Cannington Historical Society’s blacksmith shop letting its story be told…
by Ryan Rogers
CANNINGTON – Opened to the public for the first time in perhaps 50 years, the Cannington and District Historical Society celebrated Culture Days on Sept. 30 by welcoming visitors to its new museum, the Blacksmith and Carriage Shop.
Containing all the tools of the trade you’d expect in a vintage blacksmith shop, the site is more than filled with relics and artifacts – the museum itself is an artifact, waiting for its story to be told.
Brock Township councillor Mike Parliament calls the museum “unique,” because it stands exactly where it was built in the 1860s, at 21 Laidlaw St. S., downtown Cannington. “By bringing back part of Cannington’s rich, local history, we can experience an important aspect of rural Ontario, 150 years ago,” says Parliament. It’s rare for a heritage building to remain intact in its original location in a downtown area and it has been carefully restored to resemble its days as a blacksmith shop, carriage dealer and farrier.
The museum is like a keyhole you can peek through, spying a bevy of artifacts that trace an active and linear history dating to the turn of the 19th century.
“It brings back a little bit of the vintage life of Cannington as it was in its heyday in the 1890s and turn of the century,” says Cannington and District Historical Society president Ted Foster. “Just before the car came and put the blacksmith in a … different realm,” he adds.
The historic building required technological updates to its plumbing, gas and electric systems, as well as chimney reconstruction and interlock foyer installation, made possible by a grant from the Canada 150 Community Infrastructure Program.
While restoring the facilities, volunteers found themselves becoming ad hoc archaeologists, uncovering artifacts beneath the floor and foyer. Beneath the old floorboards and dust piles, volunteers uncovered pieces of a sawed-off shotgun, an old axe head, railway spikes, saw blades, parts of a carriage’s axle and all types and sizes of horseshoes.
The iron railroad spikes are displayed in all their rusted-out shame. The blacksmith was contracted to make them in the 1870s for a length of the Toronto-Nipissing Railroad, but bankruptcy cancelled the railway and left the shop with nothing but unredeemable old spikes. The losses were buried beneath the floor.
The saw blades are worn and weathered, and were once used to harvest ice off the Beaver River, to be stored in sawdust, obviously before refrigeration.
The relics tell of a time when financing was uncertain, debts uncollectable, amenities (like refrigeration) were hard to come by and services like waste disposal was the shop keeper’s responsibility.
The shop’s forge and blacksmith section are restored to match a photograph the Historical Society dates to 1911, where iron frames for wagon wheels lean against the brick building, and the street is lined with posts for hitching your horse.
Foster argues the signage even speaks to the literacy level one might expect in old-timey, rural Durham. The sign is three elements vertically connected by clasps: a prancing horse, connected to a large horseshoe, connected to a chevron reading “ing.” To Foster, this is an ideogram, clearly saying: Horse-Shoe-ing.
The artifacts themselves are benefited by a great amount of historical context, thanks to the Cannington Historical Society’s local genealogical and house histories, archival records, and oral histories.
Opening the museum has primed the community to come forward and share more of their own stories, including two sisters who walked to a back corner of the shop and pointed out a set of initials written in the concrete, dated 1939: RC, and DBC (a third set of initials is undecipherable).
“We knew the last name was Cotton,” says Foster, indicating the shop’s past owner Cameron Cotton, “but didn’t know exactly whose initials they were. They came in today! Two of those surviving ladies, saying, ‘Hey, there’s my name.’ ”
“More importantly, at another time, we’re going to have them come back and have them sit down and record these things, and record the oral history of this building. Without the oral history, it’s just a building.”
Another pair of sisters, twins Bertha and Beatrice Samis attended the opening, remembering when they used to join their father to visit the farrier.
They were around 11 years old at the time. They remember the hard-working crew at the shop and their father bringing his horses (two at a time) into the blacksmith for a clipping and fresh shoes. They recall the horses being tied to rings in the wall (which are still there), before their hoofs were measured.
“The Clydesdale has a big wide foot, and the Percherons, they had a narrow foot, and you’d have to shape (the shoes) to fit the hoof,” says Bertha. “They’d heat them up, bend them. They’d be hot when they put them on the horse’s foot. They’d be all smoking,” she recalls. She remembers the two Cottons who worked in the shop, and that they were friendly folks. “They were good workers. Didn’t mind shoeing horses, even if they got kicked, once in a while, especially with the hind feet.”
The artifacts and oral histories come together to offer a picture of the Blacksmith Shop at the peak of its splendour.
“The blacksmith shop was always one of the hubs of the community,” says Bock Township deputy mayor Ted Smith. “Not much could get done in terms of transportation or farm work without a well-shoed, well-shod horse, and so this place was at one time a major hub in Cannington.”
While there were five blacksmiths in the area, Hodgen’s Blacksmith and Carriage Shop was the most popular, offering one-stop shopping for customers by offering the services of a farrier, carpenter, wheelwright, blacksmith and painter.
The carpentry shop featured a wheelwright who could make or repair wheels with wooden spokes and iron rims, and repair carriages. A painter would have served as your “body works” specialist.
The blacksmith and his forge did much more than horseshoes, providing farming equipment to harvest the wheat that was so important to the local economy. Thrashers, sickles and scythes were made there, (before everything started being made in China), to help farmers harvest their wheat and get them to the grist mills.
“In the 1890s this place is humming. Cannington is a prosperous place, like the Yorkdale of the day,” says Foster.
“We had the wooden four-block sidewalks around, people came here to be seen and to see. And this would have been a very prosperous shop at that time, everyone had a buggy.”
Across the street from 21 Laidlaw St. S. used to stand the Queen’s Hotel, a beautiful spot you’d stay while you were in town on business. While you did your business, you could send your horse and buggy for a grooming and greasing, respectively.
Foster says their collection of oral histories tell them lunchtime at the Queen’s Hotel was quite the affair. Lunch would be served on fine china, complete with polished silverware and your waiter wore a top hat.
No matter how illuminated our vision of the past may become thanks to the stories of our ancestors and the artifacts they’ve left behind, there are always more questions to ask, and mysteries to solve.
This is not only true of some of the unusual items discovered under the blacksmith’s floor, but also true for one particular artifact that holds its mystery within.
When the Cannington Historical Society acquired the blacksmith shop, they discovered a massive upright safe made by the J. & J. Safe Works, in Toronto. The safe’s combination had been written in ink on a filing cabinet, but was calamitously washed away, leaving the society without access to the safe’s contents.
There’s no telling what new stories the safe is guarding inside.
Foster jokes that perhaps they’ll have Geraldo Rivera come and film a series on the opening of the safe.
In time, the society says they’ll find a way to get the safe open – but until then it’s an artifact held in an artifact, waiting for its story to be told.