Jun 19, 2016

The Poor House... and three rats

Our Wellington County Museum and Archives is a "hidden" gem:  many visitors don't know of its existence and even fewer know its history.  Here's a very brief description:

"Built in 1877 as the Wellington County House of Industry and Refuge, this institution was the fourth of nine rural 'Poorhouses' built in Southern Ontario and maintained by individual counties.  Constructed as an Industrial Farm, the site included a 60-bed house, 30 acres of crops and a barn for livestock.  The facility was built on 58 acres of land purchased by the County in order to provide relief to the 'deserving poor' and maintained and operated as a working farm." -- from the Doors Open 2016 Site Interpretation Flyer

The award winning permanent exhibit "If These Walls Could Talk" tells the story of the 'inmates' who lived here with moving period photos and first-hand accounts.  

"Of the 1500 inmates who lived here from 1877 to 1947, 600 died.  Of those, 271 were buried in the House of Industry cemetery"

which is now a beautifully treed area with informative and touching placards telling the story of those who died here.  

These two photos are of the large model of the Poor House located in the Museum.  The model is situated before a mural-like photo of inmates, overshadowing the model.  Spooky and moving!

This small scene on the far right of the model shows a body being carted away to the cemetery.  

There are also changing exhibits, and smaller exhibits focused on local history:  Natives who lived in this area, Victorian funeral customs and a World War I exhibit called "Far from Home:  A Soldier's Life at the Front 1914 - 1918".  

It was this exhibit that really caught my attention and deepened my respect and understanding for the hell humans put each other through during this insanity.  Imagine living in a mud trench, surrounded by corpses and shelling, gun fire, sniper shots.  Imagine further that your feet are constantly wet and in danger of "trench foot", lice in everything and rats snatching every crumb they can get.  Disease, no sanitation, just misery and mud and the fear of dying there.  Then realize that this situation was created by humans, on purpose.  

It was the rats (you may know I love rats) that made me return to photograph them and do some further research on what was endured.  

This is the entrance to the trench...

and then you're inside this brilliantly constructed 3-D illusion of trench warfare, including sound effects.  (These boys are lucky, this trench has a wooden floor.)

And what do you see up on the ledge?  A rat!   Yes, rats took full advantage of warfare: 

"Trenches often flooded with rain in which frogs swam. Red slugs would ooze from the mud. At night opportunist rats crept out. Discarded food cans would rattle as the rats crept inside to lick the remains. More horrifically the rodents were sometimes referred to as corpse rats. They bred rapidly in their millions and swarmed through No-Mans Land gnawing the corpses of fallen soldiers.

  The rats would taut sleeping soldiers, creeping over them at night. There were long bouts of boredom and rat hunting became a sport. To preserve ammunition, shooting at rats was banned but piercing them with a bayonne became a pastime for some soldiers." 

One such splattered rat is even included in the exhibit.  

"If you left your food the rats would soon grab it. Those rats were fearless. Sometimes we would shoot the filthy swines. But you would be put on a charge for wasting ammo, if the sergeant caught you." -- Richard Beasley, interviewed in 1993

"The outstanding feature of the trenches was the extraordinary number of rats. The area was infested with them. It was impossible to keep them out of the dugouts. They grew fat on the food that they pilfered from us, and anything they could pick up in or around the trenches; they were bloated and loathsome to look at. Some were nearly as big as cats. We were filled with an instinctive hatred of them, because however one tried to put the thought of one's mind, one could not help feeling that they fed on the dead." - Stuart Dolden

"Rats. There are millions!! Some are huge fellows, nearly as big as cats. Several of our men were awakened to find a rat snuggling down under the blanket alongside them!" - Major Walter Vignoles, Lancashire Fusiliers
"In one of the dug-outs the other night, two men were smoking by the light of the candle, very quiet. All at once the candle moved and flickered. Looking up they saw a rat was dragging it away. Another day I saw a rat washing itself like a cat behind the candle. Some as big as rabbits. I was in the trench the other night and one jumped over the parapet." - Private Frank Bass in a letter dated 1916
"Rats came up from the canal, fed on the plentiful corpses, and multiplied exceedingly. While I stayed here with the Welch. a new officer joined the company and, in token of welcome, was given a dug-out containing a spring-bed. When he turned in that night he heard a scuffling, shone his torch on the bed, and found two rats on his blanket tussling for the possession of a severed hand." - Robert Graves

These quotes are from a great list of primary accounts found here:   http://spartacus-educational.com/FWWrats.htm

SO when you visit Elora, put some time aside to visit our Museum!  We have pamphlets and maps here at the Flying Leap

Jun 14, 2016

Dr. Robertson in the news

This weekend is the big Doors Open annual event, where places not usually open to the public in Fergus and Elora will open their doors Saturday, June 18th, from 10am - 4pm.  This year has a medical theme and while we are not opening our B&B this time (we still have so much to learn!), we were blessed to have Janice and Katie Anderson interviewed here by Francis Baker for the Fergus Elora News Express, June 8, 2016, issue.

It was fascinating to hear about polio in the 1930s and the care and treatment Dr. Robertson gave to Janice's mother, Dorothy Hosking.  Katie, who works at the Archives, was able to supply excellent details which really gave the personal experience a fuller context.  
  Thank you so much to Elizabeth Bender, Cultural Coordinator for Tourist Information Services, for arranging our virtual meeting and getting this all underway!  And thank you to Janice, Katie and Francis for allowing us to supply the physical space for this interview.