Seven Stories I Heard While Writing Inside Hamilton’s Museums

Seven Stories I Heard While Writing Inside Hamilton’s Museums

Posted on May 24 by John Goddard
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Hamilton’s heritage homes and museums teem with anecdotes and stories, vividly conveying the early history of a Steel City fast transforming itself into a knowledge and cultural destination. Here are seven pieces of history I learned from Hamilton curators and museum guides.

 

1. Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, counts Dundurn Castle as an ancestral home. Its builder, Sir Allan MacNab, is Camilla’s great-great-great grandfather. MacNab’s daughter Sophia married an English nobleman and moved with him to England where they continued the line to Camilla, who serves as the museum’s royal patron.

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2. The Italian pasta macaroni was so rare in eighteenth-century England that only rich people could afford to eat it. The word “macaroni” became a high compliment, meaning “stylish” or “elegant.” The song “Yankee Doodle” uses the term satirically: “stuck a feather in his hat and called it macaroni.”

 

3. While on a trip to England in 1776, Six Nations Chief Joseph Brant bought an eighteen-carat gold ring with his name inscribed around the inside. He wanted his body to be positively identified if he were killed on his return home. When he later died of natural causes, the ring went to his wife, Catherine. She lost it in a field, then twenty-five years later found it again. It now sits on display at the Joseph Brant Museum as a national treasure.

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4. Adelaide Hoodless could scarcely have died a more fitting death. For most of her adult life she devoted herself to elevating the status of women’s work in the home, work that she called “domestic science.” In 1910, at the age of fifty-two, she was ten minutes into a speech to the Toronto Women’s Canadian Club when she stopped and put her hand to her head. The emcee, sitting behind her, rose and handed her a glass of water. Hoodless took a sip, spoke four more words, “The interest in domestic —” and dropped dead of a cerebral hemorrhage.

 

5. Both armies in the 1813 Battle of Stoney Creek retreated thinking the other had won. Only afterward did the British troops realize that the Americans had scurried back south, leaving Upper Canada in British hands.

 

6. Cholera epidemics never strike Canadian cities now but in the early nineteenth century the disease killed by the cartload. During a single eight-week period in 1854 in Hamilton, cholera killed 552 people out of a population of 20,000 — one in forty residents.

 

7. Dr. Calvin McQuesten believed in modest living. He had the riches to build a Dundurn country estate, like Sir Allan MacNab, but settled instead for a two-storey city house, Whitehern. His wife, Elizabeth, was disappointed. He paid $3,200 for the house; she spent $2,000 furnishing the drawing room alone.

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John Goddard

Posted by KathrynB on October 30, 2014
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John Goddard

John Goddard is an author, magazine writer, and former Toronto Star reporter. His books include Inside the Museums: Toronto’s Heritage Sites and Their Most Prized Objects and Rock and Roll Toronto, with pop critic Richard Crouse. John lives in Toronto.