On a dull drizzly morning I got a good start to my day with a filling breakfast and an interesting interview with the innkeepers of the MacKinnon-Cann in, followed by a tour of the four historic heritage properties that they own. In addition to last night’s walking tour of Yarmouth, I had now got a good idea of Yarmouth’s Victorian architecture. Now it was time to delve deeper into history, so I embarked on my visit of the Yarmouth County Museum and Archives.
Nadine Gates, the curator, welcomed me and gave me a personal tour throughout the facilities. As an overview she explained that the Yarmouth County Museum is a good representation of Yarmouth’s past. The town’s seafaring history is a major focus of the museum which features the third largest collection of ship portraits in Canada. More than 120 different ship portraits illustrate Yarmouth’s historic importance in shipbuilding and navigation.
The Yarmouth County Historical Society was founded in 1967, and the museum opened in 1969 in a former church building. Beautiful wooden beams across a high vaulted ceiling demonstrate the former ecclesiastical use of this building. The museum has been expanded twice in 1999 and 2004. The new wing we were standing in is called the Education Wing and hosts a variety of Historical Society meetings, talks and lectures, music recitals and other events and is open to the public. At the present time it is hosting a stained glass exhibit that features local artists.
From the Education Wing we entered the main section of the museum which is an impressive space with a very high ceiling. The main exhibit area (the former church) still exudes a solemn atmosphere. Nadine took me to an area called “Families at Sea”. Throughout seafaring history, particularly at the beginning of the previous century, entire families would be living on tall ships, and souvenirs from their trips all over the world were displayed here along with photos and letters of the various family members whose permanent residence was a wooden vessel on the ocean. A certain Catherine Ladd, for example, spent the first twelve years of her life living on a ship, and her artifacts are available for viewing.
Nadine also gave me a general explanation of Yarmouth’s history. The town was founded in the 1700s as an Acadian settlement whose residents were deported in the mid 1800s as part of the Grand Expulsion. Some Acadian settlers tried to escape deportation and hid in the forest with the Mi’kmaq native tribe. United Empire Loyalists were then assigned the land, and their economy focused on ship-building. This was the Golden Age of Sail, the Age of the Tall Ships. Today’s economy is based on fishing, and in particular lobster fishing. Interestingly, Nadine pointed out that years ago lobsters were only eaten by poor people and often they were used as cheap fertilizer in local gardens. How tastes change….
One area of the museum also features nameplates of ships. The most prominent and well-known one is the nameplate of the “Samson”. This ship was the closest ship to the sinking Titanic during the cold April days of 1912, and she heard the mayday calls of the sinking ocean liner. But because the Samson had been illegally fishing in the waters off Eastern Canada, the crew chose not to answer the distress call and left the area. We will never know how many more people could have been saved if the Samson had responded to this distress call. She was later renamed the “New York City”, a name that is still visible on the other side of the nameplate.
The Yarmouth County Museum is located right in the heart of Yarmouth’s Collins Street Heritage District. In addition to being a heritage property itself, the museum is surrounded by dozens of large homes owned formerly by wealthy sea captains and merchants. The Pelton-Fuller House next door was built as a summer home between 1890 and 1895 as a mansion for Alfred Fuller, a wealthy merchant, and was donated by one of his descendants in 1995 together with all its contents. Today it is part of the museum complex and an example of Victorian living.
The Yarmouth County Museum has another off-site satellite location: the Killam Brothers Shipping Office is Canada’s oldest shipping office. In 1788 John Killam built his first schooner and started a family business that would span 203 years and five generations of the Killam family. The property was also donated to the Yarmouth County Historical Society, and the 19th century setting gives visitors an idea of a commercial office of the 1900s.
One of the highlights of the Yarmouth County Museum is the lens of the Cape Forchu Lighthouse which dates back to 1908. The lens weighs approximately 3300 pounds and has 360 prisms. It was built in Paris, France, at a cost of $38,000 and was lit with kerosene. The job of a lighthouse keeper was very strenuous since a heavy tank of kerosene had to be carried up the narrow winding stairs of the lighthouse every night. The original Cape Forchu Lighthouse dating back to 1838 was replaced in 1962 at which time the lens was replaced and donated to the Yarmouth County Historical Society.
A Victorian room features a variety of historical customs and dresses as they would be worn by people about 120 years ago. Types of dress of first class, second and third class passengers were on display and speak to a time of great social divisions and class distinctions. A temporary exhibit features the silhouettes of Victorian fashions.
On the lower level of the museum various rooms display an early 1900s kitchen, a bedroom, and a nursery / toy room. These rooms provide good insight into late Victorian home life. The next room features industrial exhibits and machinery: a transmitter from a radio station, a coffee grinder and a printing press illustrate the evolution of mechanical equipment. A brass steam whistle from the Cosmos Cotton Mills is an example of industrial equipment that was used to call employees to work.
A room with various Nova Scotian wildlife scenes is followed by a forge. The blacksmith used to be one of the most important people in the village and his work environment is featured along with other implements such as a yoke (the contraption fitted around a draught animal’s necks where the plough would be attached). An early Acadian loom is testimony to the craftsmanship that existed here a few hundred years ago. A tool room features a foot-powered jig saw. Today we can hardly imagine an existence without electricity. Our ancestors were well-versed in the application of human or animal power to propel various types of equipment.
Several glass cases display antique glass and china collections while Mi’kmaq artifacts and arrowheads provide insight into native history and craftsmanship. Back upstairs we had a look at the antique musical instrument collection of the Yarmouth County Museum. Nadine demonstrated the Olympia Music Box, a device from 1898 that uses zinc disks for each song. A barrel with teeth plucks the various notes, propelled by a spring-loaded mechanism.
The musical instruments section was a real highlight of the museum and Nadine mentioned that usually they demonstrate three of the instruments to visitors. A Concert Roller Organ from 1902 is an example of some of the mechanical instruments that were used long ago. This device, patented in 1887, is operated by cranking the external handle. The internal bellows, tuned reeds, valves and a roller produce organ-like tones. The Square Grand Piano dates back to 1874 and a Player Organ from 1890 is also on display.
My favourite instrument was the Pianola Player Piano, manufactured in 1902: the rectangular box is pedal-operated, and a set of tiny hammers at the back strikes the keys of a Guild “Square Grand” piano made in Boston in 1874. The Player Piano could simply be pushed up to any piano, and even a person who had never played the piano before could make beautiful music. All they had to do was to push the foot pedals up and down. Nadine played the 1920s tune “The Entertainer”, the music itself is recorded on perforated paper rolls which actually looked rather fragile to me. The foot pedals operate a bellows system that operates the little hammers that play the tune on the piano behind it. What an ingenious invention….
A small display area is dedicated to the Yarmouth militia, attesting to Yarmouth’s history as a military training ground during World War II. All throughout this wing of the museum numerous ships portraits depict impressive tall ships of years gone by. The ship owners would commission these paintings because once these ships were built and commissioned, they hardly ever came back to town, and in many cases the owners would never see the ships again.
We ended our tour in the new section where there is a collection of stage coaches, bicycles and other vehicles. One of the highlights in this area is the 1921 electric car of a certain Minnie L. Lovitt, who was the first female driver in Yarmouth. She must have turned a lot of heads at the time. My guided tour had come to an end and I thanked Nadine for sharing her knowledge with me and got ready for my trip along the famous Lighthouse Trail where I would experience a significant incident that helped me gain important insight into the local mentality.