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.

1 comment:

CD said...

I can't believe it, but I prefer the American spelling of "artifact" over the Canadian way. Maybe use a synonym in future writings. Otherwise, the site looks good. I taught you well.