By Jenn Watt
Published Dec. 11 2018
Each room of the Wilberforce Red Cross Outpost has been arranged with care and attention with artifacts from a time before electricity antibiotics telephones or reliable transportation. The outpost brought a trained nurse to the people living in what was then a remote community and Wilberforce had the first one in Ontario.
That distinction is what earned the outpost the designation of a National Historic Site of Canada in 2003 officially marked with a plaque ceremony in 2006.
The outpost was leased to the Wilberforce Heritage Guild in 1991. The volunteers have worked since that time to promote it as a place of learning and a keeper of local knowledge. Highlands East owns the building and takes care of the costs of upkeep.
It’s a system that has worked well.
“I think we’ve done a good job actually” says Hilda Clark one of the original guild members who is still actively involved with the outpost today. “Because we knew it was important in the life of this village and the people here.”
The outpost stands as an example of how to care for a community’s assets in light of a recent report from Canada’s auditor general who found examples of historic buildings left derelict across the country. Seventy per cent of the country’s heritage sites are owned by Parks Canada the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and National Defence. Successive audits have found some buildings have not been cared for.
“This audit is important because there are long-standing problems in the conservation of federal heritage properties with few improvements since our first audit in 2003. Past efforts to conserve federal heritage properties have not kept up with needs yet the number of federal heritage buildings continues to grow. This means that the loss of valuable heritage properties will likely increase” the auditor general’s report states.
Their study took them to 47 buildings across four provinces where they found an equal number of buildings in poor condition as in good condition. “Some buildings had crumbling bricks no roofs and graffiti and some were in danger of collapse” the report states.
At the outpost when the building is in need of repair the municipality pays for it.
That leaves guild members responsible for gathering donations to fund a summer staff member to assist with tours and programming as well as money for other acquisitions. Frequently items are dropped off for free – one of the reasons the outpost has an extensive bedpan collection.
Money is raised primarily through the annual quilt raffle and the craft sale at the Lloyd Watson Centre. And there’s a donation jar in the front lobby.
Barb Schofield a board member with the guild said one of the challenges they face is not having enough space for all of the donations.
“It’s simply: where would they go?” she said in an interview. Members of the guild are putting their energy into compiling local stories and interviewing citizens in hopes of posting the information online where space is not as limited. She has a particular interest in documenting the story of buildings.
The history of the outpost itself is close to Schofield’s heart. Her great-uncle Alfred Schofield was instrumental in the creation of the outpost. He was an inspector for the Children’s Aid Society and was greatly concerned by the lack of medical services in the Wilberforce area. According to information from the outpost the Canadian Red Cross Ontario division was contacted to assist and they said they’d send a nurse and equipment if a building and furnishings were provided.
The family connection is what led Barb Schofield to the heritage guild when she moved back to the Highlands after spending many years in the Toronto area working.
Aside from documenting history for the region she said the outpost is important to the cultural life of Highlands East.
“It’s getting people out to socialize” she said noting the summer tea Canada Day celebration and corn roast which all bring people together to meet their neighbours and enjoy life.
“People are so busy in their lives today” she said this gives them a chance to come together for a few hours and have fun.
To keep the space dynamic and interesting heritage guild members will organize exhibits. There was one on aprons. Another on commodes and bedpans. Currently visitors can peruse cookbooks from eras past.
“I like the idea of going right back to the history of recipes. I started out with the idea of local charity cookbooks” Schofield said.
The exhibit includes a history of cookbooks “from Ancient Egypt to Fannie Farmer” the display board reads. Under glass there is an array of old books and implements such as a butter paddle and press a cookbook produced by the Monmouth Figure Skating Club a juice set and a thick volume of Twentieth Century Home Cook Book from 1905.
The display gives context to the time when nurses would have set out to work at the outpost.
Clark said they would have been young single women. The first was Josephine Jackson who arrived in 1922.
Many items the nurses worked with have been preserved such as the baby scale in the front examination room and the maternity kit. Those artifacts are surrounded by other pieces of local history so the outpost is not just preserving the history of nursing but of early European settlement.
A lamp that hung in the waiting room of the Tory Hill station occupies a place of prominence on one table display. Upstairs a former bedroom is now occupied with minute books and flags from the Loyal Orange Lodge No. 1114 Wilberforce including a large marching band drum. The minutes bound in a hardcover book each page filled with delicate practiced handwriting is dated 1891 and credited to a Mr. Gibson.
Adele Espina a local historian who has done work with the Wilberforce Heritage Guild and in the outpost said the building has been well maintained and cared for by the municipality and volunteers.
“I think if you were to choose a building in that area that represents the history of the community the outpost would be it” she said.
“You always have churches and schools that represent common interests of the community but this little hospital … out in the country the first one in Ontario really represents … the lives of the community. They were all touched in some way by the hospital.”
Perhaps one of the secrets to success for maintaining heritage buildings comes from the partnership between the municipality and the community itself. The outpost was transformed into a museum because in the early 1990s a group of people came together to do so – meeting at the municipal office on the first day of spring in 1991. It snowed all day but they still had 30 people come to express their interest.
“The community would decide really what is historic or what is a heritage site” Espina said. “The one definition I’ve heard to describe something that is historic is that it’s old and it’s also worth the trouble…. Which is at its very root why some places are saved and others aren’t.”