Category Archives: History, Ontario

Was this apothecary jar made at the Napanee Glassworks?

apjarThis glass jar of a type used in drugstores surfaced in Michigan.  It has lost its lid.  It is hand-blown, with two applied rings.  The rings are rather crude and of the type known as overlapped seam.    There us a  pontil mark (pontil scar)  on the base.  The jar is 8 inches tall, and the body is 5 inches in diameter.   In appearance, it is certainly similar to several other examples from Ontario, which have been tentatively attributed to the Napanee Glassworks, but without any confirming proof.

The dealer says that this apothecary jar shows a strong, yellow florescence under “black light”, which (he tells me) means that there is a high level of magnesium in the glass. 

The Napanee Glassworks was a venture of John Herring, 1818-1896.  Herring was a very successful foundryman who manufactured farm implements.   The 1870’s were economically challenging years for Napanee.  Herring conceived the idea that a glass factory would create jobs and help end the recession.  He thought that the city fathers would  joyfully get behind the endeavour, but unfortunately the idea failed to capture local imagination.  Herring found himself over-extended financially.  He also was unable to satisfy the master glass-blowers whom he had hired to teach local men the craft.  To add to Herring’s difficulties, the Bay of Quinte Railroad (ie., the Rathbuns) cut off the south entrance of the works, resulting in a law suit. 

So, the Napanee Glassworks was only in business for under three years, 1881-1883.  It is gone and nothing of it remains.

From historical research and from the shards found during an archaeological assessment, we know that the Herring works was making bottle glass and whimsies.  A glass cane at the Lennox and Addington County Museum has the strongest claim to be from the Napanee Glassworks due to provenance.  Local tradition says that Herring also sold mercury balls (so-called “witches’ balls”) which were popular ornaments at the time, but it is unclear whether he made them or imported them for resale.

After years of effort trying to associate specific glass products with the Napanee factory, we must conclude that all of Herring’s products were unmarked, so it would be a great thing if we could connect even a single item to the factory by chain of ownership or other evidence, such as an invoice.

There is nothing to say that this apothecary jar is not from the Napanee Glassworks, but if so, how did it get to Michigan?  Did Herring’s short-lived, struggling endeavour succeed in competing in American markets?

Incidently, I come from a long line of foundrymen myself.  My father told me that in the 18th and 19th century, the men would dip their mugs into the water which had been used to cool the heated metal.  This water was believed to have special strengthening properties, and it probably did, being rich in iron.  However, as industrialization progressed, other less desirable elements were in the foundry water, resulting in cancers.   John Herring died of stomach cancer, so one wonders.

Many thanks to Tom in Michigan for allowing me to use his photograph.

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Maria M. McLaren, Winchester, Ontario

N2009-031This little photograph dates from the 1890’s.  It was taken by N.W. Trickey, who was also one of the barbers in the town.   Although the picture is clearly identified on the back, it is a challenge to find her family history.  There are many “Mary McLarens” in Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry, but none living in Winchester, and none of suitable age or location called “Maria”.

I have a theory that this is the Mary Morrison McLaren, widow, who died in Lochiel, Glengarry on 28 September, 1896.  She would have been born in circa 1822-4.

This Mary McLaren stands out for me because her daughter said that she was born in Quebec.  This would account for the spelling of her name, “Marie”.

However, looking back on the 1871 and 1881 census, we find that Mary McLaren, while living, said that she was born in Ireland.

Also, Lochiel, Glengarry is rather distant from Winchester.  Why would she have her photograph taken in Winchester?  And what about  her clothing, which seems rather nice for a poor widow.  However, the Mary McLaren of Lochiel made her living as a seamstress, and it is tempting to think that she made her own elaborate cape and bodice.

If anyone has family connections with Marie M. McLaren,  and has helpful information, I would be interested to know.

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Home not a Castle

House with stepsides

House with stepsides

In Ontario it is sometimes said that the unusual stepped walls along the edge of a roof are clues that the building has military connections.  Alas, this colourful idea is not true.

The walls which project above the roof at either end (which look rather like steps) are properly called “corbiesteps”.  In the US, they are also called crowsteps, or catsteps, which is rather evocative and colourful I think.   In Ontario they are  called stepsides.

Corbiesteps are an urban northern European phenomenon.   In crowded mediaeval towns, it was all too easy for fire to spread from one roof to another.   Therefore, the walls which divided townhouses were built up above the gabled roof to form a fire barrier.  As with many other architectural devices, people became familier with the appearance and felt that the building just didn’t look quite right without the corbiesteps so it became a decorative convention as well.

Although architectural reference books often say that corbiesteps were obsolete after 1700, I have seen them on 18th and early 19th century urban buildings in the British Isles, particularly in Scotland.

The idea seems to have come to Ontario with early 19th century masons.  Corbiesteps were used here  on brick and stone town buildings up to the early 1850’s.  After that,  their use was more exceptional and perhaps a symptom of taste formed from an earlier time.

Corbiesteps may also appear in retro designs today, as a deliberate attempt to evoke a nostalgic appearance.

The example shown above is a building in Napanee, Ontario.  The corbiesteps are poorly proportioned: they are big and clumsy in execution.  The house is not joined to other structures.  (In fact, it towers over its neighbours.)  This suggests to me that the motivation was  not fire barriers but taste.  Perhaps this was the owner’s concept of  the appearance of an important town building.  I also think that the builder was not a skilled mason with European roots, but a local tradesman who was yielding to the wishes of his client.

Although these stepsides are clumsy, they give character to the building, which would be a much poorer piece of architecture without them.  Because it is difficult to  incorporate corbiesteps in modern renovations, they are too often chopped away.  Numbers are dwindling.  Every effort should be made by Heritage Committees to assist owners in keeping stepsides.

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Filed under Architecture, Buildings - Ontario, History, Ontario, Material culture, Ontario Architecture

Another Historic Building Lost: The Walker House Hotel, Odessa, Ontario

Walker House circa 1900

The charming main street through Odessa will soon have another big gap, when the Rebekah Lodge Building (which burned in mid August) is demolished.   This structure was originally the Walker House Hotel, and has a long history.  The site was purchased by Johnston Walker in 1847 for 55 pounds.   At that time 55 pounds was a reasonable price for a lot with little or nothing built upon it.  Johnston Walker was the son of Weedon Walker who owned a hostelry at concession 3, lot 8, Kingston township known as “Five Mile House”.   His son may have gained his hotel-keeping experience there.   

Johnston Walker built the original, handsome symmetrical red brick building, probably in the 1840’s —  early 1850’s  as the twelve-over-six fenestration and entrance treatment suggest.   The Walker family owned the Odessa building until 1871.  It then passed to the Wycott family, who changed the name to “The Royal Hotel”.  They sold to the International Order of Oddfellows (IOOF), Lodge 361, in 1914.   The Oddfellows were a very popular fraternal society in Odessa.  The ladies’ arm of the IOOF are the Rebekahs, and both the male and female societies met in the building with the two coming together to share a sumptuous dinner annually.   The old Walker House has another connection to many local families.  In the 1940’s, when rural young folk no longer liked to have  granny’s wake in the parlour, the front room of the old hotel was often rented for that purpose.

Odessa was once one of the most thriving villages of Ernestown Township and has survived nearly in tact.  Ironically, the other major loss on the main street was another hotel, the old Stagecoach Inn.   The sign from the facade of the Stagecoach Inn and attached spoolwork elaboration now hang at the Lennox and Addington County Museum in Napanee.

Ernestown Township became part of Loyalist Township in 1999, and there is an active Heritage Committee, but it is doubtful that anything can be done to encourage a sympathetic replacement for either hotel.  The lesson is that we need to respect, care for and enjoy those old buildings which remain to us, as their numbers dwindle every year.

I am grateful to Philip Smart and Ross Babcock for sharing their research with me.  I also wish to acknowledge the late Glenn Robertson who shared his family photographs with the community, including the one above which shows the Walker House when it was the Royal Hotel, circa 1900.

Below, after the fire.

After the fire, August 2009

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Has Genealogy Peaked as a Hobby?

When I worked at the Public Archives of Canada during the 1970’s, the research world was very different.  Most of our clients were “repeat offenders”.  Typically, they were initiated into the seductive world of primary sources as graduate students and continued as our clients and friends into old age.   We did see genealogists, but like their bretheren in history, they were mostly pro’s — old campaigners doing work for clients.

Then, along came “Roots”, the t.v. docu-drama which captured the North American imagination.  (In my opinion, we would have discovered genealogy anyway, and if “Roots” hadn’t been there, something else would have been the trigger.  -But that’s a discussion for another day.)

Now, before someone conjures up the old nastiness about elitist archives being democratized by genealogy I should say that, at the archives where I worked, we wanted and welcomed the general public.  What we weren’t prepared for were the numbers.  Archive budgets were no better in the 1970’s then they are today.  Space and staff were barely adequate.  Moreover, we did not have personal computers back then.  Access was  achieved via paper finding aides or the ubiquitous filing cards.

The numbers of visitors “doing” genealogy grew throughout the 1980’s.  In the early 1990’s, I was working in a small, local archive.   We had previously been open two days a week, usually for two or three clients.  By the early 1990’s, we were open four days a week, and it was not unusual during the summer to find twelve or even fifteen people crowded into the reading room.

There were big changes in the research traffic besides raw numbers, but I think that an important indicator was that over two-thirds of visitors said that it was their first or second visit to our site.  Over half said it was their first visit to us and over twenty percent said that it was their first visit to an archive of any kind.  The result was that staff spent an incredible amount of time with researchers, not only introducing them to our particular collection and institutional finding aides, but also teaching them how primary source research is done.  After a long day or two and the usual comprehension struggle, the clients left smiling and happy, never to be seen by us again.  They moved on to the next archive needed, on their once-in-a-lifetime quest.  Few old pro’s.  Few “repeat offenders”.

Now, twenty years later, I see that the traffic at my local archives has changed yet again.  Although the reading room is busy, most of the clients appear to be a local band of  savants.  Engaged on long-term projects, they return day after day, for weeks on end.   They out-number the few wide-eyed first-timers.  In fact, the archives feels much more like it did in the 1970’s.  I see that staff spends much less time teaching visitors the fundamentals as most clients are experienced and know just what they need.

Are there just as many genealogists as in the late 1980’s, but now using the internet instead of visiting archives?  I wonder.   Website data to which I am privy suggests that web traffic consists of a large proportion of skilled “regulars”, coming in and out for different topics.  The one-time-only personal quest folk are still there, but the number of hits (research visits) is equalled or excelled by the repeat traffic.

To me this suggests that genealogy as a general grass-roots passion indulged by nearly everybody is gradually shifting back to belonging to a specific interest group.   This happy cohort of  family history detectives may be larger than it was before ‘Roots’ but a cohort it is, nevertheless.   The needs of these 21st century genealogists will be different from those of the 1980’s and 1990’s.  This means that we can expect usage of archives to change, yet again.

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Marine Museum of the Great Lakes Hires Archaeologist

The Marine Museum of the Great Lakes (Kingston) is to be congratulated for adding a full-time, marine archaeologist Ben Holthof  to its staff. The core of the funding for the position is a grant from the Ontario Trillium Foundation for three years. This is one of those rare examples of Trillium helping with full-time staff for sustained period. In my opinion, there is far too much messing about with a few months of untrained staff here and there in Ontario. My guess is that the Marine Museum does not know what they will do at the end of the three years, but kudu’s to Ann Blake for holding out for a qualified, registrar-curator to attack the backlog and rebuild the catalogues. I sense an intelligent, long-range plan behind the scenes. Ben Holthof  has hands-on experience with two Canadian museum collections and a Masters in Maritime Archaeology from Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia. (His speciality is near-shore infrastructure.)    Attention Hon. Aileen Carroll:   We need more like this please!

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Thoughts on Bill 149, An Act to Protect Ontario’s inactive cemeteries.

cemstonesm

Gravestone, Napanee

Bill 149, a private member’s bill submitted by Jim Brownell, M.P.P. for Stormont-Dundas-South Glengarry, has now passed Second Reading. This brief bill proposes that no one may relocate an inactive cemetery.

In Ontario, whipping the remains of our ancestors out of the ground and interring them elsewhere to make way for development has been common practice. I have been very unhappy about this for a long time.

In 2000, I spent part of the winter in Boston, Massachusetts. There are many interesting cemeteries in greater Boston, but what impressed me was the Old Granary Burying Ground, which dates from the 1600’s and is now deep downtown, surrounded by tall modern buildings. If this had been moved in the early twentieth century to convenience the business community, Boston would have lost one of its five-star attractions and America one of its greatest treasures.

So, the reader knows where my heart lies.

Back to Bill 149. When cemeteries are known and clearly marked I am in favour of stopping the current practice of moving the remains. Since developers know when they acquire the property that there is a burial site involved, they should be able to adjust their plans to comply with the legislation.

But what will happen when a developer stumbles on a formerly unknown burial site? He already has considerable investment in his project. The proposed development may simply not permit re-working to avoid the cemetery. Once the problem is public, the resale value of the land will drop significantly. The temptation would be to keep the bulldozers running and not report the discovery. It happens now. I fear that it will happen more often and we would loose more of our history, not less.

My worry is that Bill 149 is too much stick and no carrot.

The promotional material published about the bill claims that there will be future additions which: “will establish clear-cut regulations for potential developers to avoid unnecessary planning and additional costs”. (Office of Mr. Brownell.) These regulations are yet to be written. Has anyone with planning experience thought deeply about them?

I have worked defending material culture most of my life, and I can tell you that drafting such regulations will require the creative brain of a genius and the patience of a saint.

With all levels of government in 2009 insanely pro-development and averse to any new spending for heritage (which is seen in Canada as “nice, but not essential”) I do not know what can be offered to developers which will make them happy to stop the bulldozers.

The heritage site problem is world-wide. No magic fix has been discovered. In Vancouver, the developer may get more “air rights” in exchange for preserving heritage. He is permitted to build taller on another site. The jury is still out as to whether this is a good or bad system. Other things that have been tried elsewhere include swapping of lots with the municipality and tax relief, both of which require enthusiastic participation from local government.

In Ontario, municipalities are now supposed to be preparing archaeological master plans to map below-ground heritage so that developers will be able to learn where the sensitive areas are. Archaeological master plans don’t necessarily map everything, but where one exists there are fewer surprizes. However, municipalities don’t have the money to invest in the exercise and few archaeological master plans have been completed. I believe that the City of Toronto has one, and the City of Kingston and there may be a couple of others. With municipalities strained to the limit to cope with aging infrastructure, we are not going to see the province blanketed with archaeological master plans in the near future.

My other question is what will happen when the family or the first nations band actually want to move the remains.  This has not been acknowledged in the supporting materials either. However, I think that this will be a much easier problem to rectify through the regulations unlike the problem with developers.

A brief, simple bill such as Bill 149 has a much better chance of becoming law than a complicated draft. What alarms me is that the background materials presently provided show almost no familiarity with the history of heritage struggles in Ontario.  There is no evidence of any sophisticated thinking about how to improve the situation. There are no astonishing new suggestions. So, although I support Bill 149, I believe that some future, pro-business government will simply emasculate it, as Mr. Harris’s government did to our old Ontario Heritage Act, and we will be back where we started. I would put money on it.

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An Acrobatic Troupe from Palmerston, Ontario

minstrels

More than a quaint picture!

Four male performers pose for the camera. Three men wear the uniforms of acrobats: the fourth wears the costume of a clown. These are the Aberdeen Minstrels of Palmerston, Ontario in 1898, and today the group is unknown. This is an interesting photograph. Obviously, the picture records the preferred dress of circus or side-show performers of the 1890’s, but there is much more here.

The Governor-General of Canada from 1893-1898 was John Campbell Gordon, Marquis of Aberdeen and Temair, known as the Earl of Aberdeen. Aberdeen was wildly popular with most Canadians. Even today, when there is a list of exceptional men and women who have succeded him to the office, he is remembered as the man who changed the role of the G-G from representative of Royalty to an agent for the best interests of common Canadians. His term ended in 1898. The name of this group might have been chosen in his honour.

The Earl took a great interest in sports. He spoke out strongly for school athletic programs to improve the fitness of young Canadians. The name of the group probably reflects the profound influence of the Governor-General during the time these young men attended High School.

Moreover, this Governor-General was Scottish and the Palmerston neighbourhood included many Scottish immigrant families. The minstrel on the far left is David A. Cox of Palmerston, born November 6, 1879 of Scottish descent, son of David D. and Mary Cox. The minstrel third from left (the shortest) is believed to be John A. McCombe of Palmerston, born 9 April, 1979 of Scottish descent, son of Samuel F. and Janet McCombe. The man second from left has not been fully identified but is believed to be one “C. Morrison”, and may also be of Scottish background. The clown is identified only as “J. Marshal [sic]”. The little troupe in its own way communicates the pride in Scottish ancestry current in the Palmerston community of the 1890’s.

At first, I wondered if this was a professional team from a travelling circus, but it was not so. Both David Cox and John McCombe were employed as railway brakeman. Palmerston owed its existence to the establishment of railway barns and a junction there in the 1870’s, and it seems that at the turn of the last century, the railway was still an important employer. Cox and McCombe likely knew each other at High School and continued as friends on the railway. Morrison and Marshall may also have been co-workers, but this has yet to be proven.

This all tells us that these are amateur performers. Also, they are not sons of the upper class with independent means, amusing themselves but rather working class men who probably had limited leisure time. The fact that they chose to spend it training and rehearsing tells us that the men certainly believed in the personal benefit of the activity. It is not outrageous to suggest that the publicity must have conferred rewards in the form of popularity or even status in their community.

Perhaps, at the turn of the last century, everybody in Palmerson and perhaps all of Wellington county had heard of the Aberdeen Minstrels.

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Ontario Ministry of Culture offers pre-packaged presentation aimed at municipal councils.

In Ontario, our Ministry of Culture is offering a tool called, “Supporting Heritage in Your Community”.  The objective is to assist local heritage organizations with making a case for heritage at the municipal level.  Specifically, the presentation is designed to be useful in trying to convince municipal councils and employees of the value of establishing an “heritage committee” under the Ontario Heritage Act.

The “Supporting Heritage” package includes speaking notes (a presentation) which someone must study and then deliver.  Also included are slides and some answers to challenging questions that may come up, such as, “How much will all this cost?”

The Ontario Heritage Act places the initiation of heritage protection right at the grassroots, through committees.  In offering this presentation package, in my opinion, the Ontario Government is finally acknowledging that the grassroots are often complete babes-in-the-wood when it comes to kick-starting the process.  In many municipalities where there are important resources and concerned citizens, nothing is being done.

However, will a packaged presentation overcome the handicap of an inexperienced presenter?  If one is not a competent and confident public speaker, will the impatience and disinterest of councillors be overcome?  I have worn these shoes, and political rallies have nothing on a meeting of annoyed and defensive councillors facing a mountainous Wednesday agenda.

Also, without depth of understanding of competing heritage assets, will the presenter avoid being perceived as yet another hysterical, minority interest?  Councils are tired of all the whining.

Going to them is a bit like the heritage equivalent of the Dragons’ Den.

The Ontario Heritage Act is deficient in tools to provide leadership.  It is intended to empower not to endorse.   The “Supporting Heritage” package aims to help while avoiding Provincial interference. 

I, for one, will be very interested to know how often the package is used and whether the number of heritage committees increases during 2009.

You can see the the “Supporting Heritage in Your Community” package for yourself at

http://www.culture.gov.on.ca/english/heritage/supporting_heritage/support_heritage.htm

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Will our grandchildren be able to read our letters?

During a visit to my local archive last week, I noticed a guide tacked beside the computer — the machine that  is used for access to the Ontario Vital Statistics.    cursif2Shelley (the archivist) explained that clients are unable to read the original records which are presented as “pdf” files or “jpg’s”.  The original records are in cursive script, or what we always called long-hand

I am constantly annoyed with folks who claim that all the recent indexing has made those hand-written  originals obsolete.  The index to the Vital Stats is (in a word) horrible.  In a rush to finish, the sponsor accepted any moron to do the transcription.  The index is riddled with mistakes, many of which were completely avoidable.  For instance, I have seen the phrase “Canada West”, which appears in the index frequently, transcribed as “Cweste”  and “Canwe”.   Surnames are often horribly mangled.  

It seems that researchers are beginning to agree with me, and are coming to the archives to gain access to the pictures of the originals. 

An over-whelming number of this archives’ clients are over fifty years of age, so I was astonished to learn that they are mostly unable to read anything written in pen and ink.  What’s with that?  We are all pre-keyboard and set down anything and everything by hand right through high school.

However, it does explain why the indices to the Vital Stats, and to Canada Census for that matter, are so dratted awful.

If  older folks who learned penmanship can no longer read the writings from our recent past, how are our children and grandchildren going to cope?  The Kingston Whig-Standard (Wed. March 18, 2009) recently contained two articles: “Saving the lost art of handwriting,” and another, “Parents concerned…”  which questions whether keyboarding is preventing children from learning to write with a pen or pencil.  As our local Whiggy (alas) is no longer independent, but syndicated, you may have seen the same articles in your own local paper.

What a shame.  For the sake of a few weeks of training in primary school, our descendants will be denied the pleasure of reading an actual letter in Lord Byron’s hand not to mention great-grandma’s account of the Halifax explosion or the rich details of the 19th century data just as the clerk set them down. 

Presumably, everyone will be basing their understanding on a transcription made by someone else, a transcription which might be good, fair or downright misleading.   How very sad.

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