Tom Van Dusen
Nation Valley News
RUSSELL — The chairman of the Russell & District Historical Society is counting on increased visits at the village museum in the next few months — it’s just a matter of getting the building open according to COVID-19 protocols.
Opening the former Baptist church for business in the village core was one of the many items on a busy historical society agenda when it met on Zoom Tuesday for the first time since the COVID lockdown went into place. Although the society doesn’t normally meet over the summer, chair Harry Baker said more meetings will be needed to get up to speed following the COVID lull.
He pointed to increased activity at the village’s two conservation areas, Tweed and Burton, as examples of how local residents are looking for outings closer to home. Russell Township Councillor Cindy Saucier, a society member and educator with South Nation Conservation which manages the two preserves, confirmed they’re being visited more than ever.
Priority number one is to open the Keith Boyd museum complex which includes the church and former fire hall beside it, Baker emphasized, adding he’ll find out what is required to begin readmitting limited numbers of visitors according to Eastern Ontario Health Unit guidelines.
Also on the agenda were determining whether the society’s annual Heritage Festival will be held in some form in September. A traditional part of the festival is horse-drawn wagon rides which definitely won’t be offered because of the social distancing requirement.
Baker suggested a possible display on Russell’s namesake, Upper Canada administrator Peter Russell, a known slave owner and slave trader, which has created a loud and sometimes nasty campaign to find a new name, something Russell Township Mayor Pierre Leroux has indicated he isn’t prepared to do. Instead, Leroux has suggested changing the namesake — finding another worthy person with the name Russell to honour.
Township council will decide on that approach at a meeting July 6 and, at a meeting Monday, Leroux asked Baker and other society representatives to consider highlighting one or more alternate Russells during the one-day Heritage Festival. One alternate that keeps coming up, Baker mentioned, is Russell Phair, the village’s Mr. Everything; at one time, Phair was the local fire chief, barber, jeweller, appliance repairman — among other roles.
Baker suggested the society has a duty to look back on the life of Peter Russell as part of local history and to help educate area residents as to the role of the little-known official from two centuries ago who “probably never set foot in Russell.”
Baker reported further on the Monday meeting with Leroux and township staff over the ongoing need to repair exterior cladding on the museum which hasn’t moved forward because of three stumbling blocks: Will it be done in wood or vinyl siding, at what cost, and who’s paying for the job on what is a township building?
Now there’s a new wrinkle: Russell Police Village trustees have offered to contribute to repairs from the local improvement fund they administer if the award is to a village organization, namely the society, and not directly to the township. No amount has been mentioned because no exact number is known and, once again, it depends on whether wood or vinyl is selected.
The society has pressed for wood because it’s more authentic while certain township officials have pushed for vinyl because it’s cheaper and more durable. Meanwhile, the final approval has been granted to a new accessibility ramp with vinyl components in front of the museum paid for by the municipality.
Unfortunately, the church will remain inaccessible inside until the size of an interior entrance is increased by a few inches. That alteration will be made and the society is considering relocating displays to create a larger meeting space.