This week Ontario is celebrating Heritage, one of the more understated weeks in the Ontario calendar, unfortunately. For many people, the word “Heritage” refers to something that is not considered to be a part of their lives. Heritage means the Acropolis in Athens, or the Great Pyramid in Egypt, or some other wonderful ancient building. Eastern Ontario doesn’t really stand out for that kind of heritage.
But heritage (spelt with a small “h”) is so much more than just architecturally significant buildings. It also includes music, art, stories, songs, service clubs, festivals, and so much more. Our heritage, the heritage that is ours, is what we have received from our past, and that means what we have been given by those who came before us. Our heritage is people: the people who wrote and sang the songs, built the houses, farmed the land, joined the clubs and kept the social, cultural, spiritual and even political life of our communities alive for us to inherit.
This is our annual Heritage issue, and this time we want to put the spotlight on that aspect of our shared inheritance. People came here and settled the land, after other people had lived and valued it for centuries before them. People brought their songs and stories from elsewhere and made a new culture, a new identity, in Canada, in Ontario, in these municipalities. North Grenville may be only twenty years old this year, but it has deeper roots that go further back to South Gower, Oxford-on-Rideau, and the little village of Kemptville.
Heckston, Oxford Mills, Oxford Station, Bishop’s Mills and Burritt’s Rapids (with or without apostrophes!) have had a heritage of their own growing over the decades. Merrickville is celebrating its own 225th birthday this year. There have been other small communities that have known growth and decline over the years too. Patterson’s Corners, Newmanville, East Oxford, Bedell, Actons Corners, Farmer’s Union, Millar’s Crossing and others, all had their time, their stories and their people.
We have lost many fine buildings over the years, some of which are still missed, others we had no chance of saving. But we still have the heritage of the people who came before us. The North Grenville Historical Society, and the Merrickville and District Historical Society exist to record those stories, to keep alive the memories of times past, in photographs, letters, diaries, municipal records, family histories, and so many other formats. The archives operated by the two organisations in Kemptville and Burritt’s Rapids, all volunteer-run, are time capsules in which are preserved the history of our past, our shared story, which is our heritage.
But heritage is not just the past. We are part of the story too, and we add our part to it. We had the Dandelion Festival, now we have Kemptville Live. We’ve had HeyDays for years now, and we’ve added the Sweetheart Brunch to the story too. We lost Leslie Hall, but we’ve given new life to old buildings and, for good or ill, put up new structures that will be part of our future heritage. The Municipal Centre, Colonnade, some of the newer church buildings, will never be considered architectural beauties, but they are here now and our children’s children will wonder what we were thinking!
At a recent NG Historical Society meeting, Brenda Ball, of Hubbard & Co., spoke of the work her late husband and his team did in restoring and reinventing older buildings in Spencerville. And she pointed out that none of them have a heritage designation, yet they give the village a sense of its own identity, its heritage and the people who made it come alive. Sometimes, buildings matter only because of the people associated with them. The NG Archives has a wonderful sketched plan of Kemptville which lists every building in the Prescott-Clothier downtown area in 1872, naming every business and the occupant of each building. It was composed in 1957 by Eddie Hassard, who lived in South Burnaby, Vancouver, and he drew it from memory of what he called “my dear old home”. It is a remarkable testament to the power of heritage, to the importance of place and the people who made that place a “dear old home”.
We have many newcomers settling in our communities these days, and it is really important that they realise and value the roots of the place they have come to call home. The future of our service clubs and other voluntary organisations depends on new blood coming in, and this will only happen when people feel they are becoming part of something that has a history, traditions, a sense of identity that is different from somewhere else. So, our heritage, and our inheritance to future generations, is what we decide to build in to that heritage we have received. Political, cultural and social differences don’t matter in that context: they, too, add to the mosaic, to the story we share with past and future generations. Our heritage, at heart, is our people.