Oh Tannenbaum! About the Christmas Tree

By Lisa Terech, Community Engagement

Christmas is just over a week away.  Halls are decked, presents are wrapped, and Saint Nicholas is busy preparing for his busiest day of the year. When he visits the children of the world, he will leave his gifts underneath a Christmas tree, but why a tree? Why is an evergreen tree the prevalent symbol for Christmas?  The history of the tree can be traced back many years.


The use of evergreens and other greenery had been used during the winter months for centuries, with it being a reported custom of  ancient Egyptians, Chinese, and Hebrews.  The evergreens represent life even through the cold, dark winter months. Through the centuries, the customs included adorning said evergreens with assorted decorations, like fruit, nuts, and paper flowers.

It was during the 18th century when the tradition truly took hold.  While the tradition of the Christmas tree had been in England for a number of years, its popularity and prevalence was cemented in 1848 when an image of Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and their family around a Christmas tree was published.


Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and their Christmas Tree, 1847

The Royal Family were the ‘celebrities’ of their day.  Once people saw that the Royals had a tree, they too wanted to have a tree as part of their holiday tradition.

Early trees were lit with candles.  This is, of course, before the invent of electricity, and having an open flame by a tree comes with its own inherent problems.  A bucket of water would often be kept close to the tree in case any flames had to be doused. These tree candles are part of the Oshawa Museum’s collection.


Early Christmas trees were decorated with fruits, flowers and candles, which were heavy on the tree branches. In the 1800s German glass blowers began producing glass balls to replace the heavy decorations and called them bulbs.The first Christmas trees in Ontario were decorated with edible products, such as strings of popcorn, nuts and cookies.  During the 1870s the first store-bought ornaments were introduced.  They were made of tin, wax, tinsel, cardboard and glass.  The oldest manufactured ornaments, made of tin, came in various shapes such as stars, crosses and flowers.  Wax ornaments soon followed, the most popular design being an angel floating in the air.  Icicles were introduced in 1878 and still remain a popular decoration.

On the Christmas Trees at the Museum, we also hide a glass pickle among our decorations.  Why a pickle?  Some believe this is an old German tradition (although many people from Germany today do not claim this tradition as their own).  When decorating the Christmas tree, it is traditional to hang the pickle last, hidden among the branches. The first child on Christmas Day to find the Christmas pickle receives an extra gift!


Christmas trees and their official lighting are often seen as a symbolic start to the holiday season.  The City of Oshawa always lights its official Christmas tree in mid-November, and this tree is among the large evergreens by Civic Square at City Hall.  Toronto’s official Christmas tree, on the other hand, is usually a white spruce which is selected a year in advance from the Bancroft, Ontario area. In Boston, their Christmas tree is always from Nova Scotia, a gift from the province to thank them for their support after the Halifax explosion of 1917, the worst human-made explosion until the atomic bomb.  They first sent a tree in 1918, a year after the event, and they have been doing it every year since 1971.

So whether you a have white spruce, douglas fir, or an artificial tree that is used year after year, decorate those boughs, thoughtfully hang those precious ornaments, and enjoy the tradition that has been around for centuries.

Constable George Gurley

On September 17, take a tour through Oshawa’s Union Cemetery with the dramatic tour Scenes from the Cemetery. On this walking tour, actors will bring stories to life, portraying people from Oshawa’s past, sharing stories of society, humour, and of war and loss.

One such character is George Gurley.  Continue reading to learn more about his life, before seeing him brought to life through Scenes from the Cemetery.



Constable George Gurley is perhaps one of the more interesting characters in Oshawa’s history.  The newspapers from his era as Constable contain numerous comical, unusual and, at times, horrific stories about crime in early Oshawa.

George Gurley was a tailor before becoming police constable, a position that he held for fourteen years.  He was Oshawa’s first chief of police and started just prior to Confederation in 1867, although the exact date is not known.  Constable Gurley was famous for saying “Don’t you know I have the power in my pocket?” in reference to the Billy club that he always carried around with him.  Given George’s thick Irish accent, this line would have sounded even more comical in person.  Although he possessed a thick Irish accent Gurley was actually a ‘Manchester Irishman’, which means he was of Irish parentage but born in Manchester.  He came to Oshawa in 1856 and married Jane Stephenson on January 22 1862.  The only record that survives of their children is that Jane gave birth to a daughter on October 23 1871.

There are many interesting stories about the numerous incidents that George had to deal with as Constable.  One of the funnier ones involves a pair of shears that were stolen from the police office.  A newspaper report of the incident describes that Constable Gurley made an “exhaustive search” of the police office and the area around it during the day.  Finally he became resigned to the fact that the criminal would not be caught and simply bought a new pair.  He also was assigned to find a missing coat.  Apparently a visiting businessman left it on a fence post in the morning and returned after conducting affairs all day to find it stolen.  Constable Gurley was dispatched to serve justice but was unable to find who the culprit was.

George also had to deal with some rather unusual situations.  A stray cow was hit once by a ‘down special’ railcar a few roads west of the Simcoe railway street crossing.  The train was not damaged but the cow had its hind legs broken and its shoulder cut.  The owner of the cow refused to put it out of its misery, as he feared he would not receive compensation from the rail company so Constable Gurley had to end the creature’s life.

Another incident survives on record from 1871.  George was called out to Hinde’s Hotel to stop ‘a row’ in progress.  The Constable was kicked by one of the troublemakers, Michael Kennedy, who was soon after arrested.  After Gurley refused to let the boy out on bail Michael’s father, Matthew Kennedy, threw a large rock and hit George in the back of the neck.  A doctor stated later that if it had landed three inches up it might have killed the Constable.  The father was committed to jail and the boy got to choose between a fine of ten dollars or thirty days in jail.

George was known to be an Orangeman and a staunch British Loyalist, therefore it is no surprise that he participated in the Fenian Raid of 1866.  Unhappy with the interference of the British in Ireland, many Americans in the North Eastern States decided to invade Canada, then a British colony, in retaliation.  Many Canadians took up arms in anticipation of the attack and George fought with the Oshawa Troops.

By Jennifer Weymark, Archivist; This originally appeared in the Oshawa Express, 2009

poster copy

All About Atlases

By Jennifer Weymark, Archivist

One of the most popular reasons people have for contacting the archives is looking for help with researching the history of their home.  This type of research can be tricky in that there may not be a lot of early information on that lot that survives today.

Once a researcher has determined the lot number of the land they are researching a county atlas can help shed some light on the early land owners. In Canada, approximately 40 county atlases were published between 1874 and 1881.  Of these 40 or so different atlases, 32 focused on counties within Ontario.

When trying to research land located in what is now Oshawa, the 1877 atlas of the County of Ontario is a great place to start. Within the atlas is a detailed map of all of the lots that made up East Whitby Township the area that is now Oshawa.  The names of the owners of the lots are provided, as well as information such as locations of schools, churches, cemeteries and railroad lines. The 1877 atlas also contains a detailed map of the Village of Oshawa. While the owners of smaller lots are not indicated, those owning larger parcels of land are.  The map of the village shows many of the larger businesses from that time period, as well as how the streets were positioned and even now the creek impacted village growth.


Detail of 1895 County of Ontario Atlas, Oshawa Archives Collection

The atlas also provides the reader with short histories of the towns, townships and villages, along with a variety of other information such as the locations of harbours, roads and railways.

The archives has several original prints of the 1877 County of Ontario atlas, as well as a couple of the reprinted ones that were published in 1972. The County of Ontario atlas was published by J.H. Beers & Co.  Beers & Company. Interestingly, this atlas was actually simultaneously published by both J.H. Beers & Company and H. Beldon & Company. The atlases produced were identical with the exception of the title pages. It is unclear why both companies chose to publish the atlas in this manner.

Prior to publishing the books, subscriptions were sold for those who wished to be included in the patron’s directory.  Subscriptions were also sold to those who wished to have a lithograph of their portrait, home or business included in the publication. The 1877 County of Ontario atlas contains numerous lithographs that may interest a person researching Oshawa.  For example, there are two images side-by-side of Ellesmere Hall, the former home of Hon. T.N. Gibbs and Prospect Park, the former home of W.H. Gibbs.  Today, Ellesmere Hall is where Village Union Public School is located and Prospect Park is where Parkwood Estate stands today.

This article originally appeared in the Oshawa Express, 2015.

Oshawa Museum: Home To Our History

By Laura Suchan, Executive Director

Next year not only is Canada celebrating an anniversary, so is the Oshawa Historical Society: 60 years of promoting awareness and appreciation of Oshawa’s history. Looking to the future, the Board of Directors thought an anniversary was a good time to refresh our image.  That’s why the Board decided to shortened our name to  Oshawa Museum, from Oshawa Community Museum, the name we have been using for about 20 years.  The new name doesn’t erode our identity in any way, instead better reflects the scope of work we do at the museum. Oshawa Museum represents the future direction of the site, the focus on professionalism, excellence in our field and providing Oshawa and its residents with an engaging and informative  look at our history.


Along with the new name, we have chosen a new tagline, “Home to our History.” Again, we feel this pays homage to the idea that the three museum buildings were at one time  family homes while the word “our” connects us to the community.

To complement our new name and tagline is our new logo designed by the very talented Chris Abbott. Chris is from Oshawa and was able to bring a fresh perspective to our brand.  Chris used words such as “contemporary,” “interactive,” and “inclusive” as inspiration and came up with a design that we feel is fresh and current and positions us well  to embark on our next phase of growth.  We love our new look and  am excited for what the future holds.


Oshawa Schoolbooks

By Jillian Passmore, Visitor Experience Co-ordinator

Recently I was organizing the museum’s education collection and putting items from the schoolroom exhibit into storage. I went on to check the dates of all of our schoolbooks to ensure they dated back to the time period we were depicting. To my surprise I found eight books that contained names of Oshawa students, teachers, schools and even some amusing graffiti.

The dates of the books range from 1868 – 1929. “By this time the school readers had been made containing more imaginative prose and poetry Literature had been added to the elementary curriculum. The teacher read stories to the classes from any book or periodical he or she might have had on hand, or, a story from a book that some of the pupils had brought to school.”[1]  Surprisingly most of the schoolbooks that were found are Ontario and Canadian based. In the early days of education many children in Upper Canada studied from European, UK and American books because that was all that was available. The books this blog post are based on are: Canadian Series Fourth Reader (1868), Canadian Series Spelling  Book (1868), The Ontario Readers Fourth Reader (1885), High School Physical Science (1895), The Ontario Public School Speller (1909), The Ontario Readers Primer (1909), A Junior History of England (1929) and My Spelling Grade 5 (1943).

Five out of the eight books were used at different schools: Mary Street School, Westmount School, Simcoe Street School, and Centre Street School/Central School, with Mary Street and Centre Street Schools bring two of the oldest in Oshawa. The Junior History of England book belonged to Janet Oke who lived at 268 Ritson Road South in Oshawa and had Mr. Davidson as her Grade 8 teacher in Room 15. Unfortunately we don’t know what school she went to. It is possible that she may have attended Centre Street School as it would have been large enough by then to have at least 15 rooms.

Westmount School, from the Oshawa Archives Collection

Westmount School, from the Oshawa Archives Collection

This book also contains graffiti that seems to have been written by Janet.

“This book is full of words,

As full as it can be.

It killed the jerk who wrote it,

And now it’s killing me.”


“History is an awful thing,

And awful it may be.

It killed the early Romans,

And now it’s killing me.”

Graffiti found on the inside cover of A Junior History of England (18th Printing, 1949)

Graffiti found on the inside cover of A Junior History of England (18th Printing, 1949)

Another of the books also contains graffiti. The Ontario Readers Fourth Reader (1885), was owned by Miss Maude H. Clarke in 1907.  She attended Centre Street School at the time.

“If my name you wish to see, turn to page 107.

If my name you wish to find,

Shut the book and nevermind.”


“If this book begins to roam,

Shut the book and nevermind.”


“Steal not this book my honest friend,

For fear the gallows will be thy end,

And when you die the Lord will say,

Where is the book you stole away?

And if you say I do not know,

The Lord will say ‘Go down below.’

And if you say ‘I got it here.’

The Lord will say ‘Come in my dear.”


“Steal not this book for fear of strife,

For the owner carries a big jackknife.”


“Steal not this book, for when you die,

The Lord will say ‘Where is the book you stole away?’

And if you say ‘I do not know’,

The Lord will say ‘Go down below.’

And if you say ‘I got it here.’

The Lord will say ‘Come right…’

In 1996, the book was donated in memory of Nathan “Ned” Smith, who was caretaker of Lakeview Park from the 1930s to 1942, by his grandchildren: Jean Landale, Georgina Bryant, Francis Shirlock, Gail Richard, Kenneth Munro, Linda Munro. At this time it is unclear if Maude Clarke and the Smith family are related.

The High School Physical Science (1895) book was owned by sister and brother, Margaret and Donald Hawkes. They went to Oshawa High School, now O’Neill CVI, and one of their teachers was Mr. Louis Stevenson as noted in the text book. According to Olive French “He was an excellent teacher and tolerated no nonsense in his classes.”[2]

Oshawa High School, c. 1911, from the Oshawa Archives collection

Oshawa High School, c. 1911, from the Oshawa Archives collection

It is interesting how much information we can glean from these textbooks beyond what is printed on its pages – who was teaching at the time, how long the books were used past their publishing date, what kind of language and slang the kids were using at the time. This blog post has inspired me to do some more research into the children’s families and teachers mentioned. They will be part of my ongoing research project into various aspects of the early education system in Oshawa.


For more information on Oshawa’s early education history, please visit our website, featuring Olive French’s unpublished manuscript.

[1] French, Olive. Olive French Manuscript. 1871-1920. P.7

[2] French, Olive. Olive French Manuscript 1921-1967. P. 75