Showcase: Making History
Writing plaques calls for accurate research, the ability to identify and convey key details succinctly, and a passion for history
Ever wonder who writes those plaques you read at historical sites? Meet a former teacher with a passion for history who does just that.
When I retired from teaching in 1993, it was easy to remove the teacher from the classroom but not so the teacher from the man. I still had the desire to disseminate knowledge, so I volunteered to join the Hamilton Historical Board and its plaquing subcommittee. Thus I began a personal quest, drafting 16 plaques in the process like those illustrated here, to present local history in ways that improved understanding and corrected misinformation.
I had a special interest in plaque writing because it meant putting history directly into our neighbourhoods. The endeavour called for accurate research and précis-writing skills—presenting ideas or information briefly, without overlooking any essentials. At the heart of every plaque, I tried to create a memorable “WOW” factor, so that the reader was compelled to say, “Wow, I didn’t know that!”
Perhaps most meaningful to me, however, was that I successfully encouraged our city’s cultural department to present plastic facsimiles of the community plaques we produced to the neighbourhood schools involved, giving the children there a sense of ownership of their own heritage.
One of the greatest challenges was correcting popular but sometimes inaccurate accounts of Canadian history often recorded in books, magazines and old plaques, or simply embedded in local lore. As one Roman orator once said, “Men are quick to believe that which they want to believe.”
The three-year commemoration of the War of 1812 bicentennial provided a golden opportunity and a large stage to review and rectify misinformation that had accumulated during the past 200 years. A defining moment in Canadian history, and a war like no other, the War of 1812 preserved
our Canadian identity and rejected a republican form of government. It doesn’t get much more important than that.
During research, it soon became evident that there was a complete lack of clarity about the War of 1812. Most Canadians had no accurate perception of what the key was to the successful defence of Canada. And so our plaquing focus was aimed at two themes: the early British success, which gave Canadians confidence, and the essential control of transportation and communication on the Great Lakes, so vital to military success.
Our first opportunity to write a meaningful plaque came with the promotion of the “Brock Walk” program, tracing Maj.-gen. Sir Isaac Brock’s route to his spectacular victory at Fort Detroit in August 1812. En route, he rallied regiments, militiamen and Natives to the cause. At the Head-ofthe-lake, the future site of the city of Hamilton, 250 militiamen (all United Empire Loyalists) joined him, including several leading personalities of the region. Our plaque commemorating Brock’s route was unveiled by a Brock re-enactor at a 100seat Loyalist dinner. Following the Brock Walk theme, the plaque is titled “Brock Stepped Here” and for a “wow” factor claims that the surrender of the Michigan territory was the largest territorial loss in U.S. history.
The second bicentennial plaque that I wrote was about the naval battle known as the Burlington Races, a daring military clash at the head of Lake Ontario for naval control of the lake that would determine the outcome of the war and the future of Canada. (Wow!) Incredibly, the information on an older provincial plaque was incorrect, based on pure fancy.
On September 28, 2013, an accurate version of the battle, entitled “From Fancy to Fact” was unveiled with me wearing my 1812 naval uniform. The event took place beside a walking-trail observation deck at the Lakeview Banquet Centre, overlooking the Burlington shoreline. It was a beautiful day for an unveiling, but few official guests appeared. However, a wedding party and their 200 banquet guests joined us and became part of a joint celebration. Hopefully, future generations of Canadians will have a better appreciation of the significance of the war on the water, and many other historical events.
The home of Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson while he attended the Hamilton Collegiate Institute, (1910 to 1913). Page 28: Robert and his Burlington Races plaque; Hamilton Collegiate student council, 1913 (Pearson, middle row, third from left).