In Memory Of: The Digital Lives of Local History in an Age of Pandemic

The youth float in Avonmore's 1967 Old Home Weekend. Facebook

by Craig Stevenson
Special to Nation Valley News

On a snowy day in 1955, in downtown Cornwall, my grandfather took a photograph of Second Street. That act was itself unremarkable.

Sixty-odd years later, I scanned and digitized the photo, and posted it to a Facebook page dedicated to Cornwall’s history. The reaction was as varied as it was profound. It prompted comments on buildings and businesses long gone, and what that meant for the city. Some noted how pedestrians on the street coped with the snow in an age when life went on, regardless of the conditions outside. There were comments about cars, and about neon signs, and personal memories shared of having walked those streets when young.

1955 Cornwall, as taken by the columnist’s grandfather.

What it became was a conversation about a community.

There are more of these conversations waiting to happen. Our still-relatively-new world of social media has, happily, enticed many artifacts out of their neglected hiding spots in albums and boxes. For those of us interested in seeing what SD&G have been, a steady trickle of maps and photos and advertisements and objects have provided fascinating insight into these communities, their people, their stories.

History is often viewed as a distant, murky set of dates and events through which we can see some reflection of what is to come. Time creates a sense of detachment. Think of the family photo album, in which we see younger versions of ourselves, and familiar parents and cousins, and less-familiar or dimly-remembered grandparents. When we see three or four generations into the past we are dealing with the unknown or unfamiliar—even if we recognize them as the people from whom we ourselves have sprung.

The re-dedication of the cenotaph at Avonmore High School in 1948. The ceremony marked the addition of the names of five Avonmore men who lost their lives during World War Two: Forbes Benning, George Hough, Hugh McKeon, William Scott and Lyall Shaver.

Monkland’s Keith MacIntosh, officer with the RCAF’s 464 Squadron during the Second World War. Facebook

Communities are no different. They are today’s familiar sights and people but also the summary of the past. That past is a complex web of strands that give a community its identity, composed of conflicts, of decisions, of periods of prosperity and hardship, of wars fought and technological change and evolving values and enduring traditions.

We are a summary of unanswered questions, of stories told, forgotten, re-told. Of stories waiting to be told for the first time. Our historical resources help answer those questions in a world changing so quickly that we are liable to forget our place in it.

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When the pandemic arrived, the need for those resources greatened immensely.

These recent turbulent months have given a considerable boost to interest in local heritage, particularly as shared on social media. In Stormont County, the initial lockdown period prompted Maureen Casselman and Rosemary Albert Sanders to create a Facebook page dedicated to sharing memories of past life in the area.

The Bert Rady garage in Berwick, circa the 1940s. Facebook

Maureen and Rosemary started “Home is Where the Heart Is (Historical Photos of Stormont County)” to provide communal comfort at the time. It tapped into a deep sense of nostalgia—something generally viewed with suspicion by serious historians—but that tapping has since turned into a lively flow of photos, documents, and oral memories that has stirred interest in the oft-neglected rural history of the region.

In true grassroots style, the page follows no organizational scheme and possesses no purpose other than to serve as a forum of community conversation and sharing. It has provided moments of genealogical connection, glimpses of old family albums, and scenes of village and farm life. The materials shared vary from the mundane to the sentimental, and some are treasures that might never have been shared publicly had our world not changed so drastically.

Preparing fence posts for provincial Highway 43, in the 1950s. Facebook photo

This approach turns “traditional” history on its head—but perhaps it is what is needed to kick local history into a new and modern phase of popularity. At the very least, it demonstrates the potential of developing digital community memory. And in a period of distress, it may well serve as its own form of public medicine—an antidote to isolation for those suddenly shut in over an extended period.

History as community resilience? That’s something to contemplate.

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Perhaps the pandemic has quickened the move of local history into the digital realm.  At the very least it has shown that there are realms of historical documents floating around out there —photographs, maps, business papers, films, blueprints, various official records—that can be shared virtually.

That documentation is of great value to a community. No less than the carpenter’s square, it serves as a tool of tangible measurement, allowing us to put into perspective our lives and our communities and the stories that flow from them—materials allowing us measure what we have been and balance that vision against what we might become.

Newington Sandtown Road Public School in 1950. Facebook

Where these materials find their way is another matter. As much as social media allows us to share these stories, the digital giants of our age are not necessarily reliable safeguards of community-level history. The solution to preserving local history may again be found at the grassroots level, collected and organized by motivated individuals and families, by like-minded groups, or through dedicated community workshops.

We live at an odd and uncomfortable point in time, with no way of knowing how future generations will make sense of what we experience today. How ironic, then, that the great interruption of time in our own age is providing us with the chance to look back and take stock of our communal past, with all the tools and motivation to do so.

Out of disruption and disaster, the gift of opportunity.

A defunct local newspaper’s front page “flag” — often mistakenly described as the masthead — in 1899.

 

Members of the Crysler Women’s Institute, circa the 1940s. Facebook

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