By Zoë Mason,
Bruce Peninsula Press

A 60-acre slice of land wedged between Stokes Bay and a marshy outcropping of Lake Huron, Tamarac Island is an unusually adaptable place.

The story of its evolution begins in the late 19th century, when the island became home to a thriving cluster of sawmills.

“This was going to be it,” says Serge Marcella, who today owns and operates the property that was once Tamarac’s largest producing sawmill with his wife, Melony McLay. “This is where all the logs were coming from, and they were going to be cut here and then loaded and sold all over Toronto.” 

The fascinating transformation of Tamarac Island was first researched and written about in-depth by reporter Andrew Armitage for the Owen Sound Sun Times. He paints a vivid picture of what Tamarac would have looked like when the mills were in operation.

The mill, pictured above left, was once the largest in operation in the area. The silhouette of the boardhouse, today the Tamarac Inn, can also be seen here, largely unchanged. Several other buildings were on the property to service the mill, such as the one pictured above right. Images: Tamarac Inn

The biggest mill — the one that would withstand the winds of time to eventually become Tamarac Inn — was built across 15 acres by a logging company called Bible and Chisolm in 1878, according to Armitage. Until 1899, the company methodically stripped all of the valuable lumber from the island. Left bald except for small straggling groves of hardwood, Bible and Chisolm abandoned Tamarac Island; it was taken over first by the Lion’s Head Lumber Company, and eventually, in 1899, a furniture company called the Knetchel Company. 

“Knetchel’s owners were also enticed by rumours floating around the Bruce Peninsula of a railroad that was planned to link Wiarton with Tobermory,” writes Armitage of the latter group. “At the tip of the Bruce, a train-ferry service would then connect the rails with ones on Manitoulin and the North Shore.” 

In one of the more entertaining chapters of the illustrious Tamarac history, the Knetchels constructed a tramway, with the intention of transporting lumber from the mill to the water in hopes that it could one day connect to the rumoured railroad.

“Four-by-four cedar rails were laid down but when a steam engine was run across them, they splayed out like matchsticks, putting an end to that bright idea,” writes Armitage dryly. 

This failure did not, of course, mark the end of the lumber days, but the end was not far off nonetheless. By 1911, Armitage testified that Tamarac was reduced to a barren landscape and a wildfire risk. Thus, the lumber companies retreated, and after over thirty years of production, the mills halted.

Tamarac Island was once undeveloped for much of its 60 acres. However, the part that was developed, which was a bustling centre of the peninsula’s logging industry in the late 19th century, eventually stripped the occupied half of the island of its lumber, seen here. Image: Tamarac Inn

After the lumber

When the logging died, “people thought that was the end of it,” says Marcella. But instead, Tamarac Island underwent the first of several dramatic transformations in the early years of the twentieth century.

In 1913, Tamarac was sold to a group of men, including former lumber men and other manufacturers from Hanover and Walkerton, who formed a hunting and fishing club. Under their ownership, what was the board house and other mill buildings became a dining hall and sleeping quarters for members of the club.

This, too, was an enterprise limited by the resources of the land, and by the 1960s, the club fell into inactivity and eventually, disappeared.

But what’s remarkable about the island — and indeed, the inn in particular — is that as the economy has changed over the years, it has been able to adapt. By the latter half of the twentieth century, the peninsula grew in popularity among tourists. With demand for accommodations and dining growing, Mel and Bev Matheson acquired the largest parcel of the island, which contained the ruins of the old sawmill and the buildings that serviced it. It was under the Matheson’s leadership that the boardhouse was first converted into a bed and breakfast, and a restaurant was added on the lower floor.

They prided themselves on their home cooked meals and family service, McLay tells me about the Matheson’s business, which is remembered fondly in the community. 

People aboard a boat on Stokes Bay, likely in Tamarac Island’s sportfishing days. Image: Tamarac Inn

“They ran a tight ship,” says McLay. “I think she did the laundry herself every day and Mel would be up doing carrot sticks and celery sticks at five o’clock in the morning to get ready for the dinner. The guests had no choice in what it was if it was. It was like, Tuesday is roast beef, take it or leave it. Family style.” 

After the Mathesons, the inn changed hands three more times, passed between a collection of interesting characters. A lawyer from New Jersey added a tavern, and while he was well-liked on the island, his lack of business savvy drove him into the ground; an eccentric couple, rumoured to be clairvoyant, took over, but didn’t last long; a reclusive software developer closed the premises to the public and occupied one room after another in solitude over the course of five years. It was at the end of this turbulent period that, in 2017, McLay and Marcella acquired the inn, which was then dilapidated by years of neglect and misuse.

“Honestly, how many times we questioned ourselves after. This —” she gestured at the clean, bright sitting room “— was horrible. And I’d come in and just look around and want to cry and I would just go home again. I didn’t even know where to start.”

A row of fish caught off Tamarac Island, harkening back to the days the area was a popular spot for sportsmen. Image: Tamarac Inn

The next chapter

The restoration was no small task. McLay and Marcella tell me they seriously considered tearing the inn to the ground. 

“We had to take a really deep breath and say ‘if we’re in we’re all in.’”

Other than plumbing and electrical, the family — McLay, Marcella, and their children — did the majority of the restoration themselves. Marcella dismantled the chimneys, brick by brick; McLay and their daughter, Summer, painted the service stairs. They sanded the floors, repainted, re-furnished. By the end of the first year, they rented out the motel rooms.

“It was like putting lipstick on a pig,” says McLay. “Make them good enough that we could rent and get some money coming in.”

In only three years, the transformation is hard to fathom. This year, the summer season has been fully booked for weeks. Marcella and McLay are happy with their results — a victory that is made sweeter considering the pressure that the historical significance of the inn added to their project.

The Tamarac Inn in Stokes Bay, after the recent renovations

“Everybody seemed to have a stake in this soil because of the history. It was like we were in a fishbowl when we were doing [the renovations],” she adds. “Getting everybody’s approval was important to us. It is like not just ours. I feel like it belongs to the community as well. But that was, I think for us, the most rewarding part was buying it.”

McLay, a retired teacher, was born and raised in Stokes Bay, where the Tamarac Inn is undoubtedly an institution. As members of the community that cherished it, it was important to the family that the property end up in good hands.

“We loved the property and we were sick of driving by every day watching it deteriorate,” says McLay. 

Thankfully, community support for their transformation of the inn has poured in. Among the more meaningful praise came from Mel Matheson, whose B&B marked the last time the Tamarac Inn was well taken care of and a point of congregation in the community. 

Serge Marcella and Melony McLay, the current owners of the Tamarac Inn, at their 25th anniversary celebrations on their property in Stokes Bay.

Their intention going forward is to continue to preserve the history of the building — something they’ve done thus far by their caretaking broadly speaking and, more specifically, by maintaining small pieces of the past, such as the ruins of one of the mill buildings and some of the original exposed columns and beams inside the inn — while also promoting responsible tourism. It’s a balancing act they’re confident they can perform.

“We hear a lot from locals about how disappointed they are in the direction that things have gone [on the peninsula]. And this is an example of how you know what, maybe there is a balance, maybe we can find a happy medium,” says Marcella. “Because we could maximize this. But I think there is an opportunity to have these kinds of businesses up here and be respectful and have both nature and the neighbors, and [have] everybody get along.”