Little Norway in Muskoka

August 8, 2017 | Mary Rae

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Nothing goes together like a hot summer day in cottage country, a frosty cold beer, and a great story. And so it was that earlier this summer, I paused to read the label on my Sawdust City “Little Norway” lager, and began a quest into the history of the town I have always known as Gravenhurst.  It piqued my interest, and returning to the Library I found a treasure trove of local history stories, annecdotes and photographs.

Originally known as McCabe’s Landing, after a tavern built on the site in 1859, the area quickly became a centre for the lumber industry, and earned the nickname Sawdust City.

Mystery part 1 solved. But what about Little Norway?

Airmen
RNAF Airmen at Little Norway, Toronto Island. 1941. Toronto Star Photograph Archive

In April 1940, the German armed forces attacked Norway and occupied the country for the remainder of the war. King Haakon of Norway escaped with his family to England, and established a government in exile. About 120 Norwegian soldiers and naval airmen escaped to England – not a lot, but enough to start the Royal Norwegian Air Force. These men were sent to Canada, and the first Norwegian Air Force training camp – Little Norway -- was established at the Toronto Islands.

Little Norway
Little Norway, Muskoka, 1942. Toronto Star Photograph Archive

They quickly outgrew the Island and, in 1942, relocated to the Muskoka Aerodrome just outside of Gravenhurst. Opened by Crown Prince Olav on May 4, 1942, the second “Little Norway” featured a log cabin and a barn rebuilt for living quarters.  Later, they would also purchase Interlaken, a recreational facility east of Huntsville, and rename it “Vesle Skaugum” after King Haakon’s home in Norway.  Here, the men could exercise, relax and train in Muskoka year round.

Training at Vesle
RNAF Training at Vesle Skaugum. 1943.Toronto Star Photograph Archive.

By the end of the war, over 3300 Norwegian men and women had been trained for active service or worked in support services at Little Norway -- the Muskoka Aerodrome, which still operates as the Muksoka Airport.

 

Stella Johnsen
Stella Johnsen, Women's Division RNAF, 1943. Toronto Star Photograph Archive.

Mystery part 2 solved. But there is one more chapter.

How did Sawdust City become Gravenhurst? In 1862, postmaster William Dawson LeSueur was reading Irving Washington’s book “Bracebridge Hall”. Inspired by the book, he took the name Gravenhurst for his town, and a couple of years later, named the town a few miles north “Bracebridge”.

What fun! I think I’ll have to drink more beer, and read more history.

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