Monday, May 28, 2007

Adopt a Collection: Archaeological Artefacts

Shoebox Archaeology

Growing up at my grandparent’s cottage on Gananoque Lake, I was often told stories of the native people who once lived in the area and hunted and fished on the Lake. We’d often explore what seemed like endless miles of woods in the hopes of coming across some ancient and forgotten piece of evidence from the times before the coming of Europeans. I can recall my brother finding a stone arrowhead while digging up the garden – a one in a million chance find that I remember being an almost mystical experience. There were no other artefacts anywhere around, so either the place had served as a brief camp, or more likely, an arrow had been shot and lost in the brush only to be uncovered by fluke circumstance centuries later. Native peoples, such as the Mississauga, Ojibwa, and other First Nations, used the Thousand Islands as a meeting and summering place and evidence of their occupation was obvious to arriving settlers. Early maps of Gananoque show “Indian Burying Places” on the rocky points jutting into the confluence of the Gananoque and St. Lawrence Rivers, and the thin soil of the Islands easily revealed the scattered remnants of former camps to the inquisitive newcomers. The First Peoples of the region sold their lands to the British government who then parcelled it out to the settlers and refugee Loyalists. The various native bands living in the area were slowly driven out as the landscape changed drastically. The trees were cleared, farms were established and the wildlife was decimated, taking away the native people’s traditional way of life. The place names, though, often remained in spite of the fact that the meanings were generally obscured by time. In Thaddeus Leavitt’s History of Leeds and Grenville (1879), he presents the then popular image of the “noble savage” and includes a poignant section of a poem from W.E. Guest:

“They have all passed away,
That noble race and brave,
Their light canoes have vanished,
From Oft the Crested Wave,
Their name is on your waters,
You may not wash it out.”

There is a certain truth to this, at least with regard to Gananoque. At one point Colonel Stone attempted to change the name to the Thames River, but it just didn’t catch on, even though the Gananoque is called the Thames on a number of early maps.

The romanticism of the period inspired people to souvenir hunt through the Thousand Islands and elsewhere before the sites were properly identified and protected as parks. There was nothing to stop people from poking around ancient campsites and filling up their packs with whatever they found. Some of these items found their way into the Gananoque Museum Collections. People should never disturb an archaeological site. It’s much like a crime scene with clues scattered all about. Seemingly random placement of items can tell a trained archaeologist a great deal of information. Often times, digging something up and throwing it in a box can destroy an entire site. So, if you do find things out there, don’t touch them.

Luckily, we can tell where some of the items in the collections came from, as an amateur historian, Frank Eames, attached labels to the various sherds of pottery he found. Most of them state that they came from Hay Island and were dug up in the late 1920s. Pottery, stone hatchets, spear and arrow points make up the collection, along with a few deer bone awls and other items. The problem of actually identifying them is made more difficult, however, in that the Hay Island items are mixed in with items from other sites as well as native crafts from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In 2005, Dr. Beverly Smith from the University of Michigan, visited the Arthur Child Heritage Museum and identified a number of the objects that are on display there. The collection contains objects that date from just before the arrival of Europeans in North America to spear points that were made somewhere around 8000 BC – just a short time after the last ice age!

As you can see from these pictures we have many small artefacts that not only need to be researched and properly identified, but they also need to be stored so they don’t get lost. We are requesting the public to help out. You can adopt the entire collection for the price of a large, shallow drawer tool chest (approx. $189 – 300) to store them in or some generous person could adopt the collection by donating a used tool chest or map case. In return, your name or your business name will be clearly marked as a sponsor and supporter of our local heritage when the items are displayed. You will also receive a CD containing images of the artefacts.

To adopt this collection of artefacts or for more information contact me at


Gananoque Museum Collections
c/o The Arthur Child Heritage Museum
125 Water Street
Gananoque, Ontario

Joel Stone Comic Book

Although I still haven’t managed to come up with a satisfying title yet, Westley Cote has done some great work bringing Gananoque’s founder to life. Here is a little sneak peak at how the comic will look when it is finished in August. Working from the oil portrait of Colonel Stone, Wes has created the young Joel Stone that will be the main character in the story. Stay tuned for more.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Thoughts on "Gananoque in the Gilded Age"

The exhibit, Gananoque in the Gilded Age, is now up at the Arthur Child Heritage Museum, at 125 Water St. in Gananoque. Also on display this summer is a very nice exhibit from the Clayton Antique Boat Museum which showcases a selection of Canadian made canoes from the early 20th century.

One of the most exciting parts of the Gananoque Museum Collections Project was exhibition, and it was actually a very difficult task to choose what to display. I felt it was important to show off both the collections’ potential and to simply display some of the items hidden away for so long. I could have chosen to exhibit Gananoque’s history in the World Wars or any aspect of military history that touched on our little town; I could have looked at schools, the electric company, angling and hunting, agriculture, sports and leisure from any period; there were enough artefacts to do a very thorough history of photography, woodworking, shoemaking or local native peoples; I could have high-lighted different industries and their products. By far the most interesting set of artefacts I came across were the photographs from the late 1800s – of factories, mansions, workers and streetscapes – and this is what I decided to build the exhibit around, and it didn’t take much to locate enough physical artefacts to fill five display cases. In fact, there were too many, and it was a tough chore to pare them down.

It's one thing to display the artefacts and photographs and let them tell their own story, but to really understand them one must have a sense of their historical context. What was going when someone made this Cowan and Britton lock? Who used this wrench or drank from this cup, and why should I care? In the attempt to flesh out a little history, you have to not only think about how you’re going make something concise yet complete, honest yet attractive; you also have to think about what perspective you will take. I chose to try and articulate the disparity between rich and poor, worker and owner during this period. This division in society was quite stark, and was something the people noticed and remarked upon themselves. So now, showing off an antique clock owned by the Britton family takes on two levels - showcasing an interesting, ornate clock on the one hand, and highlighting the wealth of one segment of the society.
Last year, when I was still working on my MA at Western, there was an ongoing debate regarding nostalgia and whether or not we as historians had any business stoking that emotion. Nostalgia shouldn't play a role in the study of history, but it often comes into play with exhibits and popular social memory. Most of the time nostalgia is harmless. But does nostalgia not have the potential to breed resentment at the present world and hamper the forward movement and change that is necessary for healthy growth – of a person or a town? It’s a common thing for people to be nostalgic and to long for simpler times when things seemed better, safer, and more secure. Nostalgia was once considered a medical condition for which doctors had a variety of remedies, but it is simply part of the human condition. Who in their later years has not thought back with longing to a time when they were young? Comparing our own times to the past is nearly unavoidable. I have heard people (usually while their computer is crashing or their cellphone is dying) run on about how great it must have been to live in the simpler times of horse and buggy. It’s easy to forget, however, that even though life certainly moved a bit slower, one also had to contend with the anguish of now easily treated infections running out of control, or the horror of smallpox or typhoid fever decimating the population of a neighbourhood. I, for one, believe that the era we live in now, for all its imperfections, is far preferable to any in the past. As the first line of the exhibit reads “few ages are golden, yet time has a way of obscuring the problems of the past, leaving an idyllic memory that bears little resemblance to history.”

As a class, the Public History MAs at Western in 05/06 worked on a similar subject with Museum London: the industrial zone known as the “Old East”. A reviewer described the exhibit, with no ill-meaning, as “nostalgia rich.” It was intended to be a celebration of the industries that thrived in London in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Some of the most interesting aspects of the story, however, were not told, (this likely having to do with the fact that museums sometimes need to be family oriented). When compiling a dossier for a local industry, it was clear to me that the rosy picture the museum sought was not the whole story. Strikes, crime, poverty, brothels, racial strife – these were the realities in the town. Of course, it does no good to dwell on or to sensationalize these stories, but this was an area that was an industrial and railway hub, with no standing police force and no fire brigade – crime and danger were going to be factors of everyday life in London East. To ignore these stories is likely as bad as solely dwelling on them.

Finding that balance between being accurate and truthful without being overly dour, and highlighting the impressive aspects without being celebratory or nostalgic, were the main problems I found as I sat down to begin an exhibit on Gananoque’s industrial past. Gananoque’s manufacturing base has severely contracted over the last twenty years, and just over the last two years Gananoque lost two factories, Mahle and the auto-parts maker Collins and Aikman, and with them scores of jobs. With only four factories left in town (although between them they employ almost 600 people) the one thing I didn’t want to get caught in was making a wistful and nostalgic portrait of the good ol’ days when everyone had jobs and the world was a much happier place – because no such time existed. Even with 72 factories or small-shop enterprises buzzing away in town in the 1880s and 90s, life was not easy, money was not plentiful, and the workers then certainly did not feel they were living in a golden age.

When reading through George De Zwaan’s 1987 PhD thesis about Gananoque’s industrial history, the conflict between the factory owners and the local workers organized under the Knights of Labour struck me as the most interesting episode of the period. It was an event that really highlighted the growing discontent amongst people with the way things were and connected Gananoque with a wider national, or more exactly, North American story. While there are no artefacts from the Knights of Labour in the collections, the local newspaper recorded the events in letters to the editor which provide a voice for the workers of the period in the displays. I tried to make an exhibit that portrays the period without being nostalgic, that lets the visitor learn and experience a period as it was, instead of something idealized. If it stirs nostalgia in some, that’s fine, but it is not meant to. I wanted to show the growth of the town from the 1860s through to the 1890s, but I also wanted to highlight how far we’ve come and how much there is still left to do. Spending our time lamenting the passing of time and the inevitable consequences of change gets us nowhere. Gananoque has loads of potential for future growth and prosperity, and while we should remember the past and learn from it, we shouldn’t live in it.