In Attics and Archives

Volume 4-Issue 07, page 3

By: Lara Maynard

Summer School: History Lessons Come To Life

Remember how the first assignment for every year of elementary school was to write a short essay about how you spent the summer? This September I reverted to that tradition and produced the article that you are now reading. It concentrates on some history related attractions that I enjoyed for free or cheaply close to home.

Apart from the usual employment and bookworming, I found this Cabot 500 summer was a good tome for Newfoundlanders to act like tourists in our own province. Neither love nor money could have persuaded me to join the well-chilled crowd in Bonavista, but I did venture into downtown St.Johnís to watch the Matthew replica come through the Narrows in the drizzle. But the things to do and see that were among my favourites this past summer werenít quite as "hoopla-fied" as the rounds of the Matthew.

I will confess that the streets of St.Johnís have mostly been a tangly blur on my mental map, even though I have lived just minutes away from the city all my life. I could direct you to MUN, George Street, the Avalon Mall, or the waterfront with reliability, but beyond such well-travelled points, any directions I could provide would be dubiously muddled. Within the last year, however, I have finally learned how to differentiate between Water and Duckworth Streets without looking at road signs. Now I could even give you approximate directions to specific business and attractions there. In fact, I have found that St.Johnís is not too scary a labyrinth and is actually pretty interesting.

One good way to acquaint yourself with the streets of St. Johnís is the "Womenís Walk", a walking tour organized by the Womenís History Group that visits the homes and workplaces of women who have made distinctive contributions to the history of the city and province. The tour begins at Cavendish Square and includes the home of Margaret Shea (1863-1949), Newfoundlandís first professionally trained nurse and female car owner, noted for having a heavy foot on the gas. She lived on Cochrane Street.

On the same street is the former home of Stella Burry (1897-1991), who was St.Johnís City council Citizen of the Year in 1967. A devoted community activist, one project that Burry had an important hand in was establishing Emmanuel House in 1946. Other women whose homes or workplaces are part of the tour include Cassie Brown, Vera Perlin and the Presentation Sisters.

The final stop of the tour is the former site of a tavern and lodging house operated by Mary Travers on Duckworth Street. This place was used by Newfoundlandís first elected representatives between 1832 and 1833. Travers must have had some spunk:when she didnít get the rent she threw the representatives out and seized the assemblyís furniture, books, papers and other belongings. Threats of punishment did not convince her to give them back, but they were returned when the rent was finally paid.

Mary Travers is featured again in "If These Walls Could Talk; The History of the Colonial Building", an exhibition in that historic building. Traverís tavern was one of many homes of the Legislature until it finally moved into the Colonial Building, where it stayed until the completion of the Confederation Building. "If These Walls Could Talk" remembers the construction of the Colonial Building and grand balls held there. It also features powerful footage of the Riot of 1932, which happened when people gathered there to communicate discontent about how the Government was administering the Colonyís affairs. Among the shouts of the crowd is the sound of breaking glass as every last window of the building was broken out and furniture was dragged outside.

Moving on the Southern Shore, The Colony of Avalon heritage site in Ferryland is certainly worth seeing. Archaeologists have literally been working in the front and back yards of Ferryland residents to uncover the 17th century colony. Some residents must have to be careful not to walk out of their front doors and into large holes where their lawns once were. Now cobblestone floors and foundations have been unearthed there.

Sir George Calvert established the Colony of Avalon in 1621. It was later controlled by Sir David Kirke, Newfoundlandís first fish merchant. His widow, Lady Sara Kirke, retired around 1860. More than half a million items that would have belonged to the Kirkes, the "common folk" of the colony, or visitors to it have been uncovered. These include jewelry, coins, utensils and lovely pottery in shades of blue and green that are startlingly vivid after decades of burial, all treasures to be sure.

Visiting an archaeological dig or a history exhibition or going on a historical walk can often do far more to help as appreciate the rich history that we have inherited than a whole set of encyclopaedias. And often these sorts of engaging history lessons are right in our backyards. For instance, a townie friend of mine walked the trail from Flatrock to Torbay over the summer. He thought it was great because of what he called "the feeling that I was walking along some ancient path, a piece of history".

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