In his book Kawandag…A Story of Changing Muskoka, Derek Stott chronicles the fascinating history of the Rosseau Lake College campus. RLC’s roots can be traced back to the Free Grants and Homestead Act of 1868 when four Ditchburn brothers left the bustle and grime of London, England for the free land available for immigrants to Canada. The Ditchburns loved the granite and pine of Ontario’s near north and claimed what is now RLC’s campus. They called it “The Pines.”
The Ditchburn family discovered what the historian Stott described when he wrote that, “Muskoka is a retreat – a place far removed from the city and its hectic pace.” This is undoubtedly the reason why, in 1906, John and Flora Eaton purchased the property from Henry Ditchburn and made it their summer retreat. The Eatons changed the name of the property to “Kawandag” which means in Ojibway “The meeting place of the pines.”
The Eaton family built extensively on the property. A pillared mansion was the central dwelling, while gardens, stables, and even a golf course, graced the property. In 1945 the Eatons sold Kawandag to Oscar and Vera Bartels. The Bartels had a large family and in subsequent summers they rented out the various secondary dwellings (the ones that had housed the Eatons’ staff) to vacationing families. According to local legend there were years when over seventy children lived on site providing playmates for the Bartels family.
Kawandag ceased to be a retreat for the Bartels as the work involved with the size of the property became too arduous. They eventually sold in 1949 to Maurice and Lynette Margesson, along with partners Ed and Billie Brown, who turned Kawandag into a lodge described as “The Northland’s most enchanting and beautiful holiday spot.” For over a decade this was a successful venture and guests of the resort still visit the school to reminisce about the days when they spent their summers on the property.
In 1963 Roger Morris and Maurice East bought Kawandag from the Margessons, and for a while it continued as a resort hotel. In the summers of 1965 and 1966 the property became “Muskoka’s Newest Tourist Attraction” and was a frontier fort complete with Indian raids and stage-coach rides. In fact, in the summer of 1965 more than 28,000 people visited the fort and took part in one of the 68 daily mock raids.
It was not until 1967 that Rosseau Lake College came into being. The founding Chair of the Board, Roger Morris, hired Mr. R. H. Perry to be its first headmaster. The first session began with 27 students (all boys at this point) and 10 more enrolled throughout the year. Students were taught in the main house lounge, the library, and the old laundry room! Grades 8 to 11 were offered in the first year. In the school’s second year 65 boys were enrolled and the healthy pioneer spirit that exists today at RLC was born.
Although many of the original Eaton dwellings have fallen victim to age, antiquated wiring, or overheated chimneys, the site remains unique among independent schools in the world. Lady Eaton’s gardens still grace the campus, the waters still sparkle, and the winds still whisper through the pines. One of the old canons from Fort Kawandag sits outside the log cabin Lady Eaton used as a sewing room and retreat from the main house.
Rosseau Lake College, co-educational since 1983, is now a thriving school with a highly regarded international reputation. It has challenging academic and co-curricular programs, and its facilities are the envy of many schools. RLC is entering a new era in which the children of alumni are starting to enroll as students. However, true to its roots, Rosseau Lake College remains a uniquely Canadian school that despite being only two hours from Toronto, is still a “retreat – a place far removed from the city and its hectic pace.”