Wall to wall and floor to ceiling, the room is filled with artifacts of a bygone age: colourful tins of tea and coffee, delicate china tea sets, wooden barrels and copper buckets, snowshoes and straw hats, bottles of patent medicine claiming to cure everything from toothache to hair loss. The sun shines brightly through the front window and grows dimmer at the back of the room, where a checkerboard sits between two spindleback chairs waiting for the town gossips to come swap stories.
It’s strange to be taking this in over a Zoom call. The irony of using video conferencing software to connect with the nineteenth century isn’t lost on Hailey Doughty, the interpreter leading my family through a virtual tour at Lang Pioneer Village Museum. But she’s quick to point out there are more parallels between pioneer and the 21st century lifestyles than you might guess. With its departments ranging from a pharmacy to homewares to luxuries, Menie General Store represents the 1899 equivalent of a one-stop box store. “Going to the general store once a month might be like going shopping once a week rather than, oh, I’m just going to run into the store and grab something,” Doughty says, laughing.
This isn’t my first visit to Lang (see this article for a sense of the museum pre-pandemic), but it’s my first experience of the Virtual Q&A program. Launched in the fall of 2020, the program seeks to give visitors a “living museum” experience from the safety of their own home. Interpreters offer 30-minute sessions in key buildings chosen from among the roughly three dozen buildings on the grounds outside Keene, Ontario. Options include the Menie General Store, South Lake School House, Fife Cabin, Samuel Lowry Weaver Shop, and Register Print Shop. Although you can’t explore the meticulously recreated 19th century village on your own at the time of this writing, you can still get an in-depth look with the help of a skilled interpreter.
The last time I visited in person my son was three. Now he’s five, and he’s got even more questions. He asks Doughty to show him the toy section, where we admire the stereoscope, a kind of wood-and-wire View-Master prototype. In the school supplies section, we ponder the slate boards that pulled iPad duty for kids studying at home. Most engaging of all is the artifact guessing game: Doughty asks what we think a cup with an odd ceramic ridge is, but we’re stumped. Turns out it’s a moustache protector, designed to keep one’s fashionable waxed moustache from wilting while sipping tea.
Details like these don’t just keep kids amused. To me, the goofy gadgetry makes a distant, potentially dusty subject relatable. It evokes a real person chasing fads and susceptible to vanity, more memorable than any record of names and dates. “Even in the summer you’ll have people come in and they’ll be like, ‘we’re gonna be here for ten minutes,’” Doughty says. “And then those are the people that, when we didn’t have COVID and we were able to have people on site, would be here for three hours because they’d be just absolutely enthralled with everything.”
Our 30-minute session goes by quickly, so I’m glad I’ve signed up for a double header. The Menie General Store was relocated from just east of Campbellford and most of the artifacts sourced from nearby, to preserve the sense of a local connection. It’s a recognizably modern experience compared to our next stop, the Fife Cabin.
Our second interpreter, Renee Homiak, describes the Fife family as lucky for having windows. The door is open for some extra light, and Homiak is bundled up in period-appropriate clothing against the March weather. The rustic log cabin she stands in is the oldest build on site, built in 1825 and representing a settler’s first home after arriving in Canada. Homiak tells us European immigrants set sail in early spring, arriving in the region in late summer or early fall. They had to work quickly before winter set in. Preoccupied with building a shelter and unfamiliar with the territory, they relied on the knowledge of the local Indigenous inhabitants, the Michi Saagiig, to survive. The Michi Saagiig showed them hunting grounds, introduced them to ice fishing, and taught them to replace their clunky leather boots with seasonally appropriate moccasins. “Without their help they probably wouldn’t have survived through the winter,” Homiak says.
The Fifes would survive the journey from Scotland to make a lasting impact on Canadian agriculture, thanks to the introduction of Red Fife wheat. The hardy variety was well-adapted to the northern climate, becoming the country’s number one wheat for decades to come (it remains popular today, with Black’s Distillery in Peterborough using it in their spirits as a local homage). Homiak says none of that would have come to pass if Jane Fife hadn’t rescued the first grain samples from a hungry cow: “They planted all of the seeds that they had, and Jane Fife ran out just in the nick of time to save three wheat heads – their family cow was trampling everything and eating the wheat.”
Again the personal details make the one-room cabin seem alive with history. “I love the collection, the artifacts – they speak,” Homiak says. “Every crack is a different story, every notch in the wood is what was happening, what was going on. To be able to gather that information and share it with people is just amazing. And I do believe that we can learn a lot from our past, and that history repeats itself, and we can make better choices in the future.”
As we near the end of our tour, I ask Homiak and Doughty what it’s been like moving such a visual, tactile experience online. Both miss the in-person days, but the response is surprisingly positive. “I had a school from Niagara, which would be far too long for them to come for a daytrip. They booked three times because they were just so excited to see something that they haven’t been able to,” Doughty says. “It’s great because we’re getting to connect people, but also people we’ve never connected with before because they’ve been so far out.”
If circumstances or distance have kept you from visiting, now might be a good time to give Lang a try. Doughty says staff and volunteers have a sense of mission about ensuring the wealth of historical knowledge stored there. “When people aren’t at the village it’s empty,” she says as we wrap up the call. “That’s what the village is meant to be, it’s living, it has people through it. So if we can even get them virtually, that’s much better than no one taking it in.”
Click here to book a Virtual Q&A at Lang Pioneer Village Museum, and check the website frequently for updates on the status of special events and guided tours.