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Volunteers' passion fuels Coldwater museum (12 photos)

'When people visit, they can imagine and experience life as it once was in rural Ontario,' says board member of group that keeps history alive in Coldwater

If you want to see what a dedicated and hardworking group of volunteers can create, you should visit the Coldwater Canadiana Heritage Museum.

Unlike other small museums and historical sites that are typically owned by a municipality or other level of government, the Coldwater Museum has been owned and operated by a group of local citizens for more than 50 years.

And, according to the current president of the museum’s board of directors, Richard Jolliffe, this is one of the factors that contributes to the charm – and success – of the site.

“We have a wonderful group of people here; everyone chips in because they are dedicated to preserving our local history and they love the property,” said Jolliffe. “We’re 100 percent volunteer-run and independent. I think this fits the lifestyles and personalities of our volunteers.”

Jolliffe emphasizes that it’s not all about the current group of committed volunteers. “There were many before us who laid the foundation for the growth of the museum.”

In the mid-1960s, a group of concerned citizens purchased the 6.5-acre property and original homestead of Archibald Woodrow, who emigrated from Scotland with his wife and daughter in the early 1840s. The family’s log home, where Woodrow and his wife raised 10 children, is still on the site.

The group’s intent, from the outset, was to turn the property into a museum and preserve the history of rural and village life in the area.

Over the years, additional historic buildings were relocated onto the property and other structures have been built by volunteers. The museum is now an officially designated historic site.

“What makes our museum special is its indoor and outdoor displays,” explained Jolliffe. “When people visit, they can imagine and experience life as it once was in rural Ontario. From the mid-1800s homestead that illustrates family life on the farm, to the mid-1900s firehall and the jigger on the world’s shortest railroad to the many displays in between, we’re trying to tell the story of how it was back in the time.”

While touring the museum with volunteer curator, Patricia Turnour, one quickly sees how discovering and learning about artifacts from the past can create a sense of awe and, for some, nostalgia.

“We have ‘walk down memory lane’ visitors who love to explore their past, lots of grandparents who bring their grandkids, plus many groups who take advantage of our interpretive programs,” said Turnour. “We have homeschooling groups who love to take part in our schoolhouse program that re-creates a typical school day in the late 1800s.”

With all of the artifacts, including large farm machinery and vehicles, along with the historical structures to house it all, there is a lot of upkeep to be done. That’s where a special team of volunteers comes in – the 'A-Team.'

“We’re not really called the A-Team because we’re all that special – we’re just aged,” jokes Jolliffe, who, along with being president, is an active member of this group.

The A-Team always has a long list of tasks – from groundskeeping work and maintenance to constructing new structures and restoring vintage artifacts.

“It’s something we all enjoy doing – there’s just something about the place,” said Jolliffe. “We feel a strong attachment to the museum. For me, I find that it calms me down – it’s tranquil. I just fell in love with the property.”

He also said he has learned a lot from his work with the museum over the past 20 years or so – not only about the interesting artifacts from life on a farm, but about working with people and making connections with his community.

As an artisan and owner of his own small business, ‘Unique Ironworks,’ Jolliffe was always used to working on his own. At the museum, he has embraced teamwork and reaching out to others.

“Because we don’t rely on government, it’s really important that we reach out to people. Without the support of local groups and patrons, we would not have thrived as we have, for over 50 years.”

As a not-for-profit organization, all revenue goes back into running the museum. Revenue is generated through fundraising activities, gift shop sales and special events, along with donations. The entrance fee is by donation only. The museum also receives grants for special projects (such as new washroom facilities) and to hire summer staff to act as historical interpreters.

“When you visit the museum, you will always see something new, thanks in part to our summer staff who develop new themed displays each year,” explained Turnour. “They also lead guided tours throughout the site, although you are always welcome to enjoy self-guided tours.”

The museum season opens after the long weekend in May and beginning July 1 is open seven days a week from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

This summer, the museum is offering special “Community Days” each Thursday in July and August. On these days, visitors can enjoy tours, talks by local historians, pioneer school enactment, crafts and demonstrations. Admission is by donation and everyone is encouraged to bring a lawn chair and enjoy a picnic by the river.

The museum also hosts special events during the summer, including the Woodrow Family Farm Day, taking place on Saturday, July 16. There will be live music, new exhibits to see, a Lions Club BBQ lunch and lots of activities for the kids.

A special feature on July 16 will be the dedication of the recently constructed bread oven to the memory of Kelly Jolliffe, daughter of Richard Jolliffe and his wife Diane, and sister of Lindsay. Also dedicated will be a new painted barn quilt to the friends and volunteers of the museum, which is prominently displayed on the side of the firehall for all to see who drive by on Highway 12. It is part of the Quilt Trail Program of Simcoe County.

For more information about the museum and opportunities to visit or get involved, go to