By Sandy Klowak
A semi-abandoned rural historic house burned to the ground Wednesday night. When I read the headline, I was pretty devastated.
Why do I care so much about the Criddle/Vane Homestead? As connections to our social past, historic buildings serve not only as reminders of our past but as essential lessons for our future.
I’ve only been to this particular site once. My boyfriend and I always make an effort to check out historic spots and small-town museums on our travels. We made a stop at the Criddle/Vane homestead when driving back from Brandon last summer.
Located in southwestern Manitoba about 40 km southeast of Brandon, the homestead belonged to the socially unconventional Criddle/Vane family, who settled in the area in 1882. In addition to the main house, the site hosts the remnants of Western Canada’s first entomological field station. Entomologist Normal Criddle’s extensive work made a lasting impression on the area.
Listed as a Provincial Heritage Park, the site was bafflingly lacking in any type of basic maintenance, other than a couple of explanatory plaques. Essentially an abandoned building, the house, which loomed over a huge and slightly sloping lawn, was unlocked. Rooms were empty other than a few chairs and folding tables on the main floor and the odd pile of debris. The home’s second floor bedrooms still sported torn bits of wallpaper on their decaying walls as well as the odd piece of graffiti.
The site had been the victim of vandalism in recent years, to the heartbreak of a local committee who cared for the site as best they could. Sadly, its demise at the hands of vandals (RCMP are calling the fire suspicious) was all but written in the stars, a fact I’m guessing was painfully clear to those who knew and loved the place.
That love was clear from the typed and laminated sheets of historical descriptions that were laid throughout the house, providing context for anyone who stumbled on the buildings.
This juxtaposition of loving care and utter indifference for historic sites seems to be a consistent theme in our world. Clearly, I’m one of those who care.
I can talk anyone’s ear off about the plethora of reasons I love historical buildings: their smell, their visual aesthetic, the sense of wonder at imagining all those who walked there before me.
But it’s irrelevant to detail the nuanced nerd-gasms of one history lover. I’m one of the converted, so the real question is, why should everyone else care?
Knowing and truly connecting to our history makes us more intelligent, more compassionate and more thoughtful. It makes us better human beings.
Being able to interact with tangible historic sites and objects gives people the opportunity to make a sensory connection to those who have come before us. We’re not just reading about people and dates, we’re walking the same floors as those people, seeing the same objects, and, if you visit a living history museum, even tasting the same foods and smelling the same smells.
People in the past inevitably become mythologized in our retelling of histories. Whether war heroes or political villains, they cease to be real people and instead become symbols for moral lessons through our collective process of story-telling. Things get glossed over, polished, simplified.
The tactile experience of visiting a historic site helps to bridge a sometimes vast cultural and temporal divide between us and them. It allows those from the past to step out of the shadows and join us as real, complicated, smelly, unpredictable, intelligent people: they complained about their work, they loved their families, they got zits – just like us.
Great and terrible decisions of the past were made by people who slept in that bed, read in that armchair by the fireplace, and shit in that chamber pot.
Understanding this mutes their power. It allows us to see ourselves in them, thus helping us reflect on how we can do things better.
Historical sites help us wrestle with struggles in our community today.
For three summers, I worked as a costumed interpreter at Lower Fort Garry National Historic Site. It was literally my dream job. In addition to the niche-market joys of learning to bake in a wood fire oven, knit, and spin wool, I was given the opportunity to research and think deeply about a fascinating and formative time in the history of our region, when Europeans and Indigenous people were interacting in a way that seems very different from what we’re experiencing today.
The historical lessons of Lower Fort Garry — the signing place of Treaty No. 1 — are not all quaint novelties like learning how to churn butter. They are lessons that speak to very pressing modern political issues. They are lessons I draw on in my life on a regular basis to interpret these issues.
By knowing what—and who— came before us, and truly connecting to that, we have the context to understand the nuances of what is happening now. We’re armed with the ability to think critically about our world. We’re able to move forward having learned from the mistakes of our predecessors—as opposed to forgetting or dismissing them, and repeating them.
So how do we get everyone to care?
Here’s a great example. Recently, a group of my Lower Fort Garry co-workers have stepped up to give their beloved historic site a boost in the face of strained resources. This group of young volunteers, the Friends of Lower Fort Garry, is working tirelessly to bring new life—and potentially a new audience—to the site, via new and re-imagined activities to supplement Parks Canada’s programming. The fort is a place they love and, if they’re like me, it has shaped how they understand the world around them. It has inspired them to want to share that with a wider audience by keeping things fun and relevant.
Respect for our remaining historical sites is essential in order to continue to allow people the opportunity to interact with our past, in order to understand our present. The blaze at the Criddle/Vane Homestead isn’t just one unfortunate house fire. It indicates an attitude of neglect for our historic treasures that we desperately need to correct before we lose our historic sites and with them our connection to history itself.
We failed the Criddle/Vane Homestead. Let’s not let history repeat itself.
Sandy Klowak is a Winnipeg writer, history nerd and cat lady.