The Paris Museum & Historical Society

- The following is an expanded version of a speech made by John Bemrose on February 28, 2016, at the dedication of the Fred Bemrose Reading Room. Fred was the founding curator of the Paris Museum and Historical Society.

I'd like to thank you all for the gracious way you've honoured my father. Reading was a passion of Fred's from boyhood, and to have this reading room named after him would have pleased him immensely -- just as it pleased him to visit the museum during the last years of his life, to be welcomed so warmly here, and to see the really superb care you've taken of the collection.

I've been asked to say a few words about what drew Fred to the history of Paris. When he was young, he had an ambition to become a high school history teacher -- an ambition that ended when the Depression forced him to quit school and go to work for Penman's. The love of history stayed with him -- he always had a book on the go -- but over the years, it changed. Some time in middle age, he realized that the subject that interested him most wasn't ancient Greece or even the history of Canada -- it was Paris. I think the main catalyst for this discovery was the publication of At The Forks of the Grand, written by his old teacher, Don Smith. The book generated a great deal of excitement when it appeared in 1956. Dad read it with great interest, and so did I, a boy of nine. It put a kind of romance into the town. It deepened our experience of the place, and is still the best single sourcebook of our history. From The Forks of the Grand, it was but a small step for Fred to understand he had his own contributions to make. Unlike Don, Fred was born here and spent his entire life here: he knew things Don didn't. In other words, he realized that he himself, like many other old-timers, was local history. And he wanted people to know that history. He wanted people to never forget how it once had been.

In the course of his long life, Fred lived in various neighborhoods around town, absorbing the unique qualities of each. He was born in 1916, in the Upper Town, at number 16 on what is now called Mount Elgin Street. A few years before, his parents had arrived from Nottingham, part of the great influx of English who came to work in Penman's mills. A little later the family moved down the hill to 26 Burwell. One of his favourite boyhood memories involved that house. When he was about six, the Dumbells, the famous Canadian vaudeville troupe that originated in the trenches of World War One, chose his mother to play the piano for them when they performed in Paris. They rehearsed in the Bemroses' front parlour. The Dumbells included several female impersonators and I've always wondered what young Fred made of all the cross-dressing -- regrettably, as with so many things, I never thought to ask him.

In the 1920's the family moved to an old plaster and lath house at 32 Mechanic on Coney Island. Most of Fred's boyhood was spent here, and years later his most entertaining stories told of that little neighborhood with its characters, its chivarees, its truly alarming floods. He learned to swim below the gates of the Wincey Race, played hockey above the Wincey and Penman's dams, hung around Bill Hick's forge, roamed with his friends through Barker's Bush, out to the favourite swimming holes at First and Second Clay. When his mother played at the Capitol Theatre for the silent movies, he used to get in for free by faking an urgent need to speak to her -- a ruse the manager kindly tolerated. He saw hundreds of films that way and became something of a child connoisseur, favouring Tom Mix over Fred Thomson, Buster Keaton over Charlie Chaplin.

When he was thirteen, Fred and his pal, Harry Peel, went to work for Bill Pebberdy on his farm in the oxbow of the Nith River, on the northwest edge of town. On one memorable occasion, they helped Bill drive his cattle across the river and up West River to the railway stockyard, chasing them out of gardens and porches along the way. This farm, which had originally been created by Hiram Capron, figured very large in Fred's memory and imagination right to the end. While he could still walk with me -- that is, into his 98th year -- he most often chose to walk there, over the bridge to the Lion's Park and north along the river, following the oxbow into Barker's Bush where he'd spent so many happy hours as a boy.

As a young teenager, Fred took up the cornet under the tutelage of Walter Williams Senior. Eventually he became lead trumpet and soloist at a time when it was associated with the 10th Brant Dragoons. During the war, the band often entertained troops at Niagara-on-the-Lake: it was as close to the war as Fred would get. In 1939, he tried, twice, to join the army, but was turned down both times on account of a heart murmur.

Fred carried that disappointment all his life, though it he rarely spoke of it. Yet the army's loss was Paris's gain, for he put particular effort into preserving the town's military past -- a kind of atonement, I think, for his enforced absence from the war. He spent hundred of hours and quite a bit of his own money on a unique project: finding a picture of every Parisian who had served in the century's wars. Today those photos make up one of the Museum's most cherished assets.

Fred didn't just collect things, of course. He wrote articles, spoke to countless schoolchildren, took visitors on tours of the town, researched ancestors for anyone who asked, and put up displays, most notably his annual Remembrance Day display at the Legion. He seemed inexhaustible, yet by his early nineties dementia was starting to declare itself. Names and dates slipped away, to his endless frustration. Yet there good times, too. When I visited him in those last years, I would often find him in his bathrobe, in his basement workroom with its boxes piled to the ceiling, bent over some photo or document he'd forgotten he had, delighted with his discovery.

After his family and friends, the town was the love of his life. He was haunted not only by its past, but by the unforgettable presence of the place itself. "The rivers, the hills, how it all comes together," he said once, gesturing towards the forks, a little frustrated, perhaps, that he couldn't make himself clearer. I think he suspected that all the facts he exhumed, all the walks he went on, all the pictures he collected or took himself, could never entirely capture what he loved most deeply about Paris. But he kept trying -- for over forty years he kept trying. I think we can all feel fortunate that he did. Thank you.

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