By Abigail Miller, Archivist at Northumberland County Archives and Museum
Northumberland County Archives and Museum has been officially closed to the public since Thursday, March 12, 2020. Katie and I are fortunate to be able to continue working from home by responding to research requests, continuing preparations to make our collection accessible online, re-developing policies to adapt to our post-COVID19 world, and most pressingly, looking to our community to document history in the making.
It is a humbling experience to be non-essential. Day by day, amidst disruptions to every facet of our personal and professional lives, we learn and relearn what that term means for us. As an institution that strives to be a vital participant in the processes of collecting and interpreting meaning, the unfolding impact of COVID-19 concentrates our sector’s role towards prioritizing people’s present needs and building assurance that our experiences are real, they matter, and we’ll get through this together.
Local photographer, Molly Taylor of Centre Oak Photography tapped into the local zeitgeist when she put out a call on Facebook for those interested in a free, on-your-porch photoshoot. With a little competition to sweeten the deal, the project garnered a very enthusiastic response from participants across Northumberland County. Mike and Erin Noonan of Roseneath were happy to take Molly up on her offer:
“This photo shoot was something that really lifted our spirits and gave us something to look forward to. When Molly was pulling in the driveway my kids could hardly contain their excitement…our place used to have a swinging door. You can see Ella, my daughter on her bike didn’t even have time to put shoes on. In our photo we wanted to capture how our days were being spent…because I know one day we will look back at this memory. My oldest daughter Ava has not stopped baking since being home, Ella has toured all over our property on her bike, Brock is wearing his tractor battery out and Mike and I are just trying to stay sane and enjoy each other’s company over many glasses of vino.”
The emotional resonance of this project is profound. We are very honoured that Molly, with the permission of all participants, will be donating this catalogue of hilariously staged and achingly sincere photographs to Northumberland County Archives and Museum as one representation of Northumberland’s COVID-19 story. The full series can be viewed on Centre Oak Photography’s Facebook page.
We want to encourage everyone to document their COVID-19 experiences. Your first-hand accounts – your impressions, reactions, emotions, coping mechanisms – however mundane or difficult, are valuable. You may find yourself compiling photos, videos, letters, journal entries, signs, art, even dated to-do lists and grocery lists – these materials become touchstones of understanding for our future selves and historians.
If you would like to share your COVID-19 experience you may email firstname.lastname@example.org, call 905-372-3329 x2242, or send mail to 555 Courthouse Rd. Cobourg, ON K9A 5J6. Please provide your name, contact information and your story.
We are in the process of digitizing some gems from our local history collection and are making them available online through the Internet Archive. A particular highlight is the Oshawa City Directories from 1921-1969. City directories contain a wealth of information for genealogists, researchers, and everyday history enthusiasts. These books tell the story of our past by including names and information about residents as well as businesses in Oshawa through the years. Inside you’ll find addresses and occupations of householders, complete business directories, and much more
This is your first step to finding newspaper articles in our collection. We have not yet scanned all our papers and made them available online, but this index lets you search for a topic or person and get the dates when articles or notices about them appeared in the Oshawa papers. Usually, we can scan and email scans to you. However, the actual papers are still on microfilm which we can only access when the library is open, so requests will be filled once we re-open to the public.
The Oshawa Museum has made the earliest newspapers, from 1862 to 1930, available online through the Canadian Community Digital Archives. The Oshawa Public Library will be working to continue this project and provide access to Oshawa’s newspapers from 1930 to 1970.
We maintain a growing photograph collection of historical events, places, and people of Oshawa. Explore the collection, leave comments or questions and help to build our image collection by donating copies or scans of your photographs.
Do you ever wonder exactly where old Oshawa photos were taken and what the area looks like now? Using #HistoryPin we have pinned some of our images of old Oshawa to Google Street View, so that you can scroll back through time. You can also add images of your own to the project.
If you require assistance in pursuing or identifying local history or genealogy information available within the Oshawa collection, you are invited to submit a request https://oshlib.ca/contact
By Jennifer Weymark, Archivist at the Oshawa Museum
What a surreal time we are currently living through. In the not to distant future, historians will study this time and those of us who collect history can help those future historians with our actions now.
Each institution that is part of DRAAG has something in their collection that highlights the human experience during a tumultuous time. The Oshawa Museum has an amazing collection of letters written home by a young Oshawa resident as he served in the trenches of World War I. His perspective, his words, help to humanize a time in history that is well documented but often in a clinical, statistical manner.
While official documents outline the impact of the war, they cover important facts such as casualties, number of Canadians injured, the financial impacts of the war, letters such as those written by Pvt. Garrow provide us with the personal impact. While the entirety of the collection is amazing there is one interaction that stand out to me because of the simplicity. In a letter dated May 7, 1916, Garrow gently reminds his sister that is he writing her back as often as he can but between the mail going out only twice a week and him not getting a great deal of time to write while in the trenches, it takes him a bit longer to respond. This interaction between brother and sister is a bit of normalcy in the midst of such a traumatic time and it helps those of us reading it 100+ years later connect on that human level. Those of us with siblings understand all to well the sigh that had to have escaped from Garrow when he read Lillian’s letter.
If you are interested in reading Garrow’s letters, the Oshawa Museum has an online exhibit that makes these letters available digitally. We also have some photos of the family along with all of the official documentation sent to the family available through this exhibit.
The collecting and preserving of letters, diaries and journals such as Garrow’s is so important for us in the future to understand that human side of history. Currently, we are living through an historic event. My daughter mentioned how in 20 or 30 years she will be telling her children what it was like to live through this pandemic. She is entirely correct. Each of us can help future historians understand the human side of the pandemic by writing about our experiences. Then, once this has passed, donating our writings to the appropriate local archive.
One of the ways the Oshawa Museum is working to document the impact of COVID-19 on our community is through an online journal. Here staff of the Museum, as well as members of the partner institutions and the public, will have an opportunity to share how life has changed living through this state of emergency.
I am also asking the Oshawa citizens consider writing a personal journal documenting their thoughts and experiences, their fears and their joys through this time. All of these documents will then become part of the archival record of the impact of COVID-19 on Oshawa and its citizens.
Social distancing and self-isolation mean that Archives Awareness Week celebrations will look a little different this year. DRAAG thought this would be a great time to celebrate archives online and the many ways we can still access archival records and resources in this uncertain time.
Each day next week, we are going to share a post or two looking at the different ways local sites have made virtual access to their collections possible. Just because we are all social distancing, doesn’t mean that we can’t stay connected.
This article was originally posted on the Oshawa Museum Blog in honour of Black History Month, January 25, 2019.
John Baker is an important part of Oshawa’s history, even thought it is entirely possible he never spent any time here. Baker was one of two slaves granted freedom from slavery, along with land and money, in the will of their master Robert Isaac Dey Gray, Solicitor-General of Upper Canada. His connection to Gray, along with being named in the will, resulted in Baker gaining a level of fame and notoriety. A quick search on the internet turns up a surprising amount of information on the man and his life.
In a publication on the early history of the town of Cornwall, Ontario, author Jacob Farrand Pringle wrote about Baker and provided information about the life of the man though to be the last surviving enslaved person of African descent in both Canada East (Quebec) and Canada West (Ontario). The Baker family can be traced back to a gentleman by the name of Cato Prime. Prime was native of Guinea, West Africa before being sold into slavery to John Low of New Jersey. Prime had a daughter, named Lavine, who in turn had a daughter named Dorine, all of whom were slaves to the Low family. Dorine was given as a gift to Elizabeth Low, the daughter of John, and came with Elizabeth when she married Captain John Gray. According to Pringle, Dorine was 17 years old when the Gray family brought her to Canada with them.
The Grays resided in Montreal from 1776 to 1784 when they moved to an area just east of Cornwall. Dorine met and married Jacob Baker in Gray’s Creek, the area just east of Cornwall named for the Gray family. Baker’s history is unclear. In an interview with a Toronto newspaper in 1869, John says that his father was a Dutchman; however, in his book on the history of Osgoode Hall, author James Hamilton states that Baker was a German Hessians who served with the British Army during the American Revolution. Either way, Baker was a free man while Dorine remained a slave to the Gray family. According to Pringle, the Bakers had a large family. The two eldest children, Simon and John, were born slaves as the law at the time stated that children inherited the status of their mother. Two daughters, Elizabeth and Bridget, were born free as laws had changed prior to their birth. Upon the death of John Gray, Dorine and her sons became the property of Robert Isaac Dey Gray, the son of Elizabeth and John.
In that interview with the Toronto newspaper, Baker recounts his life with the Gray family. Referring to John Gray as Colonel, Baker spoke of how strict his master was.
“The Colonel had much property; he was strict and sharp, made us wear deerskin shirts and deerskin jackets, and gave us many a flogging. At these times he would pull off my jacket, and the rawhide would fly around my shoulders very fast.” 
Robert I.D. Gray was apparently less cruel to those he owned. After practicing law in Cornwall for a short time, he went to York and in 1797 was named the first Solicitor-General of Upper Canada. Gray took Simon Baker with him to act as his body servant.
In August 1798, Elizabeth Gray was granted 600 acres of property in Whitby Township. It is this property that connects the Baker brothers and Gray to Oshawa. Robert Isaac Dey Gray and Simon Baker died when the ship they were travelling on, the Speedy, wrecked near Presqu’ile Point, Brighton Township. In his will, Gray finally granted the Baker family their freedom. Gray not only granted freedom to Dorine and her family, but he also made provisions for her future. The will stipulates that £1200 from his real estate holdings be put into a fund for Dorine and that the interest be given to her annually. He also left provisions in his will for Simon and John. To Simon, he left 200 acres of lot 11 in the second concession, as well as his clothes and a watch worth £50. To John, he left 200 acres of lot 17 in the first concession along with £50.  Land registry documents show that the property left to John was finally transferred to him on June 12, 1824. John did not keep the property, as records indicate the lot was sold to Martin Sanford on June 14, 1824. The records are difficult to read, and it is unclear how much money John sold the lot for.
John Baker’s interview with the newspaper gives us glimpse into his life as a free man. After Gray’s death released Baker from slavery, he began to work for Justice William Dummer Powell. While with Powell, he enlisted with the army and went to New Brunswick, fighting in the War of 1812. According to Baker, he was with his regiment during battles at Lundy’s Lane, Fort Erie and Sackett’s Harbour. It appears that Baker was in the military until after the battle of Waterloo, where he apparently saw Napoleon and was not particularly impressed. From his interview with the Toronto newspaper, “I saw Napoleon. He was a chunky little fellow; he rode hard and jumped ditches.”
Once his time in the military ended, Baker returned to Canada and settled back in Cornwall. He worked in the area until age caught up with him. Around 1861, he received a pension from the British government for his time in the military. John Baker died on January 18, 1871.
At the time of his death, Baker was believed to be the last person to been held in slavery in the Canadas. Many Canadians do not know that slavery existed here. Baker’s life helps us to better understand slavery in the Canadian context.
 Pringle, Jacob Farrand. Lunenburg or the Old District: its settlement and early progress : with personal recollections of the town of Cornwall, from 1824 : to which are added a history of the King’s Royal Regiment of New York and other corps; the names of all those who drew lands in the counties of Stormont, Dundas, and Glengarry, up to November, 1786; and several other lists of interest to the descendants of the old settlers. Cornwall: Standard Print House, 1890. Page 319.
 Hamilton, James Cleland. Osgoode Hall Reminiscences of the Bench and Bar. Toronto: The Carswell Company Ltd. 1904. Page 132.
 Ontario Department of Lands and Forests. Domesday Whitby Township. Page 174. Note, Whitby Township at that time referred to what is today the Town of Whitby and the City of Oshawa. The land that was owned by Gray was located in what is today Oshawa.
 In Pringle’s book, he notes that the will leaves 200 acres of lot 11 of the first concession to Simon and 200 acres of lot 17 in the second concession to John. The Domesday records indicate that the grants were for lot 17 in the first concession and lot 11 in the second concession.
 Ontario Land Registry – Abstract/Parcel Book, Durham (40), East Whitby, Book 189. Page 289.
 Of note, this is the same judge that employed Thomas Henry at the start of the War of 1812.
This month marks the end of an industrial era in Oshawa. By the end of day on Friday, December 20, 2019 the last vehicle will have rolled off the assembly line at General Motors. Automobile production has a long history in the City of Oshawa and General Motors has been an important part of the community for over 100 years.
In 1907, R.S. McLaughlin, son of Robert, created the McLaughlin Motor Car Co. after visiting the United States and discovering that automobiles were becoming a modern luxury. It was after this tour that R.S. McLaughlin decided to use Buick engines and chassis with McLaughlin bodies to create the McLaughlin-Buick automobile.
The company produced 154 of these McLaughlin-Buicks in 1907. In 1915, the Chevrolet Motor Car Co. of Canada was formed. It was also the same year that the original McLaughlin Carriage Co. was sold to Jim Tudhope of Orillia, after building and producing 270,000 carriages. In 1918, McLaughlin and Chevrolet merged with General Motors to create General Motors of Canada. According to R.S. McLaughlin, “that was a grand thing for Oshawa on the day that the sale was made, and the city of Oshawa and our workmen will never regret it.”
During the First World War, Oshawa’s auto industry had provided many of the military vehicles required by the Allied Nations, and in turn, the wartime effort assisted in the development of expanded facilitates. Following WWI, new factory plant units were erected to support the production of the newly acquired automobile contracts. In 1920 Oldsmobile joined Chevrolet and the McLaughlin Buick on the assembly lines. In 1923 Cadillac was added to Oshawa’s production. In 1926 there was further expansion in the company as additions to the north plant were made that enabled a further increase in production. When the Pontiac name was added to the line-up more space was needed on the assembly line.
In 1920 General Motors of Canada patented the adjustable front seat. The subsequent year, the world’s first stoplights [brake lights] appeared on Oshawa built cars. Sadly in this same year, Robert – the founder of the company – passed away at age 86. A few years later, in 1924, George decided to retire from General Motors.
In 1922, the company employed 1700 workers with two shifts, producing 200 cars a day. In 1928 at peak production, General Motors in Oshawa employed 5000 workers and produced a car a minute. This figure was a far cry from the 154 cars the McLaughlin Motor Car Company produced in its entire first year.
General Motors aided the town of Oshawa greatly by having several roads widened and resurfaced, by purchasing land and donating Lakeview Park to the citizens of Oshawa, and by sponsoring various sports teams. Although in 1928 the company experienced record production figures, the following year’s stock market crash and resulting depression had a serious impact on the automobile industry. General Motors was not immune to this affect. The business had no choice but to cut back on production and employment until the economy began to improve in 1934.
In 1938 the 1 000 000 000th car rolled off the lines – 31 years after the company’s first car was built. This same year, the company began to build and test various army trucks and combat vehicles. Being dedicated to the war effort, R.S. McLaughlin had approved the request brought before him the preceding year by the Department of National Defense to construct military equipment. Tests had revealed the efficiency and reliability of the vehicles produced by General Motors and this is what prompted the request from the Department of National Defense. By 1942 production on passenger vehicles came to a halt and full wartime production ensued. Hundreds of thousands of assorted military vehicles, weapons, gun mounts, machine guns and Mosquito aircraft fuselages were among the military items made. By 1943 completion of Canada’s 500 000th fighting vehicle was celebrated in Oshawa. The Mosquito fuselage reached production of one per day.
By the end of WWII, when military production was terminated, the plant had to be re-converted to facilitate the production of civilian vehicles. This retrofit involved major remodeling and a complete re-tooling of the plant. Of course General Motors was up to the task and it wasn’t long before the plant began turning out civilian passenger cars once again.
When GM ceased wartime production after the Second World War, the first post-war car came off the lines by October 1945. In 1950 the plant expanded, and in 1954 passenger car assembly began at a new south plant complex in Oshawa. The year 1956 marked the three millionth vehicle produced since 1907, and five years later GM had produced four million vehicles. Two thousand units were being produced daily by 1965. The Canada-US Trade agreement (Autopact) was signed allowing GM of Canada to increase its production considerably in the years to follow. During 1968 the plastic moulding facilities were enlarged so that instrument panels, fender liners and grille sections could be manufactured.
General Motors of Canada was no stranger to military production; it had created many weapons and vehicles in the first and second World Wars. In 1975 GM of Canada began construction on trucks for the Department of National Defense. It only took one year to modify the assembly line so that the trucks could be produced on the same line as the regular commercial vehicles.
In 1983, the year of GM’s 75th birthday, William Street in front of the GM Head Office was temporarily changed to “GM Way.” A street sign was posted to reflect the change. GM Oshawa was given the privilege of building 21 royal blue luxury cars worth half a million dollars for Queen Elizabeth II’s scheduled visit to Ontario in 1984. About this time, the company was proposing a 4-year plan to revamp the truck plant, and build a metal stamping facility. The stamping plant would be of great benefit because at the time the bulk of parts (roofs, hoods and floor pans) were imported to Oshawa from the United States. There could be shipping delays, and keeping a supply on hand took up a large amount of storage space. When the stamping plant was up and running, parts could be made as required, and sent to the car plant next-door for assembly and painting. The planned expansion also meant 300 new jobs. The much-anticipated Autoplex became the “largest, most modern, integrated vehicle-manufacturing complex in North America.” It is spread over three locations; made up of a 2-car assembly plant, the truck assembly plant and a fabrication plant (stampings, batteries, lamps, plastics, etc). GM plants in Canada had advantages over their U.S. counterparts–the cheaper dollar and the government run medical and social benefits.
In 1986 there was a 4-month shutdown at the Oshawa truck plant, and a one-month shutdown at one of the car plants. The interior of the plant was torn up, expanded, and modernized. It re-opened with more than 120 robots, hundreds of Automated Guided Vehicles (AGV’s), and 526 automated welders. Instead of the traditional assembly line where employees rushed to assemble parts on a moving conveyor, which could not be slowed down or stopped, the AGV’s, which run along tracks buried in the floor, would carry components to work stations of 8-15 people. These AGV’s also tow units to booths where computer-controlled robots take over certain painting or welding tasks, jobs considered too repetitive or delicate for humans to perform. At this time, plans were underway to replace the production of the “A-Car” (Chevrolet Celebrity and Pontiac 6000) with the 10-car. There was a major lay off for nightshift workers at Plant No. 1 from November 1987 to March of 1988. The layoff was due to a large drop in midsize car sales in the United States. Shift workers would work two weeks of days and then two weeks off, for the duration of those four months.
Until 1989 the GM office staff was spread out over nine buildings. In August of that year GM sought to consolidate its office staff in one massive Head Office. The former 70-year-old Head Office on William Street was abandoned with plans to convert it to a parking lot. A five level building was built at the east end of Wentworth Street (now called Col. Sam Drive) with a beautiful view of the lake.
Oshawa became the first auto assembly line in North America to run on 3 shifts when it added the 3rd shift to the truck assembly plant in 1993. In 1995 the six millionth truck rolled off the lines, since the production of trucks began in 1919.
General Motors was hit hard by the economic downturn between 2008 and 2010. The truck plant in Oshawa was closed in May 2009 and in June the company declared bankruptcy. However, after massive restricting and bail-out loans from both the federal and provincial governments, the company began to rebound in 2010 and posted profits for the first time in years.
November 2018 saw the announcement that the company was closing the Oshawa plant as part of their global restructuring plan. For a community with close ties to the company for over 100 years, this news hit hard. While the company is not completely leaving the community, a portion of the plant will be retrofitted to build car parts and a portion of the plant property will become a new test track for autonomous vehicles, the closure of the plant will mean the end of a large part of Oshawa’s identity.
By Jennifer Weymark, Archivist, Oshawa Museum This article originally appeared in theOshawa Express, Dec 21, 2011
In 2011, the archives acquired four Christmas cards sent from an Oshawa man serving overseas during WWII.
Pte. Earl Hann was overseas serving as a member of the Canadian Corps, under the 8th Army, as World War II battled throughout Northern Africa and Italy. This meant that he was away from his young family during the holiday season in 1944.
Standardized Christmas cards were made available to the soldiers so that they could let their family back home know that they were thinking of them. The cards were really a single sheet of paper with a drawing on it meant to represent the area where the soldier was stationed. Once the soldier had completed personalizing their card in the little space made available to them, and the card was passed by the censors, the army would copy the card and reduce the size so that it would be less expensive to send back home.
Pte. Hann made the best of the limited space available to let him family know just how much he was missing them. Three of the cards are addressed to his wife Irene with the fourth being addressed to his young daughter Joyce.
The lengthiest of the notes written by Pte. Hann also lets us know that the holiday season was extra special as his wedding anniversary also fell during that time. He writes:
“Happy Anniversary My love. With Best Wishes that this is our last spent apart. All my love and Millions of Kisses Forever yours Earl”
He chose to send his daughter a card showing where her day was when he wasn’t with her. The card has a map of the Mediterranean Sea, showing both Italy and North Africa. This time the card is simply signed from “Daddy with all his love and best wishes for 1945”.
Pte. Hann was happily reunited with his family once the war was over and he went on to become a 50 year member of the Oshawa Historical Society. It is fitting that these letters have found a home with a museum he loved so much.