Heritage Mica Days
Article by Judi "Scoop" McWilliams, Festival Nomad Correspondent
"Ready the haul up the ore."
With much anticipation we headed out to Heritage Mica Days on a mid-August sunny Sunday! We travelled eastward to Tay Valley Township, just outside Perth, Ontario. With our handy “heritage” map, (a folding map we keep in the glove box) we found our way up through a route we had never travelled. We had planned on going a familiar route straight up Highway #15 from Kingston towards Perth, Smith Falls and Ottawa. Instead the Festival Nomad took Route 10 to Latimer Rd in South Frontenac through a most beautiful country area. What a treat and surprise! There were winding roads, rolling hills, large rocks, lakes, marinas, rivers, stream and marshes. The sun seemed to shimmer all the way along, lush green fields in the distance.
We had been checking out Heritage Mica Days’ website and had noticed the many activities held throughout the season. We had viewed the photographs of the Silver Queen Mine and were excited to be joining in a Self-Guided Open House Tours today. Heritage Mica Days offers many activities such as their Junior Mica Miner programs, music, games, food, Spirit Walks, Self-Guided and Guided Tours of the Silver Queen Mine, Cooking on the Campfire, Rope Bridge Building, Story Time, Beach BBQs, Live Music, Corns roasts, Musical performances at the Amphitheatre, Beach Day, Hot Dog Roasts, Thanksgiving Dinner Theatre at the miners’ bunkhouse and much more! Their exciting festival events run from late June through until the Thanksgiving weekend at Murphys Point Provincial Park.
One of the “Seven Wonders of Lanark County” is the Silver Queen Mica Mine operated between 1903 and 1920 and produced an abundance of mica, feldspar, and apatite. The tunnel mines burrow 60 feet deep into the earth and were hand-dug by local farmers looking to make extra income. Located in , you can visit the mine during summer months on a guided, interpretive tour.
Just to share a little about Heritage Mica Days, the first Heritage Mica Festival was held in 2010 as a one day event to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the start of mica mining in the former North Burgess Township (now Tay Valley Township). In the late 1800s and early 1900s there were numerous small scale mica mines operating commercially in the area and the first festival explored and celebrated the life of the early miners. In subsequent years they expanded the scope and duration of the festival first to a full weekend and then to a full season of activities and included history of the Silver Queen Mine and the heritage of the early settlers involved in subsistence farming. Heritage Mica Days is planned and operated by the volunteers of the Friends of Murphys Point Park.
Our adventure continued as we approached the road to Murphys Point Provincial Park, then the Silver Queen Mine. It seemed like a long way in through a narrow roadway lined with forests and marshes. Volunteers greeted us at the entrance and guided us to a great parking spot in a field. Here we met our liaison, Beth Peterkin, Event Coordinator. Prior to our visit, Beth was very generous with her “tips” about our adventure at Heritage Mica Days. She had provided fantastic driving route instructions, extremely detailed, hints about what “bug spray” we might consider using, (especially as the black flies had been ferocious this year), advice on appropriate walking shoes and clothing, water and such. At the reception area, Beth was sporting a bright safety vest to assist with the parking, but other volunteers were dressed in Heritage Period clothing. At the welcome centre, they also had “bug strays”, hand lotions, and other items visitors may require. After Beth provided us with a great package of brochures and information, the Self-Guided Open House Tour at Heritage Mica Days was about to become an adventure!
The volunteer interpreters spoke about the day ahead including “tips” about the 2.5 km walk we were going to experience. They provided a guide book for visitors to read along at the “markers” along the way where we could read about the history and “story” of this amazing Canadian treasure! It was at the start also that young children (and a certain Ontario Visited Festival Nomad Correspondent, who could not resist joining in), embarked on our “Junior Mica Miner” day journey. An amazing small “Junior Mica Miner Passport” was given to the kids along with a pencil to complete the questions, puzzles, secret words, treasure hunt of clues, a real sample of “Mica” to tape in the book, and more. The pages were full of colourful photographs to guide along the way. At the end of the day, a Gold Seal was given by the volunteers for successfully completing the challenges along the way. It seems to me a treasure “Passport” to keep forever.
Although we had the guide book in hand, today we were being treated to a “guided tour” by a youth volunteer, Olivia. What an amazing young person! Olivia was only 14 when she completed her entire 40+ volunteer hours for her high school credit in the first summer. This next summer, she chose to volunteer again, as she tells us it is “so much fun”. Her family lives not too far from the Mica Mine in a heritage home, where history intrigues Olivia. Her inspirations are to become a summer employee next year around and become a full fledged interpreter. She was very personable, professional, and engaging. Everything started out great as we walked along the stone pathway through the forest. I asked Olivia, is “wild life” was abundant. She told us that just the other day there were many deer and their young lingering around. Olivia told us there are many types of birds, small animals and of course, the “gray ratsnakes”. I stopped walking, stared at Olivia, who I’m sure saw panic in my eyes. She said not to worry, they very friendly, big, but friendly. She said after, if we wanted to, we could meet “Mica” our very own resident gray ratsnake and our new baby ratsnake that live at the Visitor Centre. Olivia did not miss a beat and kept walking with confidence. Without giving too much away through our Ontario Visited article, just a couple of highlights we would like to share with you about our amazing day at Heritage Mica Days.
The “Hidden Word” for the “Junior Mica Miner Passport” was fun. We collected the letters hidden among the trees during our walk. At the “Ore Wagon” display, the interpreters stayed true to character talking to us as if we had just come across their village during that period of time. It made it seem as if you had truly just walked back into history and joined reality. We all collected a sample of shinny gold Mica that we taped into our Passport books. Our walk started to get more hilly and steep and the pathway narrowed. Reaching the mine was more breathtaking then the photographs on the website show. Here we were putting on “hard helmets” to protect our heads as we crouched down to entre the mine. The cool moist air greeted us as we walked down a steep rock way. There were wooden handle bars to hold on to help prevent us from slipping. Drips of water from the ceiling fell on our shirts. My hat flipped off as I looked up into the tall dark cave ceiling where the sunlight of this beautiful day graced parts of the walls of the cave. With the lush green moss and growth, along with the rocks, water drops, wood, metal, old ropes and more, it was a lot to take in. The interpreter here had the children help hammer a pole into the ground making way for the “dynamite”. He asked who would like to help place the dynamite into the ground, but no one volunteered. (He was only joking). We learned about the drilling and blasting and the labors of the “Muckers”. These were strong men who removed the loose rock after a blast, clearing the way. It was a dangerous job. Little or no ventilation in the deep pits could cause challenges due to the hazardous gases and rock dust, and the danger of perhaps sparks from the picks igniting explosives that had not detonated yet.
The Silver Queen Mine booklet that we carried along our way tells great detail of each of the roles of the Mines’ employees. Even right down to the wages they would earn during way back when, from the “Steam Driller” at $1.75 per day to the “Drill Boy” at only $.60 a day. The employees did receive room and board and three square meals a day. Ontario Visited was pleased to experience a chat at the “Bunkhouse” where we learned about the food, cooking, and experiences of the time. Although the food sounded bland, our interpreter told us the food was rich in protein. There were strict rules during the meals with no talking, no dice, no gambling, and no drinking. You ate, worked, and slept. Not all was dull and dreary though as from time to time they had lively evenings of music, drink, dance and fun. Again we do not want to give too much away.
What we found out on our adventure today, was that Heritage Mica Days offers an amazing experience for everyone … from young children to seniors, families, school kids to university students and more. Great combinations of materials and resources help contribute to this excellent adventure … from their “Junior Mica Miner Passport”; colourful and comprehensive Silver Queen Mine booklet; to the amazing volunteers and knowledgeable interpreters. It may seem quite a drive to get there, but the adventure and hands on experience makes it all worth while! After your experience, you can head over to Murphys Point Provincial Park to enjoy an ice-cream cone, swim on a sandy beach, and take a hike along a trail, kayak or canoe on an extremely picturesque lake, to a family picnic. History of today, treasured memories for life!