Category Archives: Education

All I need is a name: How cemeteries can aid in public history research

Since I used last week’s blog post to illustrate on a very personal level why cemeteries have limitations as historical sources, I feel it is only fair to discuss here how cemeteries can also be invaluable research tools.

For some time now, I have had an idea for a public history project in my hometown. I have been curious about heritage and commemoration, specifically parks and buildings that are named after people. The best example in Owen Sound is the Harry Lumley Bayshore Community Centre, which is named in honour of Hockey Hall of Fame goaltender Harry Lumley. There is ample signage at the community centre that tells us who Harry Lumley was. But in many other instances in town, the name of the person who has been remembered is often all we know about that person. Little or nothing shows or tells us why the person was honoured.

Softball action at Duncan McLellan Park. Photo by the City of Owen Sound.
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Carved in stone: The limitation of cemeteries as public history sites

Our digital public history class recently had a guest speaker who discussed dark history tourism – things like ghost tours and torture museums. I had previously not thought much about dark history at all, because the macabre has never been of particular interest to me, so I was surprised to learn from our guest that cemeteries are dark history sites. It immediately made sense, though – if you’re in a cemetery, you’re literally surrounded by the remains of dead people. And a cemetery is a great place to search for and find local history.

Greenwood Cemetery in Owen Sound, ON. Photo by the City of Owen Sound.
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Not really real: The trouble with popular history

I’ve been into music and sports for longer than I can remember. I used to dream about playing hockey for the Toronto Maple Leafs, but when that dream didn’t come true, I fantasized instead about being a rock and roll star. I learned how to skate and shoot a puck, and how to play the guitar and sing, but fame and fortune eluded me at every turn.

That didn’t put an end to my passions – it just redirected them. I became very proficient in sports and music trivia, which I recognize now as the start of my interest in history as a discipline. I absorbed facts about music and sports as fast as I could read them, along with the stories associated with those facts. But something has become clear to me as I have turned from journalism to professional history – a lot of the stuff that I read and thought I knew was not necessarily true.

Popular history has been populated by legends and myths that have been passed down through the generations, and rarely if ever being questioned. These may have been stories that were reported accurately at first, only to become exaggerated over time. Or maybe they were sensationalized from the very beginning. Either way, they were accepted as fact. And when that happens, they become extremely difficult to dislodge from the public consciousness.

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Accidentally on purpose: The unknowing public historian

Lawson Hall, the home of History at Western University

“Public practices of history are not new and many historians acknowledge today that they had been doing public history without knowing it.”

– Thomas Cauvin, “The Rise of Public History: An International Perspective,” Historia Critica, no. 68 (2018), p. 22.

I was in my fourth year of university and working on my History Capstone project when I realized that I had already worked as a historian, and in fact I had been working in public history for years.

Well, sort of.

My Capstone topic was “Public History and Commemoration in Owen Sound, Ontario,” which is my hometown. As I researched the local museums and parks that had been named in commemoration of Owen Sound citizens, one of my top resources was the archives of the local newspaper. Having worked at that paper as a reporter for 16 years, I knew before I even started that it would be a treasure trove of primary sources documents.

What I didn’t immediately realize was that my own work held a place of prominence in that collection.

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Why am I doing this?

I’m a second-year university student. I’m also about to turn 47 years old.

There have been plenty of times over the past year-and-a-half when I’ve felt down, and asked myself why I’m doing what I’m doing. Why have I returned to school again? Why am I working toward a bachelor’s degree at my age, while trying to juggle work and family responsibilities? And it always comes back to not having been happy with my life, and realizing and accepting that I would need to make some tough choices and work hard if I wanted things to change for the better.

That means I need a lot of positive self-talk and self-motivation as I work toward a goal that is still far enough away that it remains a somewhat abstract concept. And I’ll be honest, it can be really difficult to get motivated to do all of the things that I’ve piled onto my plate. But I get them done, because that’s what I expect of myself, and that’s what my family expects of me as a provider and role model. There is a cost, though. I don’t have much of a life anymore outside of school and work. And I often feel very much alone, like when everyone else is sleeping and I’m working into the wee hours of the morning. That’s when the doubts start to creep in. That’s when I ask myself the big question – “Why am I doing this?”

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September 14

Twenty years ago today, I got married for the first time. It was 5 p.m. on September 14, 1996. I was 26 years old and had one child, a 2 ½-year-old boy. I was working at a dream career in my hometown of Owen Sound, Ontario. I don’t remember thinking anything specific about the future, but I know I felt very optimistic and positive despite the rain that poured down that day. How could I not?

Nine years ago today, I was recently separated and was the full-time single father of three boys, aged 13, 10, and 8. There was little to feel optimistic and positive about. My marriage had failed, and in fact had ended in spectacularly ugly fashion. My former dream career had turned into a nightmare. As it was the first anniversary without my wife, I spent this day feeling sorry for myself, feeling overwhelmed, and feeling very much alone and lost in the wilderness.

Five years ago today, I was lying on my living room couch with a broken vertebra in my back, a broken hand, bruised ribs, and a bruised knee – souvenirs from the car crash of the previous evening. I had been spreading myself too thin, working three jobs in order to make ends meet, and as a result I was neglecting some of my responsibilities as a sole-support parent. It all caught up with me late one night on a lonely back road between Meaford and Owen Sound. Five years ago today, I was beaten up, physically and emotionally. Being optimistic and positive was so far beyond me at that point. Again, I spent the day feeling overwhelmed and sorry for myself. I’m not sure I’ve ever felt lower than I did on this day.

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