Oh, those hot summer nights at the Rideau Ferry Inn! The dancing, the laughter, stolen kisses, sneaking drinks in the parking lot, and the best live rock and roll around!
Its official name back then, was the Poonamalie Pavilion, but nobody called it that. To my friends and me, it was simply the Rideau Ferry Inn; and you could find us there most weekend nights in the summer, socializing, laughing, and dancing the night away.
Situated along the clear, blue waters of the Rideau, the Rideau Ferry Inn has hosted many generations of tourists and boaters, providing sumptuous meals, comfortable accommodation, and lively entertainment. Arguably, the highlight of the small settlement of Rideau Ferry, our former teenage haunt, wasn’t the original structure at this location. The original building was actually a home.
The original structure was a house built in 1853 by Archibald Campbell. Archibald married Elizabeth Buchanan, a preacher’s daughter. Her father was the Reverend George Buchanan, and was one of the early Presbyterian ministers of Beckwith Township, serving the congregation at Franktown.
Their daughter, Helen Buchanan Campbell, married John Coutts. As her parents were aging, and needed assistance, the couple moved in with them in 1870. During that time, John made some additions to the home, and when he was finished, they not only had ample room for themselves, but had more than enough room to accommodate guests. They began to rent rooms in the house to summer tourists, who were traveling by boat ,along the mighty Rideau waterways.
As the years went by, their home became known as ‘Coutts House’, and eventually, had the reputation of being a very fine hotel. In 1893 a three-storey addition was built at the back of the house. A large dining room was added to the first floor. The second and third floors had fifteen hotel rooms each, and an indoor bathroom.
After 1905, the building was rented to a series of business men. During the 1920s and 30s, regattas became popular, and Coutts House held canoe races, and rowboats races. The Coutts family also sponsored competitions for sailboats, and it was the site of many grand daytime celebrations, and intimate evening affairs, for the wealthy travelers, visiting in the summer.
In 1947, Doug Wallace, native of Osgoode bought Coutts House, tore it down, and built a new structure with wood framing, and grey granite blocks. It was a two-storey building, and the second floor featured a large dance area, with seating on three sides.
By the 1960s, the building had become known as the Rideau Ferry Inn, and during this time, became licensed for liquor sales. Up until that time people would smuggle in their own booze, particularly in the roaring twenties when rum-running along the Rideau had its hey-day.
It was in the 1970s, that I first heard the tales about the popular night spot, and all the good times that were had at the Rideau Ferry Inn. There were stories told up and down the halls of the Perth High School – stories of summer romances with cottagers staying at seasonal properties nearby, or the ultra-cool teens that traveled by boat along the Rideau, with their parents. There was also talk of the teenage kids from the States, and their hip clothing and accessories; styles that would take years to reach our little communities near Perth. There were lots of accounts at our high school of the talented rock bands that performed, and of the nights spent dancing to the top hits played by edgy disc jockeys. I couldn’t wait to go and see it for myself.
photo: L. Steve Francis, Mike McPherson, Brian Jones, and seated – Paul Tarle.
The main house-band at ‘The Inn’ in the early 1970s was the Paul Tarle Band – and we showed off our cool dance moves, as we listened to their popular rock classics.
One of the best parties of our steamy Lanark County summers was the annual Rideau Ferry Regatta. Beautiful, sleek, boats from all over, competing for the sought-after prizes, and the prestige of being ‘Number 1’ on the big lakes.
Regattas were all about hot sun, cold beers, the cool, clear waters of the Rideau Lakes, and beautiful boats all around us.
We’ll never forget the annual regattas, or the great music at the Rideau Ferry Inn. Bands like ‘Sammy Seaman’ and his group kept us up until the wee hours. Some nights it was ‘Woody Herman and the Young Thundering Herd’, and other evenings we were entertained by the ‘Paul Chabot Band’. Occasionally, instead of live bands at the ‘Inn’, there was a ‘Disco’ dance provided by a local disc jockey, by the name of ‘Sounds Great’.
Many years after our frequent teenage visits to the Rideau Ferry Inn, the building was purchased by Elmer and Eva Purdon. It was still ‘the’ place at that time to host fancy wedding receptions, or 50th wedding anniversary celebrations.
Because we’d had so many good times at the Rideau Ferry Inn, it was a terrible shock for my friends and I when we heard about the fire in February of 1986, that destroyed our former dance hall. The fire started on the top floor, where the dances had been held for so many years. The ground floor was also destroyed in the fire, and that is where the kitchen, the large dining room, and bar were located.
My friends and I drove down to Rideau Ferry a few days after the fire. I don’t think it was so much out of curiosity, but more out of disbelief. Could it be true, that the place where we’d passed so many of our happy youthful hours was really gone? There were so many memories of friendships, dancing, and all of the special evenings we spent at the Rideau Ferry Inn.
We drove up to where the Inn had stood, and looked around. No one said a word. I think that as we stared at the charred foundation of the building, each of us was recalling our own versions of the times spent there, in our youth. They were such innocent, awkward, magical, teenage times. We sat there for a few more moments, still silent, and then drove away, back up the Ferry Road toward Perth.
The building may be gone, but our fond memories of the Rideau Ferry Inn will remain with us forever. We will always remember the music, the friends, and the good times. Those long summer nights, when the stars seemed to shine a little brighter, the sunsets glowed a little softer. The peaceful, pristine, waters of the Rideau Lakes made a perfect backdrop for those innocent days of our youth, when life stretched out ahead of us…..so full of promise, and our dreams for the future.
An excerpt from – ‘Revelry and Rogues on the Rideau’ – ‘Lanark County Chronicle’ available in local book stores, or online. ISBN 978-0-9877026-23
Although there were lots of tourists and visitors in the summer, they were only there for a few short weeks at most. We became acquainted with many of the folks who lived year-round at Rideau Ferry, and some of the local names at that time were: McLean, Donaldson, Buchanan, Gemmill, Frost, Sewell, Coutts, Gallagher, Beveridge, McKay, Wills, McVeety, Millar, Tully, Oliver, Dettrick, Bethune, Purdon, Hitchcock, Fitzgerald, Hall, Gould, Irving, Joynt, King, McCue, Wallace, McKay and Campbell.
Join the author on a steamy hot summer night, park your car outside the Rideau Ferry Inn in the ‘passion pit’, duck as the beer-bottles fly, and the action heats up outside. Hear some of the top bands from the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s play some classic rock and roll along the peaceful shores of the Rideau – read about it in the new book, released September 2020:
“Lanark County Collection: Winding Our Way Down Memory Lane”
available at The Book Nook, and The Bookworm, in Perth, and Mill Street Books in Almonte.
Also online at http://www.staffordwilson.com
photos: Perth Historical Society, Carol-Ann McDougall, Perth Remembered, Vintage Smiths Falls and Perth, The Perth Courier, Georgia McNally, Vintage Race Boat Shop, and from private collections.
For boating on the big lakes – Rideau Ferry Marina