E.B. Sutton, who opened the Swastika Hotel in 1910.

E.B. Sutton, who opened the Swastika Hotel in 1910.

The Bala Bay Inn was built in 1910 by E.B. Sutton and opened July 17th 1910. The hotel has been a symbol of Bala’s rich history and continues to leave its mark.

Sutton, born in Leeds, Yorkshire, England, on Nov. 8, 1854, died in Bala at 63. In his short lifetime, he managed to live several lives – as a businessman, writer, musician, composer, environmentalist, and non-stop promoter of Bala and Muskoka. Sutton got his middle name from a famous relative, poet Robert Browning, who died in 1889, seven years after the younger relative left for Canada.

Fred and Lillian Sutton ran Muskoka’s first brick summer hotel between 1910 and the early 1940s

Fred and Lillian Sutton ran Muskoka’s first brick summer hotel between 1910 and the early 1940s

Fred and Lillian Sutton ran Muskoka’s first brick summer hotel between 1910 and the early 1940s Sutton, who left school in his early teens to work for a book publishing company in London, England, corresponded with author, Charles Dickens, until Dickens died in 1870.

In 1872, Sutton, then 18, married Rose Anna Grey, a cousin 10 years his senior who had a daughter from an earlier marriage. Sutton was working for a railway company and rose to become a station manager. Ten years later, the Suttons left England. Clara, their first-born child, had just died as a result of unsanitary needles used during a government-ordered vaccination. Two children, born after her, died for the same reason. In 1992, E.B. Sutton, Rose, and Rose’s daughter, Jane, boarded a boat for Canada. We don’t know why Sutton chose Muskoka as his destination. When he arrived, he met two important men: Thomas Burgess, the founder of Bala, and A.P. Cockburn- who is credited with starting tourism in Muskoka. Both men encouraged Sutton to settle at Bannockburn, north of Bala, on a Lake Muskoka site facing the northern tip of Acton Island.

Sutton wasted no time building Camp Sutton; a vacation retreat that soon attracted sportsmen who wanted a fresh fishing location. E.B. Sutton did extremely well at the Camp for more than 15 years. In 1898, Sutton built a store on the main street of Bala, living in the back of it with Rose and their young son Fred. That store is now the home of Bob and Leda Sutton, just across the road from Chipper’s Fish and Chips shop, and almost across from the Bala Bay Inn. When Sutton moved from Bannockburn to Bala, the official population of Bala was 50. However, he kept predicting that the world would soon come to Bala, and the future proved him right. The first CPR train arrived in Bala in June 1907.

When Sutton built the Bala Bay Inn in 1910, he first chose the name “Swastika” – the word meaning good luck or good fortune. The hotel cost Sutton $20,000 to build. On Friday, June 17, 1910, Sutton invited everyone to Bala to come to the grand opening of a hotel that he and Fred had just built. Here is how Sutton described the event following the day in his newspaper column:

Even the folks who are suppose to take no stock in such frivolities were seen wandering home after daylight. Everything went merry as a marriage bell. The music was provided by five players and consisted of piano, mandolin, guitar, violin, and snare drums, an orchestra as unique as the music was fine. The Minett contingent from Carling, while a gasoline brought the musicians from Bracebridge. There was just enough wax and just enough spring from the floor, and the number of feet might be 30 score.

Swastika Inn

Swastika Inn

In 1914, Sutton decided to rent his former store, which Fred had converted into a cottage. Fred always said that was the best thing they ever did because a Toronto family called Holden rented it, and Fred met the daughter, Lillian. Just before Thanksgiving 1916, to no ones surprise, the couple announced that they planned to marry.

Days after the engagement, Rose Sutton was not feeling well, but decided to do laundry. She completed the wash and was halfway through getting bulky clothing through the hand wringer when she felt ill. She staggered to the living quarters of the hotel and fell into the arms of her husband. She died a short time later as a result of a stroke. From the day of Rose’s death, E.B. Sutton was a changed man. Sutton lost interest in life after Rose. A worried Fred and Lillian moved their wedding date ahead so they could both look after E.B. Upon their return from their honeymoon, they moved right into the hotel.

One day in Early August of 1917, Lillian entered her father-in-law’s bedroom and found him lying there with tears streaming down his cheeks. Sutton told Lillian, “I’ve just been wondering whether I’ll ever see my Rose again.” Lillian reassured him that he would see Rose again, but that did not seem to satisfy. So, trying to cheer him up, Lillian said that if she died before E.B., she would come back and give 3 loud knocks as a signal that she was on the other side. Weeks later, E.B. Sutton died quietly in the hotel living quarters. That night, while his body lay in state in a room next to the hotel’s ballroom (now the Ghost dining room), Lillian Sutton was sitting in a nearby room with 2 friends from Bala. Lillian tells the story:

The time was 20 minutes past 2 a.m. when the three of us were startled by a bang on the front door. There was a pause, then another bang, then a pause, and a third and final bang. Then everything was silent except for the people moving around trying to find out what happened. There was not the slightest trace of wind outside, and Fred couldn’t find any sign of young people playing a prank. To this day, I still wondering whether E.B. returned in some way to give me that signal.

The story of “The Three Knocks” has been shared many times on CBC television and radio, and appeared in Terry Boyle’s Haunted Ontario.

The name of the hotel changed to Sutton Manor in the 1930’s because of what was happening in Germany. For more than two decades until the early 1940’s, Lillian and Fred ran the hotel as a successful family style hotel, never serving liquor in the hotel, but no one seemed to mind. That’s when they finally sold it.

Under new ownership, things did change. A beer parlour introduced during the 1940’s seemed to dominate the hotel during some years, alienating some former patrons who preferred the family atmosphere of the Suttons. The hotel went through several name changes- The Bala Bay Inn, The Bala Bay Lodge, The Cranberry House, and finally, the Bala Bay Inn once more.

The future of the hotel was back in question in 2005 when the hotel was put up for sale once more. It was no secret that one interested bidder planned to demolish the current building, starting from scratch. That’s when Kimberly Ward quietly entered the picture.

The Grossman Family

The Grossman family

“It wasn’t a rush decision” says Ward. “However, I knew that from the very beginning, that I did not want to see the old hotel torn down.” Ward’s feelings were based upon many years of being associated with a top-drawer family resort in Haliburton. Born and raised in Haliburton, she grew up helping her parents, Art and Joan Ward, with Wigamog Resort, a year-round operation that served 250 at dinner during peak seasons and around 120 at other times. She also worked at Clevelands House in Muskoka while she took hotel administration at Ryerson University. Following her studies at Ryerson, Ward worked in sales for both Labatt’s and a Toronto rock station, Q-107. She met her future husband, Chris Grossman, at Q-107 and persuaded him to join her in running Wigamog for seven years after her parents retirement. After selling Wigamog, Ward and Grossman returned to private radio. They now own and run the Haliburton Broadcasting Group, a chain of 16 stations extending north from The Moose in Bracebridge to Cochrane.

Ward emphasizes the decision to buy the Bala Bay Inn was very much a family one. Within weeks of the sale, every carpet every mattress was replaced; the interior has undergone a total restoration in colour design. Guests can now use wireless internet for the laptop computers. If you stop by, be sure to look at one of the far windows on the second floor; you’ll see E.B. wearing a grin that just won’t go away.