Exploring our Nation’s Attic – trying to hold on to the story of a community …
As a people Canadians should be proud of our efforts to collect, document and make sense of our shared past. We have dozens of international calibre museums dedicated to gathering, studying and displaying a wide range of historical and cultural themes like the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg or the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto.
The scholars, archivists and museologists who administer these facilities have created an impressive parlour for visitors who wish to learn something about Canada and our place in the world. If you want to explore a grittier, less polished version of our story, though, you need to visit any one of thousands of small local museums scattered throughout the country. Taking the time to find and visit these local museums, usually run by a haggard bunch of dedicated volunteers, permits you to wander through the attic of our culture.
Most towns of any consequence have a group who are trying to hold on to the story of their community – in Ontario alone there are approximately 700 museums, historic sites and related institutions. One such group is the Cannington & Area Historical Society. Situated in the central Ontario town that bills itself as the “Heart of Ontario”, this group of mostly retired locals meets once a month to celebrate things historical and presides over an impressive collection of buildings, artifacts and memorabilia scattered over two properties.
After forty years of work, this group has managed to rescue two log houses, one community hall, a driving shed, a train station, a caboose and a recently re-opened blacksmith shop. These buildings are packed with the artifacts of a small mill town that speaks to the common history of hundreds of similar communities. Full disclosure here: I am a member of this group and have worked with them for a couple of decades when I taught at the local high school.
The society recently celebrated its 40th Anniversary with the opening of a partially refurbished carriage factory and blacksmith shop that was bequeathed to the society a few years ago. Originally opened in 1875, this solid building quickly became a centrepiece of town – building horse drawn carriages for local trade and seeing to the needs of the many horses that worked in town and in the fields and farms nearby. Located just off the main street, and opposite the impressive Victorian town hall and the imposing Queen’s Hotel and Bennett House, business flourished.
As time passed, and technologies changed, the fortunes of the carriage house and of Cannington itself, shifted. The automobile killed the carriage trade and gutted much of the main street as people abandoned horses and spent their money elsewhere. All the tools, the forges and the wood and leather work of building carriages and looking after work horses became obsolete and were tossed aside. The carriage houses themselves became redundant, and many blacksmith shops were demolished or repurposed as demand waned.
Fortunately for Cannington, the location and solid construction of the blacksmith shop permitted it to avoid the wrecking ball. The building served a variety of purposes once the factory and blacksmith shop were closed, and eventually became a residence for many years. The last resident of the building, recognizing the value of the place for its location and historical significance, bequeathed it to the local historical society upon his passing. The plan is to make this building the new ‘home’ of the historical society, to display some beautiful carriages typical of Victorian Ontario (one that was actually built in this building) and provide an example of a working blacksmith shop.
After years of renovations and purging decades of “treasures” that had accumulated in the building, the Blacksmith Shop celebrated a grand re-opening last September as part of Canada’s Culture Day “Open House”. Years of volunteer work by a relatively small group of people, led by the Society’s President Ted Foster, has brought life back to an important part of Cannington’s history. Attended by a few hundred people, and presided over by local dignitaries, the open house format of the re-opening attracted a respectable crowd. Within that crowd was a former resident of the building, and one lady who had celebrated her wedding in it years ago!
Like most historical societies, this one struggles to maintain their impressive collection of buildings, artifacts and documents. These properties are more than a collection of things, though – they provide an opportunity for community building by the people devoted to their upkeep. Students find work on summer grants, giving them a chance to learn valuable skills while building their resumes. Local residents come to see and experience their history – in droves during popular crowd events like Canada Day and in dribbles during the summer weekends when the place is kept open by students and volunteers. The society also fields inquiries from all over the world – and often tours people about the facility who are following some branch of their family tree.
Visiting our national museums provides a compelling insight into the grand narratives that have shaped our people and our country. Poking about in the thousands of local museums and historic sites one can find all over Canada gives one an intimate, and slightly tarnished glimpse into the smaller, but more personal tales that weave together to create the fabric of our story. If you are ever in the “Heart of Ontario” be sure to get a hold of us at the Cannington Historical Society, and we would be glad to let you explore our little corner of the attic.