Coulson Brothers Scow Service is a 3rd generation family owned and operated business that has been barging on the lakes of Muskoka since 1969
Five generations of Coulsons have served the tourist industry on Muskoka’s Lakes.
The members of the Coulson family have been part of the Muskoka tapestry for generations. They met and married here, raised their children, developed a business – and they fully intend to keep up the tradition.
Today, sister Donna handles the office, with brothers Keith and Arnie out in the field. Their father, Ken, started Coulson Brothers Scow Service over 40 years ago. But their Muskoka story begins over a century ago . . .
The great-great-grandparents of the current generation at the helm settled in Canada in the mid-1800s. Taking the train as far north as they could, the young couple established a butcher shop in the Washago area.
Their daughter, Evelyn, secured employment at a Beaumaris hotel, where she met her husband-to-be, Isaac Fairhall, who was born in Glen Orchard. “Grandpa Ike” and his bride served the tourists in the high season, and took on any work that they could find in the winter.
It is always a challenge in Muskoka’s touristbased economy to weather the cold season. Early settlers worked in the lumber camps and tanning industry, and cut ice when the lakes were frozen. Blocks were carved out, stored in sawdust-insulated icehouses, and hauled to Gravenhurst for the railroad.
Ken’s dad, Reg, brought his expertise as an electrician up to the lakes from Toronto. “The tourism industry needed people with specialized skills, and Muskoka became a melting pot for all kinds of tradesmen,” explains his grandson Keith.
Son Ken served his time with the Royal Canadian Navy, then worked for a short period in Hamilton, but always felt drawn back to Muskoka. “In May of 1969, I came home and told my wife Linda, “I just bought a barge and we’re going home to Milford Bay”, he remembers.
It was decidedly a gamble. “I started out with a shovel and a wheelbarrow,” laughs Ken. His first scow “measuring 18′ x 32′ and propelled by a 33-horse Johnson outboard” carried building materials, supplies, and aggregate to the water-access properties.
Prior to this period barges, or scows, were constructed from wooden timbers rather than steel. And, instead of the hydraulic ramps used now, materials were manually hauled over eight-by-eight wooden timbers.
With the purchase of a tractor in the 1970s, Ken incorporated septic installations, tree removal, crib docks, and island landscaping into his business services. In 1980, he tried out a new-technology septic system. Experimental at the time, it is now commonly known as the Whitby filter bed.
As the business grew, Ken added a second barge and tugboat, calling the tugboat “Arnie” after his youngest son, and abandoned the small outboard in favour of a tugboat’s power. A commercial landing was acquired through the 1982 purchase of a Milford Bay marina, with an office built on-site a couple of years later.
The stuff of children’s stories and illustrations, tugboats hold a certain charisma, and the Coulsons always name them. “Everyone on the lakes loved Merv Fowler, our right-hand man for over twenty years,” says Donna. “So, it seems right that, even though he has retired, the tugboat “Uncle Merv” still chugs across the waters.
In 1992, Ken passed the mantle of ownership to his children, who initiated steel dock construction in 1995, to ensure winter employment for their staff. Their certified welding shop and in-field fabrication has excelled in all types of engineered steel structures.
“Due to the unique nature of our shoreline, we have designed and constructed our own barges and tugs to accommodate services in landscaping, septic systems, demolition, and excavation,”says Arnie.
The Coulsons keep pace with the latest technology while retaining a healthy respect for traditional values. When asked about plans for the future, eldest brother Keith says, “We regulate our business growth in a way that guarantees reliable client service. Satisfied customers signify good capacity management.”
An increase in cottage and boathouse demolitions paved the way for the addition of a roll-off container truck and the inception of Muskoka Disposal Services. As well, the trend in landscaping is granite patios and slab staircases, resulting in a partnership to create Muskoka Rock Company Ltd. to supply the need for a more refined product.
With an innovative eye to the future, and deep respect for the past, the Coulsons are an integral part of the area that they love, and the next generation is already learning the ropes.
“Cottaging in Muskoka has a lot of history,” says Keith. “We’ve evolved with the tourist industry here, starting with the butcher shop in the 19th century.” Arnie echoes the sentiment. “We’re working with the sons and grandsons of the cottagers whom our fathers and grandfathers served. There’s a multi-generational symmetry that’s nice to think about.”
The Coulson Family of the Muskoka Lakes
An early shot of one of the First Coulson Barges
Arnie, Keith and Ken in mid fabriction our “Uncle Merv” tug. The boat was named in honour of a long time employee after his retirement.
Ken Coulson (right) and a colleague installing a septic system for a Muskoka island cottage in 1972.
The equipment has changed but the principle is the same.
The largest barge operating capacity on the Muskoka Lakes.