By Andrea Tomkins –
Many Kitchissippi Times’ readers may have already met local history expert Dave Allston at Westfest or Taste of Wellington West. He is often spotted chatting with neighbours about the history of their homes from behind a table loaded with historical photos and documents. Dave is also the author of KT’s Early Days column and has written about the history of the oldest shopping mall in Ottawa (hint: it’s Westgate!), the Carleton Tavern, and Laroche Park. His latest installment marks the 100th anniversary of prohibition in Ottawa.
This month he’s starting something brand new, a historical society he hopes will bring together local history buffs, no matter their age or experience in the field.
Dave comes by his interest in “old stuff” naturally. His family has deep roots in this community and can be traced back to the 1870s. His great-great-great grandfather was one of the first settlers in Mechanicsville. That’s on his mom’s side. When the Allston’s arrived from England they settled on Sims Avenue around 1913.
Despite a family connection bound by geography, he can’t easily pinpoint where his interest in history began. There are, however, some clues regarding when it first started to take shape. When he was in elementary school, his class would take an annual trip to the public library downtown. But he didn’t exactly have the same interests as his classmates.
“The librarians would read to us and we’d get to pick out books in the kid’s section,” Dave recalls. “But I would ask the librarian to take me up to the microfilm area to read newspapers from 1915. Which is bizarre right? I was nine! It must be in my blood somehow,” he laughs.
That might just be the case. Dave explains that his grandfather had a “colourful” history in the area. He grew up in Mechanicsville and worked at the train yard.
“He was a railway man, a real train guy. I got to drive the train when I was six or seven. We talked a lot about the local history. My dad was always pointing things out too – this used to be that – he had a lot of stories.”
It seems there’s no end to the historical mysteries to be unraveled in Kitchissippi. When Dave isn’t researching and writing for KT, he’s busy with his blog, The Kitchissippi Museum, which can be found at kitchissippimuseum.blogspot.ca.
He calls Bruce Elliott’s book – The City Beyond – his “Bible” and describes it as meticulously researched; a treasure trove of local history. Anything that goes beyond that book is “a true discovery” says Dave.
“I remember talking to someone who found all sorts of horse teeth in their yard and then you find out there was an abattoir on the land. So bizarre. Things like that are so shocking.”
Dave has been thinking about starting a history and heritage group for years. It seemed like the right time to give it a shot, especially given the resurgence of interest in local history (he cites the popularity of Facebook pages like Lost Ottawa, for example).
The inaugural meeting for the group will be held February 28 from 1 p.m.-3 p.m. at Thyme & Again. Interested participants are asked to RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org. He’s hoping for a good turnout of independent history buffs and community groups that may already be doing research on their own neighbourhoods.
The agenda is being drafted but it will likely include the following:
- A short presentation on Cave Creek, which Dave refers to as a “long-time scourge of Kitchissippi.” It caused major problems for Hintonburg, Mechanicsville, Wellington Village, Hampton Park, Carlington, Westboro and other parts of old Nepean Township, and was at the root of a devastating typhoid epidemic in Ottawa in 1911.
- A presentation about the heritage designation process in Ottawa, and a look at what is (and is not) recognized within Kitchissippi’s boundaries. There’ll also be copies of the complete Ottawa Built Heritage database for Kitchissippi available.
- Old photos from the neighbourhood, including an enlargement of the Soeurs de la Visitation convent and what is now the Wellington/Island Park Drive intersection from the late 1890s.
- Informal discussion about what the group can do in the community. For example, resource/knowledge sharing, event sharing/assisting, project organizing, support to Heritage Ottawa and the Council of Heritage Organizations of Ottawa, community assistance and guidance on the heritage process.
“My goal is that it becomes a regular thing, that we create the kind of community that becomes an authority on local history,” says Dave. “I hope it becomes a formal group that recognizes and promotes our local history from within. One obvious project is to help the City of Ottawa update their out-of-date Heritage Reference List. Simply identifying the many important homes and buildings that are absent from this list would be a great start.”
It seems silly to ask Dave why it’s important for people to know about their local history. His answer is simple: “It’s important to connect to the past and see where we’ve come from,” says Dave. We couldn’t agree more.
Dave Allston’s top five websites for local history buffs:
“Google commenced (and sadly abandoned) a project several years ago to digitize the archives of many major newspapers, including the Ottawa Citizen. It is incomplete, the quality is inconsistent, and the keyword search doesn’t work well, but it is an incredible resource. And it’s free, unlike other sites which charge to search old newspapers.”
“This Ottawa railway site by Colin Churcher is a great trove of stories, photos, timelines and information that I refer to often.”
“New in 2015, Ottawa’s archives and museums debuted an online database of photos and artifacts that takes the first step in sharing their massive collections online. Fun to search and hopefully it continues to grow.”
historynerd.ca and ottawow.wordpress.com
“Two local history blogs, The Margins of History (by Christopher Ryan) and Ottawa Rewind (by Andrew King), who inspired me to get into the blogging game, and who continue to write intriguing, top-notch stuff.”
“A newer site, but one that has done an impressive amount of work on the history of the Civic Hospital neighbourhood.”