A local historical researcher and heritage enthusiast is asking the public’s help in saving old law books headed for the dumpster if no one claims them, and the building that houses them.
Hans van der Doe of Chatham, a former vice-chair of the municipal heritage committee in Chatham-Kent, was approached by Ontario Infrastructure (OI) staff who manage the former Kent County Courthouse and Jail on Stanley Street regarding the books in the old law library, some of which date back to 1898.
He was given 30 days to remove the books as the two buildings – the former jail and courthouse which has a provincial heritage designation – are being readied for sale to the public this fall. The original jail was built in 1849 and later expanded to include court facilities.
“Infrastructure Ontario manages the property and is currently preparing the property for disposition. As part of our disposition process the property was circulated to the municipality, school boards and not-for-profits to determine if they had an interest in acquiring the property as a direct sale. We have completed that part of the disposition process and are planning to proceed to an open market sale by the end of 2018,” said Ian McConachie, Senior Communications Advisor – Real Estate & Infrastructure for Infrastructure Ontario.
The municipality passed on purchasing the property, and according to Chatham-Kent CEO Don Shropshire, after investigating, there isn’t a municipal space available that could house the historic books properly.
“We were notified about the disposition of the collection and first thought the library or the museum could house the collection because of the history involved,” Shropshire said. “However, we talked to senior staffers and realized we don’t have the facility to maintain and care for that type of collection with humidity control and such.”
Shropshire said a more appropriate group to take charge of the collection would be the local law society or the Law Society of Upper Canada.
“The University of Toronto, for example, is a place that would have staff with the skill set and ability to store that type of collection,” he added.
Chatham-Kent chief librarian Tania Sharpe joined van der Doe on a tour of the old courthouse recently to see what books are left and what shape they are in. For the most part, as far as Sharpe could see of the remaining books, they are law books that have already been digitized, so the information in them is intact in digital form.
For van der Doe, the history of the books and the law library is what he does not want to see lost, and a petition is circulating, asking the municipality to reconsider buying the building and keeping the law library intact. As of press time, the petition had 488 signiatures.
“I am not letting up on Chatham-Kent Council, until this is saved for us,” van der Doe said to followers of his Facebook posts. “I cannot stress the importance that this will have on our culture and history of we the people, if we lose this building and Library.”
The original jail building was made of white limestone. Of historical significance and interest is that Canada’s second prime minister, Alexander Mackenzie, worked as a stone mason on the project when he first came to Canada looking for work.
The Kent County Courthouse and Jail is also one of only four remaining buildings in Chatham that predate 1860, according to van der Doe. According to OI, whoever purchases the property must abide by the rules and regulations involved with a heritage designated property.
“The building was designated by Chatham-Kent’s council on fifth of August, 2003 with the province’s approval (By-Law # 185-2003) and registered with the Land Register on Feb. 3, 2004.
The Jail was officially closed in a ceremony held out front of the old building on July 4, 2014 ending 164 years of service,” van der Doe noted. “There have been many times in the past since the jail has closed, we have shown concern with the property. Doug Sulman and I have both been in the papers expressing this, but alas, it has always fallen on deaf ears.
“This library is an artifact. It’s not just a collection of old dusty books, tables and chairs. It’s a window into our past that holds the book, located in a building, that without their existence, we would’ve never been.”
People interested in helping van der Doe and his group can get information at https://www.facebook.com/groups/100823373583652/ and the petition can be found at https://www.change.org/p/chatham-kent-council-save-our-heritage-save-the-chatham-kent-founding-legal-library.