Volunteering in the Times of COVID

By Lisa Terech, Community Engagement

The COVID crisis hit Ontario in early March, and by March 13, the Oshawa Museum made the decision to close our doors to the public. Staff continued to work from home remotely, but essentially all volunteering came to a halt at that time. Museums benefit from volunteers in so many ways, from the volunteers who help at events, being wonderful ambassadors for the site, helping behind the scenes, and being just a wonderful complement to the staff.  To say we miss our volunteers is an understatement; their presence is missed every day.

Not all volunteering stopped, for as restrictions began to lift, we were able to safely accommodate and welcome back our garden volunteers, who have worked throughout the summer to keep the gardens around the museum looking their very best.

But, due to space constraints currently at the Museum, we cannot safely have volunteers on site because social distancing would not be achievable.  So, we started thinking about ways that we can have volunteer engagement and participation, but in a remote capacity. Enter the Audio Transcription Project.

Our archival collection is vast and varied: legal documents, photographs, diaries, newspapers, and a large collection of audio cassettes. Yes, that’s right. Audio Cassettes. In case this technology is a little before your time, we’re talking about these:

This collection features historical talks, oral interviews, and the like.  We saw this collection as a great starting point for creating at-home volunteer opportunities.

Staff began the project, digitizing the cassettes using a handy devise that turns the audio into an MP3. However, what is of great benefit is having a written transcript of the audio file.  This transcript not only is makes searching the content of the audio file simple and quick, it also makes an audio file accessible to those who are hearing impaired, thereby increasing accessibility to the collection.

The project is being facilitated over our Google Drive – volunteers can sign up for which audio file they want to work on, and the MP3s are accessible from that same online folder. In the month of August, when we launched the project, volunteers contributed over fifty hours to this project, and we are so very thankful for the work they are doing!

If you are interested in helping with this project, please email Lisa at membership@oshawamuseum.org


What we’ve learned!

In the 1980s, there was an interview with a Mrs. Mechin, and one of our volunteers has transcribed the audio. Within the interview, Mrs. Mechin, a Robinson descendant, talked about her history of employment:

MRS MECHIN: And, when Burt and I were sleigh riding, I was six and he was seven. And I was fitted the night before, and it was across the fields, there was a hill, a pastor field. And, halfway down the hill, there was a, a wooden fence. A rail fence. And, so we took a notion, we would take our sleigh and go to the top of this hill down. And, of course it went pretty fast, it’s just, just like ice, right? I see, I can see the sun shining on it now, just like diamonds you know. And, I-I sat down, I had long coat on, at the back, and he sat down at the front, he was gonna steer. Of course he sat on my coat, I guess my feet were around him, I don’t know, I can’t remember that but, I ran into the fence, and hurt my hand. So, then I was operated on, had the bone removed and diseased in 1917. That’s why I left Fittings, because my health wasn’t good… So, then I was home three months, or at least I was away three months. And, then I went to Hallett’s store and George [Hazelwood] interviewed me, and I got in the [General] Motors’ office. But, that was before the carriage business was settled up… And, I worked for the manager there… Ms.Keddy, was sick at the time, so I took over her, she used to write letters about the liens on the cars around the carriages… So, I took that job over as well. I did, that was in 1914, and I worked there for three years.

INTERVIEWER: You worked there during the war years?

MRS MECHIN: Well, I worked their four, four years, yeah. Mhmm. 1918

Percy Ibbotson, another Robinson descendant, shares his memories of Robinson House:

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

In 1983, Rev. E. Frazer Lacey gave a presentation about the 150 year history of the congregation of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian, where he shared a story about Rev. Thornton during the 1837 Rebellion:

1837 was the year of the Mackenzie rebel, and Thornton was sympathetic to the cause, to the issue, he was for representative democracy, as he was also for free and open education, he was certainly against the family compact. And so here he was torn, loyalist in terms of British connection, but reformist in his social concern. The rebellion was put down, but Thornton received a real setback, troops of the loyalist cause, took a shot at him one night as he came home from a meeting.

50 Years of the Robinson House Museum

Today, October 25, marks Robinson House’s 50th birthday of being a museum! To celebrate this anniversary, we’re looking back at the history of this home.

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Robinson House is the youngest of our three museum buildings, constructed in the mid-1850s for members of the Robinson Family.  For many years, it was believed that the construction was overseen by John Robinson, the patriarch, however, research in the early 2010s has proven this to be untrue.  In fact, John may have never stepped foot in the home which is his namesake, having moved to Iowa and re-settling there sometime in the 1850s.  The original inhabitants of Robinson House were John’s wife Ruth, their daughter Eunice, her husband Richard, and their family.

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Robinson House later was owned by Eunice’s brother Cornelius, arguably the Robinson with the strongest ties to the home and certainly well remembered by those in the community.  Douglas Mackie, a child living in Henry House in the 1910s, remembered Cornelius as such:

“The face and figure of Cornelius Robinson remain shadowy to me except for his long grey beard. But I do remember his lantern. He would walk from Robinson House, as it is called now, to our place in the evening, carrying this lantern. Our farm lanterns were ordinary everyday lanterns designed to shine light from all sides, but his was a beautiful red one, with one side shielded by a metal reflector, to light his way while walking.  He would talk and talk long after my brother and I were put to bed. Oddly enough, I can’t remember if he was married, had a family, or was a bachelor. If the thought ever crossed my young mind it seemed to me he lived alone.”

Dr. Hoig also paints a picture of this man, describing Cornelius as “a very dark man who wore earrings and lived in the white brick house where the road turns east along the water front.”

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Upon Cornelius’s death in 1921, the house was passed to his daughter, also named Eunice.  After a number of decades, the house sat vacant, a shadowy place for children who grew up around Oshawa-on-the-Lake.

“It was more of a mystery to the kids of the area. We would dare each other to go into the Robinson House, because in the winter months no one tended to live in the house. We would climb up to the main level. For some reason on the main level of the house there was a pile of leather cuttings. The kids used to dare one another to get pieces of leather to prove their entry into the house. You were really brave if you brought back a piece of leather!” ~Douglas Mackie

“It was a place we didn’t go near for fear it would fall on us, or a ghost would appear.” ~Darlene Williams

“Once we discovered an entry into the house, it became our playhouse. We swept out the old kitchen and it seems to me that there was an old bed. I remember telling my Mom about the fun we were having over there. She told me not to go on the bed in case it had bedbugs. That was enough to scare us for a while. ~Linda Cory Bazowsky

Eunice died in Toronto in 1963 and the City of Oshawa purchased the home the following year with the intention of demolishing the then-derelict house and improving the park land.  The Oshawa and District Historical Society saw potential in the building and put forth a number of proposals to save the building; the City transferred ownership to the ODHS in 1965 for the purpose of restoration and use as a museum.  The society already operated the Henry House Museum and saw potential in Robinson House as being a Centennial project.

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One of the largest stumbling blocks was fundraising for the restoration, however, this project was truly championed by Verna Conant who wrote letters, advocated, and truly spearheaded the fundraising initiatives.  A building permit was issued in 1967, and on October 25, 1969, the Robinson House Museum officially opened to the public.

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One of the earliest exhibits in the Robinson House Museum was the tavern. For decades, it was believed Robinson House was once an inn and tavern, and this exhibit reflected that believed myth.  While it makes an interesting story, Robinson House was never an inn or tavern.  Other long-time favourite exhibits were the Children’s Discovery Gallery, the General Store Exhibit, and the one-room Schoolhouse exhibit.

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Today, Robinson House is our exhibition space.  The upper storey is home to our permanent exhibit A Carrying Place: Oshawa’s Indigenous Story, while the bottom floor is used for feature exhibition space.  The Oshawa Museum celebrates the history of our city, and this history is certainly diverse! Past feature exhibits have included Tales from the Tracks: Oshawa Railway, Mourning After: The Victorian Celebration of Death, Community Health in the 20th Century, Celebrating 60, and currently on display is The Vintage Catwalk.

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For the last 50 years, Robinson House has been an important part of the Museum, and the house itself is one of our most important (and arguably our largest) artefact. Happy birthday, Robinson House Museum!

Giving Tuesday & The 2018 Curator’s Most Wanted List

By Laura Suchan, Executive Director

We have two days that are good for the economy. Now we have a day that is good for the community too.” GivingTuesday.ca

Once again the Oshawa Museum is taking part  in the global movement known as GivingTuesday. Taking place the Tuesday after Black Friday and Cyber Monday, it is unofficially known as the “opening day of the giving season.” It is a time for charities, companies and individuals to join together and celebrate their favourite causes. (GivingTuesday.ca)

Our staff chose the artefact collection as the focus of the Oshawa Museum’s Giving Tuesday celebration.  A great deal of our work at the Oshawa Museum (OM) centres around the collection which numbers in excess of 50,000 objects.  Collecting the artefacts is only one piece of the puzzle. One of the most important aspects of the collecting process is the curation or, in other words, how the collection is accumulated and selected for acquisition,  presentation and preservation.  Melissa Cole and Jennifer Weymark are the staff members responsible for curating the OM’s collection.  In this process they are guided by their professional knowledge and a collection policy to ensure our collection is diverse and representative of the history of Oshawa and includes the voices, stories and artefacts of all those who have called Oshawa home. In order to strategically develop the collection for future generations, we rely on donations of both money and artefacts. Donations in any amount help us to purchase items we feel will help tell a more inclusive history of our City. We are also asking you to search your attics and basements for artefacts that will help us with our work.

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To help you, Jennifer and Melissa recently came up with a Curator’s Top 5  Most Wanted artefacts.

  1. Items related to the Henry, Guy and Robinson families including photographs, land deeds, letters, artefacts.
  2. Examples of Smith Potteries pieces or items related to the business. Currently the OM has 25 pieces of Smith Potteries, and we hope to grow this number and learn more about the business that operated in Oshawa from 1925-1949.
  3. Oshawa historic newspapers especially from the period 1880-1930. There are large gaps in the newspaper collection during these years.  Complete newspapers are great, however we also are interested in incomplete copies or single pages.
  4. Anything related to industry and manufacturing, labour history and the 1937 strike.
  5. A more inclusive look at Oshawa’s history means we must do a better job at telling the stories of our diverse community. Current research projects include early Black and Asian history as well as Displaced Persons.

Once again we are asking our members to join us in preserving Oshawa’s  history by helping us to purchase or by donating items that are on the Curator’s Top 5 Most Wanted List.

Recently the staff was sadden to learn of the passing of  one of our long time friends, Tedd Hann.

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Tedd Hann, Jillian Passmore, and Jacquie Frank

Tedd spent many years working for a bread company and then started work with the City of Oshawa.  He retired more than 18 years ago.  Tedd was an accomplished curler and once played on a team that scored an eight ender (a perfect score). Many of our  members will recall Tedd’s Uncle Earl, one of the founding members of the OHS.  Tedd said he donated to the museum in Earl’s memory, after all it was Earl who first got Tedd interested in the work of the museum.   Through donations to the Artefact Fund, Tedd  helped the museum  purchase an exhibit case, publish our WWII book, Stories from the Homefront, repatriate a pair of Ritson Pear Trees and conserve the Granny Cock painting.  Tedd said he got a “great deal of satisfaction” from supporting the museum and was happy to “continue Earl’s work.”

History organizations make their communities more attractive places in which to live, work, learn and play.  A strong arts and culture community is important to the livability and vitality of a community.   Would you be willing to make a donation of $25, $50, $100 or more to help us meet our goal?  Please use this link to make a donation: http://bit.ly/top-5-artefacts. You can also send your donation by mail to Oshawa Historical Society, 1450 Simcoe Street South, Oshawa, Ontario L1H 8S8.

We thank you for your support to strategically manage and develop the collection as a growing resource for education and research.  We also extend an invitation to you to visit the Oshawa Museum and experience first-hand Oshawa’s Home to History.

Student’s Museum ‘Musings’ – Caitlan

Since the last time, I told you that I was starting to work on the Robinson Book. So far, so good! The first rough draft has been printed and we have begun the first round of editing – So far everyone seems to enjoy it! Also I told you how I never did tours with my morning co-op and how I was afraid to mess up. I was quite surprised to find how much the information was in my head. Although my first tour was nerve racking, now when I go on a tour my mouth just seems to work on its own!

Robinson House on a lovely summer day
Robinson House on a lovely summer day

The book and tours were not only my first here at the museum; last Thursday was the museum’s first summer garden tea. It was also my first tea and it went perfectly. The sky was clear and blue, it was not too hot plus all the guests had really big smiles on their faces! Setting up and taking down all the tables was a bit hard, as I do not exactly have a whole lot of strength, but the food definitely made up for that! Towards the end of the tea when some of the guest left for the tour I was caught a couple times by Laura Suchan stuffing my mouth full of the leftover sandwiches. In all truthfulness, they were absolutely delicious and I just could not help myself (the cucumber and cream cheese is my favourite!)  Although I am not the type of girl that likes to wear dresses or skirts and having to wear the costumes is really awkward for me, the amount of fun I am having here is definitely worth it!

Lastly I have begun to transcribe letters we received that the Henry family wrote. One really stood out to me so far. It was written by George to his mother, Lurenda, shortly after Thomas’ death. George talks about how much it hurts to lose a father but it hurts even more to see his mother in pain. George continues on with this beautifully well-written metaphor on life. He says life is like a “great train” that we’re all “stepping off one by one”. That there is no return train and “all alone we walk through the dark vally and shadow of death with the blessed hope of the saviours strong arm to lean upon.”  At the end of the letter he writes “I remain as ever your son George”. While reading this letter you just become lost in his words and you could sense his pain he had after losing his father. The letter was absolutely heart breaking to read yet so incredibly beautiful. 

Letter from George Henry to his mother Lurenda, 1880.
Letter from George Henry to his mother Lurenda, 1880.

Student’s Museum ‘Musings’ – Caitlan

HI, it’s me again, Caitlan, you all know me as the co-op student here at the museum. I have had a blast here. I love my mornings here and I know I originally I said I would be here till mid June. But it seems the museum and I are not ready to part ways yet. I am very excited to say that I will be here till the end of August. I will be continuing my co-op until my ‘last day’, June 18, and then I become part of the staff.

Catilan working hard in the Programming Office
Catilan working hard in the Programming Office

Over the next 2 months I will be working on the Robinson book. It seems the museum has loved all my photo manipulations and poster designs that the museum, that they want me to design the book. I want to keep a similar layout as The Story of Henry House, as the book will be quite similar; the Robinson book will also have about the family, the house & lot and the house as a museum, so I want it to have the similar feel. Also one thing that I never got to do since I have morning co-op was the tours, but since I will be here for the summer I will start doing tours. Although I am a bit nervous for giving tours I know I will have all the information down pat in no time. I encourage anyone to come down have a tour, take a walk on the path by the lake, I can say you will have a great day!       

One of Caitlan's photo manipulations.  The Robinsons of yesterday come back to their house today...
One of Caitlan’s photo manipulations. The Robinsons of yesterday come back to their house today…