When visitors step into the Chatham-Kent Museum, they can see historical artifacts that each have a unique local background. What they may not know is the story behind how those artifacts made it into the museum collection.
Former Chatham museum director David Benson was asked to share those behind-the-scenes stories with museum patrons from his 20 years of acquiring items for the local collection. The result is an exhibit now open at the museum that tells the interesting and unique stories of how they came to Benson’s attention and how he brought the items home to Chatham.
Some items, he said were more easily acquired than others, some have travelled a great distance, and some were the result of poring through Internet and eBay posts, a modern convenience that has made it much easier to find and purchase items from Chatham-Kent’s history.
Currently teaching economics at the University of Windsor, Benson said he still does some exhibits for the museum.
“For this exhibit, I collected most of the pieces myself and I know their history,” Benson said. “There are 100 or more pieces and all are locally relevant to our history.”
The former director’s first big Internet purchase was discovered on eBay. A gentleman from Michigan was selling an antique box with two curling stones in it, weighing in at more than 100 pounds. Closer inspection of the box showed the name “R. Gray,” and Chatham, Ontario on the front. The box once belonged to Robert Gray, president of Gray-Dort, a car manufacturing company whose logo was on the curling stones in the box.
Dated back to about 1910, the find was a good one in two ways, Benson said. First, it is a link to an important local industrialist, and second Gray was a member of the Chatham Granite Club.
With the weight of the box, Benson said he wasn’t sure how he was going to get it shipped from Michigan without costing a great deal of money, but the owner agreed to drive it across the border and meet him to exchange the box for the agreed price.
Another find that came all the way from California was a bottle from a ginger beer brewing company from Chatham that dates back to 1900.
A significant find from area history was discovered at the David Mills original homestead in Palmyra.
“Mills was a famous local politician, born in 1830 in Palmyra. He grew up there, became a lawyer and in 1867, was elected MP, and served as Minister of the Interior and Minister of Justice over his career,” Benson said.
Mills also was appointed to the Canadian Senate and the Supreme Court of Canada before his death in 1903.
“The original homestead stayed in the family’s possession until the 1990s and then the family decided to sell the farm and they contacted me to come and see if there was anything we wanted to purchase before they sold the contents,” Benson explained.
While searching through the house, which was packed with items, he said they came across an old bookshelf that had been converted to a wardrobe. As Mills was known to have the finest private library in the area, Benson thought it would make a good addition to the collection. More searching led to finding all the pieces and it was put back together and refinished.
A bonus in the old homestead was a portrait of Mills done before he died, certificates given to the family after his death, and an old wooden family cradle from the 1830s.
One of Benson’s favourite pieces in the exhibit is the uniform of a First World War veteran, Stanley Burk of Blenheim, who served as a message runner during the war and was shot several times by enemy snipers before receiving a medical discharge. Benson came across the piece while searching through military dealers, but when he inquired about it, the uniform had already been sold to a Windsor man. The dealer gave Benson’s information to the man, who agreed to sell it to the museum for less than he originally paid.
Once he had it, Benson put out a press release asking anyone with information about Burk to contact him and ended up talking to Burk’s son, Doug, who provided valuable insight and photos of his father.
There are many more interesting stories, including a sugar spectrometer from the old sugarhouse in Chatham that just appeared one day on the doorstep of Milner House, with a note that said, “Dispose of as you wish.”
The exhibit runs until July 2014 at the Chatham-Kent Museum on Murray Street beside the Cultural Centre.