Discovering ‘Leaving Home, Finding Home in Oshawa’

By Lisa Terech, Community Engagement

Exhibitions at the Oshawa Museum are not confined to the walls of the Museum. With every physical exhibit, we always supplement with online content. This allows for additional stories to be told – you can only fit so much onto a text panel, after all. We can use various media to tell the stories, like videos on YouTube or blog posts, and online components opens an exhibition’s audience beyond those who are able to visit in person, and the exhibition lives on well after it had been struck.

Our latest exhibition, Leaving Home, Finding Home in Oshawa, is no exception.

The stories from the oral history project have been shared as an online exhibit for numerous years, and the students who have worked on this project since 2016 have contributed a number of video podcasts to the OM YouTube channel.

Last year, we launched an interactive map exhibit called Discover Historic Oshawa, and this is another platform where we’re sharing stories from Leaving Home, Finding Home in Oshawa.

One impressive feature of the in-person exhibit is the map. We took a number of pages from the 1948 Fire Insurance Map, specifically, the pages that cover the area of Simcoe Street to just east of Ritson Road, Olive Avenue to Bloor Street. This neighbourhood was well settled by Oshawa’s early Eastern European immigrants, and in the post-WWII era, it continued to grow and flourish with the arrival of Displaced People.

Exhibit co-curators Melissa Cole and Mia Vujcic wanted to use the map to draw attention to a number of landmarks – 17 in all! That is a lot of history to confine to a single text panel. We used the panel to provide a basic explanation of each site, and should visitors want to discover more, they can visit Discover Historic Oshawa to read about each site and see photographs, past and present. A handy QR code is on the panel to allow for easy navigation to the site.

We created a special category on Discover Historic Oshawa for sites related to Leaving Home, Finding Home in Oshawa. Some sites are on the map, while some are beyond its limits.

Sites include churches, houses, community halls, and businesses, all of which have connections to the immigrant community. By visiting the website, you can see sites that are geographically beyond the map in the exhibit, such as the Michael Starr Building or the Gen. W. Sikorski Polish Veterans’ Association Hall.

Leaving Home, Finding Home in Oshawa opened right before Thanksgiving, and we cannot wait for you to visit and see this exhibit! If you’re not able to visit in person, be sure to check out Oshawa Immigrations Stories or the Leaving Home, Finding Home category on Discover Historic Oshawa!

An Audio Project Update

By Lisa Terech, Community Engagement

For a little over a year, the OM has been offering an at-home volunteer project. Our Audio Transcription Project is making our collection more accessible and user friendly. We are digitizing cassette recordings in the collection – volunteers can access the digital files online, and they have dedicated HOURS to transcribing, typing out word for word, what is said in the recordings.

As mentioned, this makes the collection accessible. If someone is deaf or has hearing loss, the written transcription will now be readily available. The transcriptions will also be easier to search thanks to the typed transcription and search functions with PDFs.

The transcriptions get completed and returned to the OM, and I’ve been reading through the files as they get submitted. Like with many items in the archival collection, it’s very easy to ‘go down the rabbit hole’ with these transcriptions as many recollections shared within are simply fascinating.

There are a few recordings with Robinson descendants who shared their memories from when Robinson House was their family home:

INTERVIEWER: We are now in the large north room on the main floor. Percy is going to tell us how he remembers this room.

PERCY: I remember, readily, that when this room was a barber shop, the poles were out in the front, we used to sit in the front steps, and I suppose catering to the traffic down to the beach, people coming and going, especially on the weekend. But, this room was used for some time, for some years, as a barber shop.

INTERVIEWER: And the entrance to the barber shop would be the door on the north side, which we are not using today.

PERCY: Double doors

Alan Barnes was involved with the restoration of Robinson House in the 1960s before it opened as the Robinson House Museum in 1969. Through the years, the OM is often asked if we are haunted, and this is a decades old question, considering what Mr. Barnes had to say about it.

The house you know, had the reputation of being haunted, and I don’t think it was really haunted. I think it was some of the comings and goings of our less fortunate friends that went in with bottles and came out, rather staggeringly, that the kids saw the shadowy movements and assumed that it had to be spooks, so to keep the kids out, the building had been boarded up.

Stephen Saywell, in 1982, gave a talk on Oshawa’s educational history, but he also made the following, and rather prophetic, observation.

And Tom Bouckley has done a yeoman service to this city in the two books which he has written entitled Pictorial Oshawa and which I’m sure many of you have. And if you haven’t you want to have because someday, they’re going to be out of print and they’ll become collectors’ items.

Bouckley ended up publishing three volumes of Pictorial Oshawa and, sure enough, they have indeed become collectors’ items. (Shameless plug – Volume I was republished in 2010, a partnership between the OM, OPL, and RMG. You can buy your copy from the OM’s online website.)

Finally, I was delighted to find a little of my own family history in the audio cassette recordings. My grandfather’s second wife, my Grandma Doreen, was born and raised in Oshawa (she and my grandpa met while working at Duplate). Her father, George Trainer, was a barber in Oshawa, and my family donated some of his barber tools to the museum in 2010.

George Trainer

We have a recorded interview with “Ivan Richards, age 62, who lives at 20 Oshawa Boulevard South. They draw upon his own memories and those of his father, both of whom have lived in Oshawa all their lives.” In his reminiscences, Richards shared

You asked me about Cedar Dale. I know a lot about Cedar Dale having talked to people that have lived there for a great number of years, and what I said –when I should have been delivering mail, I was in the barber shop of George Trainer, and I think a story here comes to -to mind. We run into George Trainer to get your hair cut and a checkers game was on, they were playing checkers, Frank Sherwood and Trainer himself, and Ed Powers, and anyone that might want to come along and play a game of checkers this is where they played it. When you went in to get your haircut you waited until the game of checkers were over to get your hair cut. Now this was an honest fact, I seen many people sit down and wait until they got done their game of checkers and then George’d trim their hair.

I knew my step-great-grandfather was a barber – we had the clippers – but I was young when my grandmother passed away, so I didn’t think to ask her stories of her family of what growing up in Oshawa was like for her. To hear this story, and others that I’ve learned through this audio project, helps to illustrate the time and provide a glimpse of this community, how it’s grown, and what’s stayed the same.

If you would like more information about the Audio Transcription Project and how to get involved, please send me an email! High School Students – this is a GREAT way to earn community service hours! Email: membership@oshawamuseum.org

Or, you can visit the OM‘s website for more info.

Profiling: Mike Starr

Hon. Michael Starr was born in 1910 as Michael Starchevski, to Ukrainian parents from the western region of Galicia. From Copper Cliff, Ontario, the family eventually moved to Montreal, to Toronto and then to Oshawa in 1921 where his mother had some Ukrainian friends. They settled in the south end of the city, close to factories as well as the Oshawa Creek. Michael attended Cederdale Public School, where his friend group was made up of others with Ukrainian or Eastern European background – many of whom also lived in the same area.

Michael entered the workforce in 1925 as a printer’s devil in order to help support his family (including his five younger siblings). However, his ambition for education remained high and he returned to complete an accelerated course at Oshawa Collegiate Institute (later named O’Neill CVI). This enabled him to work as a cost clerk at Pedlar People Limited, where he would gain increasing responsibilities over the years. As a result of his employer’s suggestion and with his father’s permission, he shortened his last name, Starchevski, to Starr in order for it to be more easily pronounced in English.

In 1933, during the Depression, he married Anne Zaritsky and they managed to live quite comfortably on his salary of just $15.00 per week.  They built a house at 25 Olive Ave. where they raised their son and daughter and continued to reside for the remainder of their lives.

In 1944, after several failed attempts, Starr was elected to the Oshawa City Council as an Alderman.  In the position, he is credited with making the City Board of Works into a modern and efficient department.  After five years on City Council, he sought and was elected as Mayor in 1949 and re-elected to this position in 1951.  During his three terms as Mayor, he oversaw many improvements in the City including the construction of the new municipal office-building, police station, fire hall and sewage disposal plant together with the annexation of a large section of East Whitby Township.  During this time, Mr. Starr managed to continue to work as Sales Manager for the Pedlar People Ltd.

In 1952, he was elected as the Member of Parliament representing the Progressive-Conservative party. In July 1957, Mr. Starr was appointed Minister of Labour in the Diefenbaker government.  This appointment made him the first Canadian of Ukrainian descent to be appointed to the federal Cabinet.   In September 1967, Robert Stanfield appointed Mr. Starr as interim opposition leader of the Party and House Leader until Stanfield took his seat.  In the federal election of 1968, Mr. Starr was defeated by a very narrow margin by Ed Broadbent, later national leader of the New Democratic Party.  With this election, Mr. Starr’s political career in elected politics ended.

The Starchevski family took part in Ukrainian social life in Oshawa, which included the Prosvita Society – a reading association where Michael’s father Matthew served as president. Other organizations were political groups such as the Ukrainian Labour/Farmer Temple and the Canadian Sitch Organization, which all served as centres for cultural activities such as musical and dramatic productions. The Prosvita Hall, for instance, sponsored a Ukrainian Athletic Club which excelled in softball. Mike Starr, the organizer, was willing to play any position and later served as coach and manager. 

The newer generation of Ukrainian immigrants revitalized community institutions, like churches and halls, and established their own. Still, the older community and the newer interacted, with the former helping the latter. Starr, who at this time was serving as Mayor of Oshawa, would welcome newcomers to the city. He would also present them with certificates upon successful completion of their contracts and help with finding other jobs or housing – overall leaving a very positive impression.

Victoria Szeczepanski, another participant in the Museum’s project who emigrated from Poland at this time, had a few remarks about her first impressions of Oshawa. She said the following:

My husband took English lessons at Central Collegiate, where Michael Starr welcomed us to Oshawa. He asked that the citizens of Oshawa treat the newcomers with respect. Some people treated us well, and with respect. Others looked at us as newcomers and would occasionally call us DP.

Looking around at certain landmarks – like the Michael Starr Building or the Michael Starr trail – it is easy to guess at his overall lasting impact on Oshawa. However, when hearing from members of the Ukrainian community, or from other cultural groups, it becomes even clearer. Each political success was considered a success for the whole community, especially since he was the first federal Cabinet Minister of Ukrainian descent. Indeed, his overall contributions to the political landscape – throughout his journey from City Alderman to Mayor to Minister of Labour in the Diefenbaker government, are fondly remembered.

Michael Starr died March 16, 2000 at the age of 89. He is buried at St. Wolodymyr and St. Olha Ukrainian Cemetery, located in south Courtice.

No matter where he was, it was said that Michael Starr was always thinking about the future of Oshawa.  In 1997, he told a story to the archivist for the Oshawa Museum. While driving along Highway 2, Starr said to his wife, “Anne, someday when you are driving through here it will all be lit up with houses and factories and everything.”  She said to him years later, “How in the world did you know this?”


Much of the text for this article was originally written by summer student, Mia, for a video podcast: Listen to Mia tell the story of Mike Starr here:

A Visit to the Sisterhood of St. John the Divine

By Quinn J., Summer Student

On Wednesday July 21st, I visited an Anglican holy order, the Sisterhood of St. John the Divine, in Toronto in order to access their archives. The order used to own the Bishop Bethune private girls school in Oshawa, and thus they had primary documents related to my research into the school which could help me better determine the school’s purpose and who exactly attended it. The visit was one that I was looking forward to, not only because of the benefits for my research and because it would enable my possibly unhealthy obsession with mundane things from the past, but also because being able to experience history first hand, something that my time in school had never given me the opportunity to do.

The sisterhood was very welcoming to me, and I had a nice time talking with the archivist about the various materials they had to offer me. I was looking specifically at things related to the Bishop Bethune school, but from what I could glean, the sisterhood was involved in other educational ventures outside of city of Oshawa, throughout the province and country. It was overall a very enjoyable experience for me as I was able to dig through various records and even copies of the school magazine for my research into Oshawa’s educational past.

The most interesting thing in the collection, however, was the school’s ledger. It was a giant book that was over 100 years old, having been first written in when the sisterhood took control of the school in 1889. It’s probably the oldest thing I’ve ever touched, and it gave me a bit of a thrill to be able to just be able to go through it and get a window into how people lived over 100 years ago.

Perhaps I’m being a little too subjective, but I still get such a thrill from experiencing history, no matter how I experience it. Getting that glimpse into the lives of people who lived even just a hundred years before me is still very exciting for me, and this visit to get a window into the past like that was an incredible experience.

How Visual Art Can Help Narrate History

By Jessica R., Summer Student

As I come to the end of my summer job at the Oshawa Museum, I’m grateful I had the opportunity to apply what I have learned in university into real life research projects. I believe that the strongest take-away from my personal projects at the museum is the idea that we form our perspectives of history in relation to the evidence and research we view. I learned that there is a surprisingly strong co-dependency between literary history and visual art during each era. It seems self-explanatory for someone who is regularly involved with historic research. But for me, having this first-time experience to see the value of artefacts, architecture, and visual art was exciting. Art in any genre or style is usually focused on its aesthetic value, such as the art style, colours, or perspective. But no matter how abstract or grand the art piece is, it will always contain historical evidence of some sort.

I was assigned to work on uncovering and researching the backstory and meanings behind historical paintings and drawings by the late Canadian artist, ES Shrapnel. The process to find the history behind the paintings was fairly difficult at times. But I found through my research that combining the written information I found with my own examination of the art style and colours in the sketches added the missing pieces of information I needed to finish the background information or support the visualization of the author’s ideas. Besides being an excellent primary source of information, the prints I examined were also good examples of the trends within local artists of that time, and it showed how society was progressing in terms of art styles. I noticed that ES Shrapnel promoted his talents often in the Whitby Chronicle, saying he would hold lessons for anyone who was interested. The community was then able to create art which reflected the narrative of their own lives at the time because of artists like Shrapnel who encouraged this participation. Shrapnel’s networking abilities are still seen today using different, modern technological ways. As we draw parallels with today’s society, we can appreciate that this was one of the many ways that visual art can continue to have historic usefulness.

Whitby Chronicle, November 4, 1880, Page 03.

In general, visual art is a core aspect engrained in everyone’s culture, lifestyle, and community. I appreciate that it gives an additional view on historic communities that did not rely on written literature to depict their stories or actions. Visual art gives historians and researchers an opportunity to expand their knowledge and help us understand in our modern perspective how people co-existed with one another through history. I find the universal understanding of art in history helps expand the ideas of written language and can narrate a scene of moments that were never documented in words.

In conclusion, throughout my time at the Oshawa Museum, I felt greatly satisfied and fulfilled seeing local artists from our community contributing strong and impactful sources of information simply through visual art. With my research of the ES Shrapnel prints, it gave me a newfound appreciation for the artist and others of his time for their dedication to their passions. The beauty of visual art grows deeper than just the material used, but more with their significance in writing history. Visual art gives metaphorical colour to the incomplete paintings of society and its ideas. I hope that people in our community continue to keep making art, regardless of it pertaining to the landscape of our area, as it gives a glimpse of the artistic minds within in our community.