By Fred Kallin, OMAH History Committee member
Anatari, Pa-Push-Quan, Gwillam’s Island, Lundy’s Island, Creighton Island, Anderson Island, Starvation Island: these are all previous names for a small 25-acre island in Lake Simcoe we now know as Strawberry Island.
Few places go through such a name changing frenzy but this is only one aspect of its history that makes the island interesting. At times, Strawberry Island and Orillia had a shared history.
Deep Indigenous Roots
Strawberry Island was an important location for the local Indigenous peoples before the dawn of recorded history in this region. The old legends indicate that the island had long been used as a sentinel outpost. The evidence from archeological digs has supported this story, with some of the pottery fragments dating back to the early Woodland period. This is in line with the early days of the Atherley Narrows fish weirs, which date back about 5,000 years.
We know Strawberry Island was only used as a lookout post and was not a permanent village because nearly all of the Indigenous artifacts were found along the south shore. This location is not the best place to land a canoe or to accommodate a village, but it affords a good view of anyone approaching the Narrows from the south.
Anatari – Meeting Place of the Villagers
Samuel de Champlain was the first European to see this island as he paddled past it with a Huron/Wyandot war party in September 1615. The war party had gathered at the Narrows and were on their way to attack the Iroquois near the south eastern shore of Lake Ontario. The route took them past Strawberry Island (or Anatari as it was then known), up the Talbot River through Balsam Lake and Rice Lake and then down the Trent River – much the same route as today’s Trent Canal. The Huron/Wyandot name of Anatari means “meeting place of the villagers,” quite an appropriate name for an outpost.
Anatari played no part in warning the Hurons of the Iroquois invasion of 1649 because it happened at an unexpected time, the middle of March that year. The enemy approached overland from the south and over the ice of Lake Simcoe. The Iroquois laid waste to all of the Huron villages, including the St. Louis Mission near present day Midland. The inhabitants that were able to escape torture and death were forced to flee, and the area remained depopulated for over half a century.
Pa-push-quan – “A Barren Face” “Where There is a Clearing in the Trees”
In the early 1700s, Southern Ontario was occupied by the Chippewa/Ojibway bands. Their name for the island was Pa-push-quan which means “a barren face” or “where there is a clearing in the trees.”
Much of old Huronia was bought up by the British Crown from the Ojibway starting in 1815. Years later, the Crown obtained title to four of the islands in Lake Simcoe, including Pa-push-quan in 1856. The islands were to be sold and the interest on the sum was to be paid annually to the Ojibway. The sale of Pa-push-quan did not happen until 1875.
European Settlement on the Island and Many Different Names
often In the early years of European settlement, Strawberry Island received several names and it was often known by different names by different people at the same time. When Lieutenant-Governor John Graves Simcoe travelled through the area in 1793, on his way to Penetanguishene, he named the lake after his father, Royal Navy Captain John Simcoe, and he named the island Gwillam’s Island after his wife’s maiden name. Bayfield’s Admiralty Chart of 1828 gives the name as Lundy’s Island. The Department of Lands and Forests map of 1851 names it Creighton Island. An 1856 survey refers to it as Anderson Island. An 1877 map of Mara Township calls it Starvation Island. Local people around Lake Simcoe called it “Starvation Island” well into the 20th century. There is no proof that anyone ever starved while on the island, although it’s possible the name refers to an Indigenous fasting ceremony. Fasting ceremonies were done in an isolated location.
The Roots of the name Strawberry Island
In 1875, the island was sold to the McHattie family of Beaverton. John McHattie brought a horse to the island to cultivate a field of potatoes. The island was then sold to George Graham in 1881, station-master at Hawkestone. Graham may have been the only person to have resided year-round on the island. He cultivated part of the island and his garden became renowned for the giant strawberries grown there.
Captain Charles McInnes purchased the island in January 1885 and named it Strawberry Island after the large strawberries that grew there. There has been some speculation over the years that Strawberry Island got its name because it is shaped like a strawberry, but this story doesn’t bear fruit according to the historical record.
The Orillia Times of January 15, 1885 reported “Captain McInnes has purchased Strawberry Island (hitherto called Starvation Island) for the purpose of making it a summer resort.” The Orillia Times of July 9th 1885 reported a visit by Orillia lumber baron Andrew Tait and family. “He says Captain McInnes has well named Strawberry Island, as the berries grown there, beats anything for size and sweetness he ever saw before.”
Strawberry Island becomes a Tourist Destination
The LARGE New and Commodious Steamer “ISLAY” – One of the Steamships that carried tourists to Strawberry Island
Captain McInnes was a retired Great Lakes steamship captain originally from Glasgow, Scotland. He came to Orillia in the mid-1880s and had a 90-foot-long steamship built there (named The Orillia) by yacht builder JH Ross. The Orillia could carry 224 passengers and was the only steamship ever built in Orillia. Though it wasn’t the largest steamer on the lake it was one of the fastest.
OMAH Collection Photo of ‘The Orillia’ at Dock, Railway Excursion on Board going to Strawberry Island
Captain McInnes’ intention was to build Strawberry Island into a first-class resort and to use The Orillia to ferry hotel guests from the Orillia town dock out to his new wharf at the resort. The resort was built up over a few years to include a large hotel, a dance hall, walking trails, six cottages, bathing houses, picnic lawns, a waterworks system powered by windmill, boats and fishing tackle and an athletic field. The waters around Strawberry Island were known as one of the best fishing grounds in the province at the time.
Tudhope Employees Annual Picnic – June 22, 1901 (Black and White Photo of Mr. Tudhope)
Many large gatherings were held on Strawberry Island, often with a band such as the Orillia Citizens Band to play at the Dance Hall or on board The Orillia. The Orillia Packet of June 26, 1885 talked about the Masonic Picnic on Strawberry Island, one of the first large gatherings there. Many different sports events were held on the athletic field over the years, including lacrosse, football, cricket and baseball. Another major drawing card for the resort was that it was “wet.” Orillia and many surrounding towns did not allow liquor sales at the time but Strawberry Island was part of Ramara Township where the sale of alcohol was permitted. The Strawberry Island Resort remained a successful enterprise for the next three summers, closely tied to the city of Orillia with the steamer of the same name. The large resort required a lot of staff to run the place and some of the staff stayed on the island for the duration of the summer.
A Personal Connection to the History of Strawberry Island
One couple that stayed on the island as staff were William and Elizabeth Shaw of Oro. They had been farming near Knox Corners in Oro for several years when disaster struck their young family. In 1884-85, all four of their young children died of diphtheria. The situation must have been devastating. Neighbours would not go near the family farm and William had to bury the children himself. But eventually, William and Elizabeth were able to start a new family. We don’t know why they decided to work at Strawberry Island but perhaps the money was better than farming or perhaps they just wanted to get away from their difficult experiences on the farm and do something different. They spent the summer of 1888 on Strawberry Island with their two young children, Florence and Allan. Florence Shaw grew up and married William Robertson of Rugby. Florence Robertson happens to be the grandmother of my wife, Anne.
Captain McInnes and Strawberry Island fall on hard times
The resort was mostly shut down for the next few years as the result of a major recession. Only a few picnics and gatherings were held on the island during the years 1889-1892. In the fall of 1892 Captain McInnes was forced to mortgage Strawberry Island. He leased both the resort and the steamship to John Kennedy, the proprietor of the Grand Central Hotel in Orillia, for five years. However, this arrangement lasted only two summers when the lease was cancelled in the fall of 1894.
Despite the risk of failure, Captain McInnes decided to try to keep the business going at this point. He lengthened the steamer The Orillia from 90 to 125 feet and renamed it the Islay after the island in Scotland where he was born. The update increased the capacity of the steamer to 350 passengers. Strawberry Island was leased to a New York operator, Mr. A.S. Rennie.
One particularly large gathering happened on Strawberry Island on August 2, 1895, when the Sons of Scotland picnic was held there. With over three thousand people attending, the crowds were almost too large to handle. People arrived in town on trains from Midland and Huntsville. The Orillia stores closed at noon, and the townspeople crowded the town wharf to get on the steamers. Four steamers were used for the occasion, the Longford, the Lillie, the Enterprise and the Islay.
The lease with Mr. Rennie was cancelled in the fall of 1896 as the business ended in bankruptcy. Captain McInnes tried to keep the resort going by mortgaging some properties in Orillia. He also built a smaller 40-passenger steamer to take guests back and forth to his resort. His love for boats drove his hobby of running a pleasure steamer and the resort. The business only ran for a couple of months a year and was a losing proposition but McInnes managed to keep his resort running for another decade.
The Orillia Packet on July 26, 1901 wrote of another large gathering on Strawberry Island: “There are roughly speaking about six thousand people in Orillia and its suburbs and over half of these attended the annual outing of the employees of the Tudhope Carriage company on Monday. The Islay and the Enterprise were running between the island and the town all day.”
The Strawberry Island resort was in operation until 1906. In 1907 Captain McInnes rented out the island for private use. Captain McInnes fell ill that fall and never fully recovered. Nevertheless, he ran excursions on Lake Simcoe every summer until his death in January 1913. Some of the excursions stopped at Strawberry Island. Captain McInnes’s last known excursion to Strawberry Island was on July 25, 1912. The steamer Islay was engaged for the Gospel Hall Sunday School picnic that day.
After Captain Charles McInnes died, his son Jack McInnes took over Strawberry Island and the Islay for a few years. He continued to run excursions on Lake Simcoe and a few church picnics on Strawberry Island until everything ground to a halt with the Great War in 1914. Strawberry Island was closed to the public and the Islay was beached near Couchiching Beach Park. From 1915 to 1921, the only visitors to the island were Jack McInnes and his family, who spent a few weeks there each summer.
Strawberry Island purchased by the Basilian Fathers from Toronto in 1922
In 1922, Strawberry Island was purchased by the Basilian Fathers from Toronto. They are a Roman Catholic clerical religious congregation. On Strawberry Island they found the hotel, six cottages, the dance pavilion and the water pumping station. The hotel had been colonized by bats, so cleaning all of the rooms and old furniture was a major undertaking. The following summer they built a chapel using the lumber from the six cottages. In 1924, the materials from the dance pavilion were used to construct a bunk house. It was noted in some of the letters of the time that organized softball games were often arranged and it was usually the “bunkhouse” versus the “bat house.”
In 1929, work was started on a large stone shrine on the southwest corner of the island. Gangs of “Shriners” were set to work to haul granite rocks out of the shallow waters around the island. Some of these Shriners put in hours of hard work to get large rocks up onto the shore, only to have them rejected by the self-styled master masons on the project. The work continued for seven summers and in 1935 the bell-shaped structure was completed with a statue of the Virgin Mary added to the alcove of the bell structure. The stone structure is still visible in satellite photos today.
Additional buildings were added over the years such as Moylan Lodge in 1935 (a priest’s dormitory), Tighe House in 1941 (replacing the bunk house), a boat house in 1946, the Young Priests’ house in 1949, the New Chapel in 1958 and Forster Hall. With all the buildings, it almost looked like there was a small village on the island. Recreational activities on the island included a network of walking trails, an athletic field, three tennis courts and of course fishing.
Pope John Paul II visits Strawberry Island
In more recent years, two notable events occurred on Strawberry Island, when a couple of high-profile people visited there. In August 1961, Ontario Premier Leslie M. Frost visited the Basilian Summer Camp. And in July 2002, Pope John Paul II spent four nights as a guest of the Basilian Brothers on the island. He flew in and out by helicopter, landing and taking off from the athletic field.
Current status of Strawberry Island
In the end, the Basilian camp on the island was not to last. The Basilian Brothers sold Strawberry Island in 2007, and the island has been resold several times since then to various holding companies and property developers. The future of the island is currently uncertain. Today it is mostly overgrown and the remaining buildings are falling apart. Although it has been abandoned, it is a peaceful place to anchor your boat nearby and enjoy the beauty of the lake, and a good view of anyone approaching the Narrows from the south.
Map of Strawberry Island, published by Marllo Merchandising Services and is copied from the March 1987 edition of the Canadian Hydrographic Service Chart