Great museums come in all sizes, from a single railway car to an underground bunker measuring 100,000 square feet. Yet, what these museums all share is the unique way that they present their exhibits and engage their visitors.
Passionate about Ontario history, I love sharing local heritage with my children. Experienceing rural museums is great way to have fun day out together. From early settler farming practices to military history, these museums will take you back in time not just by telling you how it was, but by showing you. These five museums offer amazing experiential components that will be sure to delight visitors of all ages.
1. Bruce County Museum and Cultural Centre – Southhampton
This beautiful museum blends both modern and historical approaches into their permanent and rotating exhibits. The museum, opened in 1955 when a Southampton Elementary school was secured, is modern and welcoming. The Bruce County Museum and Cultural Centre has undergone many transformations including the addition of a Kinloss Township settler’s cabin and a log school house.
Perhaps one of the most unique aspects of this museum is its reputation for excellent programming for both adults and children. Fun, hands-on workshops such as Lego or the history of chocolate are examples of the engaging approach that the Bruce County Museum and Cultural Centre creates for their visitors.
2. The Diefenbunker – Carp
A huge four-storey bunker buried deep under a hillside, the Diefenbunker was meant to house crucial elements of Canadian government in case of a nuclear war, but it is now open to the public. The site was nicknamed after John Diefenbaker, Prime Minister at the time this facility was constructed. Should nuclear war have broken out or seemed imminent, the Diefenbunker would have been the safe haven for those providing the thin thread of continuity of government.
For the 33 years the Diefenbunker was in operation, making this bunker a key strategic communications facility for the Canadian Forces. The self-guided audio tour lets visitors explore the 100,00-square-foot museum and imagine what it would be to live underground for several weeks with only a small handful of people.
3. The School on Wheels – Clinton
The School on Wheels Car #15089, now a unique museum in Clinton, was one of only seven such railway schools used to teach the isolated children and adults of the Northern Ontario wilderness in the 1900s. Car #15089 was found in 1982, abandoned just outside of Toronto at a CN Rail yard. It was transported to Clinton to undergo renovation and is now a museum located in the beautiful park which bears the Sloman name, acting as a memorial for Clinton native Fred Sloman, the “Dean of School Car Teachers.”
Visitors will be amazed at how Fred Sloman and his family lived and travelled in this single railway car, bringing reading and writing skills to Canada’s remote north. The little museum is quaint and humbling, and is beautifully restored inside just as it would have been for the Sloman family.
4. Huron County Historic Gaol – Goderich
Visitors to the Huron County Historic Gaol will be impressed by the unique and imposing octagonal building. Designed in the Panopticon style of prison construction, the Gaol served as the County Jail from 1841 until 1972. The long dark corridor leading into the jail sets an ominous tone for visitors as they enter what was once a place of asylum for the mentally unfit and execution for the criminals of Huron County’s past.
One of the best parts about this attraction is reading the personal stories of the inmates and their crimes posted outside each jail cell. Adjoining the jail is the Warden’s home, which stands in stark contrast to the life of the prisoners. This museum features a self-guided audio tour that allows visitors to explore the museum in whichever way they like. The Historic Gaol is a must-see historic treasure.
5. Uncle Tom’s Cabin – Dresden
The Uncle Tom’s Cabin Historic Site commemorates the life of Reverend Josiah Henson. Recognized for his contributions to the abolition movement and for his work in the Underground Railroad, Henson rose to international fame after Harriet Beecher Stowe acknowledged his memoirs as a source for her 1852 anti-slavery novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
The museum–built on the site of the Black settlement that Henson helped found in 1841–preserves the settlement where Henson and his wife Nancy lived. The property containing Uncle Tom’s Cabin Historic Site is part of a 200-acre tract of land purchased in 1841 for the Dawn Settlement, a refuge for the many fugitives from slavery who escaped to Canada from the United States.
Visitors can walk among the original Dawn Settlement buildings and visit the Pioneer Church, the Josiah Henson House, the Smokehouse and the Sawmill and a new modern exhibit titled I’ll Use My Freedom Well. This world-class exhibit provides a new look at Josiah Henson and the Dawn Settlement and includes additional historical information based on the research of three of Ontario’s leading Black history experts.