An Off-Grid Muskoka Cottage Built from Scratch

An Off-Grid Muskoka Cottage Built from Scratch

and By: Fran Smelko This fall, we received an excited email from a new subscriber, Fran Smelko. We love fan mail from our community and the stories that readers share with us about how Harrowsmith inspired projects big and small. Whether you attempt Signe Langford’s (Harrowsmith’s Food Editor) Scandi Ricotta Cake with Cardamom-Maple Roster Plums […]

and By: Fran Smelko

This fall, we received an excited email from a new subscriber, Fran Smelko. We love fan mail from our community and the stories that readers share with us about how Harrowsmith inspired projects big and small. Whether you attempt Signe Langford’s (Harrowsmith’s Food Editor) Scandi Ricotta Cake with Cardamom-Maple Roster Plums and Raisins (page 73 in our Winter 2018 issue), travel to one of our featured destinations, or tackle one of Steve Maxwell’s (Harrowsmith’s Home and Property Editor) DIY projects online—we’re eager to hear your thoughts. Was the recipe a success or flop? Did you experience “Chore Time” in Hope River, PEI? Did you try connecting a generator to your house with Steve’s instruction?

Here’s Fran’s story about a particular cottage in the woods—and it’s a success story, a long-time in the making.

“I am assuming that you are the original Harrowsmith magazine to which I subscribed until its demise? Until today I had no idea that you had been resurrected and I am happy you have done so and I look forward to reading past newsletters and receiving the new ones. I believe I have a copy of almost all issues of the mag. right from the start–some of which came in very handy when my son built his cottage in the woods, from scratch. Lots of useful information!! I will look at the website link you sent and see if I can figure out how to order a subscription to the magazine for Christmas for Mike. He would absolutely love it as he also subscribes to Cottage Life, Mother Earth, etc., for many, many years.

I’m so glad you have resurrected the mag, even if it’s only four times a year! Harrowsmith and Canadian Living are (were) the ONLY magazines I faithfully renewed my subscriptions to.  Many others have come and gone over the years, but these are two definite favourites.”

I replied to Fran to learn more of this “from-scratch” off grid cottage that her son Mike and his wife, Monica, built. She was happy to share the juicy details and images that visually recounted the monumental task and united family effort. The stories behind family cottages are usually deeply steeped in family history and romantic ambition—I knew Harrowsmith readers would appreciate a behind-the-scenes snoop at Mike’s place.

First wall of the main cottage is erected with crossed fingers.

“Mike’s and Monica’s cottage is in Muskoka ‘down the end’ of the same lake where five generations of my family have summered, seemingly forever. Although some of the cottages in the original family enclave have been sold, two remain and another was passed out of the family this summer. My family has roots in Muskoka for well over 130 years and mine go back over 75 years. In fact, my grandparents actually lived on the lake during the summers, tenting with a whole passel of kids, including my dad, before the first cottage was built

Mike and his wife purchased a vacant piece of bush property 15 years ago with the intentions of eventually building. For the first five years Mike gathered materials and tools to build with, storing all the ‘stuff’ in my barn. Each year, once the build started, he only built with what he had already bought and paid for, refusing to go into a great deal of debt. Thank goodness for the barn!

The “Important House”

First came a sleeping cabin, which his dad was still physically able to help with–then a gazebo (for cooking and sitting, without bugs) and then the foundations were drilled into the rock for the main cottage about 10 years ago. Since then, he and his wife (a city girl who had never held a hammer in her hand and I’m so proud of her for being willing to take on this project with Mike!) and their two young kids have all had a hand in the build. The kids were each under the age of 10 at the time and have become proficient builders and carpenters, working alongside their dad.

Not surprisingly, my granddaughter went away to university a couple of years ago, not with the usual boxes and boxes of makeup (some though), but with a huge toolbox of things that she thought she might need to have. Mainly though it was Mike, his brother Joe and a couple of exceptional friends named Ted and Joe T. They built the entire place by hand using a generator to power tools.  I am just totally flabbergasted to see the outcome and this past summer marked (nearly) the end of building the main cottage with just some fiddly small bits left to attend to. The solar system was the only thing that was contracted out and being off grid has proved to be well worth that cost.

“Innisfree” is twice the size of my home and a wonderful testament that dreams really can come true. When I consider that absolutely everything needed for the build (cement, lumber) all had to come in via his “donkey” boat, it’s utterly amazing.

Finally, furniture replaces boxes as seating options!

Mike is a special needs teacher, not a builder by any stretch of the imagination, but he did grow up on our farm and thus had to figure out how things should work when they didn’t. Our biggest regret is that his dad is no longer with us and never got to see the finished deal, but I get to go and “help” every summer for a few weeks and the WHOLE family gathers there for our Thanksgiving celebration. In the very beginning we sat around in parkas, toques and gloves–try cutting up your turkey dinner on wobbly paper plates wearing winter gloves and mounds of clothes! Suffice to say the dogs had a wonderful meal! We drank many mugs of hot tea to keep warm… this Thanksgiving when we all gathered in the main cottage we were kept warm by a lovely wood stove/fireplace and sat on proper furniture, not boxes!

Flashback to the “Cold Thanksgiving” (left to right): Joe, Fran, Mike, Monica and Gloria (Joe’s wife)

This story warmed us and made us feel like we had our wool sock-clad feet propped up ‘round the fire at Mike’s cottage too. Be sure to share your story with us at We’ll post the very best on our website and, maybe send you something fabulous in the mail. For more reader stories like Fran’s, check out Mervin Busch’s super solar design to manage cutworm infestations and Ray Batenchuk’s apple passion project.




Jules Torti

Jules Torti

Jules Torti’s work has been published in The Vancouver Sun, The Globe & Mail, travelife, Canadian Running and Coast Mountain Culture. With experiences as a canoe outtripper, outdoor educator, colouring book illustrator and freelancer, she is thrilled to be able to curate, write and read about the very best things in life.

Posted on Sunday, September 17th, 2023

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