History Goes Modern: Ancient Sumeria Comes to Hastings County

By Orland French

After 31 years of working at the Marchmont Home in Belleville, The Rev. Robert Wallace recorded several relevant events cryptically in his diary. August 3, 1913: “R.W. gave Farewell address at Baptist Church – Review of Thirty-one years works in Belleville.” August 4. “Farewell Reception and Presentation”. Then he took a well-earned holiday: “12th sailed for England”.

Part of the new Archives’ mandate includes scanning historic documents for online access, such as the diary of Rev. Robert Wallace. Photo by Bob House / courtesy Community Archives of Belleville and Hastings County

His diary rests in the Community Archives of Belleville and Hastings County. But it wasn’t necessary to go near the archives to read it. The diary is on-line. Click, click, click. Through the internet R.W.’s life is revealed to the world.

The on-line presence of the diary is just an example of the services available from the new Community Archives of Belleville and Hastings County.  Opened in April, the Archives has been placing some its treasures on-line since June.

The new home for the Community Archives of Belleville and Hastings County was officially opened on April 7. Present at the ribbon-cutting were (l to r) Rick Phillips (Hastings County Warden), Neil Ellis (Bay of Quinte MPP), Taso Christopher (Belleville Mayor), Orland French (Hasting County Historical Society Past President), Gerry Boyce (HCHS Historian), Amanda Hill (HCHS Archivist), Mark Fluhrer (Director, RC&CS Belleville), Joel Carr-Braint (Belleville Property Manager), Trevor Pross (Belleville Library CEO), Garnet Thompson (Belleville Councillor), Richard Hughes (HCHS President) and John Roberts (Ontario Archivist). Photo by Bob House / courtesy Community Archives of Belleville and Hastings County

The new home for the Community Archives of Belleville and Hastings County was officially opened on April 7. Present at the ribbon-cutting were (l to r) Rick Phillips (Hastings County Warden), Neil Ellis (Bay of Quinte MPP), Taso Christopher (Belleville Mayor), Orland French (Hasting County Historical Society Past President), Gerry Boyce (HCHS Historian), Amanda Hill (HCHS Archivist), Mark Fluhrer (Director, RC&CS Belleville), Joel Carr-Braint (Belleville Property Manager), Trevor Pross (Belleville Library CEO), Garnet Thompson (Belleville Councillor), Richard Hughes (HCHS President) and John Roberts (Ontario Archivist). Photo by Bob House / courtesy Community Archives of Belleville and Hastings County

Archives are where we store pertinent documents and photos, like the shoebox of memories in your closet, but on a much grander scale. We’re talking public archives, a big building where anyone is entitled to look up official records or documents or deeds. Maybe you want to find out where your great-great-uncle Harry lived back on the sixth concession, or when the one-room school down the road was built, or what women wore to church in the 1890s.

The concept of an archives is not new to this area. What’s new for the residents of Hastings is a proper state-of-the-art archival facility for storing important documents from the families and corporations and institutions of this neighbourhood.

Archives have been around since the invention of writing, which was probably by the Sumerians 5,000 years ago. The Sumerians were an advanced society living in Mesopotamia. Other archives came along: Syria 2,500 years ago, Greece 2,300 years ago, Egypt 2,200 years, Canada 114 years ago. 

And now, you can add Belleville and Hastings County to the list.

Let’s say we’re no different than the Sumerians, except that we use paper and electronic records. They saved stuff on clay tablets, using a sharp triangular stylus to carve symbols in wet clay. It was mostly for record-keeping, primarily financial, like who owes who how much. Once the tablets were created, they had to be stored somewhere for reference, hence the need for an archives. Fortunately, we have progressed beyond clay tablets or all our archives storage buildings would collapse from the weight of clay records. (Archives primarily collect paper documents and photographs, not artifacts. That’s the work of museums.)

The word archives itself is drawn from antiquity. It is not often used in the singular, but it can be. The term in French and English has its roots in the Latin archium or archivum, itself a romanized version of the Greek arkheion meaning town hall or public records. The Romans also called them tabularia. Other developed societies, such as the Chinese, had their versions of archives. Everybody saves stuff.

A civilized society could not exist without them. And they weren’t just for keeping official records. Ancient stashes of tablets, several millennia old, found at sites like Ebla, Mari, Amarna and Pylos, have unlocked secrets about ancient alphabets, languages, literature and politics. 

Let’s skip from the ancient Sumerians to modern-day Bellevillians and Hastingonians of the 21st century. If an archives is so danged important, why didn’t we have one much earlier? Well, yes, we did, in a way. But the contents were scattered hither and yon in a number of places, not all of them easily accessible to the public. 

The City of Belleville held many of its own records. So did the County of Hastings. For the past 50 years, the Hastings County Historical Society gathered and maintained its own collection of documents, photos, tapes and other records. Then there were private collections, and corporate collections, and handfuls of letters tied up with string.

The Society’s photo collection was kept for years on the third floor of Glanmore National Historic Site, accessible up a narrow, winding staircase; other records were kept as part of the Canadiana collection in the old library building on Pinnacle Street.

The key to retaining paper records properly is creating a secure, climate-controlled, dust-free, pest-free space. Moisture and fluctuating temperatures will destroy sensitive documents. So will bugs. The new archives, on the second floor of the library building at 254 Pinnacle Street, provides 5,000 square feet of storage and work space meeting modern archival standards. 

The new archives, on the second floor of the library building at 254 Pinnacle Street, provides 5,000 square feet of storage and work space meeting modern archival standards. Mark Fluhrer, Neil Ellis and Orland French sample the state-of-the-art rolling doors that provide access to materials. Photo by Bob House / courtesy Community Archives of Belleville and Hastings County

The new archives, on the second floor of the library building at 254 Pinnacle Street, provides 5,000 square feet of storage and work space meeting modern archival standards. Mark Fluhrer, Neil Ellis and Orland French sample the state-of-the-art rolling doors that provide access to materials. Photo by Bob House / courtesy Community Archives of Belleville and Hastings County

The former archives building, the old Thurlow Township Hall in Cannifton, was, putting it politely, not so conducive to safe storage. The oldest part of the building was constructed in 1873, the newest part in the 1950s. Historian Gerry Boyce, a stalwart Society member and volunteer custodian of the building, ran a trap line to dispose of mice, voles and other vermin. It was not unusual to be called out late at night to turn off the intruder alarm and dispatch a bat or two. Sometimes the police came to help. Dehumidifiers were kept running at all times to combat the dampness created by water running through the ancient basement.

The former Hastings County archives building was not conducive to safe storage, and materials were under threat from a variety of intruders, including mice and bats! Photo by Amanda Hill

The former Hastings County archives building was not conducive to safe storage, and materials were under threat from a variety of intruders, including mice and bats! Photo by Amanda Hill

(For his assiduous efforts over the years – Gerry was the Archives – the reading room of the new location has been named after him.)

A longtime champion of the region’s history, Gerry Boyce was recognized by having the new archives’ reading room named for him. He was presented with the room’s sign by Archivist Amanda Hill with son Egerton and wife Bev in attendance. Photo by Bob House / courtesy Community Archives of Belleville and Hastings County

A longtime champion of the region’s history, Gerry Boyce was recognized by having the new archives’ reading room named for him. He was presented with the room’s sign by Archivist Amanda Hill with son Egerton and wife Bev in attendance. Photo by Bob House / courtesy Community Archives of Belleville and Hastings County

Other storage areas were no better. A consultant examining the efficacy of record-storage in Belleville concluded, at one location where he brushed mould and mildew and mushrooms off some documents, that conditions had to be improved. 

At the Heritage Centre, the Historical Society’s collection was becoming unmanageable for a team of volunteers, however well intentioned. The collection of priceless documents and photos had come to number in the tens of thousands. The operation needed professional help. About 15 years ago the Society came to the conclusion that it was time to move to the next level, using a purpose-built and professionally managed archives. 

The Society came up with an audacious plan. It challenged the City of Belleville and the County of Hastings: if the municipalities would agree to take over and maintain a proper archives, including staffing it, the Society would raise funds to construct and equip the building. This was dreaming in technicolour, for it was most unlikely that the Society could raise more than a million dollars to pull it off.

But, in a way, it did! The archives opened April 7, 2016, 10 years after the proposal was made. The cost: about $1.3 million, of which the Society raised close to $300,000 in total. The rest of it was provided by the city and the county through a long campaign of public persistence, coercion, education, wheedling and cajoling. 

Let that be a lesson in dreaming big. It CAN be done. You’ve just got to light the fire.

Let’s be frank: matching the need to preserve history with the realities of politics can be as difficult as matching up fragments of clay tablets. It is difficult for politicians in a cultured, civilized community to say, “No we don’t need an archives.” However, having agreed that an archives is a necessity, it is equally difficult for politicians in a democratic society to put an archives at the top of a list of priorities like parks, swimming pools, skating rinks and other sexy, vote-getting pleasures of modern life. So they do it incrementally, putting aside $50,000 or $100,000 a year until they get up enough capital to steam ahead with the project.

It was a collaborative effort, says Richard Hughes, president of the Hastings County Historical Society. “A large team of determined volunteers and expert professionals came together to create the Archives.  Our archivist, architect, City and County councils and administrators, Historical Society volunteers all brought their special skills and determination to the task. Our community archives is a one-of-a-kind in Ontario, a three-way partnership among City, County and Historical Society.”

The project was guided by the Archives Advisory Committee, made up of two members from each Council and one from the Historical Society, under the chairmanship of Hughes. The end result, says Hughes, benefits “the citizens of Hastings County, from the shores of the Bay of Quinte to the top of Hastings Highlands. They now have a safe, secure and open home for their history and heritage; state-of-the-art, professional and open for them to use.”

From here the Archives will grow. New and appropriate archives tend to draw private collections from homes, companies and institutions. 

It is important to emphasize that this is a County archives as well. All the municipal members of the County are invited to add their records to these collections. That’s why Hastings County matched funding with the City of Belleville. While some communities are understandably reluctant to give up their records to be stored “somewhere near the front” in Belleville, the safety, security and accessibility of these records in the Community Archives will prove themselves more beneficial in the long run. This has been the experience elsewhere where County archives have been established. What’s attractive is not just storage space, but proper cataloguing so that documents can be easily accessed.

This means more work for archivist Amanda Hill and her team of 15 volunteers, but they’re up for it. It will be a gradual process. Recently Hill met with clerk-treasurers and chief administrative officers of Hastings municipalities to explain how their communities can use the archives. “Some of them were very excited,” Hill said. “Particularly Stirling–Rawdon, where they are running out of space for storage.” The archives of Deseronto, actually the first municipal archives in Hastings County, has been transferred to Belleville. The Archives of Ontario is also preparing to return some documents to this area: some Belleville city materials, documents from the Town of Trenton, Hastings County Assessment Rolls.  

Archivist Amanda Hill and her team are in the process of encouraging communities across Hastings County to store their materials in the new facility, providing a safe and secure common location for these valuable documents. Photo by Bob House / courtesy Community Archives of Belleville and Hastings County

Archivist Amanda Hill and her team are in the process of encouraging communities across Hastings County to store their materials in the new facility, providing a safe and secure common location for these valuable documents. Photo by Bob House / courtesy Community Archives of Belleville and Hastings County

Tyendinaga Township may be one of her first stops, where Reeve and County Warden Rick Phillips has been staunchly behind the project for years. 

“We’re all very excited to have a new home for all of our 14 member municipalities,” he said. “Now we have an appropriate place to store our materials. But we can’t be in too big a hurry. It has to be a gradual process.” In the north, Hastings Highlands Mayor Vivian Bloom is fully behind the archives. She served on the Archives Advisory Committee with Phillips as a county representative.

Popular use of archives in a downtown location is also proving out. At the former location in the old Thurlow municipal building, there were 66 accessions (documents or material acquired by the archives) in 2015. So far this year in Belleville, even though the archives was closed from January to April, there have been 79. Last year’s visitors to the old archives were 403; this year, again excluding January-April, 425.

With modern electronics, copies of original documents can be provided quickly and easily. Volunteers are working full-time scanning documents into a computer base to be available by electronic access. Robert Wallace could never have guessed that someday his diary would be open for the world to see. If you want to check it out, go to www.cabhc.ca and click on “Search Our Collections”. See where he went after England.