Built in 1914 by professional dancer Lorne Jack, Tent City was a tourist attraction located at the bottom of the Sixth Line for a number of years. Mr. Jack had traveled extensively during his career and had seen the success of tents as accommodations in the southern United States. When he thought to bring the idea right here to Innisfil, it was unsurprisingly met with much scorn from local residents. Nevertheless, the place he dubbed “Tent City” became a fast hit with visitors from Barrie, Bradford, and especially Toronto.
Lorne Jack in dance costume, 1906
Originally consisting of ten sleeping tents and one large central tent serving as a kitchen and dining room, Tent City became the township’s first commercial tourist establishment. The attraction eventually became so popular that Mr. Jack constructed a large frame pavilion to serve as a summer hotel and dance floor. Dances were held on Wednesday and Saturday nights at the cost of five cents per dance. Some nights saw as many as forty dances! Professional musicians, including Ernie Bruce and his orchestra from Toronto, were sometimes engaged for an entire season to ensure the entertainment was never lacking. At other times, music was provided by Roy Jack on violin, Merlin McLean on the banjo, and Mrs. Roy Jack on the piano.
The dances held in Tent City were popular both with guests and locals, and visitors arrived by horse and buggy, flivvers (small old cars that gave a bumpy ride), and even by boat from other parts of Lake Simcoe. Jenny (Forbes) Byers, whose father Dick Forbes was a square dance caller, recalled some fond memories for the publication Skunks and Scholars: Memories of growing up in Innisfil Township before 1940 compiled by the Innisfil Historical Society. She wrote:
Having lost my mother when I was but six years of age, my dad used to take my sister, Mary, and I to the house dances he called off at and also to Tent City Hotel, which was then owned by Lorne Jack. The ladies used to bring sandwiches and butter tarts and fancy cakes and the tea and coffee was supplied. About midnight a break was called and everyone had a lunch and then there would be a few more dances and then everyone went home. I used to go to sleep either lying on the steps of the hotel leading upstairs, with a coat under me and one over me, until my dad was finished. Or I used to lie on a couple of chairs with a coat under me and one over me and I would go off to sleep with the sound of the music.
Tent City Hotel prior to demolition in 1953
By the 1950s Tent City fell into disrepair and the building was eventually demolished in 1953. The land would see new life breathed into it, however, when the summer residents of Big Cedar Point pooled their resources and purchased the Tent City property to convert it into Camp Arrowhead for their children. In 1967 Lorne Jack’s former home – known as “Castle Hall” – was sold to Camp Arrowhead by Jack Miller, a descendant of the Jack family, which reunited the property once again. Camp Arrowhead still exists today, and I’m sure Mr. Jack would smile to see another generation of childhood memories being made.