The Wit and Wisdom of Stephen Leacock

One of the English-speaking world’s best-known humorists, Stephen Leacock, captivated the literary world with his quick wit and light slapstick style comedy work – quickly becoming the most widely read English-speaking author in the world between 1910 and 1925.

This distinguished Canadian teacher, political scientist and writer’s legacy has been masterfully preserved and archived by the Leacock Museum and citizens of Orillia. The museum, housed in Leacock’s summer home dubbed Old Brewery Bay, is wholly owned and operated by the City of Orillia’s Parks, Recreation and Culture Department. Their team has worked tirelessly to preserve Leacock’s work and home since attaining the property in 1958 following his death in 1944.

“There is an overall interest in the place and people like to soak it up; there is an ambiance to the house and it is very evocative for them,” said Fred Addis, curator to the Leacock Museum. “Whether it is the smell or the feel of the house, we hear continually that it reminds people of their grandmother’s house and some ancient memories are evoked from being [at the museum]. People always lurk behind and touch the walls and really breathe in the place.”

Following attaining his degree at the University of Toronto while simultaneously teaching at Upper Canada College to help pay his tuition, Leacock became disillusioned with teaching and began to pursue his passion for writing while working on his graduate degree in political science and political economy. Though he joined the Department of Economics and Political Science at McGill University in Montreal and began to teach, Leacock continually returned to his passion for fiction and humour writing to supplement his regular income and further his passion.

It was the success of his first book, a university textbook entitled Elements of Political Science, that led to the birth of 27 non-fiction novels; including his first satirical books Literary Lapses, Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town and Arcadian Adventures of the Idle Rich. This success in the literary world allowed Leacock to move out of the family home and into his own summer home; as he began to construct his own lakeside retreat for summer’s devoted to writing and nurturing his talent.

Designed to hold a certain level of prestige – said to mimic the author’s success – the house on Old Brewery Bay rose alongside the intersection of Lake Simcoe and Lake Couchiching. The property currently includes an extensive array of lakeside gardens and trails as well as a replica of the original boathouse – reconstructed in 1995 by a dedicated group of community volunteers over a single weekend in the style of a Mennonite barn raising.

Today, the museum houses the largest collection of Stephen Leacock artifacts artfully preserved to help tell his story to generations to come.

“The story of the tremendously interesting man who lived in this house,” says Addis.

Addis said all artifacts were absorbed through purchase of the home or collected through donation over the years since opening as a museum.

“Leacock by virtue of being one of 11 children was the executor to many family estates – including those of his siblings,” said Addis. “Consequently, we have become the beneficiaries of a number of Leacock artifacts over the years from these estates. Materials are continually donated to the museum; probably over a dozen a year. We are always receiving everything from first editions of his books or things that actually belonged to him like papers, manuscripts, artifacts like a chair or a desk he used.”

“The door is always open for that,” said Addis. “This means we house an eclectic mix of artifacts.”

The once summer home also features a wing dubbed the Art of Writing Galleries where the museum houses its temporary exhibits. These revolving exhibits reside in the museum for one year and always pay tribute to Leacock and Canadian Literature. 2016’s exhibit, entitled Stephen Leacock through the Lens, features 12 iconic photographs of the writer at Old Brewery Bay taken by Armenian-Canadian photographer Yousuf Karsh and his assistant Andre Gauthier in 1941.

In addition, the museum includes Swanmore Hall which houses the museums’ event centre, cafe and administration and archives.

The museum offers free admission seven days a week from 10 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. during the summer months and a number of guided tours for those who wish to peruse the property with narration.  Addis said the tours are loosely structured, to allow for tourists to fully absorb the home and its contents instead of being bombarded by facts and shuffled through too quickly.

“We try to focus on Leacock’s tradition of hospitality, discourse and ideas,” said Addis. “We make sure people are welcomed and feel comfortable and that they have a special taste of that Leacock brand of hospitality.”

“We discovered that we can learn more about Leacock and the house by listening to tour groups coming through rather than spewing a tour monologue at them as we travel through the house,” said Addis.

The museum hosts a number of events throughout the year, including their annual Leacock Summer Festival – which runs in July and celebrates the best in Canadian contemporary authors over the six day program; and an annual Children’s Day – which helps children get interested and involved in literature by celebrating a specific author and partaking in themed activities and events to help better understand the designated story. This summer, children are transported into the wizarding world with Harry Potter, with past years including selections by Dr. Seuss, Roald Dahl and more.

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Written By: Gabrielle Tieman

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