Assiginack Museum marks its 60th anniversary

Some of the ensemble of the HMS Pinafore gather in their finery at the museum grounds.

MANITOWANING—Under a beaming June sun, the Assiginack Museum marked its 60th anniversary at its Manitowaning grounds Saturday, complete with a history lesson, musical entrainment and, of course, cake.

Mayor Paul Moffatt began the afternoon’s proceedings by offering his congratulations on the milestone. “It all happened because of a dedicated core of local people who wanted to preserve our history and heritage,” Mayor Moffatt said. “They worked really hard and made it a reality.”

Jean McLennan, the sole surviving museum founder shares her thoughts on “Northern Ontario’s best museum.”
Jean McLennan, the sole surviving museum founder shares her thoughts on “Northern Ontario’s best museum.”

The mayor noted that the museum grounds are significant to him in other ways too, as his grandmother was born in the museum building 136 years ago on May 24, 1880.

Long-time Assiginack Museum Board chair David Smith gave a history of the museum, saying that the Assiginack Historical Society had the foresight to begin this endeavour. He explained to the crowd that following the Second World War, people began to rid themselves of ‘junk,’ while at the same time entrepreneurs were snatching up said junk to sell as antiques.

The museum had its beginning in the old jail, specifically the cell and jailor’s office, “and what a perfect setting to house this,” Mr. Smith said. At the same time, the Assiginack Horticultural Society was formed to help beautify the grounds.

In the 1960s outbuildings, such as the blacksmith’s shop, were added to the grounds and in 1967, Canada’s centennial, the museum saw its first addition to the museum’s north side. “Onward and outward was the attitude of the day,” Mr. Smith said.

In the 1970s, the Historical Society was successful in securing the Norisle for the port of Manitowaning as well as ensuring the purchase of the Burns Wharf and Roller Mills by the municipality.

Carly Gordon (the Captain daughter in HMS Pinafore) blows the audience away with her phenomenal talent.
Carly Gordon (the Captain daughter in HMS Pinafore) blows the audience away with her phenomenal talent.

Also during this decade, the municipal office and library, which had shared the museum space, moved out to their then-new building on Spragge Street (now wholly occupied by the public library), giving the museum the opportunity to move to the front of the building. Mr. Smith, the long time principal of Assiginack Public School, recalled that he and his students made the museum transition over the course of the summer.

The 1980s saw, under the direction of the society, the renovation of the Burns Wharf Theatre and activities at Norisle Park. A 100 square foot room that “grew and grew and grew” was built in the 1990s, the major addition on the building’s south side.

“A very important component of these 60 years are the people who made it happen,” Mr. Smith said, joking that they’ve sometimes been known as the ‘hysterical society,’ made up of movers and shakers and the unafraid. “And whenever Jean McLennan moves, you better shake it boys,” he laughed.

Over the years, hundreds of thousands of dollars have been received through fundraising, donations or grants, he shared. “We were the first to get Nevada tickets,” Mr. Smith explained. “Val’s Place (now the Queen Street General Store) was the gambling hub of Manitowaning.”

Mayor Paul Moffat offers his remarks during the museum’s 60th celebrations.
Mayor Paul Moffat offers his remarks during the museum’s 60th celebrations.

Mr. Smith noted the society as being first on the scene at Michael’s Bay, bringing the tall ships in, having museum displays at Ontario Place and at the Ontario legislature, spearheading the 1996 year-long celebration of Assiginack’s birthday which culminated in ‘the book’: ‘A Time to Remember,’ now 20 years old.

“We planned for 50 pages but it grew and grew and grew,” Mr. Smith said, noting as well the growth of the collection.

“The buildings, artifacts, people and events have made for exciting 60 years,” he added.

Jean McLennan, the sole surviving member of the original founding board, turned the mic on Mr. Smith, praising him for all of his hard work. “Thanks to the free labour and volunteer work, it is now the best museum in Northern Ontario,” Ms. McLennan said matter-of-factly.

Curator Kelsey Maguire acknowledged former curator Jeanette Allan, Mr. Smith, Val Phillips and Ms. McLennan, presenting those on hand with a framed print of ‘Norisle Under the Full Moon’ by photographer Peter Baumgarten.

As a special treat during the afternoon celebration, The Islanders performed country favourites and several of the Burns Wharf Theatre Players cast of HMS Pinafore, to be staged this month, sang a few songs from the upcoming musical, complete with costumes. Mr. Smith also announced a new project to be completed by 2021, a book on the history of the Assiginack Historical Society (which had its beginnings before the museum) and the museum itself.

Long-time museum board chair Dave Smith gives a history of the museum.
Long-time museum board chair Dave Smith gives a history of the museum.

The Expositor spoke with Ms. McLennan following the presentation about her recollections of those early days.

She explained that the late George Bishop was the reeve at the time and he decided having a museum was a worthwhile endeavour.

“There were five women—Sarah Leeson, Blossom (Kathleen) Mastin, Viola Moody, Lily McCutcheon and myself,” Ms. McLennan said of the founding group. “We cleaned the building and Roy Fields had fireproof paint donated by the Owen Sound Transportation Company.”

“We had the room ready, but we had nothing to put in it,” she continued.

For the first two summers, Ms. McLennan and Mr. Fields combed the countryside looking for antiques in a pickup truck. She noted dishes, coal-oil lamps, a wool blanket and spinning wheel as some of the first items they received for the new museum.

“We had more fun,” the nonagenarian exclaimed.

“Dave Smith was one of the ones who came forward as chairman and guided us to where we are today,” Ms. McLennan continued. “It’s the best museum in Northern Ontario and I know because I’ve been to a lot of them. Dave worked tirelessly from when school was out until he went back in September.”

“This museum is my pride and joy,” Ms. McLennan concluded.

Museum curator Kelsey Maguire presents long-time board members Jean McLennan and Dave Smith with a framed Peter Baumgarten print.
Museum curator Kelsey Maguire presents long-time board members Jean McLennan and Dave Smith with a framed Peter Baumgarten print.