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.)