You never know what you’ll find in this cottage of curios
Don Scott is standing beside a knee-high table he built from wood and bone. White pine, to be specific, and the antlers of moose and white-tailed deer. It’s topped with glass and beneath that is a magical jumble of specimens and keepsakes: crooked knives, rocks, snakeskins, the skull of a crow. There are also whale vertebrae scavenged from a beach in Newfoundland and arrow points plucked from the shores of the very lake, east of North Bay, where Don, his wife Beth, and their three kids, have summered for the past 25 years.
“European aristocracy in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries would keep what they call a ‘wonder cabinet’ in their house,” Don explains. These mini museums, also called cabinets of curiosities, could fill the wall of a home or a whole room. His version is smaller, more horizontal. “This,” he says, “is my ‘wonder chest.’ ”
All of the artifacts have deep personal meaning for the cottager, to the point that he describes the collection as a “self-portrait.” Among the man-made objects is a rail spike that Ottawa Valley ancestors employed in the construction of a barn; a loon egg derives from a nest he and Beth staked out on their lake. “We watched the chick hatch,” he says. Perhaps most touching is the small blob of clay vaguely reminiscent of a fish. “My daughter made that in Mattawa after a canoe race.”
Fascinating as these objects are, they are far from the only intriguing objects in this cottage of curios. So as Don talks about his prized mementoes, it’s hard not to be distracted by all the other, generally larger, items on display in the room. Directly behind him, for instance, is the head of a bull moose. Beside that, a massive painting of an elk. Antler-cupped lights arch overhead. A glance over the shoulder reveals a crank-up Victrola, a cabinet containing religious folk art and Ojibwe quill boxes, and a birchbark canoe suspended from the ceiling with a dozen paddles laid across its thwarts. More treasures and antiques lie around every corner of the meandering main floor and in the renovated attic atop a flight of well-worn steps.
It strikes me that this idea of a wonder cabinet—or wunderkammer, as it is awesomely described in German—really isn’t confined to the glass-topped table or even one corner of this building. When you visit the Scotts, you find yourself in a wonder cottage.
The structure itself is a kind of time capsule. Built in 1908 as a private lodge for well-heeled American sportsmen, it retains much of the character from that era. Its unvarnished hemlock walls bear inscriptions of fishing exploits—O.C. Hurtzel, one of the previous owners, caught a 29½-inch muskie in 1943, for example—as well as Miracle fire extinguishers, fluid-filled bulbs that could be flung like grenades at a blaze. Cast iron bed frames have not budged from a half-dozen bedrooms, and a McClary double-oven cookstove, also cast iron, dominates the kitchen.
The Scotts have the original blueprint for the camp, dubbed Deer Horn Lodge, as well as a sheet of instructions for guests, which includes the admonition to “not chop, mutilate, or otherwise destroy any of the living trees or other vegetation.” There’s also some advice regarding the giant cookstove, the left side of which “is not as efficient and can be hazardous, as evidenced by the charred wall boards.” That didn’t stop the Scotts from firing up both sides one Thanksgiving, when they cooked two turkeys for a crowd of 22, although these days they use the stove mostly as a liquor cabinet.
Don had been cottage-hunting for a decade before he found the property, he says, although at the time he had all but given up and was hunting for something else, along with his son, Bourton. “We came out here in October of 1994 to paddle around and look for partridge,” he recalls. “Bourt was just five and had a wooden gun I carved for him.” A periodontist in North Bay, now retired, Don says he had explored many of the lakes in the area, but it was his first glimpse of this one. As he and his son canoed past Deer Horn Lodge, with its dormered roof, piney shores, and sunset-facing porch, he noticed a For Sale sign on the dock. “Beyond belief,” he says. “I was so excited.”
Beth too was immediately taken with the old building, only a 45-minute drive from their home, and especially its broad, bug-proof verandah—50 feet in length, a dozen feet wide, and screened on all sides. “To me that was the big selling point,” she says.
While rustic in many respects, the building was never a cabin. It spans 8,000 sq. ft. and was based on the second home of Gustav Stickley, the American architect and furniture designer famous for his Craftsman style. “It’s incredibly well-built,” says Don. “There is no foundation under it, just stone piers, but it’s built to stand the test of time.” The lot is nearly 200 acres and features another, smaller abode, clad in cedar shingles, that was constructed in 1923 to house caretakers and cooks. The Scotts kept horses here for a time and now use it mostly as a toolshed. “It’s more than what we planned on purchasing, but we lucked out with what we found,” says Beth.
The buildings also came packed with stuff—vintage bicycles, cedar linen chests, ice-cream churns, an ancient fridge built of insulated oak. The attic alone held so many relics and curios that Don says it took “10 years before I touched everything once.” Being an inveterate collector and lover of retro things, he naturally kept most of these finds, while also introducing many of his own, especially of the stuffed fauna variety.
Despite its history as a hunting lodge, the only animal the Scotts encountered when they moved in was a deer head over the fireplace. The couple soon learned, however, that a moose head had traditionally occupied that spot. “Fifty years ago, there was a break and enter,” says Don. “Someone took the moose off the fireplace, cut the antlers off, and the head was found out on the ice.” For him, that was a desecration that deserved some belated justice or at least an attempt to replace the original. “So I ran an ad in the paper for a moose head.” (More than 20 years ago, that was still legal, he points out.)Two months went by without any response. And then suddenly he was deluged with offers. “What do you do when you get five calls for moose heads?” he asks. “You buy five moose heads.” The 12-point bull that now looms above the mantel came from a hotel in Field, Ont. Other mounts in the cottage of curios—moose, elk, and steers—were supplied by a now-defunct strip club in North Bay called the Moe-Ze-On Inn.
Don doesn’t go after big game himself, nor does Beth, but some of their friends do, and when they are successful, they will often offer the head or the pelt—or both—to the Scotts. A bear rug on the second floor, for instance, with head intact and teeth bared, owes its posthumous, spooky role to a hunting pal. In another case, a friend who worked for a rail company encountered a dead moose on the tracks, took its head off with an axe, and brought this trophy, of sorts, to the animal-obsessed periodontist.
Macabre as it might sound, the goal is not to flaunt a kill—Don himself hasn’t shot anything in years, and when he did, it was “the odd partridge”—but rather to celebrate wildlife and extend the spirit and character of the place. “It’s part of the history of this building,” says Don.
Beth, who has known Don since they met as teens in New Liskeard, says it has always been her husband’s nature to be curious about creatures and to surround himself with them. “He was that kid who was collecting live frogs and snakes in the tent when he was a Boy Scout, and his tentmate had to go home because it freaked him out,” she says with a laugh. “But for Don it was just an interesting study.”
The cottager has also made a habit for years of stopping whenever he encounters roadkill, whether it’s a mammal, reptile, or bird. If it can be taxidermied, he’ll get that done, and if not, he’ll probably keep the skull and bones. Partly it’s not wanting to see any creature ignored, even in death. But Beth, who homeschooled the couple’s three children, with help from Don, says there has always been an educational instinct to this too. “I could tell the kids this is a merlin, this is the sound it makes. Everything is a lesson.”
If there’s something Don loves more than critters, it would be canoes. I didn’t count the animals I encountered during my visit, nor did I count the watercraft, but I would say it’s a toss-up as to which is more numerous. Don himself seems to have a hazy idea of how many boats he owns. “I think six birchbark canoes,” he says. “Maybe it’s seven or eight.” (That doesn’t count the many miniature and model bark canoes he has collected, some of which are more valuable than the big ones.) Then there are “another dozen” cedar-strip and canvas-covered canoes, including an Old Town as old as the cottage itself, built in 1908; a 20-foot freighter with a square stern; and a sectional canoe with a removable Bakelite skin that can be broken down and packed on a plane or train. “If I find any more canoes, my wife is going to shoot me,” he says.
About half of these craft are racked up in a shed near the water, and the rest are displayed or stored inside the cottage. Four hang from the ceiling of the screened porch, their gunwales resting on chewed beaver logs. One is a 1920 Peterborough with sponsons—love handles that provide extra buoyancy and stability, like the strips you see on a Sportspal, but meticulously handcrafted, in this case, from wood and cloth. Another, a 16-foot Tremblay, is sheathed in rubber-impregnated canvas.
“As a kid growing up I was always in a canoe,” Don says. “We had a cottage outside of New Liskeard, and at the end of school we went there and didn’t come home until Labour Day. We lived in bathing suits, wandered the trails, and canoed.” When he graduated from the University of Toronto, his mom gave him a Scott kevlar canoe, which he and Beth took on trips through Lady Evelyn-Smoothwater, Quetico, and many other wilderness areas. “We ran it until it was threadbare,” he says.
It was during this time that he “realized how special a canoe was,” he says. “It’s basically a Stone Age invention that approaches perfection. First Nations people made the first ones maybe 20,000 years ago, but apart from minor modifications, it’s the exact same hull design.”
His canoe enthusiasm connected with an interest in First Nations art, numerous examples of which can be seen in the cottage. “I was at U of T when Norval Morrisseau had his first show in Toronto at the Pollock Gallery,” he says. “I was just a student, so I couldn’t buy anything, but I really admired his work.” After graduating he spent a couple of years working in Northwestern Ontario, where he encountered the Kakagemic brothers—brothers-in-law of Morrisseau—and acquired some of their pieces in the Woodland style. Subsequent stints providing dentistry to communities on the James Bay coast only deepened his appreciation of Indigenous culture and art, and trips to Manitoulin Island introduced him to Carl Beam, an Ojibwe artist whose work he especially admires.
“I was buying his art before the national gallery had it,” he says. “I’m not art-trained, but I looked at what he was doing, and it was just so interesting on so many different levels.” The two became good friends; when Beam died in 2005, Don was at his celebration of life.
The elk painting in the main room of the lodge was created by Henry H. Cross, a contemporary and friend of Buffalo Bill, who was known for his portraits of Sioux chiefs and scenes from the American west. The six-by-eight-foot canvas had been installed by the previous owners and excluded from the property sale, but the Scotts felt it belonged with the building, so they agreed to a price to keep it where it was. “We didn’t buy it for investment purposes,” notes Beth. “We weren’t ever going to sell it, because it went with the cottage and was staying with the cottage.”
While the Scotts have added artwork, antiques, and animals to the lodge—not to mention vastly increased its fleet of vintage watercraft—they have subtracted very little. “We like history,” says Don. “So we wanted to stick with the history here and stay as close to the original as we could.”
They could paint or varnish the interior walls, but why bother, they reason, when there is already a lovely patina to the bare wood? A cupboard door in the pantry tends to stick, requiring the use of a knife to pry it open, and the staircase creaks “at the third and fifth steps going up,” says Don, but these are quirks they not only tolerate, but welcome.
“It’s not perfect or pristine, but we appreciate the imperfections,” says Beth. “We like old places. Why? Because when you walk up the stairs, they are indented already with the footsteps of generations before. For us, that just adds to it.”