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Notes about the origins of the Palmer, King, Van Houten, Robertson Camp

In 1929, Albert & Sara Palmer were guests of the Rockwells on what is now the Bowen island. Loving the place, they looked to buy an island, but as none were available they bought on the mainland on a point looking out at what is now the bridge to St Joe’s. Albert laid out the 4 corners of the cabin he wanted; Shaunessey (grandfather of Tim Gjos) built it over the winter ready for occupancy the summer of 1930. So here are some early stories:

The camp needed a speedboat so Albert & teenage son Phil bought a beautiful 19’ mahogany boat built by a Detroit company called, “DeeWite” to pilot to Desbarats. Albert had never previously owned a boat as far as I know, but the plan was to follow the shore up Lake Michigan. What could go wrong? Fog…. Fog required them to stay very close to the shore where they hit a sand bar, damaging the crank shaft , stuffing box, and propellor. Luckily the boat had a mechanical self-bailer. That plus a few local temporary repairs allowed them to keep going. They did make it to the cabin amazingly enough, then to Langstaff’s for further repairs. I came on the scene about 10 years later and to my recollection Albert never again captained the DeeWite. Phil did -- alternately with repairing it.

In the summer of 1931, my parents Helen Palmer and Joe King were married there in June and my aunt Margret Palmer and Chet Fisk in August.

I spent my first summer in Desbarats in 1938 with my parents in our cabin on an island which is now the public park enroute to the bridge to St Joe’s. The Canadian government had a plan to replace the two cable ferries with one to run year round where the current was strong enough to keep ice from forming. Surveying for that plan somehow required them to push that cabin into a ravine in the winter of 1938-9. So later my parents, Joe & Helen King, built again near the Palmer cabin in the back of Indian Cove, a site familiar to many current Desbarats folks as the portage place to gain access to the Black Hole (known in my family as Black Lake.)

Albert had bought that land in the cove at Sara’s direction after she spotted a native woman relieving herself there. “Albert, buy that land!”

In my family’s early years at camp, each summer a large group of people from the Garden River First Nation Reserve came to the cove to camp and pick blueberries. The oldest member of my cohort of Palmer grandchildren, Chuck Fisk, remembers seeing elders who built a lean to located located on the other point of the cove. Some of the foundation for that lean to was used to build the cabin which now belongs to Palmer grandchildren, Janet (King)Robertson and myself, Carol (King) Van Houten.

This Covid controlled summer, 2020, would have been the 90th anniversary of the first cabins in the Palmer camp. So no celebrations……. But when we have had family gatherings there, we thank Albert for his foresight to take advantage of the opportunity that invitation from the Rockwells provided. The fact is that for our family we now –or rather next summer—will see the arrival in camp of the 6th generation of descendants of Albert and Sara Palmer. Of course that is true of other camps in the area, but it is still something quite amazing.

While it was the job, back in the 1920’s and 30’s, of L. O. Armstrong to promote and sell property in the area to Americans, we are a privileged group to have had ancestors who were in the “right” place at the “right” time to buy. The government may or may not have also wanted to limit the bootlegging of booze to America, some of which took off from Palmer property in those early years, in another little cove in the corner of Quebec Bay, next to where my cousins Marty and Chuck Palmer and their families have their cottage. But clearly our privilege/advantage came at the expense of the local Garden River tribe, who could no longer access a traditional summer place to camp and pick blueberries. Also, given the constant presence of beavers in Black Lake, I imagine the location was a prime one back in the era of the Ojibway trading beaver pelts to the French and then the British. I write this, not because there is anything we can do about all this today, but to acknowledge and honor the indigenous people who were there before us and enjoyed the unique and specific beauties of the place.

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