The Paris Museum & Historical Society

History of the Paris Museum and Historical Society

Regionalization loomed over Paris in 1972. Late that year, the mayor and nine far-sighted volunteers gathered in Fred Bemrose's living room. Their purpose was to create the Paris Museum and Historical Society.

They feared the Paris library would soon lose its collection of historic documents; letters of the village founder Hiram Capron, pre-Confederation photos, original maps and irreplaceable records. They wanted to safeguard the town's heritage before it was lumped together with other archival material in a centralized regional library.

At the time, Paris was a tightly-knit rural community of 6,500 with a strong sense of its own history. Life was slower then. People read newspapers, wrote letters and met at church, the library and community events.

Bemrose, a salesman for Penman's Textiles, was joined that afternoon by Donald A. Smith, a respected local historian and principal of the high school, along with his wife Isobel; Jack Pickell editor of the Paris Star, along with his wife Muriel, Jackie Remus, an avid guardian of Paris's identity, a couple of town councillors and several members of the library board.

They purchased the entire collection from the library for $1.00. To help them get started, the library allowed the fledgling museum to use its lower level (now the children's department) for its collection.

The Paris Museum and Historical Society held its first general meeting and public exhibit the following year. Donald Smith, its president, brought along a brass bell used by three generations of school principals to summon students to classes. He told the 125 townsfolk in attendance the new museum would be a permanent, non-profit institution open to the people of Paris. It would encourage research into the history of the town and the surrounding area.

Bemrose, the museum's founding curator, was already busy acquiring antiques and artifacts to supplement the library's donation. He arranged to store them in the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) basement on Dundas Street.

As its first major project, the museum built a float for Brantford's 1974 "Thanks A Hundred" parade. It highlighted the 100th anniversary of the year Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone.

In 1978, the board decided to open up PMHS to new members. Many of the initial members were archivists from the library. The fee was $2. Eight years later, it was raised to $5.

Before long, both the lower floor of the library and the PUC basement were bulging. Bemrose and his colleagues were inveterate collectors. Unbeknownst to the board, Bemrose often stored pieces of the museum's collection in his basement and friends' barns and garages. He was very protective of the town's treasures.

Over the next two decades, PMHS moved every few years to accommodate its ever-growing collection. In 1990, Bemrose convinced Paris council to let the museum display the town's historical artifacts in 10 lit glass cases surrounding the council chamber. The cases are still there, filled with photos and records documenting the past.

The next year he persuaded the board to erect a $40,000 cairn to commemorate the village's founders. It can still be seen at 61 Dundas Street, East.

The display cases at town hall provided excellent political exposure and allowed the museum to expand beyond the library basement. But when the library donated another large swath of historical documents to the museum, more space had to be found. PMHS arranged with the library to have an office and storage space on the library's upper floor. This shone a public light on the wealth of information the museum had and attracted new volunteers and members.

Meanwhile, Public Utilities wanted its facility on Dundas Street back. On a cold November morning, a small group of volunteers moved all the shelves, boxes and artifacts to a new site on Woodslee Avenue. Shortly after everything was transferred, a fierce storm blew through Paris. It snowed all afternoon and into the night.

Three months later a pipe broke in the Dundas Street PUC basement that PMHS had recently vacated. By the time the leak was discovered, it was flooded to the rafters. Had the voluntary moving crew waited till spring, hundreds of the museum's irreplaceable artifacts would have been ruined.

In 1999, the town of Paris ceased to exist as an independent municipality. By that time, it had grown into a town of 12,310. Under regionalization, the Paris library became a branch of the County of Brant Library.

That same year, Fred Bemrose, then 83, retired as curator. Bob Hasler succeeded Bemrose as curator, a position he still holds.

The early years of the 21st century were a period of experimentation and creativity, thanks in part to a $140,000 endowment from a generous benefactor. Many of the museum's traditions date back to that period: its annual volunteers' reception, its summer walking tours and its "show and tell" at which heirlooms are evaluated.

In 2004, hoping to consolidate everything in one place, the board decided to rent a building at 15 Curtis Avenue North. It hired a part-time curator, Lana Jobe, to organize its sprawling collection. It held training sessions for volunteers. It collaborated with outside organizations -- Beaver Magazine and CBC -- to tell local stories. It developed a logo and a Paris colouring book.

These initiatives ate into the endowment. By 2010, the rent on the Curtis Street building was sucking the non-profit organization dry. "We almost went bankrupt," Hasler recalled.

But a core of civic-minded Parisians refused to the let museum go under. They organized a capital campaign, went to the mayor and council for help and found a rent-free location at the Syl Apps Community Centre. "We started to pull together and work as a team," Hasler recalled. In 2011, the museum moved to its current location at 51 William Street.

A period of retrenchment began. PMHS began tracking its spending rigorously. It turned down projects and proposals it could not afford. In 2014, the board told Lana Jobe it could no longer pay her. After her departure, a plea was sent out to former volunteers to come back and help.

Gradually, the museum worked its way into the black. It developed a productive working relationship with the county. It culled its collection and created an easy-to-search digital record of its holdings. Thanks to several generous donors, it was able to invest in new technology and training.

In 2016, the museum opened a gift shop featuring crafts by local artisans. In 2017, it held its first community garage sale and found new ways to raise funds.

In 2017 PMHS marked its 45th anniversary. We look back on our development with pride and look forward to finding creative ways to showcase the heritage of Paris, forging partnerships with other local organizations, contributing to our community and welcoming many more visitors.

- Carol Goar

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The Paris Museum & Historical Society,
All rights reserved.