What’s in a Building? Bricks, mortar and a lot of wood. But the Gananoque Canoe Club (GCC), now known as the Thousand Islands Playhouse, embodies so much more than bricks and lumber.
The building’s construction on the banks of the St. Lawrence, in 1909, was the beginning of a remarkable era of Gananoque’s athletic and social life. The Club’s influence crossed provincial and national boundaries, spanned oceans, engaged politicians, built world class athletes and prepared soldiers for two World Wars. The building also spawned romance and dominated the social scene of the community for 70 years. And then in 1982, it was transformed into its new life as the Thousand Islands Playhouse.
Within five years of its initiation the Gananoque Canoe Club had become a competitive force in the paddling and sailing canoe world. The Gananoque paddlers and canoe sailors set the pace for the future by winning the Sugar Island Cup (the American Canoe Association) in 1910 followed by more impressive victories which began to draw the attention of the rest of North America and England to the Gananoque Canoe Club.
Picture the docks of the club peopled with enthusiastic fans, the Gananoque Citizens Band casting its music over the waters, and the elegant boats and yachts bobbing at their anchors, cheering on those “strong fine looking young men who had great desire to participate in clean, hard athletic competition ” as they plied their blades through the rough St. Lawrence waters.
The success of GCC continued through the 1920’s with the introduction of women in the mixed races, the popular rise of the spectacular war canoes and continued success in the Internationals Races at Sugar Island and victories in the Northern Division of the Canadian Canoe Association.
The Canoe Club also played a role in World War I. In 1914, Russel Britton, who served nine terms as Commodore of the Gananoque Canoe Club, recruited six Canoe Club athletes as volunteers to form Canada’s Eighth Field Battery. Sadly, Lieutenant Colonel Russel Britton, DSO, the “true Father of the GCC” was killed in action at Vimy Ridge in 1917.
The next decade ushered in the Depression era. Gananoque, both a farming and manufacturing community, was hard hit and reflected the province’s 45% rate of unemployment. With the community morale depressed, people needed heroes. The athletes of the GCC stepped forward. In the 1933 season, hard hit themselves, the athletes actually slept at the Canoe Club, but they continued to bring home the trophies.
They were heroes not only of Gananoque but to all of Canada! Through rugged dedication and arduous training four GCC athletes qualified for the 1936 Olympics in Munich, Germany.
Because of the devastation of WWII there was an Olympic hiatus from 1936 to 1948. In fact, the continued existence of their beloved Canoe Club building was in jeopardy. The building was under consideration to be either converted to military quarters or even total demolition. Additionally, the Canadian Canoe Association ceased operations from 1942 to 1945, so the Gananoque athletes’ opportunities for regattas had been greatly reduced. By the end of the war, the club had lost seven members in battle. So these athletes had competed against severe odds at home and away.
Then the ’48 Summer Olympics’ water games were held at Henley, outside London, England. GCC’s Hank Harper and Gerry Covey finished in seventh place on that world stage.
Also, in 1948 the GCC became a member of the American Power Boat Association. The International Nickel Company (INCO) donated the Nickel Cup trophy for the International Speed Boat Regattas of 1948 and 1949 at the Canoe Club. Jimmy Bevins, long time caretaker of Big White Calf Island, often reminisced about local power boat enthusiasts, including my father, Ned Gurney, who was endlessly tinkering and tuning his engine for the big races but alas, victory eluded him. These noisy races presaged today’s Poker Run events.
The 1960’s saw resurgence in paddling success in spite of financial obstacles and aging equipment. The men’s war canoe set a new time record and 27 GCC members received achievement awards from the Ontario Department of Education for their “distinguished performances in the field of amateur sport.” While the popularity of the war canoe faded, kayak racing flourished in the 1970’s under Coach Dudley Mathews, a seasoned GCC paddler.
While GCC heroes were made and lost on the water and on the battlefields, young romance was spawned at the Canoe Club dances held every Thursday night for more than fifty years. In 1920 the dance floor and spacious verandas were added to the building and the GCC even had its own orchestra in these early years. But soon the sedate waltzes and smooth orchestra sounds gave way to the Lindy Hop, Jitterbug, and Swingin’ to the lively big bands of the 1940’s and 50’s. Young ladies were escorted around the verandas and the dance floor. And, if they were lucky, their date just might be one of those handsome paddlers!
While the girls may have been proving their skills and prowess in paddling competition, I’m told they didn’t attend the dances unescorted. But all that changed in the 60’s! The Canoe Club Dance was “THE” social event of the week, escorted or not. The era of Rock ‘n Roll had arrived with bands like Gan’s own Coachmen and Kingston’s Monarchs setting the rhythm for the Hustle, Twist, Monkey, Pony and other demonstrative gyrations. And who could forget the dance floor bouncing and sagging to the rhythm of Wooly Bully?
In the late 1950’s on the hot steamy days of summer the ringing of laughter, hoots of dock tag, declarations of daring jumps off the high diving board mixed with emphatic admonitions for safety from the life guards were testimonials of the Canoe Club’s expanded aquatic program.
For the summer of 1960 the Canoe Club was home to the Peterborough Ornamental Swimmers who presented matinee and evening performances of water ballet to the music of a seven piece orchestra. At night the underwater lights draped the performers in gold and red and purple, rendering their chorus lines of kicks and swanlike dives and pirouettes even more exotic. One of their routines included an Indian Legend of the 1000 Islands performed with two little islands anchored in front of the Canoe Club. It was a unique attraction and audiences from far and near filled the bleachers. It was as close to a live stage production as we had ever seen in Gananoque.
The Canoe Club was the cultural, athletic and social heartbeat of the community for more than 70 years. In and around this building characters were formed, athletes developed, relationships built and broken, victories celebrated, losses mourned – the very stuff of theatre.
So in 1982 when the paddlers had moved on and the dance music was but an echo, the Canoe Club found a new life as a theatre. And the community heartbeat goes on…Welcome to the Thousand Islands Playhouse.
Reference: Much of this material came from Beverley Blancher’s (Andress) Queen’s University thesis: “The Gananoque Canoe Club”. 1975.
By Gretchen Bambrick
Gretchen Bambrick is a native of Gananoque and the islands. Her
childhood summers were spent on Big White Calf island where life was all
about sailing, canoeing, motor boats and Canoe Club dances! She and her
husband, Terry, lived and worked in Wisconsin for 28 years before retiring
to spend summers back in Gananoque.