Friday, December 15, 2006

Streetscapes and Coins

With the volunteers busily working, the project continues to make some great headway. Last week town staff arranged the removal of some of the large, antique, display cases to off-site storage. Now the old factory floor of the Jones Shovel Factory has space to bring in shelving and will hopefully provide a lasting storage space for Gananoque’s historical collections. There are many challenges to the space: the ceiling is a bit high and it will be a struggle to keep the humidity under control, but it is the best option we have found so far. The large windows have been covered so we have successfully resolved the light issue.

We had five volunteers working in our space at the former Textron plant this past week. To date we have inventoried some 720 artefacts (approximately 17%), and have removed hundreds of photographs from damaging frames and self-adhesive albums. Some damage has been quite severe, but we have reached other photos just in time. When this phase of the project is complete we will have the whole collection scanned and it will be available for the town’s people. Luckily, we have Eileen Truesdell and John McDonald working on the photos, and their knowledge of the town has provided some great information for what would have remained anonymous pictures.

Aidan Baker and his mother Cathy are among our most enthusiastic volunteers and have been working with intern Erin Findlay on cleaning and cataloguing a collection of 200 or more coins from all periods and places. Much of the time has been spent on the delicate and careful removal of tape and old rubber foam used in former displays. The adhesives have almost permanently grafted (or cross-linked as we say) to the metal and removing it is a time consuming and frustrating chore. In ideal conditions, chemicals and a fume hood would speed things along, but our workers do their best with Q-Tips and distilled water. Aidan has found some very interesting coins in his work. This Upper Canadian coin from 1816 (on the left) commemorates Brock’s death at the Battle of Queenston Heights in 1812. You can see how the tape and glue has obscured and damaged the face. The collection also includes a number of coins relating specifically to Gananoque such as a silver dollar depicting the Gananoque Town Hall and the curious wooden nickel which was a favourite souvenir in Gananoque in the mid-Twentieth Century.

While working with volunteer David Wells at the Chamber of Commerce we came across our first real experience with some active mould. As you can see, the artwork, (a presentation to Charles S. McDonald for all his service to the community), is nearly destroyed and the mould is still working at eating away the rest of the paper. We have isolated this artefact so it does not contaminate others until we determine how best to treat it.

To end off this week, I have included four pictures of Gananoque landscapes. The first is a postcard from the 1960s and shows how different the streetscape looked. The clock tower is where the Toronto Dominion Bank now sits and across the street the Bank of Montreal. I have tossed in a present image of the street for comparison. I am sure many will agree that the push for a modern look doesn’t always have the best results.

This drawing dated May 28th, 1870 is a “Wilmott Print” and depicts the falls on the Gananoque River that powered the various mills. You can see the logs collecting at the base of the rapids below the bridge. Finally, the photograph on the right, as you can see in the writing, is of the same mills depicted in the print. The picture is from the 1880s and the caption tells us that the man driving the horse is Frank Latimer, a family name still very much alive in Gananoque.

As we move through the collection it is becoming more and more evident just how important and representative the artefacts and photographs are to the history of Gananoque. The educational potential for young and old alike is unlimited. I would like to thank the Town staff for all their help this past couple of weeks in removing heaps of rubbish and the display cases. Many thanks also the Eileen, John, Cathy, Aidan, David and Kathy as well as intern Erin for all their hard work.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Discoveries of Early "Cadanoghqua"

This morning, while searching about for that great artefact to display online, I stumbled across an old file case marked “Deeds, Mortgages and Legal Documents.” I popped it open to find yet another trove of forgotten items – land grants from every era of the Nineteenth Century, files from factories and receipts to and from local businesses. The most important items, bar none, were two tattered account books. The first dated 1818 belonged to a merchant in Gananoque – perhaps Ephraim Webster whose shop appears on the military sketch in 1815. The other immediately caught my eye, as the hand writing was very familiar. There is no doubt that this is the town founder, Joel Stone’s account book from 1795-1796. I have done a considerable amount of work on Stone and his times, and this find was astonishing to me. To my knowledge this piece is more or less unknown, and contains a vast amount of information on the day to day workings of a frontier outpost. The settlement, “Cadanoghqua” as it is spelled in the account book, had barely begun, and was little more than a cluster of shacks and two mills. Lady Elizabeth Simcoe, the wife of Upper Canada’s first Lt. Gov., John Graves Simcoe, stopped at the settlement the year before and recorded her impressions.

“A very wet morning after a night of incessant rain; the Canadians would not stir, so I waited to breakfast. Mr. Stone, who is building a mill opposite Fairfield’s came, and was extremely civil; brought butter and milk. About nine the rain ceased. I walked to look at the mill and embarked. Gave a dollar to the people. Mr. McGill said Stone was too much of a gentleman to offer anything to. The mill he is building is to have 15 saws. He says there is a portage of only half a mile from the Gananoqui to the Rideau.”

Curiously she also reported the same day: “Our Canadians are old and do not sing; however, I made them sing “Trois Filles d’un Prince,” tho [sic] indifferently.” [1]
Of course here we also see Lady Simcoe’s painting of the settlement only 4 years before Stone began keeping his records in this account book, (Image Courtesy of Archives of Ontario). The settlement was transforming rapidly as Stone and his many workmen cleared the wilderness and built their new lives.
The account book contains information on what he was buying and selling in the local area and the tiny number of names listed is a clear indication of how small the population was. This book is not only a reflection of early Upper Canadian commerce, but also how New England merchants did business. It is sometimes easy to forget that Stone spoke with a New England accent and carried on in the ways of a “Yankee” merchant. Stone’s new little Kingdom was in many ways a new New England, and it would be decades before English-speaking people would refer to themselves as “Canadians.” The entries range from his own records of paying for passage to Kingston and paying to feed his men en route (the men are never named), to agreements to cut and deliver planks and boards, to buying “Dear skins” from Silas Judson and other woodsmen. It also lists the many luxuries that Stone imported into the area – linens, buttons, silk handkerchiefs, and calico.

What is wonderful about the account book is that it not only tells us who was living in the settlement and who was buying what, but it also has other very interesting entries. For example, on Weds, 2nd March 1796 “Benjamin Butterfield began work______at the rate of 8 dollars per month to take his pay from the store.” There was little actual cash on the frontier. He also recorded the weather on the back of the book: “…this is the 20th day of January 1796 and is the first time I have seen the Cadanoghqua river shut with Ice this Season so as to prevent Boats passing up to the Mills.” Fascinating stuff, and there will be more to come as I use my spare time to transcribe this and other fantastic finds.


This week we also began our volunteer program, and it is off to a great start. Our present task is removing hundreds of old pictures from their decaying and damaging frames and encapsulating them in acid-free plastic. In addition, we are filing the pictures and taking a detailed inventory. It is a huge task, and with so much else going on, with the help of our dedicated volunteers it can finally be accomplished. In the New Year we will begin to scan the pictures and make them available for the community. My sincere thanks to John, Eileen, and Dianne who participated this week, and the many others who have offered their time. There is so much to do that all offers are very much appreciated.

These pictures are just two examples of the photos the volunteers are working with. The first on the left was probably taken from the old water tower looking down towards King Street. In the background you can see the McDonald House (now Town Hall) and the Victoria Hotel at the far left, indicating the picture is probably from the opening years of the 20th century prior to the Shovel Company taking over the hotel. The telephone polls are interesting and I am sure could provide a more exact date for the picture. The second picture on the left shows the Gananoque waterfront long before it was a tourist destination. Where the Arthur Child Heritage Museum now stands was a Train Station and the Gananoque Inn, across the mouth of the river, was a Carriage Factory. Yet, the geography is immediately recognizable to residents and visitors.

Thanks again to Erin Findlay of Algonquin College and Kathy Karkut and all the Volunteers for their valuable assistance this week. Without their help the project would be nowhere near where it is today.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Firsts and Origins

Things are beginning to move at a much faster pace around the Gananoque Collections. This week the project welcomed Erin Findlay from Algonquin College’s Museum Studies programme. She has brought a great deal of knowledge, ideas and enthusiasm into the project, which is much appreciated. We’re also finally putting our many volunteers to work, managing and organizing our large collections of photographs, postcards and coins.

As you can see we still have a long way to go, but little by little we are moving or dismantling old display cases that are taking up space, and tossing out a decade’s worth of accumulated debris. Our head volunteer, Kathy Karkut, has been indispensable over the last little while as rooms, once cluttered and unmanageable, have been tidied up to the point where proper work can be carried out.

Last week I had the pleasure to attend and speak at a Symposium in Litchfield, Connecticut, entitled “Inventing Our Past: What, How and Why We Remember.” It was an illuminating day where speakers explored the ideas and importance of Museums, Archives and History in not only ensuring we accurately remember those who came before, but also ensuring accountability for future generations of governments. As Dr. Randall Jimmerson said, a properly run archive and trained archivist, with a mandate to seek out and preserve documents from all facets of society, can serve as the collective memory of a group or community, and can act as a check on the potential abuses and invented histories of governments.

I spoke on the invention of the Loyalist Myth, a “tradition” that little resembled the majority of refugee experiences, and I talked about how that influenced the politics of Upper Canada for a century after the Loyalist settlement. Of course, Joel Stone, the founder of Gananoque, was a Loyalist from Litchfield, so it was an interesting experience to share his story in his former home town. My thanks to Archivist Linda Hocking, Curator Julie Frey, and Executive Director Catherine Fields for their warm hospitality. While there I had the added pleasure of being lodged in the Tapping Reeve House and Law School shown here. Built in 1773-74 and opening just after the Revolution, this was America’s first law school and educated such men as Aaron Burr, John Calhoun and hundreds of other prominent Americans. The Litchfield Historical Society, (which encompasses the Museum and Archives, and Tapping Reeve house) is an outstanding institution, and one I felt very privileged to explore. I have added a link to their site on the left.

The symposium got me thinking of how firsts and origins are always important to any community or nation, but they are often so celebrated and revered that there are some heavy politics surrounding them. History that puts doubt on the traditional stories has been shunned in the past or deliberately covered-up as it explodes what people believe in. The reason, of course, is that our origins, to a large degree, help provide us with identity - we “own” that history and it is a part of us. To prove certain things wrong or inaccurate can sometimes be devastating. That, however, is a reality of history. As Bernard Bailyn wrote, history is a series of “delicate contrivances” where a very small amount of information can upset a whole way of thinking about a person or an event. At I talk I gave on Monday to the Leeds and Thousand Islands Historical Society, for example, it came as a surprise to some that Joel Stone did not in fact sit stranded and alone on the river bank, but already had workmen from Litchfield building his mill when he arrived at the Gananoque River. The image of the self-made frontier man is by no means destroyed, but it does cause one to question the stories we are told. Another example of this resistance to myth busting was in the 1850s, when the young historian Jedidiah Merritt presented his findings from his investigation into the Loyalist era. The Upper Canadian government at the time was horrified by the unpatriotic and often simple people of the period and asked that the grant they provided be returned. Archival memory and popular myth rarely agree. [1]

Yet, origins and firsts are important in their own right. Humans are linear creatures, and having a beginning places us in a timeline. The Gananoque Museum Collections contain many examples of origins and firsts. This picture is of Gananoque’s first town council in 1890 (prior to that it had been considered a village even though the population was probably large enough for it to be considered a town.) The little tag that was found with the picture lists the names as: “Back row, left to right: D.J. Reed, George Toner, J.B. McMurchy, D.J. Lloyd, E.J. Seale, John Kee, W.B. Carroll. Front Row: W.N. Rogers, Robert Taylor (Deputy Mayor), William Byers (Mayor), David Darling (Reeve), J.J. Storey." (After working with these pictures some of the faces are becomming very familiar - mainly from the mustaches...the wonderful thing about the nineteenth century are the many styles of facial hair that can often be of great assistance when identifying people).

Stepping further back, I had the good fortune of finding this medal in the bottom of a box containing dolls and doilies. Dated from 1870, this is likely the first medal inscribed with and issued by the Dominion of Canada. The Fenian Brotherhood attempted to invade Canada at numerous times and places between 1866 and 1871. Battle hardened from experiences in the American Civil War, the Irish immigrants of the Fenian Brotherhood made several violent, yet unsuccessful attempts at attacking Canada. Their plan was to somehow use the new Dominion as a bargaining chip in order to free Ireland from the British Empire. No longer a dependent colony, this was Canada’s first military conflict as a Dominion. The Fenian threat was also one of the factors which helped increase support for Confederation in 1867, as a united front would provide for better defence for the various British colonies against the Fenians or other invaders from the South.

Finally, we have a document from 1828, that more or less established Dr. William Potter as Gananoque’s first physician. The undersigned, including the McDonald brothers, Joel Stone and other men of means, agreed to pay to have Dr. Potter in town, for at least 8 months. The term became permanent, of course, and the good doctor’s home still stands on Stone Street across from the Clock Tower. The document is in poor shape, yet is of great historical significance to Gananoque, as it marks a step in the growth from frontier outpost to town. Former museum staff made some very damaging repairs, including scotch tape and using black marker to affix the accession number. Both are extremely damaging to 200 year old paper. Although of great importance to the town, money is short to conserve and repair these items, and as always, I continue to implore the people of Gananoque to help and save their history – the history they own.
[1] See: Norman Knowles, Inventing the Loyalists: The Ontario Loyalist Tradition and the Creation of Usable Pasts, (Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1997)

Friday, November 10, 2006

Lest We Forget

In honour of Remembrance Day, and continuing with the running theme of exploring the military artefacts of the Gananoque Museum Collection, we begin with a pair of tattered postcards from the First World War Dated August 1914. They show the parade of young men from Gananoque’s 3rd Battery - the “Gananoque Battery” as it was known - preparing to leave for the war in France. For some they were sharing their last good-byes with friends and loved-ones.

The postcard on the right includes the caption “March to the Front. 3rd Battery, 1st Brigade. Gananoque, Ont.” The second one, on the left, reads “Good-bye boys…Aug. 1914.” In total 86 men from Gananoque gave their lives in the two world wars, 58 of them in the drowning mud of the trenches in the First World War. Every year their names are read in the Remembrance Day ceremonies at the Town Park. Their stories can be found in an excellent local resource, Gananoque Remembers, by Bill Beswetherick and Geraldine Chase.

In the important efforts to remember and honour the fallen soldiers, often times the valuable services of other groups are overlooked. Last week I mentioned the industrial workers in Gananoque and the valuable items they produced, such as the Link Trainer. Another group is the Nurses. In 1908, Georgina Fane Pope became the first director of the Canadian Army Nurses Corps, a section of the military that became vital to saving lives and comforting the dying in all wars since. This nurse’s dress uniform from the First World War was worn by Nina Meggs of Gananoque when she served overseas.

The Thousand Islands also played host to many wounded Canadian soldiers. The picture shown on the left is of patients and staff of the military convalescent hospital on Leek Island. The island originally served as the summer home of Mr. Ira and Mrs. Katherine Kip (later Runyon). They donated the island and home to the Canadian Government in 1917 to serve as a hospital until the war’s end. The museum collection contains letters of thanks from the Minister of Defence to Mrs. Runyon for her selfless donation. It must have been extremely therapeutic for the returning soldiers, shot up amongst the death and barbed wire of the Western Front, to recover surrounded by the nature and quiet of the Thousand Islands.

Another medical practitioner from Gananoque who saw action in World War I was Dr. William Hale shown here. Dr. Hale served with distinction in the conflict, and was even censured for following his fellow soldiers into battle on Vimy Ridge, something a valuable doctor was not supposed to do. One of the most interesting pieces in the collections is a telegram exchange that reveals the frustrating, heart-wrenching, and needless sorrow of war. On June 17th (no year recorded on the telegram), a simple and cold line passed the news that “William died eight June fractured skull accidental.” The family lived with that reality for over a month, sending a letter to the director of records to learn more. A telegram reply dated two weeks later, related the news that “Captain Wm Hale well serving with his unit Error made owing to officer same name being reported killed.” This sort of terrible mix-up must have occurred countless times, only adding to the awful stress of war.

Finally, as we celebrate and honour the memory of our fallen soldiers from the last century and our present conflict in Afghanistan, I believe it is important not to forget others from our past that fell serving the country and Empire. As the space of time increases between ourselves and those who came before, the sacrifices of those who served and fought in the 18th and 19th centuries seem to become less significant, less important. This jacket, for example, was worn by an artillery Colonel in the late 19th Century and was tucked away, forgotten in the attic. What of the Canadians that fought in the Boer War, the Fenian Raids, the Rebellions and the War of 1812? I was encouraged when I visited the local branch of the Royal Canadian Legion and saw that along with the medals from the 20th Century there were some from those conflicts I just mentioned. Through the efforts of veterans and museums, the memory of those that fought and served Canada in all the wars will remain strong.

Thursday, November 02, 2006


I will begin this week by thanking everyone who came out to the information meeting held at the Arthur Child Museum Monday night. It was very encouraging to meet and greet so many people eager to give their time to help the cause of preserving our history.

After 6 weeks of work, myself and a small band of trusty volunteers and town workmen have made some progress in what’s left of the former display room. You can see in this picture on the above left how things used to be, and in the next one on the right, how things are now. We are not finished by any means, but it’s a good start. Many thanks to the town staff for removing the mysterious boat and storing it off-site.

As we moved through the ancient display cases and clouds of dust, an eclectic mix of history was there to greet us. Artillery shells, powder horns, kitchen items, bayonets, school books from the 1840s, Nazi helmets in near-pristine shape, manufactured products from Gananoque, radios, photographs, WWI flak jackets, and the list just keeps going. Once things get under control, we’ll begin to highlight individual artefacts and give more of an in-depth background to them, but for now a couple pictures will have to suffice.

The WWI Flak Jacket has a name stenciled on it, and one of the volunteers for this project, Eileen Truesdell, did some sleuthing for us. This is what she sent me:

"Roy Stanley Foley was the s/o William H. Foley & Emily Jane Webster
born March 17, 1887, He was 5ft 8 1/2 Inches, Girth 36 ins, Range of expension 4 ins
Medium complexion, Brown eyes and brown hair. Religion Methodist.
Small scar unnder chin, small birthmark right calf, mole waist line back.
Residence 38 Gloucester Toronto, ON. Born Lansdowne, Trade School Teacher, Single
Belongs to a Militia Force Served with C. O. T. C."

Many thanks to Eileen for providing us with this.

I also received a very interesting call from a man in Port Dover who is busy restoring a Link Trainer and is looking for more information. The Link Trainer was manufactured in Binghamton, New York and Gananoque, Ontario, and from there it was sent to the American, Canadian, British and other allied air forces and navies for training. (It is also rumoured that the Japanese Imperial Navy was a major customer in the 1930s, but that is for another time and debate). The Link Trainer is the largest and most conspicuous of the artefacts in the Gananoque Museum Collection, and I was sure I had seen a number of old manuals for the trainer. Sure enough, I was able to find about 5 or 6 catalogues, manuals, and schematics that should prove helpful to the restorer. I’ll try and keep up with that project and report back when I can. Along with the manuals, I found this little patriotic ad. In many ways the Link Trainer used by allied forces everywhere is a testament to Gananoque’s contributions to the war effort and it is fortunate that our trainer is still in good shape.

Finally, rummaging through old things is always fun for me, but being able to undertake the task in my home town is doubly rewarding. Often times the history I am uncovering is easily recognizable, and I cannot resist a tiny bit of nostalgia this week. This is a picture of the citizens band from 1933, celebrating yet another regional championship. I grew up on hearing stories of the band’s success from my Grandfather, Joe Cote, who is pictured here (fourth from right, back row) at the young age of 18. There is a handy list of other names written below the picture. If anyone in the town would like a digital copy of this or any other photograph in the collection, contact me at (This pic is blurry when enlarged due to an old fashioned glossy finish and prevents a clean scan.)

Friday, October 27, 2006

Work, Work, Work...

This week was a busy one, but an interesting one. I’ll begin, though, with something that happened last week.

The foundations of any museum collection are its records. Without good records, items can be lost, stories forgotten, and it can create endless headaches for the people left to deal with the situation. As I have shown, the Gananoque Museum, like so many other small museums, is packed full of military artefacts, such as this Mark 1 grenade that I mentioned a couple weeks back. I was leery of the grenade from the beginning, as others I have seen had the been drilled out so all could see that they were no longer full of explosives. This grenade had the bottom screwed on tightly, and I was not about to pop it open and see if there was anything left. I checked the records, and sure enough, the description read: “1 Mk 1 Grenade, WWII” and then gave its dimensions. There was nothing in the catalogue, or the files, to say that the item had ever been deactivated. Even though I suspected it was probably ok, I knew that it would be a costly mistake if I were wrong. So, I called the ammo specialist at CFBK, and he told me to alert the GFPD, who needed to call LFAC for an EUD. What does all that mean? We no longer have a grenade, which is likely for the best.

On Tuesday I had the great pleasure of being given a tour of the Brockville Museum. I have never seen a small town museum, with only a couple of paid staff, run so well. The collection storage was immaculate, the records were all in order, the volunteers trained and operating as well as full-time, paid professionals. It was truly heartening to see what can be done with trained, dedicated staff and volunteers. The Brockville Museum should serve as a model for all community museums.

Bonnie Burke, the Curator/Director gave me a lot of wonderful advice. Many thanks to her, Brenda Foss, the Collections Manager, and Ruth MacFarlane, the Education Programmer, for all their time and interest in what we’re doing here in town. I am encouraged already by the many people in Gananoque who have come forward to volunteer their time to help preserve our town’s history. I am sure that in time Gananoque, too, can have a museum collection to be proud of.

The staff in Brockville also passed me a very interesting note from an Archival Curator in El Paso, Texas. It seems the land grant of one of our earliest Loyalist settlers, Oliver Landon, of Landon Bay fame, has ended up in Texas. Oliver Landon was one of many Loyalists who came to Leeds County from Litchfield, Connecticut, and how it ended up in Texas is a mystery. Luckily, the 200 year-old document will now find its way back home. More on this as information comes in.

One final note, that has to do with the problems of poor record keeping, is this item here: The Victrola Talking Machine. I remember this phonograph when I worked in the museum as a teenager. Time has taken its toll since then: the mechanism no longer seems to work, and the finish has seen better days. I was alerted to the item by a Gananoque resident who was eager to finally have it back – being that it was loaned to the museum decades ago. Never properly recorded, memory of it being loaned was lost, and the Victrola and all its individual record albums and parts were improperly accessioned into the permanent collections in 1999. This has now caused some interesting cataloguing issues. Luckily, the loaner retained her paperwork, and it can now be returned to its rightful owner.

In a fantastic coincidence, flipping through a pile of pre-WWI magazines, I came across this add from January, 1913. At $200.00 this phonograph would have been a treasured family possession, and I am very glad I was able to return it. This little instance shows the need to get these records in order, and the serious, yet unrealized potential for the collections.

For anyone who has offered to volunteer or would like to volunteer, there will be a meeting at the Arthur Child Museum at 7pm Monday October 30th. If you would like information and cannot attend please e-mail me at

Monday, October 16, 2006

Story-less Artefacts

I officially graduate from Western this week, and with a public meeting with the Gananoque Town Council Tuesday night I thought it best to get my post up early this week. Although off my running theme of exploring the military relics, I thought I’d talk about something that has been bothering me about the collection.

Around me everyday are thousands of little pieces of history. They speak with a language all their own; there are clues to their former use and value, sometimes obvious, other times quite obscure. The problem is that an artefact’s value is often not in their original functions, it’s in their stories. Good record keeping is the key to preserving the stories, and that is where I think part of the Gananoque Museum’s problems began.

When any object is donated, there is always a story to go with it. Yet, we have so many trinkets, so many photo albums for which the records merely state a donor and a lacklustre entry such as “one locket with photos, black.” Whoever those people were in that locket, and whatever value someone ascribed to the item is gone forever. What we have left is a soulless prop, and the tragedy of a story untold and lost to time. A museum should be a repository for our history, our story, not lifeless things. Those inanimate objects are meant merely to articulate part of the story, and act as a tangible proof that an event did occur or a person lived. An item shown for its monetary worth or rarity should be left to an antique dealer. The story-less artefact defeats the purpose of a museum. Yet, it is not a hopeless cause, much can be salvaged through research, but it takes time, and very often it takes considerable money. In the field of Public History, both are often in short supply.

I’d like to extend an invitation to anyone who knows of anything they or a relative donated to the Gananoque Museum to please write down or tell me the story of the item. There is a cost to storing every piece, and unfortunately those pieces without a story may be the first to find new homes. Stories can be e-mailed to me at If you can, please try and remember roughly what year you think the objects were donated. Also, I'm extremely encouraged by the large number of offers to volunteer. I’m attempting to get to each in turn, so if you’ve sent me an offer, I will be in touch soon.

Friday, October 13, 2006

A Forgotten Knight of the Air...

This week’s business did not allow for much time in the storage area. I did, however, manage to accomplish one goal I have had since beginning this work. When I was a little kid, one of the things that caught my eye when the museum was open, was a brown, leather flight suit. This was the sort of gear worn in World War I by the “Knights of the Air” or the “Flyboys”; the very first men to take war to the air; the men that left us such legends as Billy Bishop and the Red Baron.

When I first started a few weeks ago, I spotted the suit, still on its display stand after all these years, trapped in between a number of display cases. On the one day I had free for working in the storage area this week, I spent most of the morning carefully slinking my way through the crevices to reach the trapped relic. I couldn’t leave it there any longer. Sunlight poured in from the large windows, and dust had collected on every part of artefact. As I neared it, I realized to my horror that it had been stuffed with newspaper. Of all the things to use, why newspaper? Everyone knows how quickly newspaper yellows and decays. My heart sunk as I envisioned the damage caused to the leather by the acidic paper on the inside and the sunlight on the exterior.

Just touching the leather jacket and helmet produced clouds of orange dust, and the decaying material coated everything in a rusty stain. Searching around, I found some clean, white linen and prepared to wrap the once proud flight-suit. What astonished me, as I slowly began to remove the suit from its stand, was the sheer amount of newspaper used. In every space it was packed tight. The date on the newspaper was 1994. Now, I have gotten used to being disappointed by how things have been stored, but this was too much. Someone broke every convention and basic tenet of museology with this artefact. The stand it was on was poor quality wood, splintered and stained, and then painted. I couldn’t guess at the monetary worth, but the historical value of this flight jacket and helmet are immense.

Finally, I was able to remove the pieces to my work area for further inspection. I have dedicated one room for photographs and have covered the windows to prevent any light getting in. This room will be the flight suit’s home until I can figure out what to do with it.

Closer inspection revealed more problems. Pins inserted have rusted, and at some point, someone used scotch tape on it. One piece of desiccated tape flaked off as I moved it, taking another chunk of leather with it. That part of the jacket not exposed to the sun revealed the full extent of the damage on this piece. The faded sickly tan-orange was once deep, rich, chocolate brown. On organic material such as leather, damage from sunlight is usually irreversible.

Different pieces of the flight-suit were originally donated by two separate Gananoque residents, Mrs. J. Acton and Maj. Col. E. Warwick, both, coincidentally, in 1978. We do not know who wore the suit. The original entries state the condition of both, and remark that the jacket was in bad shape even then, yet nothing was ever done. I would think that this piece will likely end up in Ottawa where it can be properly cared for. This whole issue is the perfect example of the problems that arise when small institutions take in things they have no capacity to properly care for.

In other news, I had the chance to attend a two day work shop put on by the Canadian Conservation Institute and hosted by the Mill of Kintail, part of the Lanark County Museum Association, in Almonte, Ontario. The information presented in the seminars (Storage Planning and preservation in seasonal museums) facilitated by Siegfried Rempel and Deborah Stewart will be vital in the coming months. Many thanks to all involved.

Next week, I am away once again, but I will try to get something online. I meant this week also to connect some of the military pieces with actually stories, but will have to get to that another time. Stay tuned.

Friday, October 06, 2006

The Faces of War...

These are two World War II gasmasks. The adult version is quite common, but the child’s mask is much rarer. Called a “Mickey Mouse” gas mask in the old catalogue, it was meant for children 5 and under. The accompanying box has a strap which would have been worn around the child’s neck, making the mask readily at hand in case of a Nazi gas attack.

This week, among many other things, I have been focussing on the extensive collection of military artefacts from the Gananoque Museum Collection. The local Legion branch is planning their annual Remembrance Day Ceremonies, and I hope some of these items may prove useful to them and their displays. I have only scratched the surface of what is actually there, focusing on the smaller things, hats, medals etc. before moving on to the many uniforms and larger pieces. Keeping track of all these small items will be one of the first considerations.

Being that the collection is housed in the back room and attic of the Gananoque Chamber of Commerce, I’ve had to take great care while removing theses pieces. Gananoque is very much reliant on our visitors having a pleasant stay, and emerging, dust coated from a back room carrying a Mark 1 hand grenade or an artillery sabre may give people the wrong idea. My exits usually coincide with a lull in traffic; timing is everything.

Other finds included this F-5 Wilkinson Sword fighting knife used by Canadian Forces in World War II, a trench periscope, an assortment of bayonets from both wars and an unorganized mess of medals, pins and ribbons of everything from Freemason lodges and fire departments to Canadian forces. There is an impressive variety of military medals, from both World Wars, and one from 1902, and although there is no inscription of the action or service it is rewarding, it would likely be in recognition of service in the Boer War (1899-1902) in South Africa.

One of the spaces in the collection area that has remained a mystery is a row of wooden cabinets in one of the attic rooms. Small glass windows provided tantalizing peaks, but with so much delicate material and a large display case piled in front, it was nearly inaccessible. Carefully moving a collection of antique typewriters, and a number of file boxes, allowed me to do some shuffling and move the display case only a couple of feet, giving me access to the hidden collection. The cupboards were filled with hundreds of items, from local ledgers and letter books of businesses, to 150 year old bibles, and all manner of knick-knacks.

One of the finds in this hidden cupboard that fit this week’s theme was a collection of paper money from France, Belgium, Holland and Germany, dating from 1923 to 1945. The money seems to follow the progression of Canadian troops in World War II, yet there is no record of where the money actually came from. It appears it was part of a collection, gifted to the museum, but the records fail to state by whom. At any rate it is fascinating, and a little history lesson unto itself. The 50 Million Mark bill is a clear testament to the horrible inflation that occurred in Germany after the First World War, and helped create a festering resentment amongst the German people at the perceived harshness of the peace terms. The German bills from the 1940s display the hallmarks of the Nazi regime, replete with swastikas and images of the Aryan ideal, even a young blonde girl with a sprig of edelweiss.

Finally, the issue of records has been somewhat troubling. The card catalogue is incomplete, and in 1998 a firm was hired to inventory the collection. The final report has proved quite valuable to me, finally giving me some quantifiable notion of the task ahead of me. In total, the firm counted 4358 artefacts, half of which were not accessioned. The amount of 998 and 999 accession numbers indicates that an attempt was made to fix that problem. Although the workers tried very hard to be consistent in their practices, there seem to be different cataloguing systems at work. The entire catalogue was redone in 1978, as well, marking a break with yet another numbering system employed from 1964. So, between the gaps in the records and the hit and miss nature of the procedures in the past, this will be a very large project indeed. In a year, I’ll hopefully have everything streamlined and consistent, and on a computer.

Next week will be a short one, as I’m away at a preservation workshop and with Thanksgiving holiday, my time in the storage area will be limited. Hopefully I’ll have some more items from Gananoque’s military past and also some personal stories of the men and women that fought overseas.

Friday, September 29, 2006

The Basement...and a Brush with Celebrity

My job sends me in a cross-town triangle everyday. I usually start in my offices in the old rivet factory, then on to the Museum to check how things are going, and most fun of all, over to the Chamber of Commerce building to sift through the collections. This week while at the Chamber, I was reminded that there was a basement I had yet to explore. I remembered going down there when I was 19 and not staying too long in the ancient, creepy old room. This time was no different, but I was on a mission. You can see in these pictures the gravel floor and wooden supports of the 160 year-old building.

Amongst the rubble and spider-webs there was a wash basin and ringer, a plough and an antique copy press. Buried under grit, dust and a variety of other odds and ends sat an old chest, closed for decades. Now, this museum and old cases have been good to me, and I have come across some amazing stuff, and this one gave me that same excitement of a new find. Slowly and carefully I cleared it off, and braced myself to gaze upon what human eyes had not seen in a quarter century. There was a pathetic creek before the hinges broke and revealed... an empty, filthy old box…they can’t all be treasure chests.

Some of the most interesting discoveries this week were recoveries. Scores of military artefacts that I had thought lost, turned up in the piles, and most are still in alright shape. I’m amazed at how well many of these artefacts have stood up to the neglect and harsh conditions. I have seen no signs of mould and, to my astonishment, no signs of pests. In such an old building this is quite a surprise, although it is still early in the process.

This week I also had the chance to speak with Bill Beswetherick, the Public Relations coordinator at the Local Legion Branch, and we discussed their plans for the Remembrance Day celebrations and a scheduled, rare visit by the Victoria Cross (the equivalent of the Congressional Medal of Honour to my American friends) won by Gananoque’s Harry Brown in 1917. The military artefacts will thus become a priority over the next few weeks. The Legion has a tremendous collection of medals, not only from the World Wars but going back through Canada’s military past to the Boer War, the British Imperial Wars in Afghanistan, and the Fenian Raids. Searching through the town’s Museum collection of medals, I came across a number of interesting pieces, including a rare service star marking the period of August to November, 1914, and engraved with the name Pte. W. Hine. I’m going to investigate this name and figure out what relationship he has to Gananoque. Thanks to Bill at the Legion for letting me know this was in there.

On a different note, searching through the collections has revealed a trove of nineteenth and early twentieth century images. Many depict the rough factory workers that once made up the bulk of Gananoque’s population. These I appreciate far more than the formal, professionally choreographed images that make up so much of the collection: people in their Sunday best, sitting or standing in front of a drop cloth. DH Akenson, in his classic The Irish in Ontario, spoke of the “law of disappearing evidence” – the fact that mundane, everyday objects are usually not considered worth saving, and therefore our remnants of the past tend to be exceptional things – we have top-hats and gowns, but no work boots. These candid images of working people help provide that missing piece of the puzzle. Photographs are very often the backbone of a collection.

One image, which I at first skimmed over, turned out to be one of the most fascinating finds so far. The image is of a couple dozen men from around the area, including Charles Stone McDonald, (the old, weary looking man in the centre with white pants who was grandson of the town’s founder, Joel Stone), and other prominent men such as C.E. Britton and Senator Taylor (more on them later). If you look closely towards the left of the picture, you’ll see a white haired, satisfied looking man, posing confidently for the camera. He was the reason for this picture, as it wasn’t everyday that one of the premiere celebrities of the nineteenth century paid a visit to the Thousand Islands.

Mr. Samuel Clemens himself, Mark Twain, visited our area numerous times, giving a lecture in Ogdensburg in the winter of 1870 and another in Brockville in 1885. This picture, taken at the posh, Thousand Islands Country Club, is likely from the 1890s. Rummaging through an old, forgotten collection, who knows what you’ll find.

In other news, with the grant writing ever on my mind, the announcement of a 50% cut in the Museum Assistance Program by the Conservative government was troubling. With record government surpluses, the Harper government called this “trimming the fat.” I implore the Federal government to take a look at any community museum and they will see only skin and bones. History is worth preserving, and I can only hope the conservatives will reconsider. The funds are in reality a very small amount of money for the country, but they are a vital part of well-run, yet cash-strapped, small museums across Canada.

With that off my chest, I’ll end off by sending my thanks out to the Town, Bonnie and the staff of the Chamber of Commerce and residents who have taken an interest in the project, especially to the Legion and schools I have had a chance to speak with. Next week the focus will be on the Military artefacts of the Gananoque Museum Collection, and the challenges we face in making sure they survive for the next generation.