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Canada Love’s labour almost lost: Restoring a couple’s memorial near Muskoka

Memorial dedicated to Betsy and Clifton Dyer, from Detroit, who spent their 1916 honeymoon on a canoe trip to Algonquin Park.

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Russ and Audrey Black went out for a drive last week.

They headed up Ontario’s Highway 11 from Bracebridge, took the Highway 60 turnoff, then 11B north out of the town of Huntsville to a crossroads where a couple of turns in the backroad would take them in to the lost hamlet of Williamsport. Here, once a small community and sawmill stood. And for those who know where to look, there is a rather-worn sign that says “Dyer Memorial” down a challenging, deeply-rutted dirt road.

Mr. Black is 87. He was an engineer, then a lawyer, and is now an honorary director of the Muskoka Conservancy. He has lived long enough to know that while the past isn’t what it used to be, neither is the future.

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There are as many twists in the road to “perpetuity,” it turns out, as there are to reach the Dyer Memorial.

Mr. Black first came here in the mid-1960s. A friend, Doug McFarland, drove him in and once they crossed the bridge over the Big East River and drove up the then-well-maintained road to the parking lot, he knew he had come upon one of the great surprises of his life.

“I didn’t believe it,” he says. “Here was this beautiful English garden way back in the bush.”

Betsy and Clifton Dyer were from Detroit and spent their 1916 honeymoon on a canoe trip to Algonquin Park, where this meandering, charming river has its source. Twenty years later, with Clifton a very successful attorney, they returned to the area, bid on a large acreage owned by a then-struggling lumber company and soon built a year-round cottage on river.

The Dyers were as old-fashioned a love story as could be told.

“Doug McFarland’s father had been roads superintendent for the township,” Mr. Black says. “He told me that as a kid he’d journeyed out here with his dad to talk about building a road in and said he found it kind of ‘sickening’ to see such old people – the Dyers would have been in their 50s around this time – holding hands all the time and calling each other ‘dearie’ and things like that.”

The Dyers had property, they had money, they had each other, but they had no children. When Betsy died in 1956, Clifton commissioned a special memorial to be the final resting place for her ashes. The towering memorial is reached by a long, breathtaking climb over wide concrete steps. The tower, built of quartz-and-mica-flecked granite, stands 14 metres high and rises, altar-like, above the surrounding pines.

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Betsy and Clifton Dyer.

Muskoka Conservancy

For two years, extensive landscaping was added: exquisite flower beds, immaculate lawns and lovely ponds that once held small fish. The design was such that various sectors symbolized the four elements – earth, water, wind and fire – and were to respect the First Nations who had originally hunted and fished in these lands.

In 1959, Clifton passed away and his ashes were also added to the top of the tower. A plaque reads:

"ERECTED IN FOND MEMORY OF BETSY BROWN DYER

1884-1956 BY HER HUSBAND CLIFTON G. DYER 1885-1959

AS A PERMANENT TRIBUTE TO HER FOR THE NEVER-FAILING

AID, ENCOURAGEMENT AND INSPIRATION WHICH SHE

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CONTRIBUTED TO THEIR MARRIED CAREER AND AS A

FINAL RESTING PLACE FOR THEIR ASHES.”

Just below, in smaller letters, is added: "An Affectionate, Loyal, and Understanding Wife is Life's Greatest Gift."

Clifton Dyer’s determination was that his then-vast estate would maintain the grounds forever – in perpetuity. And for decades it seemed to be working. The memorial became a popular tourist attraction, sometimes hundreds of cars a day making the twisting journey in to the parking lot. Wedding photos were taken by the ponds. Families gathered for picnics. People came alone to sit and meditate on the benches. On Saturday nights, the parking lot became a popular, and highly romantic, place for local teens to explore the back seats of their parents’ cars.

That the memorial remained a place of exquisite beauty into the next century was largely the result of one man’s dedication. In the early 1980s, Floyd Bartlett, a local handyman, became groundskeeper and guide to what would become his life’s project. A shy, lifelong bachelor, he could be found there any given day from early spring until late fall. He maintained this routine into his 80s.

“God bless Floyd,” says Mr. Black. “He kept the place going.”

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Mr. Bartlett said he met representatives of the Detroit law firm handling the Dyer fund twice in all the many years he worked there. They paid him regularly, but he received absolutely no feedback.

“They never phone me or anything,” Mr. Bartlett once told a local reporter. “They never say, ‘Do this,’ or ‘You’re doing a good job, you’re doing a bad job.’ Don’t say a word, just give me a cheque.”

In 2007, with Mr. Bartlett’s health failing, he was “terminated,” according to a relative. He died in 2013 at the age of 87.

“It was after Floyd became physically unable to continue that the Dyer started to go downhill,” says Mr. Black.

Not only was the memorial deteriorating, but the road was neglected and signage poor. People still find it through directions available on Google, but the lack of a regular groundskeeper and visiting tourists eventually saw the parking lot becoming a popular partying area. There was vandalism. Neighbours along the road became disenchanted and, from time to time, heated signs were posted about parking and privacy.

The details of the Dyer trust fund are not known. Attempts to reach the Detroit lawyer charged with dispersing the funds were unsuccessful. It became clear, at one point, that a pitch was made to have the District of Muskoka or the Town of Huntsville take over the site and turn it into, once again, a popular tourist destination. However, preparations were underway for the G8 Summit, held in 2010, with new money available for flashy new projects. Refurbishing a fading memorial was not seen as a priority.

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George Young, a Huntsville town councillor at the time, was the one who presented the offer made by the trustees, but it was not accepted. “It was a fair offer,” remembers Mr. Young. “But there wasn’t the appetite around the council table to make the investment and commitment to the upkeep.”

The Dyer Memorial might have faded back into the wild had it not been for Mr. Black and his fellow conservancy members. When the offer eventually came to them, they decided to act, taking over the property in 2010.

The Muskoka Conservancy exists to protect and care for Muskoka’s natural lands. It is land trust and membership-based registered charity that currently protects 39 properties totalling some 2,500 acres, more than 400 acres of important wetlands and 40,000 feet of sensitive shoreline.

One of the trails on the property of Betsy and Clifton Dyer.

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While the focus of the Dyer Memorial will always be the tall monument and the surrounding two acres or so of landscaped property, the conservancy considers the larger treasure the 155 acres on both sides of the Big East River and the 1.5 kilometres of undisturbed shoreline. (More information is available at http://muskokaconservancy.org/protected-properties/dyer-nr/)

There are locals who believe the trustees failed the Dyers, but, in fact, some $680,000 remains in the fund that was transferred over. The money is fully committed to the upkeep of the memorial – even if it will never return to the glory days of Floyd Bartlett’s tender loving care.

Scott Young, executive director of the organization, says there are plans that include everything from repairs to the long stairway to the planting of oak trees in memory of others who have passed on and wish to contribute to conservancy.

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“We hope perpetuity will last a very long time,” Mr. Young say.

As for Mr. Black, he has become deeply involved over the passing years, almost as a new Floyd Bartlett. “On my 80th birthday,” Mr. Black brags, “I was standing on the very top of the thing.” He had climbed up the scaffolding to put a concrete coating on the top layer to prevent leaking.

The man-made ponds are not scheduled for repair. “They aren’t natural,” he says. “Mother Nature does a better job than any landscaper.”

As for the condition of the road in to the “English garden way back in the bush,” he doesn’t really care if this surprising memorial to love remains a sometimes difficult place to reach.

“As a member of the Muskoka Conservancy,” he says, “I have to think that anything that deters people from going in there isn’t such a bad thing.”

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