Historical association grows
L-R: Ted Duncan and John Merritt of the Simcoe County Historical Association, talk shop under an old maple tree while visiting the Oro African Methodist Episcopal Church, Tuesday. The group celebrated its 125th anniversary and is hoping to expand by connecting with other historical groups in the area. Mark Wanzel/Barrie Examiner/Postmedia Network
“Who we are is based on who we were.”
As one of the directors of the Simcoe County Historical Association, Judith Banville, who helped celebrate the organization’s 125 anniversary in 2016, believes that by looking back, we can see who we are as a community moving forward.
At the association’s annual general meeting earlier this month, Banville was appreciated for her work in 2015 documenting the 30th anniversary of the Barrie tornado in 1985.
“The tornado had the biggest impact on Barrie’s history,” Banville said. “It changed the psyche of Barrie forever.”
Banville’s documentary, called the Barrie Tornado Remembered, brought the historical event to life for those remembering the south-end’s devastation, and educated those people who weren’t in Barrie when the tornado struck on May 31, 1985.
Banville is one of a dozen people keeping the Simcoe County Historical Association relevant in the new millennium.
Initially established in 1891 as the Simcoe County Pioneer and Historical Society, it was restricted to early Canadian pioneers and their families, including Andrew F. Hunter, one of the first editors of the Barrie Examiner. In 1908, the society published the Simcoe County Pioneer Papers, which are still considered a valuable historical resource.
By the 1940s, the society had reorganized as the Huronia Historical Sites Association, and by 1971 it had morphed into its current format with more than 200 members.
Today, director John Merritt, says the association’s mission remains the same.
“We’ve always worked to preserve the history of the area,” Merritt said.
As a relatively new member, Merritt was encouraged by one of the association’s executives, Brad Rudachyk, to choose a local heritage site for his master’s thesis.
Rudachyk co-wrote Barrie's 150th anniversary book, 'Beautiful Barrie - The City and Its People, An Illustrated History' with Su Murdoch and K.H. Schick in 2005.
Merritt chose the African Methodist Episcopal Church on Line 3 in Oro-Medonte Township and said he was encouraged by the association when he won the Andrew F. Hunter prize for historical essays.
At the newly-renovated church on Tuesday, Merritt met with the association’s recently-elected president Ted Duncan to discuss the plaque the Simcoe County Historical Association had placed at the site.
It reads: ‘Between 1830 and 1850 some 24 Negro Families who had fled from slavery in the United States to freedom in Canada were settled in Oro, mostly on the Concession running north of Shanty Bay, known as Wilberforce Street. In 1849 they acquired this piece of land for a burying ground and built here this African Episcopal Church.’
Duncan, who is also vice-chairperson of the Orillia Museum of Art and History, spoke of enticing new members to join the Simcoe County Historical Association.
“We want to appeal to all the municipalities of Simcoe County, to all the historical associations to look us up, to let them know the association still exists and they are welcome,” Duncan said.
On the African church’s grassy lawn, Duncan said his grandmother Mary MacArthur Hewitt, born in 1885, lived on the 6th Line of Oro-Medonte and would tell stories about the African church that was still in use when she was younger.
“I wish I had spent more time talking to my family about the area’s history,” he said. “It’s the connection, it was a verbal connection to the past.”
For more information on the Simcoe County Historical Association, visit www.simcoecountyhistory.ca.