Poor Soils and Rich Folks: Household Economics and Sustainability in Muskoka, 1850-1920
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This dissertation examines the social, economic and environmental dimensions of the transformation of the Muskoka region in southcentral Ontario from an Aboriginal place into a renowned tourist mecca between 1850 and 1920. More specifically, it explores how changing social relationships, patterns of economic exchange and environmental conditions shaped sustainability in a marginal landscape located at the southern edge of the Canadian Shield and in close proximity to large urban populations. Focusing on the household level, this study situates the challenges and opportunities faced by people in Muskoka within a broader set of social, economic and environmental histories of Ontario, Canada and North America. This work draws on a variety of primary sources, including diaries and journals, ledgers, legal testimony, Indian Affairs reports, local histories and memoirs, government files and oral interviews. The rural and environmental history of the southern Shield region has received little attention from historians. This dissertation begins with two chapters on the history of transportation in the Muskoka region, which establish the importance of mobility on the lakes and access to outside resources as central to the narrative that follows. These chapters also identify the transition from an exclusively organic fuel economy to a largely mineral fuel economy as central to the history of sustainability in the region. The dissertation then turns to the history of the region’s First Nations and the relationship of continuity and change they had with the marginal landscape of the southern Shield during this time period. The next section devotes three chapters to Eurocanadian settlement of Muskoka during the 1860s and 1870s, the rise of tourism during the 1880s and 1890s and the emergence of a culture of conspicuous consumption on the lakes during the 1900s and 1910s. Finally, the dissertation considers the alternative small-scale household approach to logging that co-existed with the commercial exploitation of Muskoka’s forests before 1920. This dissertation argues that society at the southern edge of the Shield was shaped by environmental limitations and a reliance on resources, manufactured goods and wealth from outside the region. Ultimately, this dissertation concludes that life in a marginal environment, such as Muskoka was never completely sustainable only more or less sustainable. Sustainability was part of a process, not a condition, of life in Muskoka. Life at the southern edge of the Shield became more sustainable when social relationships, patterns of economic exchange and environmental conditions were shaped mainly by local material and energy flows, and became less sustainable when local material and energy flows are greatly exceeded or undermined by exogenous ones. The most sustainable moment occurred during the 1880s and 1890s when visitors and residents formed interdependent relationships, while less sustainable moments existed before those relationships had been established and after the turn of the century when they were eclipsed by a consumer culture. The history of Muskoka did not unfold on a trajectory toward or away from an exclusively sustainable or unsustainable end. Changing circumstances either enhanced or diminished the potential for people in Muskoka to reproduce or maintain certain social, economic and environmental arrangements over time.