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Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Turning back time

By now you may have heard they found a one-hundred-year-old time capsule when they demolished Leslie Hall. What did Kemptville residents want us to know about life in our little town back then? What items did they chose to place in that capsule and seal away in a cement block, to be uncovered and discovered one hundred years later? As I write this, several old newspapers and collector coins have been revealed from inside the time capsule. I am anxious to see what else is in there. But in my opinion, the newspapers are all we really need. They tell the stories and live on for centuries if preserved properly.
I did some digging through the archives about ten years ago when I was writing a history column for The Advance. Reading those old newspapers was quite an education. Beyond the headlines, the articles and the editorials, there are so many clues to what life was like years ago, between the pages of a newspaper. Luckily the North Grenville Historical Society has many of these publications saved on micro fiche – itself a bit of technological history – so we can look things up and imagine Kemptville life in decades past.
Old newspapers tell us what was going on back in the day, but they also give us an idea of how each bit of news was perceived. You will notice if you read an old newspaper that the idea of journalistic neutrality may not yet have been introduced at the time of printing. Today we accuse some publishers of being partisan in their thinly-veiled barbs against one political party or another. One hundred years ago it was more likely that local reporters and editors would openly express their political opinions. They were also pretty nosy about residents’ private business, so the papers were full of scandal and speculation. It no doubt sold more copies.
The Classified section had a busy Personals section in days gone by. I guess it was like the original Facebook, spreading gossip and connecting people. I remember reading one personal ad in a paper from the 40’s. Buried among the birth and engagement announcements, was a small notice about a young woman who appeared to be entertaining people from out of town. The reporter had noticed a strange out-of-town vehicle in her laneway and had had the gall to approach her and ask her who was visiting! Then he wrote about it (I say ‘he’ because most reporters were men, after all), so that everyone in this little town would know who they were, why they were visiting and when they were most likely to be leaving town. Bizarre. At first I thought the reporting of people’s personal lives was incredibly intrusive. And then I realized, it was likely just the way they did things back then, in this small town, to keep people feeling safe and informed.
We may not have had high security back in the earlier part of the 20th century but we sure knew how to keep an eye on things. Not much got past the local newspaper reporters. Another article from the 30’s has made the rounds several times, and become part of our local folklore. It’s the one about the strange black vehicle that was seen pulling into the big stone mansion on Oxford Street on more than one occasion. The writer noted that the car was a shiny black sedan, and that the driver killed the headlights as it cruised silently into the lane of the stately house, owned by a physician who had a practice in Chicago. The car also had Chicago license plates, the article said. The writer surmised that the good doctor must have had mysterious friends visiting from out of town. Over the years someone decided that one of those elusive characters must have been Al Capone.
Things really haven’t changed that much. You can still get the local scoop at the barber shop or bakery. We just don’t read about our neighbours’ personal lives in the newspaper anymore, because we have a different idea now of what is truly news-worthy. We have learned to value our privacy and to respect others’ too, hopefully. And it is no longer considered scandalous to have a gentleman caller if you are one of the town’s unmarried school teachers, living alone. It’s called life – and it has changed in so many ways in the past one hundred years. What will it be like in another one hundred?

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