HISTORIC ST. MARYS - Genealogy Research at the St. Marys Museum

  • History   Wednesday, September 8, 2021   Mary Smith

By Mary Smith
The St. Marys Museum was established almost 75 years ago by members of the Women’s Institute. The purpose was to collect and preserve artifacts that would tell future generations something about life in early St. Marys. In the 1950s, many of these Institute members were themselves becoming elderly. Some came from families that had been in the St. Marys area for several generations and were not that far removed from the 19th century struggles to clear land and establish new homes. They knew some of the personal stories of the donor families and believed that when a story was attached to an artifact, it became a much more interesting item to display.
As the years went on, the Institute volunteers who had started the St. Marys Museum turned its operation over to the town and to professionally trained staff. By then, the importance of retaining links between donations and the history of the area was well-established. When an object was donated, staff recorded when the donor’s family had acquired it, how it had been made, where it had been used, whatever else made it special.
This led to the accumulation of considerable material about the history of these donor families, where they came from, where exactly they had lived, what family members had done for a living. And the Museum was asked to share this information. Requests came from people in other parts of Ontario, from other provinces, from the United States and other countries. If they believed that they were related to an early St. Marys family, they asked whether the Museum could tell them more about these ancestors. Visitors started to arrive at the door, not only for the exhibits but also for family research. This was clearly a service people wanted and one they were willing to spend time and money pursuing. Museum staff and volunteers set out to gather resources so that ample and reliable information on local history would be available not only to these genealogists but also to other researchers.
In 1980, the St. Marys Historical Society and the Journal Argus had received a grant to microfilm copies of local newspapers, dating back to the 1850s, held in storage in the old Journal Argus building on Queen Street. Then, student employment projects over several summers saw the earliest papers indexed for marriage, birth and death announcements. Index card files were also created for other categories including local businesses, churches, schools, crimes, accidents, sports and entertainment. By the end of the final summer of this project, the newspapers covering the earliest years from 1859 to 1912 had been read and indexed and all surviving newspapers had been microfilmed.
In 1981, the microfilm and the drawers of index cards were placed in the Museum, available for visiting researchers but also for staff members doing research to prepare for upcoming exhibits and local history programs. Among the previous three decades of donations to the Museum, there were hundreds of old photographs. These also were organized, placed in acid-free envelopes and indexed by subject to assist researchers. These resources could be used together to learn more about a topic – and they still are today.
For example, the researcher in the photograph with this week’s column is looking for information about the Weir family who owned Cadzow Park and lived in the Museum house when it was a private home from the late 1870s until the early 1920s. She has a photograph from the Museum’s collection, the wedding portrait of one of the Weir daughters, Frances, with her husband, Henry Wilson. (The picture is a copy – the original photograph is very old and not handled unnecessarily.) The researcher first looked in the newspaper marriage, birth and death index and discovered that there was a notice about the wedding in the St. Marys Argus, May 29, 1873. She found the microfilm reel for that date and checked to see whether the notice provided any further information about the event. It mentioned that the marriage took place at the bride’s home in Downie Township. She learned that Frances was married before her family moved to Cadzow Park.
Other items in the marriage, birth and death files show that Henry and Frances had several children. Sadly, an indexed item in the Argus of January 23, 1896, announced the death of their youngest daughter, 11-year-old Haidee Louise. The researcher looked up the short obituary in the Argus and learned that Haidee, “a clever and engaging child,” died from consumption (tuberculosis) “in spite of medical care and every attention loving hands could afford.” There are several photographs of the Wilsons indexed in the photograph files. One shows Frances on the veranda of her home, 84 Church Street South, not far from her family at Cadzow Park.
More information about the Wilsons can be located in the index to the St. Marys Cemetery, created by the Perth County branch of the Ontario Genealogical Society. This valuable reference lists alphabetically all the names inscribed on the gravestones, the section of the cemetery for each stone and the location within the section. The Museum acquired a copy of this index in the 1980s. The inscription on the Wilson gravestone shows that Henry died in 1911 and Frances in 1915. They are buried together in the same plot as young Haidee and an infant son, Percival, who was only a few months old when he died in 1883.
Today, many resources for research into family history are available on-line. These include census records from 1851 to 1921, digitized at the Library and Archives Canada website. There are also subscription genealogy websites, the most popular being Ancestry, containing useful information about many families world-wide. There are on-line indexes to cemeteries that include photographs of each stone. However, when the St. Marys Museum first began to build its reference material, these on-line resources were not even foreseen. Researchers had to locate the information, travel to the source, read the documents, make notes and then organize their findings for future use.
A plaque on the wall of the reference room bears the names of the contributors to the development of research resources at the Museum through the 1980s and 1990s. They include Hilda Andrews, the remarkable volunteer who for many years was responsible for answering requests for family history information and for organizing a filing system to maintain records of all these requests. Several dedicated researchers are mentioned because of their generosity in sharing their material, including relevant photographs. They include Elsie Turnbull, Don Whetstone, Eva Macke, Rick Holt and Mildred Creech – researchers who also became friends. Gordon and Georgina Smith donated the Museum’s first good microfilm reader and in 1990, the Museum received a community grant from the Campbell Soup Company to purchase its first desktop computer – the beginning of digital organization of reference material.
Both John Mervyn Milne and Greta Allin Stone Milne have their names on this plaque. Their contributions require a separate column.