By Lisa Terech, Community Engagement
It was fanfare and long lineups that met the official opening of the Henry House Museum on May 21, 1960. It was the opening of the first community museum in Oshawa, and it was the result of the hard work of the founding members of the Oshawa (and District) Historical Society.
In the late 1950s, community members became concerned about the condition of Henry House, and this was the impetus to establish the Historical Society in 1957. That year, alderman Walter Lane had originally proposed the idea of a historical museum for Oshawa. “Such an institution was long overdue in Oshawa…The alderman told council that countless items of historic interest were lost for the future everyday and just thrown away when the older people were dying” (Oshawa Times, May 7, 1957).
Oshawa Historical Society members “had given considerable consideration to transforming the house into a museum of early Oshawa history” (Oshawa Times, December 1, 1958). On March 20, 1959, members of the ODHS received the news that they could use Henry House as a local museum. They would have just over one year to make the house and collection presentable to the public.
Henry House officially opened as a museum at 2:30 p.m. on Saturday May 21, 1960. Former Oshawa Mayor and Labour Minister Michael Starr was the official ribbon cutter and principle speaker was the Honourable B.L. Cathcart, Minister of Travel and Publicity. Other speakers included Mayor Lyman A. Gifford and MPP, T.D. Thomas. Guests were invited to hear the speakers outside of the house then view the exhibits inside, which included a period parlour, farm implements, and antique uniforms, weapons, books and pictures. Members of the ODHS served as guides through the afternoon and answering questions.
Between May 21 and October 10, 1960 the new museum saw over 1000 visitors pass through its door. “One young boy [visited] the museum every week of the summer, spending 15 cents of his 25 cent per week allowance” (Oshawa This Week, August 21, 1985).
By the end of the decade, the ODHS saw its Museum operation responsibilities double with the opening of the Robinson House Museum, and by the early 1980s, they were operating as the unified Oshawa Sydenham Museum and exploring adding Guy House to the complex, which happened in 1984 and opened in 1985.
Years of operation and thousands of visitors were beginning to take its toll on the home. In 1988, Henry House was closed for restoration after the second storey was deemed unsafe. At this time, the entire ground floor was rebuilt and steel structural support beams were added to offer additional support for the second storey. On July 1, 1989 Henry House was officially reopened, with dignitaries such as Mayor Allan Pilkey, Museum Advisor Allan Barnes from the Ministry of Culture and Communications and Mrs. Mildred Fletcher, the great-granddaughter of Thomas Henry, on hand to cut the ribbon and celebrate this occasion. Also cause for celebration was that the three houses of the museum became the first homes in Oshawa to be designated for their historical importance under the Ontario Heritage Act.
Since the last major restoration, the focus has shifted towards representing the day-to-day life of the Henry family as accurately as possible. Rooms have been repurposed to reflect how the family would have lived. In its current incarnation, guests now visit a study, parlour, dining room, kitchen, and bedroom, and these rooms change seasonally. Homes today change their decor to reflect the seasons and holidays, and the Henry’s home in the 1800s likely would have as well. The home will also change if it suits the feature exhibition. The best example of this was in 2009 and 2015 for The Mourning After: The Victorian Celebration of Death, when Henry House became a house in mourning; the parlour was exhibited as though a funeral was going to take place, clocks were stopped, mirrors were covered, and crepe was placed at the door to indicate a death had taken place.
One of the more common questions asked on tour is about the objects on display and what was owned by the family. The house is largely filled with objects that were made in Oshawa or owned by different Oshawa families, but wherever possible, the house is furnished with objects that have provenance associated with the Henry family. For example, in the study, the first room guests see on tour, the desk belonged to Thomas Henry’s grandson, the settee in the room was his daughter Jennie’s, there is a cup on the desk belonging to Thomas, and the chair behind the desk was his as well. Some items, like a parasol owned by Frank and Millie Henry, were early donations to the site, while others, like Hortense Henry’s table in the parlour, were donated within the last decade.
Sixty years after officially opening its doors, we have temporarily closed for the safety of our staff and visitors during the COVID-19 pandemic. We are not celebrating like we thought we would be, but there are still ways you can experience Henry House in honour of its museum birthday. Our blog archive goes back to 2013, and the handy search bar makes searching easy.