Grimsby Beach began life as a Methodist summer church camp. In the 1870s, the original tent accommodation began to be replaced by permanent board and batten cottages, trimmed with elaborate gingerbread or fretwork. The neighbourhood fell into disrepair after the Second World War, but was given a second chance to shine when new owners moved in over the past two decades. Today, the colourful cottages turned full-time homes frequently find themselves on historical walking tours.

Tender loving care — and several colourful coats of paint —
give Victorian cottage community a four-season lease on life

News Archive BY GARY MAY
Barb MacKay’s desire to live full-time in her cottage is an ever more common one these days, as people are drawn to the all-season charms of waterfront living. But it’s not always easy to find a place in a waterfront community that also offers the sort of job you’re looking for nearby.  

Mackay solved her dilemma in the Town of Grimsby, where she bought a circa-1874 Victorian cottage to renovate. Not only can she live close enough to Lake Ontario to hear the lapping waves, she’s also in a location where she can perform her job as a Kimberly-Clark sales representative.  

The 50-year-old MacKay represents a growing group that seeks a permanent home in a waterfront community. In the past two decades, some have been drawn to what was once a thriving beach community in this town of 24,000, halfway between Hamilton and St. Catharines, where they found Victorian-era cottages suffering from decades of abuse and neglect.  

While dozens have been renovated and returned to their original splendor, dozens more remain to be salvaged. Once restored and repainted, the magnificent Victorians are sometimes dubbed Grimsby Beach’s “Painted Ladies.”  

“I adore my cottage,” MacKay tells “I wouldn’t live anywhere else. I used to be into everything new. Now I’m into everything old.”  

She used to leaf through the pages of magazines and pine for something like her Victorian cottage, but always believed such homes only existed in California. Then she stumbled onto the secret of Grimsby Beach.  

Grimsby Beach, or Grimsby Park, as it was known in its early days, began life as a Methodist summer church camp. A huge outdoor temperance meeting was held there in 1846 and by 1859, a permanent campsite was established. Soon the railway was stopping there and disgorging eager campers. A natural amphitheatre, called The Auditorium, was built, then replaced by a cavernous meeting hall called The Temple.  

Many of the old wood cottages burned down over the years

In the 1870s, the original tent accommodation began to be replaced by permanent board and batten cottages, trimmed with elaborate gingerbread or fretwork. Since they were built on those original narrow tent lots, the cottages, too, were long and narrow. The park became the Ontario Methodist Camp Ground, where liquor and “unseemly language” were strictly forbidden.  

The religious camp faltered and was turned into an amusement park about 1910, the old moral code was abandoned and a dance hall was built. But the Great Depression, the Second World War and the opening of Muskoka Cottage Country in the post-war era put an end to The Park’s heyday and it fell into disrepair.   Then came the Renovation Generation.  

By 1990, a few people with vision began to buy up the dilapidated old cottages and set to work uncovering their original features. Many of the closely packed, all-wood cottages had burned down over the years, but dozens remain, many still waiting to be discovered and rejuvenated.  

Alan Buchan and his wife, Liz, bought Seagull Cottage in 1991 after reading an article in Century Home magazine about one that had been renovated. They began the painstaking task of removing three layers of outside construction — particleboard and InsulBrick. They gutted the inside and exposed the original ceiling beams.  

Buchan will never forget the day they were removing the walls that had been used to enclose the upstairs porch. “Liz reached in and she could feel the pillars of the porch. She knew right away what it was. It was a very exciting moment.”  

They quickly ripped up the flooring and found the original sloped floor of the porch. “By this time, we realized we were into something really historic,” Buchan tells  

When the Buchans bought the cottage, it was simply a seasonal place. “In the winter, the snow came in through the cracks. It wasn’t insulated.”  

The Buchans turned their home into what they believe was its original open-concept “sleeper cottage” style of the late 1800s. They added insulation so they could use it year-round. Then, unlike some of their neighbours, they repainted in muted and pastel colours — brick red, green and yellow — which they believe was the way the cottages were originally decorated.  

Others have opted for much brighter, vibrant colours, some even adding wild swirls, shapes and characters that make traditionalists cringe.  

Originally, most of the cottages sported cedar shingle roofs, says Buchan, but he plans to add a tin roof to his. The bay window is the original wood, but he has added new vinyl models that stick to the original style but require less upkeep.  

“I love the ambiance of this community,” says Buchan. “There’s so much history here.”  

MacKay bought The Ford Cottage, also known as The Beach House, in 1997.  

'I love the slamming of the screen door, the slapping of the waves'

“It had been partially fixed up by the previous owners, but they only used it as a summer place. I wanted to live there. I love gardening and I’m drawn to the water. I’ve always loved cottage living. I love the slamming of the screen door, the slapping of the waves.  

“But I didn’t want to drive to Muskoka every weekend because I had to work in this area.”  

The cottage is a constant work-in-progress, MacKay adds, and “a non-stop painting job. If you hate to paint, don’t buy one of these places,” she laughs. “The board and batten requires lots of attention, so you’re always changing boards and painting.  

“I changed all the colours, made it brighter, and added the gingerbread (trim).”  

She didn’t brighten it too much, MacKay adds. She agrees with Buchan that pastels and muted tones are more in keeping with the Beach’s origins.  

The cottages of Grimsby Beach frequently find themselves on historical walking tours and occasionally one will be featured in the local Doors Open program.  

Grimsby Beach’s Victorian cottages are usually situated on small lots. Recently, one cottage that has been partially redone was offered for sale for $199,900. MacKay says she believes others are now in the $300,000 range or more.  

The Grimsby Beach camp was once termed “the Chautauqua of Canada.” Chautauqua was an adult education movement that began at Chautauqua Lake, New York, in 1874 and continued into the early 20th century. They offered entertainment and culture in rural areas and small towns.  

One of the largest collections of gingerbread-trimmed Victorian cottages similar to those at Grimsby Beach can be found at Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts, where an estimated 500 buildings still exist. — August 2010