By Laurie McBurney
Hi, everyone! I’m a Carleton University history student. I am working on a practicum at the Museum of Lennox and Addington which ends in December.
What is a practicum anyway?
A practicum is a program designed to give a student some work experience outside the traditional classroom setting and provide the opportunity to apply some of their historical training to help an organization, like the Archives, meet its own institutional goals. In my time here, I hope to provide the Archives with a short, well-researched history of a small rural area of Napanee.
I am grateful that Archivist Heather Wilson agreed to oversee my practicum. Taking this on has certainly added to the workload of a very busy person. Heather directs me in accessing and using archival records, suggests next steps when I am running into blind alleys – which has happened often – and will write a final report on my activities when the practicum ends.
Heather and I decided my project would be to research and write about a small tomato cannery located on County Road 9 on the north shore of Hay Bay (also referred to as CR 9 tomato cannery). This topic was of personal interest to me, since the cannery was apparently located on my own and my next-door neighbour’s property. I also thought it would be of general interest to the public as an example of one of the myriad ways area farmers were able to earn supplementary income to support their families.
The Elusive cr 9 tomato cannery - lost to time or never existed?
Initially, the only information I had about the CR 9 tomato cannery was what I had heard during casual chats with a few neighbours. I believed it would be fairly simple to confirm that information and flesh it out with a little research into the archival records. I assumed there would be ads and stories in local newspapers, perhaps mentions in local memoirs, clippings and photos in the local Women’s Institute Tweedsmuir History Books, business listings in old phone books.
After several days of reviewing all these archival materials and more, I came up dry. I found no information about a cannery on CR 9 at all. Concerned that my practicum was heading for disaster, I spoke to Heather about changing the focus of my research to a more generalized history of CR 9, including the little one-room schoolhouses; the five churches that made up the “Bay Circuit;” the building of CR 9 itself, including its widening in the 1960s or 70s; and the ferries that plied Hay Bay between the north and south shores. We agreed to chart a new course.
Neighbourhood stories and memories
But, you know, it seems the minute you decide there is no further information to be found via your own method, the information seems to come forward all on its own. And historical research is rarely done in a straightforward fashion. If you think it’s easy to go down rabbit holes on the Internet, try reading through a personal memoir. Tantalizing little clues pop up on nearly every page, just begging you to veer off your original course and investigate further. And I did indeed to veer to find out the truth of the CR 9 tomato cannery; I veered right off the document track and right back to the neighbours from whom I heard about the cannery in the first place.
It turns out my neighbours were doing some of my research for me – by talking to other people in the community. They discovered that they knew someone who knew someone else who remembered the CR 9 tomato cannery. When I interviewed the “people who knew”, they not only verified the presence of the mysterious cannery, but they were able to provide the names of the people who operated it.
They had memories of their farmer fathers loading up bushel baskets of tomatoes on wagons to take to the cannery. They remembered their aunts and mothers peeling tomatoes at the cannery warehouse. And they even recollected the noise of the factory and the smell of the waste it produced. Even better, they knew approximately when the cannery closed and who bought it.
This was great information! I could picture women in aprons, surrounded by simmering pots of water, wiping the sweat off their brows as they peeled endless piles of tomatoes on hot summer days. I could see the overall-clad farmers lining up in their wagons, waiting their turn to have their produce weighed.
verifying memories with documentation
Unfortunately, up to this point, all of these pictures exist only in my own imagination. The people who have personal experience of the CR 9 tomato cannery unfortunately have no pictures or documentation about it. No receipts for tomatoes delivered, no pay stubs representing the long, hot hours of peeling tomatoes.
I do know now that the cannery existed and the approximate dates it operated. Consultation with the land registry tells me who owned the property at the time. I know who the cannery sold to – a bigger operation in Deseronto. These are all leads that I can follow up on to hopefully flesh out a fuller picture of a small industrial operation that helped farmers and their families make ends meet through some rough years in the farming business. It is a story I can document as best as I am able before it is lost in time. It is a story I can include in my more generalized research project about the history of CR 9, for which the Archives holdings have provided a wealth of information in personal memoirs, the Women’s Institute and the valuable scrapbooks they created that reflect the history of their communities at the time, the stories of the little local churches and schools contained in minute books, in the Trinity United Church archives, the newspaper reports and architectural investigations.
the value of our archives
There are many ways to research history. As my CR 9 tomato cannery story demonstrates, the personal memories of people are of vital importance. But we need to preserve the documentation, the wills, the pictures, the newspapers, and, even more critically today, our digital records that are so easily erased or discarded due to technical advances, to verify personal remembrance and to give us a broader understanding of our history and what brought us to where we are today. Our archives are essential to this endeavour.
I am grateful to the Museum of Lennox and Addington for allowing me to do my practicum at their wonderful institution. More particularly, I am grateful to Archivist Heather Wilson, whose duties have been made more onerous by agreeing to supervise me, and is always available, always helpful and always finds different routes to teasing out information significant to my project. I also thank Liam Kishinevsky, a History graduate and Archives volunteer who has generously given me access to his research; Peggy King, Trinity United Church Archivist, who has been invaluable in providing information about the Bay circuit churches; County Road 9 neighbours who shared their memories about the CR 9 tomato cannery, particularly Ralph Bedwell and Al Sherman; and Wayne Bower – a published genealogist and very supportive husband, who spent many an autumn afternoon on County Road 9 with his directionally challenged spouse pinpointing the location of long-gone schools and churches.