Many long-term residents of this area will remember the name Louis Brousseau, well-known for delivering fresh vegetables and berries from his island garden to the towns along the southern shores of Georgian Bay. His nicknames of “Onion King” and “Cranberry Brousseau” recall the summer days here of the first half of the 20th century.
Louis was born in Champlain County, Quebec on April 16, 1867 to parents Pierre and Caroline. It is not certain when he and his family arrived in this locale, but Louis (age 14), his parents and 2 younger siblings, Peter (age 7) and Ernestine (age 3), were recorded in the 1881 Census of Canada as living in the Baxter / Gibson Township area.
Figure 1: Northeast Simcoe County c.1880
By this time the North Simcoe area was booming with major lumber mills and thriving small towns at Port Severn, Waubaushene, Sturgeon Bay and Victoria Harbour. By 1879 the Midland Railway stretched from Lake Ontario to Midland. Regular steamship service connected Southern Georgian Bay ports to Byng Inlet and Sault Ste. Marie.
Louis was illiterate all his life; no doubt he left school early to hunt, fish and farm in order to help feed his family. It was common for young boys like Louis to work in the lumber mills in summer and in the bush camps in winter.
But in 1893 the area was buzzing with news of the World’s Fair in Chicago (the “World’s Columbian Exposition” in honour of Columbus’ arrival in the new world 400 years earlier).
Figure 2: Contemporary Drawing1893 Chicago World’s Fair
Louis wanted to go, and when a friend bet him $100 that he couldn’t get there alone, that was it! He would find a way, as that was a lot of money at that time, especially to him. He would build his own boat and row / sail from Waubaushene up through the thousands of islands in Georgian Bay, through the North Channel, by Mackinac Island and down Lake Michigan to Chicago, a distance of some 1,000 miles, without charts!
Figure 3: Assortment of Daily Passes
His boat was reportedly 15-16 ft. in length, 4 ft. wide, with a pointed stern, lead keel, and a tarpaulin to keep dry his supplies, including fishing gear and an old gun. Power came from oars and crude burlap sails. Cedar posts provided buoyancy and masts.
On June 23, 1893, at age 26, with 50 cents in his pocket, a compass but no charts, he set out from Waubaushene with only his black dog, “Pete” (likely named for his brother Peter) as company. Following the shore he asked for a signed piece of paper at each place he landed to prove that he had been there; for instance:
- July 2, at Little Current, Manitoulin Island
- July 20, at St. Ignace, Michigan
- July 22, at Biddles Point, Michigan
- August 6, at Jacksonport, Wisconsin
- August 12, Port Washington, Wisconsin
- August 19, at Jackson Park, Chicago, the site of the World’s Fair
Copies of these “receipts” are to be found at the Huronia Museum, Midland. Ironically Louis could not read what these documents contained.
Louis claimed that he could have made the journey in 8 days, but had to stop to work along the way. 8 days to row / sail 1,000 miles, 125 miles per day? (Doubtful.)
He would stick close to the shoreline but at one point, to save time, he had to cross Lake Michigan to reach the Wisconsin shore at Sheboygan. By his own telling, he had encountered severe storms, one off Detour, Michigan that capsized his boat. He was able with help to recover all of his gear except his compass.
Figure 3: World’s Fair Basin
After 3 days in Chicago, on August 19 Louis reached the Jackson Park site of the World’s Fair.
They put him, his boat and his dog in a tent and sold tickets to see them. He was a minor sensation, with his boat on wheels, giving twice daily shows.
Figure 4: Fair Parade Route
He received no proceeds from these activities, but worked for several months at the Fair as a lamp cleaner and fireworks man.
News reporting at the Fair could be fanciful, perhaps with some input from Louis.
From The Country Gentleman and Cultivator: “Antoine Brousseau, hunter and trapper of Upper Ontario, reached the world’s fair last week, having travelled nearly 1,000 miles in a dugout.”[i] (This article had Louis’ name as Antoine, but should have been Louis, as per the log of the journey and the record of his birth. Louis was Francophone so there may have been a language barrier for the reporter writing this story.)
From the Scientific American: “Before he left his northern home he had never seen a railroad or electric light, had never heard a band of music or the whistle of a steamboat. When this happened he was so carried away with what he saw and heard that he thought he had reached heaven.
The region where Brousseau comes from is as wild today as it was when Chicago was only a trading post, the temporary stopping post for men like himself. He says that he has lived in the woods for months at a time without seeing a human face. He was born and raised in the wilderness, and until he started on this wonderful voyage of his, he was ignorant of the conditions of life in the great world beyond the ‘clearing’”[ii]
(It is of some interest that much of the lumber required to rebuild Chicago after the great fire of 1871 came from the mills at Waubaushene and Port Severn).
Figure 5: Contemporary Cartoon
“The Fair brought the world to Chicago. Unfortunately people from around the world were also brought to the Fair to be put on exhibit. To highlight the achievements of western civilization, exhibits of other people, such as ‘Indians’, ‘Islanders’, and ‘Colored’ portrayed them as exotic and / or ‘less advanced’. Reconstructed villages and exhibits of native life were located throughout the Fair and Midway.”[iii] Several of these groups took early leave.
Louis left his boat at the Fair and, on his return journey, mostly on foot, spent several years in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. There in 1900 he met and married Louise Thompson. In 1907 he purchased Island 79 in Baxter Township, later called Brousseau Island, between Potato Island and Moore Point. On his 7 1/8 acres he built a humble home, raised vegetables and a few sheep, and picked berries in season.
To sell his produce he would sail / row to the towns along the shore. In the fall cranberry season, he would venture as far as Byng Inlet. He was remembered as having bright blue eyes, bushy brows, long hair and beard. He loved to talk about his adventures as well as gossip about people and events in town.
James McCannell of Port McNicoll tells the story of meeting Louis while walking with his father, then a licensed lake sailor and later the Commodore of the CPR fleet. Louis insisted on walking behind them in deference to his father’s position, but his father would have none of it, such was his respect for Louis’ accomplishment.
After his wife died in 1934 Louis continued to go to town and live on his island with only his dog and sheep for company. Louis Brousseau died on June 17, 1954 and was buried in St John’s Catholic Cemetery in Waubaushene.
As we celebrate Canada’s 150th Anniversary in 2017, let us remember one exceptional Canadian, born in 1867, who left his unique mark in local lore.
From his obituary published in the Midland Free Press, June 1954
- Born April 16, 1867 in Champlain County, PQ
- Baptized at St Genevieve de Batiscan Church, Diocese of Trois Rivieres
- Parents: Pierre (Peter) Brousseau, Caroline (Catherine) St. Jean
- Married 1900 Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan to Louise Thompson (Died April, 1936)
- Bought Island 79, Baxter Township (Brousseau Island) in 1907 for $80
- Died: Sunset Lodge, Atherley, June 17/54, age 91
- Buried St. John RC Cemetery, Waubaushene
From the New York Times:
1881 Census of Canada, Ontario, District 131, Page 34, Baxter / Gibson Township area
Ancestry.ca re Louis Brousseau
Chicago Field Museum: 1893 Chicago World’s Fair pictures
Chicago Historical Museum for 1893 World’s Fair pictures
Dominion of Canada – Illustrated Atlas of the Provinces of Canada, Simcoe County of Ontario, WH Belden and Co 1878
Genevieve Carter, Huronia Museum, Midland
James DH McCannell, Port McNicoll
Jamie Hunter, Tay Township
Mary Haskill, Nosing into the Past, Life and Times in Huronia, Huronia Museum, 2002
Midland Free Press, June 1954
Midland Free Press, What’s New – Past Faces and Places, Robert Thiffault and Pamela King, April 13, 1984
New York Times, August 22, 1893
Quebec Canada, Vital and Church Records, (Drouin Collection), 1621-1968
Scientific American, 1893, Volume 69, Page 154, J.E. Emerson
Tay Township Heritage blog: https://taytownshipheritage.wordpress.com
The Cultivator and Country Gentleman, August 31, 1893, Volume 64, Page 679
[i] The Cultivator and Country Gentleman, August 31, 1893, Volume 64, Page 679
[ii] Scientific American, 1893, Volume 69, Page 154, J.E. Emerson
[iii] Chicago Field Museum: 1893 Chicago World’s Fair