to carry passengers to Puslinch Lake.  In 1894, a 30 year franchise for a street railway in Guelph was granted to George Sleeman.  In 1895, the Guelph Railway Company was formed, with Sleeman as president.  The original charter was for the City of Guelph only and it was not until 1901 that Sleeman was given additional charters to extend the railway to Berlin (Kitchener), Hespeler, and Puslinch Lake. (15.)


Sleeman had been quite anxious to secure these additional charters because it meant control of not only the commercial transportation between the cities but also control of the transportation to Puslinch Lake and his hotel.  Prior to the 1901 charter, Sleeman operated a wagon service to the lake from Guelph.  The service was intended as the forerunner to a rail service, which never came about.  Figures 4 and 5 depict weekend picnickers at Puslinch Lake posing with the wagons. (16.)







Guelph Railway Company wagon at Puslinch Lake

(Grundy Collection, Guelph Civic Museum)






Guelph Railway Company wagon at Puslinch Lake

(Grundy Collection, Guelph Civic Museum)








The extensions of the Guelph Railway Company never materialized and the company began to sink deeply into debt.  When Sleeman had built the line, he financed the project by selling some $50,0000 worth of bonds and borrowing short term funds from the bank.  By 1902, the Guelph Railway Company was in receivership, being held by the banks.  Sleeman’s holdings at Puslinch Lake were included as assets of the company and so went into receivership as well.  In 1907, the City of Guelph paid out $78,000 to buy the $3,000 worth of shares in the railway from the bank and $48,000 worth of bonds held by the public.  The Ontario Legislature had amended the charter of the new Guelph Radial Railway Company to give it broader powers and rights.  Despite all of this, the line to Puslinch Lake was never built. (17.)


The City of Guelph continued to operate the Lake Hotel as a resort with William Marriot remaining as the manager until 1911.  An S. Whitmer became the manager and remained for many years thereafter.  The program of events changed very little after the city took over.  The major change perhaps was the loss of the steamer.  Around 1910, after thirty or so years of service, the machinery finally wore out and the steamer was gutted to be broken up for scrap.  The period of the social resort was, however, drawing to a close.  As with the rest of the resorts in the province, the economic letdown in 1913 and the war thereafter, ended the major era at Puslinch Lake.  The City of Guelph did retain ownership of the property and tried to run the operation again during the second vacation boom of the 1920's.  However, by 1930, the city had no use for the property and sold it. (18.)






The situation at the Parks Hotel was not much different.  The property had changed hands several times from George Parks to Joseph Wayper to Mr. McElary.  The Wayper-McElary transfer in 1922 was also the end of the hotel.  McElary, in turn, sold the property to Ross Barber, who named it Swastika Beach.  Barber operated a day type of resort through the 1930’s and 1940’s and his daughter, Mrs. Seiford, continues to run it as such today.








Annals of Puslinch 1850 to 1950 (Acton: Acton Free Press; 1950) P. 80.


Abstracts for Puslinch Township (Guelph Registry Office; Wellington County Museum).


Thelma Shipley, “Puselynch, Posselinch, Puzzlewitch, Puslinch.” The Hespeler Herald, November 12th 1954, p. 8.


Ibid., p. 8.


R. I. Wolfe, “The Changing Patterns of Tourism in Ontario”, Profiles of a Province (Toronto: Queen’s Printer).


Thelma Shipley, The Hespeler Herald, p. 8.


Verne McIlwraith, Guelph Mercury newspaper.


R. I. Wolfe, Profiles of a Province p. 174.


Thelma Shipley, The Hespeler Herald , p. 8.


John Mills, “Traction on the Grand” in Railfair Enterprises 1974. p. 33.


“Just Like Muskoka at Puslinch Lake”, Galt Evening Reporter, November 1955.


Interview with Mrs. Alice Simpson, daughter of William Marriot, of Hespeler.


From the Seiford Collection, Barber’s Beach, Puslinch Lake.


From the pictorial collection of the Guelph Civic Museum.


John Mills, Railfair International. p. 83


From the pictorial collection of the Guelph Civic Museum.


Leo A. Johnson, History of Guelph 1827 to 1927 (Guelph Historical Society) p. 288.


John Mills, Railfair International p. 88.








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