We’re not quite the Egyptian pyramids… but we can compare!

By: Toni Carr, Priya Deepak, Colin Kennedy, and Andrew Stalker
Editorial Team: Kathryn Collicott

 

You might think that Ethan Hawke or Paul MacLean would be the most famous and interesting person to have visited the Antigonish Heritage Museum. As we sat with Jocelyn Gillis, the museum’s fun-loving curator and executive director, she surprised us by revealing that “sometimes it’s the average Joe who comes in [who] has the most interesting stories.” 

Jocelyn Gillis at the Antigonish Heritage Museum
Photo credit: Toni Carr

During our visit, Jocelyn was most in her element when telling extraordinary tales of seemingly everyday people. For example, she delighted in the memory of a 98-year-old gentleman from Magna, Utah who left a lasting impression. “He came in with his family – a couple of his children and several grandchildren. They all came in as a unit,” she recollected, “and he was an Atwater [David Henry Atwater (1904–2004)] from down in the Bayfield area. His family ran the ferry from South Side Harbour…oh, and the thing about him was that he was actually blind!” Jocelyn marvelled at how important it was for this gentleman to learn about his family’s history and to actually bring his descendants back to where it all began. “This has always been one of the major attractions for the travelling public and for the locals as well,” she explained about the museum, “- research into family history.”

 

Jocelyn’s own history with the museum dates back to its very beginning. In 1991, while working away in Halifax, Jocelyn was hired as caretaker for the new Antigonish Heritage Museum, originally just for “making sure things were neat and tidy.” With only three days before opening, she began her journey with the museum. Artifacts and collectables were very sparse at that time, and they had to borrow from the community to fill the eye-catching display shelves and cabinets. When we asked Jocelyn about her favourite item, her response was, “I find the last item that came in is always the most interesting.” For example, a quern, or hand mill, is used for grinding grain and is one of the many items that stands out for Jocelyn. Even though it started as a summer job, her job title has changed over the years to curator and then executive director, and Jocelyn is soon to retire. When asked what day that will be, she said, “We’ll take things one day at a time.” Jocelyn is definitely part of the history of this beautiful landmark and will not be forgotten.

David Henry Atwater by the fire pump wagon
Photo credit: Jocelyn Gillis

Over the years, Jocelyn has set out to increase community involvement with the museum. One way she accomplished this was to bring in summer students and volunteers. Our very own ACALA learner, Colin Kennedy, thought of contacting the museum to volunteer because of his passion for history. Upon visiting for the first time, both Colin and Jocelyn were each surprised to see a familiar face – a neighbour. Jocelyn, with her natural enthusiasm, embraced the idea of Colin’s offer of help and put him straight to work. Colin partnered with a summer student to develop some short videos to be featured on the museum’s developing YouTube channel, AntigonishHeriMuseum. The goal of Colin’s Clips was to help increase the online presence and flow of visitors to the museum. Another way that Jocelyn worked to bring in visitors was through a summer ceilidh series. “Would people come out and hear traditional music?” she wondered when a friend mentioned the idea “Because I’m a fan of the traditional music, I said, sure.” The ceilidhs proved to be successful: “There were nights that we had to turn people away.”

 

Historic picture of the Antigonish Heritage Museum when it was a train station.
Photo credit: Antigonish Heritage Museum collection.

The museum building itself is a wonderful historical and architectural attraction. Originally, it was designed to be a train station. It was completed in 1908, in Craftsmen Style, which was one of the first modern building styles unique to North America. The building had a beautiful garden on the side of the station where people took pictures of themselves with pride. Imagine everyone in their fine 1920s attire, waiting in separate rooms – one for men and one for women. Another surprising fact about the building was the initial construction cost. 

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Jocelyn was amazed “to think that you could build something with the craftsmanship of this particular building for $10,000.” When we asked Jocelyn what her greatest success was during her time at the museum, she responded quickly about raising the money to renovate and save the building. “It was difficult, [but] we had the support of the Town and County, who came through with major contributions, and then individuals from the community [also] contributed greatly.” It was the Town and County of Antigonish who originally offered the museum building to the not-for-profit Heritage Association, so this was the second time that the people of Antigonish acted to preserve this historical and architectural gem.

As our interview with Jocelyn started to wind down, we were excited about how she would respond to our next question: What is the most significant thing that you learned about our community through your experience at the museum? Jocelyn answered by telling us that she had never really learned much about her own local history growing up. There were no museums in town then. After her involvement with the Heritage Museum for all these years, Jocelyn mused that, “we’re not quite the Egyptian pyramids…but we can compare!” She explained how having a museum in town and helping to document and gather stories and artifacts is vital. “Sometimes, the person – your next door neighbour – they’ve got an interesting story that’s equally important and valid and worthy of preservation,” Jocelyn eloquently summarised.  

When we returned to the museum later to take some photographs, Jocelyn reflected on the story of another memorable visitor. Elizabeth (Betty) Davidson Gibb, as mentioned to Jocelyn, was a newcomer to Nova Scotia in the 1960s. She was travelling with her young son and husband, Ken Davidson, who was a student at the time working on his MA degree. At the train station, Betty and family were greeted by an elderly Gaelic-speaking gentleman who cheerfully carried their suitcases. Betty’s story captured a unique way of life in east coast Canada that is slowly disappearing. She remembered how their new community, New Harbour, pretty much had an open door policy. The children and the neighbours would just walk into the house where they were staying and play their parlour organ. In Jocelyn’s account of Betty’s visit, she stressed that “no one felt the need for an invitation.” At one point, there were children that inquired about a suitcase. Imagine the curiosity of a child that had never laid eyes on a suitcase before. While living in Bayfield one winter, Betty recalled to Jocelyn how seals made their way up to the Davidsons’ yard from the bay. Can you picture yourself opening your front door to be greeted by a seal? At Christmas time, the children in the community would hunt seals by themselves as a way of making money to buy gifts for their parents. It’s hard to imagine the children of today hunting seals for some spending money. The Heritage Museum will thankfully be a part of our community for many years to come to help document and preserve our important local stories.

On our way to the door at the end of our visit, we spotted a colourful shadow box collection of dainty intricate butter pats. Jocelyn started to tell us the history of these wonderful artifacts, but that will be left for another story.

Extra note of interest: Since the writing of the article, that day has come, and Jocelyn has retired. 

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