The Hastings Historical Society, How It All Began
by Jim Messacar
The Germ of An Idea
In 1987 I started working for the local public school board. Then, in 1989, I
transferred in as the Head Custodian at the Hastings Public School.
Late in the year of 1995 I had a minor heart attack and I was off work for several
weeks. The doctors finally said I could go back to work. Everything was fine until
July 1st, 1996, when I had a massive heart attack.
I wound up in the intensive cardiac care unit of the Kingston General Hospital. I
was there for just over six weeks. The doctors finally decided that I was more
likely to withstand another heart attack than I was the operation and they set me
The downside of this was that I was unable to work anymore. I was determined
that I wasn’t going to just sit around and watch TV, so I looked for a project to
get into. l’ve always been involved in making models: airplanes, ships, and so on
and I thought I would start there.
I knew that one of the earliest steam-boats in any inland Ontario waterway — and
most definitely the first in the Kawarthas — was the Pamedash, and I thought a
model of it would be an excellent project.
The Pamedash was built, in the very early 1830’s, on Rice Lake by James Grey
Bethune. Other than this, I knew absolutely nothing about the boat. So, I decided
to do some research into it, so the model would be as accurate as possible
The research into the Pamedash very quickly segued into delving into the life and
the activities of Bethune. He was an extremely vigorous and active entrepreneur,
based in Cobourg. His business activities extended throughout the entire
Northumberland District, which at that time extended from Bellville to Oshawa
and to the north from there. Looking into the life of Bethune brought me a
heightened awareness of just how rich and varied the history of Hastings and its
surrounding areas is.
I came to believe, very strongly, that steps should be taken to collect and preserve
information and artifacts from this areas’ past. At the same time I realized that
this would be far beyond the ability of any one person.
By now we were into early December of 1996. I was at the Peterborough Library,
looking for information about a store that Bethune owned there. I was looking
through a copy of “Ontario History”, published by the Ontario Historical Society.
This book contained a short piece on how the O.H.S. would help a small
community set up and operate a small historical society.
I thought, “That’s what we need in Hastings; a historical society.”
I came home and I talked it over with Muriel. I didn’t want to get started on
something and then have to back out of it. We both came to the conclusion that I
should try and get such a group going and, if it was too much for my health then,
at least I would have the satisfaction of having tried.
On the 10th of December, 1996, I phoned the Ontario Historical Society (34
Parkview Drive, Willowdale, Ontario, 416-226-9011) I spoke with a Dorothy
Duncan who assured me that the O.H.S. had guidelines and helpful material for
starting up a small town society. She took my address and she assured me that this
material would be in the mail to me that day.
The material finally arrived on December 19th and I avidly read it through. The
material was really nothing startling or revolutionary. It was very similar to
situations I had been involved in with union work. The most important part, from
my point of view, was that if they could help in any way they would; going so far
as to say that they would try and have someone attend, and speak at, a public
information meeting if we got that far.
By this time we were getting close to Christmas and I knew that everybody was
busy with family commitments, and so on, so I put everything on the back burner
for a while. I did speak with Charlie Lobb, of Norwood. Charlie is a distant cousin _
of mine and he had, just prior to that time, been written up in the Peterborough
Examiner for his work as a local historian. I asked him if he would come and talk
to us if we could get a committee going and he said he would be glad to.
Then, on the first business day of the New Year, January 5th, 1997, I spoke with
Marg Montgomery at the Town Office. I explained to Marg what I had in mind
and I asked her if she could recommend two persons to work with me on a
committee. Marg, being Marg, said “No. I’ll give you four or five names that I
think would be helpful and you pick who you think you could work with.” Marg
then gave me five names. I’ve always regretted that I didn’t, right then and there,
ask her if she would be willing to take part.
Marg went on to tell me that the village had, a few years prior to this, held a small
locals history fair, and that it was well received, and garnered a fair amount of
The first name on the list from Marg was Ray Oliver. Just by chance, as I was
leaving the town office, Ray was just pulling into his driveway next door to the
town building. I thought there’s no better time that the present, so I walked over
and started talking to him.
Ray was very warm to the society concept and we had a rather long get-together.
Ray showed me some of the material he has collected on Hastings over the years
and he has an impressive collection.
We discussed the list of names that Margaret had provided and we both felt that
Betty Langford would be a real asset in this endeavour.
I phoned Betty the next morning and explained what I had in mind. Betty said that
“nobody’s been able to get anything like that going in Hastings for years.” Betty
suggested that I drop over to her house after supper and we could talk about it.
When I got to Betty’s house we sat at her dining room table and Judy brought me
over a cup of coffee and a blueberry muffin. It’s strange how some things stand
out in your memory and I’ve never forgotten that blueberry muffin.
Betty told me that she had phoned “at least thirty people” during the day and all of
these were enthusiastic about the idea. Betty then asked me: “But, tell me why are
you interested in the history of Hasting? You weren’t even born here!”
I explained to Betty that my mother’s family was a local family and that my
mother was born on a farm on the north shore of Rice Lake — a farm that had been
in her family since 1820. I also explained that I had spent many a summer in
various locations throughout this area, and that I considered this area my true
home. This seemed to surprise Betty and the subject never came up again.
Betty agreed with me that the three of us, Ray, Betty and myself, would be able to
work well together. Betty offered the use of her home as a place for us to meet,
and we agreed that I would call Ray and set up a meeting.
The three of us got together about a week later and talked things over on a general
basis. We had hoped to have Charlie Lobb sit in on this meeting but it was
snowing and Charlie couldn’t make it.
We knew we would have to find a place to hold a public information meeting and,
at that point, we had no idea how many would show up. So it was agreed that I
would go to the Council meeting and ask that we be allowed to use the downstairs
room at the Community Centre and ask that they waive the rental fee for it. The
Council agreed to this and we set a meeting date of the second Wednesday in
A week or so after the Council meeting I was at the Lion’s Club meeting; I was a
club member at that time. Glen Robbins, the club president, asked how the efforts
of the historical society were going. I gave them a brief rundown. Then Glen
asked how we were fixed for funds. That was easy to answer: We didn’t have
any! Then Glen asked much money I thought we would need. I really didn’t have
an answer; we didn’t know where we would hold meetings, how long it would be
before we had any dues coming in and so on. We knew that there would expenses
but not how much they would be. Glen asked me: “Do you think $300 would
carry you over the hump?” I replied that I thought it would. The club passed a
motion, right then and there to fund us to the tune of $300, and Sandy Robbins,
the treasurer wrote out a cheque payable to Betty and me for $300. I’ve always
been grateful for that support.
The First Meeting
Now we had a date and a place for our public information meeting, we had some
start-up money: what we didn’t have was a speaker.
The three of us agreed that I would phone the O.H.S. and see if they could suggest
someone to be our speaker. I phone them and again spoke with Dorothy Duncan
who, by now, I knew she was the Executive Director of the O.H.S. I explained to
her our progress to date and how we were looking for a speaker. She immediately
replied, “I’ll be glad to come if you like.”
My first thought was that she would be the ideal person to be our speaker. My
second was that for her to come to Hastings from Toronto, her time and traveling
expenses would eat up all of our money. I tried to be diplomatic in getting across
to her that I didn’t think we could afford her. That’s when she explained to me
that her costs would be borne by the O.H.S. and that all we would have to supply
was a “carousel” slide projector, a screen and a podium.
I jumped at the opportunity. I also invited her to come up a little early and we
would give her a quick tour of the village and buy her supper.
The next day I went to the school and spoke with Liz Thompson, the principal.
She assured me that we were welcome to borrow the items we needed.
So then the big day finally came. Hap Switzer had set up the west end of the hall,
and he had set out forty chairs.
Dorothy Duncan arrived about 4 o’clock and Betty and I met up with her. We
gave her a quick tour of the village and then we went to Sheila’s Restaurant for
supper. Betty had spoken with Bonnie earlier that day and had explained that we
couldn’t pay for the meal that night, that the money was in the bank but that we
didn’t have any cheques as yet. Bonnie told Betty not to worry about it. She
would just hold on to the bill and we could pay when we had everything up and
running. (I just love to sit in a restaurant, have a fine meal and then just get up and
walk out without paying)
When we got to the hall, there was just the four of us; Dorothy Duncan, Betty,
Ray and myself. We sat there for a few minutes and I had this sinking feeling —
“Oh no, nobody’s going to show up.” Then, finally the people started to come.
I’ve forgotten now exactly how many came to the meeting but I know that it was
more than 55. We quickly grabbed extra chairs from the other end of the hall and
set them up.
Dorothy Duncan did an excellent job. She spoke of the role that can be played by
a historical society in a smaller community and showed slides to illustrate her
message. A bit of a stir was created when she showed a slide of a tombstone for a
“John Cameron”. One of those present was John Cameron, from Albert Street,
and he came in for a bit of good natured kidding.
I acted as the emcee for the evening and, when Dorothy Duncan was finished her
presentation, I asked for a show of hands of those who would be interested in
joining and supporting a historical society in Hastings. The response was quite
strong and I told the group that we would have a meeting in April, at which we
would present a set of By-Laws for approval, elect an executive board and set up
a dues structure. I explained that we didn’t have a location for this meeting as yet,
but that we would make sure the location was well advertised.
I then closed the meeting and said “I just have two more things to say: this
meeting is adjourned and this meeting is now part of the history of Hastings.”
We had arranged to have tea and coffee and some snacks on hand and the people
milled around for a time, talking about the society. The talk, at least that I heard
was all quite favourable and enthusiastic. During this time, Eric Summers spoke
_ with me and told me that we were welcome to use the basement of the United
Church for our April meeting at no charge. I quickly accepted this offer, and Eric
said that we would make all the arrangements for us.
As it turned out, we actually picked a rather fortunate start-up time. Later that
summer the Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic Church held their 150th
anniversary. They staged a large parade into which we entered a float (our first
society endeavour), giving us some much needed early public exposure.
Also that first summer the “Fowld’s Block” on the corner of Front and Bridge
Streets burned to the ground. The publicity from this unfortunate event made a lot
of people realize that our heritage was disappearing over the years and gave our
efforts a boost.
That’s it! That’s how this all began.
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