How a lucky find led this unlikely cast of characters to fix up (but not fancy up) a rustic Muskoka cottage. A drama, in three acts.
A modest, rustic-looking water-access Ontario cottage, tucked among birches and maples on the south shore of nine-acre, four-property May Island, in Lake Rosseau’s Venetia island group; a 10-minute boat ride from the mainland
Alan Marr, a semi-retired advertising copywriter, a director of TV commercials, and the cottage’s current owner; claims puttering is an Olympic event, and he’s in training for the Canadian team; a.k.a. “Monk,” from the name of his long-ago high-school band, “Monk Marr and the Clergy Reserves”
Sheila McCarthy, award-winning actor, Monk’s spouse, and self-confessed 100 per cent city girl
Gillian, Meredith, and Andrew, Monk’s three grown kids
Don Fairbrother, original owner of the cottage with his wife, Kitty, who died in 1989; Don is varyingly described by the other characters as a: “recluse,” “fuddy-duddy, but very charming,” “gentleman,” “very quirky,” “really sweet old guy who hoarded everything”
Act 1, Scene 1: Remembrance of horrors past
It’s been 22 years since Monk purchased Don Fairbrother’s very rundown, crammed-full (Director’s note: gross understatement) cottage. But his kids still gleefully recall the details of their first weekend:
Andrew, 38, a professional fishing guide: “It was like looking inside a hoarder’s house. You couldn’t move more than a foot or two in there because of the junk. The dining room table was piled high with it: newspapers, unfinished projects, old-fashioned fishing rods, lures…”
Meredith, 41, a marketing consultant: “…Deer antlers. Mason jars filled with rocks. Set after set of salt-and-pepper shakers. He kept absolutely everything, all these nutty things: a chip of paint from their old canoe, a patch of their ’50s kitchen tablecloth, Kitty’s nighties…”
Gillian, 43, a freelance producer: “…Even cutlery labeled, ‘Kitty’s knife and fork.’ There was a fridge, but it wasn’t hooked up to the propane. He used it as a cupboard, to store his canned goods…”
Andrew: “…With a wire to keep its door closed. There wasn’t a working toilet either. Or even an outhouse. And you couldn’t see the lake from the porch because the screens hadn’t been cleaned in 20 years.”
Gillian: “…That first weekend, we were like a human chain, chucking things out—old mattresses, a hodge-podge of plates and clothes. We took two or three barge loads to the dump.”
Andrew: “…Anybody else would have walked away. But my dad was like, ‘No, we can work with this!’ He had a vision of what he could turn it into.”
Act 1, Scene 2: Beauty from the beast
1948: It started as a simple, one-room wooden cabin with an open porch across the front. Don and Kitty gradually added a tiny kitchen, a tinier bathroom (non-functioning by the ’90s), and three small, identical bedrooms.
Now: The exterior looks pretty much the same. Sure, the main porch has been enclosed and there’s a new deck off the kitchen. But otherwise the cottage hasn’t grown since Monk took possession at the end of July 1999: it hasn’t sprouted a second storey, sprawled along the shoreline, hatched a brood of bunkies, or seen a lavish reno. Monk calls it his Red Green special—making it a rarity among the big, showy, year-round places that the Marrs can see across the lake.
Says Meredith, “It’s still so rustic, so cottagey, that it sticks out like the Clampetts did in Beverly Hills.”
Inside, though, it’s no longer a packrat’s jumble of junk. Monk says he was aiming for the feel of a 1940s fishing lodge. Visitors say it could be a museum. Gillian calls it a little jewel box. “My dad has done an amazing job of culling so much out of there that just didn’t work, but then preserving its true heart, making it better,” she explains.
It still has exposed stud walls, but the “Putter King,” as Sheila calls Monk, has fitted them with shelves of all sizes. Among the treasures are Don and Kitty’s now-working Victrola; their Aladdin lamps; replacement mantles in their original packages (with price tags from the T. Eaton Company: $3 per box); and a kerosene iron from the ’50s. It was likely used by the Fairbrothers for sprucing up when they invited neighbours to one of their bashes, where Kitty entertained at the cottage’s upright piano. Don’s old fishing rods hang above the doors to the porch, and the frame of a rowing skiff he was building—one of many unfinished projects—now houses the lights above the dining room table.
Monk, everyone agrees, was “a cottage waiting to happen.” He’d grown up spending summers at his grandmother’s cottage near Bala, Ont., “and it was always my dream to own a place in Muskoka,” he says. “From way back, I was accumulating stuff for a cottage that I didn’t own,” such as the brass bed and the vintage schoolkid’s chalkboard where he now leaves welcome messages for family and guests. To hear Sheila tell it, he can’t pass a dumpster or a pile of trash at the end of a driveway without slowing down for a look. “There was a reason he bought a cottage from someone like Don. The baton was passed.”
Act 2, Scene 1: Flashback—It all started with a message in a bottle. Really.
In the late ’80s, Monk began spending a month on May Island each summer with his kids in a cottage he rented from a friend. Out of sight next door was a place (“a shambles, actually,” says Monk) whose owner the Marrs spotted only sporadically: a reclusive man, who rowed out from the mainland—often late at night, without lights—and stayed for a few days at a time.
Son Andrew, then in his young teens, loved exploring the island, and one day hit pay dirt. “It was every kid’s dream. I’m romping through the woods, and all of a sudden, I spot a bottle hanging from a tree.” With a message curled inside, one line of it visible: “If you are interested, open this bottle.” He raced back to their cottage to show it to his dad.
Illustrated with small sketches, the rambling pencilled note was written by the reclusive cottager next door, Donald James Fairbrother. After introducing himself and his by-then-deceased wife,
Kitty, it described their dogs; the island’s flora and fauna; and their May Island cabin, where he and Kitty had spent “a carefree honeymoon” in 1952. (“No running water, just a running bucket…and a privy by that big hemlock.”) “I hope your cottage is filled with love and mostly laughter, and that you enjoy it here as much as we did in our time.”
In response, the Marrs put a note in another bottle, inviting Don to visit their cottage, and hung it in the same tree.
It was the start of an ongoing friendship. “Don would come to our house in Toronto from time to time too,” Monk explains. “And after a couple of years, I finally got up the nerve to ask him if he would he keep me in mind if ever wanted to sell the cottage. He lit up like a Christmas tree, overjoyed. He had no children, was in his late 70s, and wanted the cottage to go to a good home.”
Sooner than Monk imagined, the call came—Don was ready to sell. A Port Carling real estate agent they both knew came to the island, gave them an estimate they both were comfortable with, and the deal was done.
Monk knew what he was in for. Before they met Don, “we used to peek in the windows when he wasn’t there.” But by this point, he had been inside the cottage multiple times. (Director’s note: Andrew had an even more in-depth preview of what lay ahead. He had a summer job on the lake, and lived in the cottage for the month before his dad took possession at the end of July 1999, with Don coming and going.)
Act 2, Scene 2: A minor complication. Reality
A porch half-destroyed by the elements. No refrigeration. No toilet. No septic system. No outhouse. Some things needed to be changed, and fast. Enter the composting diva, “Violet the BioLet,” who graced the bathroom until, finally, five years ago (Director’s note: cue very loud applause from family members), Monk installed a septic system and hot running water.
He stabilized the porch. (Don never bothered with niceties like covering the screens over the winter; the closing-up checklist he gave to Monk focussed on other concerns, such as “have you got your hooch?” and “have you got Fido?”) He took Don’s old fridge—the one he’d been using as a cupboard—and hooked it back up to propane. It lasted a few years before being replaced by an equally ancient Frigidaire, which lives on, completely at home next to the original 1950s porcelain sink. “One baby step at a time,” says Monk.
“My dad was always saying, ‘Hey, Andrew, we should have a guys’ weekend,’ ” his son says. “‘Do you want to invite a bunch of your pals up?’ In Dad’s mind, he could grab a case of beer, grill some homemade burgers, and have a bunch of young guys lift things. A lot of work got done that way.”
Intermission: It’s beer o’ clock
(Director’s note: Make it a long intermission. It’s time these people had some cottage fun.)
Don’t kid yourself. Nothing gets in the way of docktails, a sacrosanct daily ritual for this crew. “At the end of the day, we just put everything down,” says Sheila, “put on our bathing suits—or seven layers of clothing, depending on the weather—and go to the dock with a drink in our hands.”
“Sometimes we’ll go to the North Shore Bar & Grill,” says Gillian. (Director’s note: What? Commercial development on May Island?) Happily, it’s just her dad at work…this time with words. The cottage is on the south side of their property; the sunset view and an easy-entry swimming spot are over the hill and through the woods on the island’s north side. Leave a few cheap plastic chairs and matching loveseat on the moss-covered rocks, nail a board between two trees to hold drinks, give the spot a name, and a bar is born. They currently carry their cocktails with them from the cottage, although Gillian’s spouse, Mica, has bought Monk a gas-powered margarita mixer—a weed whacker engine with a blender on top—for future on-the-spot use.
Tongue planted firmly in cheek, Monk named his small, rustic cottage with its four-boat fleet (one of them a canoe; another, an old wooden runabout not in working order) the “May Island Yacht Club.” “He wanted to make really elegant official letterhead,” explains Gillian, “and send letters to real yacht clubs and dignitaries, inviting them to visit.” And then, when their inevitable official regrets arrived, he would frame and hang them. “On the bathroom walls,” her dad says, adding, “I always got a kick out of rejection letters.” The idea still remains on one of his many to-do lists. “Maybe I’ll resurrect it for our 25th cottage anniversary.”
Shelia and Monk were introduced eight years ago and married two years later. He was head-over-heels about her…and his project cottage. She was resolutely urban, with an acting career (two Genie Awards, two Geminis, two Doras, and an ACTRA Award so far) wiring her to city life, and zero cottage past. No surprise, Monk’s heart was in his throat. “We’d only been dating a month, and here I am, taking her to this cottage with a composting toilet and no proper shower or even hot running water—crossing the lake in an unreliable old boat, knowing that if it conked out, I was screwed. But we made it over and she walked in and…” “…I was completely charmed,” says Sheila. “It was like walking into another time. Very quickly, even Violet (the toilet) became my friend.” Turns out, the cottage is a great place to dig into writing and directing projects and to learn lines. “I love to take Tess”—their Llewellin setter—“and walk around the island talking to myself,” says Sheila.
Act 3, Scene 1: Signs of the future
Another cottage ritual: when the kids and grandkids arrive, Monk likes to show them—usually, it’s a total surprise—what he’s done since their last visit. They’ve returned to find a swing in a tree for seven-year-old granddaughter, Aidan, floors painted cardinal red and, this past summer, a completely new window cut into a bathroom wall: a boat porthole, to be precise. (Sheila’s idea.) “He does all these little things that make a big difference,” says Gillian. “And once you see them, they’re so blindingly obvious.”
When Sheila went to her gym one day (Director’s note: a small, open spot in the woods, with only rocks for equipment but a killer lake view), she was surprised to find a long 1×6 hanging over the “entrance,” giving official status to her island version of GoodLife. “Sheila’s Gym ‘n’ Spa,” it proclaimed, the letters pieced together from twigs. It’s Monk’s signature typestyle; call it Birch Branch Bold. Signs are one of his specialties.
Bird feeders are another—not making them, but keeping his extensive array filled. “Feeding the feeders can take hours,” Sheila says. To thwart the local red squirrels, Monk has suspended a couple of feeders between trees, devising a pulley-and-rope system to allow him to retrieve and restock them easily. Apparently, the squirrels remain unthwarted. “But the feeders bring traffic,” Monk says. And, importantly, the traffic attracts the grandkids. Even four-year-old Jack has been turned on to the birds by Grandpa Monk.
Turning the grandkids on to fishing is still a work in progress. Long an avid fisherman, Monk has already equipped them with fishing rods, carrying on the tradition “of what I used to do with Andrew, when he was Jack’s age.” Given his son’s professional fishing guide career, the early training was obviously a huge success.
Act 3, Scene 2: Finale—The ghost of owners past
The first Christmas after Monk bought the cottage, Don gave him a gift: a fat bundle of notes about the place, handwritten in pencil with small illustrations, most in the form of reminders to himself or to the cottage owner who’d come after him. (Director’s note: They were rambling and eccentric, of course.) They included operating instructions for a long-gone stove; a map of the old fuse box; and various checklists, including one entitled: “Where to find it…or where it was the last time I left it,” providing the location of everything from his pencil sharpener to the bedding. “I’m still sorting through them,” Monk says, “and eventually hope to put them in a cottage album. Just one more puttering project.”
A year or so before Don died in 2002, Monk invited him to visit the cottage. By that point, it had been completely cleaned out and spruced up. Though the heavy, old piano had been sent to a new home (Monk gifted the long-neglected beast to a local contractor), other treasures from Don’s days remained, and the place was still, as Gillian puts it, “super old-school rustic.” “Don was over the moon,” says Monk. “It was what he had hoped for.”
After Andrew’s long-ago discovery, the Marrs never found another bottle in a tree. But they did uncover a glass jar with a message—and more—in an old hutch inside. “An encapsulation of things long gone,” Don wrote, meticulously ID’ing the quirky objects it contained: a disc of blue plastic, from Kitty’s cottage “bathtub” in the ’60s; a piece of Cello tape (“not made anymore”), which was used to frame the instruction sheet for his gasoline-driven water pump; bristles from their 1951 cottage broom. “Please look, and put back in the earth somewhere.”
Sweet synchronicity. Don’s time capsule, to go with the time capsule that Monk has preserved—the cottage itself.
This story was published as “The Monk, the Recluse, and a message in a bottle” in the Aug/Sept 2021 issue of Cottage Life.