Backyard History – Little Stories, Big Nation

May 21, 2010 by D'Arcy Jenish
 [ILLUSTRATION: TERRY SHOFFNER]

ILLUSTRATION: TERRY SHOFFNER

“Thank goodness for Sidney Crosby,” exclaims Janice Kirkbright. The NHL star and captain of the Pittsburgh Penguins has done something she and many of her friends and neighbours have been unable to do, despite years of trying. Crosby has proudly told the world that he is from Cole Harbour, N.S., and in so doing has kept alive the name of a once thriving farm community that has all but disappeared in recent years due to urban sprawl from nearby Dartmouth and Halifax. “There used to be a lot of farming in this area,” says Kirkbright, director of the 220-member Cole Harbour Rural Heritage Society, “but it’s all subdivisions now. It’s disappeared as a postal address and a lot of people don’t even use the name anymore. They just say they’re from Dartmouth.”

And that’s a shame, Kirkbright says, because the farmers of Cole Harbour once produced most of the fresh vegetables consumed by residents of Halifax and Dartmouth. That began to change in the 1960s as Dartmouth grew and subdivisions sprouted, but Kirkbright and the volunteer members of the heritage society have done an admirable of job preserving the community’s past. They maintain and operate the Cole Harbour Rural Farm Museum, a complex of five buildings located on 21⁄2 acres of land. The museum consists of an original farmhouse, a 1780s Georgian style dwelling that was moved to the site, a two-storey barn from the 1850s and a working blacksmith shop. Society members have collected hundreds of agricultural implements and artifacts, recorded dozens of oral histories from local residents and every year welcome some 18,000 visitors to the museum.

People like Kirkbright and her fellow volunteers are seldom recognized or rewarded for their efforts. But in every corner of this big, broad country, passionate and committed local historians are dedicated to saving the stories of their communities and ensuring that their collective past doesn’t sink from sight forever. In many cases—think of the fishing outports of Newfoundland or the one-elevator Prairie villages—the communities themselves are disappearing as old ways of life change and young people move away to seek opportunity elsewhere—usually in big cities. Or a mine, a factory or some other economic mainstay shuts down and the face of a small town is altered forever. Local historians and history societies ensure that some threads and fragments of the past survive through community museums, through archives, through newsletters and limited editions of thick volumes that they write, edit and publish themselves and, increasingly, through websites that can display text, images and maps, among other things.

There are museums, archives and books dedicated to fishing and farming, lumbering and mining, shipping and ranching, hockey, lacrosse and other sports, schools, churches and hospitals—among other things. Some might even argue that the work of local historians better reflects the breadth and diversity of Canada than the output of the big-picture, academic and popular historians whose work is sometimes lauded and celebrated. At the very least, some prominent professionals are only too happy to tip their hats to the work of their amateur and unsung brethren. “When it’s good, local history is very, very good,” says J.L. Granatstein, professor emeritus at Toronto’s York University and one of the country’s foremost historians, not to mention a regular contributor to Legion Magazine. “It can add immeasurably to the work of people like myself.”

 [ILLUSTRATION: TERRY SHOFFNER]

ILLUSTRATION: TERRY SHOFFNER

Some prominent writers of fiction are equally grateful to those amateur sleuths who sometimes spend a lifetime recording the memories of old-timers and exploring the history that happened in their own backyards. Saskatoon-based author Guy Vanderhaeghe has written two historical novels based on events that occurred in the 19th century Canadian West and dedicated the second of those books, The Last Crossing, to “all those local historians who keep the particulars of our past alive.” Vanderhaeghe first came to appreciate the value of their work through his late brother-in-law, Norman Nagel, who farmed near Leader, Sask., 250 kilometres southwest of Saskatoon. “He could take you anywhere around that country and show you stone effigies the natives left behind, old buffalo jumps and stone markers the Indians had set up to drive the buffalo into coulees where they were slaughtered,” says Vanderhaeghe. “You get all kinds of detail from those kinds of people. For anyone writing a historical novel set in a particular region, they’re often the richest source of material you can find.”

The number of people in this country who are consumed by that sort of deep and abiding interest in the history of their communities is anybody’s guess. Some belong to a local historical or museum society and some don’t. As for the number of societies, that too, is unknown. There is no national organization to represent them or keep track of their membership, but there are several provincial associations.

The Ontario Historical Society (OHS)—perhaps the largest in the country—has 325 affiliated local groups, says executive director Rob Leverty. Some have been around since the late 19th century, but new ones are formed almost every year. Since the start of 2008, he adds, the OHS has incorporated 24 of them. The B.C. Historical Federation, meanwhile, boasts 179 member societies, says president Ron Greene—and they vary greatly in size. The smallest number as few as eight to 10 local residents, while Vancouver, Victoria and a few other larger centres have 1,000 or more active supporters.

Nova Scotia and Saskatchewan have museum associations as opposed to provincial historical societies, each with about 200 community-based, locally operated facilities. They count on small provincial and municipal grants, ticket sales and a strong base of volunteers to stay afloat. “Without the volunteer contributions, the vast majority would not be viable,” says Anita Price, managing director of the Association of Nova Scotia Museums. “They are passionate, passionate people.”

In most areas of the country, these organizations face a major challenge—aging and declining membership—and this is leading to changes in the way local history is preserved. Wendy Fitch, co-manager of the Museums Association of Saskatchewan, says that shrinking populations in smaller centres is eroding the volunteer base and jeopardizing the viability of many local museums. As a result, she has begun to encourage member societies to record oral histories rather than continuing to collect objects and artifacts. “When people get to a certain age, they need to move closer to family or health care,” she says. “That’s why we’re emphasizing stories. You can transfer stories to another museum or an archive if you have to, but you can’t always move things.”

Population decline and aging memberships have taken an especially heavy toll on English language historical societies in Quebec. A number of them responded by coming together in 2000 to form the Quebec Anglophone Heritage Network, which currently has about 50 member organizations, says executive director Dwane Wilkin. “For a long time, these groups typically preserved artifacts or collected documents,” he notes. “There’s a real push on to find new ways of sustaining them by making local history more interesting to young people.”

Wilkin is leading an ambitious project aimed at using the Internet to make local material accessible to a broader audience. He calls it the Spoken History Online Multi-Media Initiative or SHOW ME for short. The goal is to digitize photos, maps and documents as well as oral histories that have been recorded on reel-to-reel tapes or cassettes. Wilkin envisages new, web-based exhibits that blend sound, images and text. “We would host the exhibits on a network-wide basis, but could also use the material to put on local displays for societies that don’t have a web presence,” he says. “I think technology is a way of tapping into the youth in these communities who are generally not keen on history.”

Staff at the University of Calgary Library are among the first in the country to use the Internet as a resource for collecting local history and making it available to wider audiences. About 10 years ago, they formed a partnership with Laval University in Quebec and created a bilingual website (www.ourroots.ca) devoted entirely to historical material pertaining to Canadian communities. Since then, says Donna Livingstone, director of communications with the University of Calgary Libraries and Cultural Resources, archives, historical associations and other post-secondary institutions have joined this collaborative effort.

Together, they have digitized and posted 1.3 million pages of material, including rare and out-of-print books, pamphlets, brochures and maps. This diverse and eclectic collection of material includes such things as an 1875 directory of businesses in Saint John, N.B., a history of Shawinigan, Que.,—spelled Chawinigane—published in 1934, a short book about Grace Mennonite Church in Regina, a history of bowling in Saskatchewan and historical and commercial sketches of the industries of Canada which appeared in 1887. “It’s a tremendous resource that reflects the social and cultural heritage of this country for more than 400 years and it’s free and accessible to everyone,” says Livingstone.

Last year, the site received 400,000 visits from over 200,000 unique visitors and they looked at over 55 million pages of material. “We’re moving into a digital world,” she says. “This is an example of how you can make history come alive for students and how you can help people reconnect with the communities where they grew up.”

But moving into the digital age may be easier said than done because some groups have accumulated extensive collections of artifacts. The Mississquoi Historical Society in Stanbridge East, 70 kilometres south of Montreal in Quebec’s Eastern Townships, was formed in 1899. Since 1964, it has operated a museum that now consists of several buildings, including a gristmill built in 1830, a general store constructed in 1841, and a 19th century barn. The buildings are used to display some of the society’s 35,000 objects which reflect the area’s past as a Loyalist settlement and an agricultural community, says curator Heather Darch. Among the society’s prized objects are a woman’s bonnet from the 1780s and a red tunic worn by a Loyalist soldier who fought against the Americans during the War of Independence. As well, the society’s 400 members maintain 18 of 72 heritage cemeteries in the area.

 [ILLUSTRATION: TERRY SHOFFNER]

ILLUSTRATION: TERRY SHOFFNER

In the mid-1990s, members of the historical society in Biggar, Sask., a town located 100 kilometres west of Saskatoon, spent three years raising funds to build a museum and art gallery. The twin facilities had been located in the basement of the local library since 1974, but outgrew that space. The new, 7,200-square-foot building opened in October 1997 and some of the displays—miniature replicas of a general store, a train station and a Chinese laundry—reflect a history typical of pioneer prairie towns.

But like local museums across the country, a number of exhibits illustrate unique aspects of the community’s past. Its unusual name is explained—Hodgins Biggar, a director of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway, christened it after himself—as well as the origins of the famous highway sign that greets visitors—New York is big, but this is Biggar. There is a section devoted to the late Sandra Schmirler, a native of the town and skip of the Canadian women’s curling team that won gold at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan.

One small display, created in 2005, initially generated a backlash from many residents of the town. It explains how a few prominent citizens formed a local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan in the late 1920s, though it was short-lived. “To tackle this very controversial subject took a lot of faith and courage,” explains Michaela McBee, who was involved in the project as a summer student. “In Biggar, the Klan had always been taboo. I grew up knowing about it and knowing never to talk about it.”

Local history is generally the domain of dedicated amateurs, though not always. Occasionally, professionals develop their own passion for the subject—with surprising results. Royce MacGillivray was a professor of history at the University of Waterloo for many years, but always retained an interest in the rural, eastern Ontario county of Glengarry, where he grew up. After retiring in the mid-1990s he devoted himself nearly full time to a work about Glengarry personalities and modelled on the Dictionary of Canadian Biography.

In April 2010 the Glengarry Historical Society published the finished product, an 800-page book titled the Dictionary of Glengarry Biography. It contains 1,600 short profiles of notable people who were born, in or spent part of their time in, the county. Profiled individuals include Loyalists refugees of the late 18th century; Scottish immigrants of the early 19th; fur traders of both the Hudson’s Bay and North West companies; the novelist Ralph Connor, author of two Canadian classics, Glengarry School Days and The Man from Glengarry; Sir Edward Peacock, a British financier who negotiated Edward VIII’s financial settlement when he abdicated to marry Wallis Simpson; former governor-general Jules Leger and his brother Cardinal Leger.

MacGillivray says he’s not exactly certain why a little place like Glengarry produced so many accomplished and interesting people. But he’s not surprised. Like local historians everywhere, he has found that some of the best history happened in his own backyard.

Email the writer at: writer@legionmagazine.com

Email a letter to the editor at: letters@legionmagazine.com

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