The Paris Museum &
Historical Society

About the Paris Museum and Historical Society

The Paris Museum and Historical Society (PMHS) was founded in 1972 by a small group of heritage-minded residents. Today we are incorporated and are a registered charity. Our mission is to collect, preserve and make accessible the rich cultural heritage of Paris and surrounding area through exhibits and research materials. We are the only organization in the province to house an archive, a museum and a historical society, all under one roof.

We are affiliated with the Ontario Historical Society and belong to a number of other professional associations, including the Ontario Museum Association, The Brant Museum and Art Gallery Association, and the Archives Association of Ontario.

Our museum houses a research room, warehouse and storage facility, an exhibition hall and a gift shop which includes works by many local artists and artisans. Our collection comprises over 40,000 objects and archival documents such as fine art, land documents, photographs, maps, family histories, extensive files on local buildings and businesses and many other historical documents and artifacts. We have microfilm of local newspapers from the 1880s onward and bound original newspapers to 2010. Thanks to generous donations we have digitized our microfilm collection and are updating our collection methods.

We enjoy collaborating with a variety of community partners. We have contributed to the County of Brant Public Library digital online collection and take part in their county-wide history lectures. We also create historical displays for various County of Brant tourism events and for the Paris Agricultural Society. We provide historical research to various county departments and committees. Our outreach program includes presentations and tours for local seniors’ homes, local groups and social clubs. We host hundreds of local and international visitors to our museum every year.

Our organization is entirely run by volunteers who range in age from 16 to 86. In 2017 our volunteers logged over 4,000 onsite hours and countless hours in their homes and out in the community. We know that Paris’ heritage could very well be lost without their tireless efforts.

- Stephanie Pile

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
- 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.

Our Board Members

  • Stephanie Pile, Co-Chair

    Stephanie has been a board member at the Paris Museum for the past four years, and is proud of and humbled by what has been achieved in that time. She works primarily in the non-profit sector, with a focus on heritage and language. She has held positions with the Canadian Language Museum, the Woodland Cultural Centre, the Adelaide Hunter Hoodless Homestead, and the Indigenous Knowledge Centre at Six Nations Polytechnic. She is currently completing a Masters in Linguistics at Memorial University in Newfoundland. Stephanie's grandparents Ron and Kay lived in Paris for 30+ years, and she is thrilled to be able to give back to the community they called home.

  • Ursula O'Brien, Co-Chair

    Ursula has an advanced certificate in Information Systems Management from Ryerson University and a certificate in Instructing Adults from George Brown College. She has worked as a reporter and in the publishing industry. She spent over 10 years managing and administering databases. Ursula is recently retired from working as a credit administrator and has lived in Paris for 10 years. When not doing presentations for the PMHS Outreach program she is busy electronically cataloging the museum's collections.

  • Carol Goar, Secretary

    Carol Goar, secretary of the board and writer for the PMHS blog and website spent 40 years as a full-time journalist at the Toronto Star, Maclean's Magazine, the Canadian Press and the Ottawa Citizen. After her retirement in 2016, she channelled her energy into volunteering at the Paris Museum and Historical Society, the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, the Paris branch of Friends of the Library and Meals on Wheels. She is a new, but already proud, resident of Paris.

  • Marie Williamson, Treasurer

    Marie was born and raised in Paris and attended Brantford Business College. Her first job was at Penmans Head Office then the Department of National Defence, Bonnyville, Alberta; Alta School Board; Marco Sales; Landsdowne Childrens' Centre; Harbridge Real Estate and the Paris Star. Besides volunteering at PMHS, Marie volunteers for the Cancer and Heart and Stroke Societies. Marie was also a volunteer for the Society for the Preservation of Paris' Architectural Heritage.

  • Andrea Nechita

    Andrea is a graduate of McGill University's Library and Information Studies Masters program in the Archival Stream (M.L.I.S.), and she also holds a Master of Arts in Comparative History (Medieval Studies) from Central European University in Budapest, Hungary. Her work experience includes museums, archives, and archaeology, with a focus on database management, special collections, event and exhibit coordinating, and improving standards and practices. Andrea is also a professional fine artist specializing in abstract expressionist and minimalist science fiction and fantasy paintings.

  • Jim Graber

    Jim was born and raised in Paris and attended York (Glendon), McMaster and the University of Wisconsin. Jim recently retired after a lengthy career in Maintenance Engineering and Research at Bell Canada, Stentor and Bell Northern Research. As a longtime resident whose family moved to the Paris area in the 1830's, Jim is honoured to be part of the PHMS volunteer team and support them in their mission.

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