Sign up for our free weekday bulletin.

Historical Society plans to breathe new life into Sarnia’s storied past

Published on

A new guard with big plans has resurrected the Sarnia Historical Society before it could fold. From left are Ron Smith, Phil Egan and Laura Greaves. Glenn Ogilvie

Cathy Dobson 

Sarnia has never been good at preserving and appreciating its colourful past, but that’s about to change, say a trio of local history buffs.

Ron Smith, Phil Egan and Laura Greaves recently took over the reins of the Sarnia Historical Society, just as the 50-year-old organization was about to fold.

“It was being run by several older people in their 80s. There were only two left and they wanted out,” explained Egan, the new treasurer and editor-in-chief.

“The city was in the process of winding it down.”

Sarnia’s Historical Society has had its share of challenges over the years. Members collected more than 2,000 artifacts, and at one time there was a small museum on Davis Street.

But the landlord shut it down in 2012 and gave the museum 30 days to pack up.

The inventory was boxed and hastily put in storage containers where they remained for two years, said Smith, an IT specialist with Sarnia Police and the historical society’s new president.

“Ultimately, there was no place to put it all, no museum, so the city turned it over to the Lambton Heritage Museum in Grand Bend.”

That’s where the remnants of Sarnia’s past continue to sit, stowed away in a municipality an hour away.

Meanwhile, Smith, Egan and Greaves were appointed by the city to the Lambton County Historical Society.

They quickly learned other municipalities in Lambton actively preserve their past with museums and special community events, but that Sarnia has nothing.

“Personally, I’m a huge history fan and I’m very disappointed there’s nothing to read or grasp onto,” said Smith.  “Look at Sarnia’s rich history. I really do think there’s an appetite for it.”

The group formally signed on in March as the new board of directors of the Sarnia Historical Society and the last two members of the old board, Bob Mathers and Ron Deacon, resigned.

The new strategy includes collecting stories about Sarnia’s past, posting them on a new website and providing a forum for historic photos.

Greaves, who has a PhD in history, is the society’s social media editor and vice president.

The three are busy researching key historic events such as the history of Sarnia policing, the history of aviation in Sarnia, the 1953 tornado, the formation of Sarnia’s “five corners” and the infamous shooting of gangster Red Ryan who was gunned down in a Christina Street liquor store in 1936.

Those stories and a collection of thousands of photos owned by Sarnia’s John Rochon will form the basis of the website when it is officially launched in September.

At the same time, Smith, Egan and Greaves invite the community to email their stories of important events that have bearing on the city’s history to [email protected] for consideration.

“We don’t want family stories; only tales of events,” said Egan, a novelist and freelance writer. All stories will be verified as much as possible before being added to the site.

There is already a blog (www.sarniahistoricalsociety.com) administered by Greaves to let history enthusiasts know how the new group is progressing.

Funding may not be available for a facility to house artifacts, said Smith.  But that doesn’t mean the city’s history will be forgotten.

“We want to do something that will make the city proud of their history,” Egan said. “We want this to be interactive, to get the community involved. People out there have memories that should be written down.”

Apparently, they also have artifacts that should be documented. Smith has already been in contact with a local woman who claims to have the gun used by the officer who shot Red Ryan.

“We’re going to interview her and see if it can be authenticated,” he said. “We want people to reach out to us. We’re very focused on getting their stories.”

The group also envisions fundraising dinners, getting high school history students involved, and developing a historic walking tour of downtown. They also plan to have a Facebook page and Twitter account.

More like this