Sainte Marie Among the Hurons
by Festival Nomad "Scoop" Correspondent, Judi McWilliams
For years we had heard Sainte-Marie Among the Hurons was a great place to visit, so we were excited to be on our way, on a warm summer’s day, to Midland and the beautiful Southern Georgian Bay Region. We had travelled to the area to visit Tall Ships ® 1812 Tour events and the two historic sites, Sainte-Marie among the Hurons and Discovery Harbour. These two sites are operated by Huronia Historical Parks, and are attractions of the Ontario Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport.
Today we were visiting Sainte-Marie among the Hurons, located in Midland. We have been to many Pioneer Villages over the years, but today’s visit was taking us back to Ontario’s first European Community. This was home and headquarters for the French Jesuit Mission to the Huron Wendat people.
The story is told … “In 1639, the Jesuits, along with French lay workers, began construction of a fenced community that included barracks, a church, workshops, residences, and a sheltered area for Native visitors. By 1648, Sainte-Marie was a wilderness home to 66 French men, representing one-fifth of the entire population of New France. Sainte-Marie's brief history ended in 1649, when members of the mission community were forced to abandon and burn their home of nearly 10 years”.
Many hours of archaeological and historical research helped recreate Sainte-Marie among the Hurons on the actual original site. This world-renowned reconstruction illustrates the interaction of the French and Wendat nations where today, we were welcome to see a glimpse of the earliest Canadian pioneer life.
Sainte-Marie among the Hurons offers various services in many languages to enhance your visit. They have historic site maps available in 12 languages: Audio Tour Wands are also available for rent in 12 languages, allowing you to take a personal tour of Sainte-Marie in the language of your choice. We talked to the staff about these Wands, and found that although these provide a great amount of information, they like to engage visitors with the personal interaction with the re-enactor. By talking with the interpreters, discussions led to conversations that can be far more interesting!
We were going to start our tour in the Interpretive Museum where a video presentation was about to begin, but a demonstration in the compound was about to begin. With a map in hand, we made our way through the wood gates and entered this Mission Community. Suddenly we were instantly transported back in time to a 17th Century Street in France where the original journey started in this New World. The story felt real as we walked throughout this magnificent historical treasured site. We found ourselves standing still from time to time, reflecting on the time gone by, wondering what life struggles these folks endured.
Old wooden structures and stones make the buildings look rustic, yet clean. The ceilings were low, as the height of our predecessors was much shorter than our Century. The Soldier’s Barracks and Fleshing area (where they kept their supply of foods, fish, wild game and furs and hides) were housed in a long building. If we had followed the numbers on the map, we would have taken a different route. Instead, by-passed the numbers and took a more direct route to where a “Fire-starting” demonstration was about to take place. Gary made his way into the small building which was full of visitors eager to learn how about French and Wendat fire starting methods. I, on the other hand, stayed outside to take some great photo shots from amazing angles. It was a different experience outside, quite and peaceful. It was almost like I was a traveler from days gone by looking in. Gary got great photos too (please see below). The energy that these young interpreters used and their passions shown through. The outfits depicting the era were very different then my experiences of re-enacting in the 1860 period. Their young bodies must have become adapted to the heat, both from the fires in the confined buildings and the summer sun outside.
We quickly learned that the staff at the reception was correct, the interpreters were very engaging and stayed true to first person interpretation. Next we were off to the “Waterway Presentation”. The Locked Waterway was re-built as a locked canal permitting canoe entry to the mission from the river, the nature and function of the waterway is still the subject of debate. The interpreters demonstrated moving up the lock system. It was an extremely narrow passageway. Two passengers loaded into the authentic canoe while others hand turned the wheels and ropes that lifted the old wooden panels to the lock system. We have been in huge 20th Century locks with hydraulic systems. I, myself, have been terrified by the heights, while being lifted from one lake or river to another. These locks were so small! The interpreters engaged the audience to guess what this lock system was really used for. There was no apparent “river” for the lock to either start or finish. Some visitors thought it was used as a mill wheel or a drainage system for clear water. Some wondered if, in a strange way, large animals were transported through, bringing up heavy cargo, to float up, rather than carry. Gary’s theory was that it was used float logs to the site.
It was time to stroll to the Cookhouse Garden. It looked lush and full and had many labels showing the visitors the vast array of produce. Inside the building amazed us with the systems used in decades gone by to dry the produce. We took the time to walk to the top of Northwest Bastion. From here we could see three different systems of transportation, including raging river from the 17th century, the rail bed from the 19th century (although overrun with wild flowers and growth) and the 20th century highway (not too much traffic so still quite). The view over the entire complex was fabulous.
One of my favourite stops was a building that contained long old wooden tables. They were set up to allowed visitors to try their hand at quill writing. I used an actual feather and ink to scroll a note of endearment for Gary. At another building, I “hammed” it up, as we strolled through the “Chicken Run”, where chicken and pigs were housed as part of the European farming operation. Again, the skills of these fore-bearers to create such intricate and useful structures is amazing.
At the Blacksmith Shop, the interpreter spent a lot of time with us. She was so informative and we were eager to learn from her. This building had high ceilings. It was established in 1642, the forge allowed lay brother Louis Gaubert to custom-make Sainte-Marie’s ironwork, a scarce and valuable commodity. I tried my hand at washboard cleaning of clothing. Again, a true feeling for times long gone by. It starts to make you feel very fortunate for the times we live in now, with modern conveniences, yet, at the same time, wonder what life really would have been like.
The Church of Saint Joseph was quiet. The interpreter showed us the actual “grave” where the martyred Saints Jean de Brebeuf and Gabriel Lalemant lay. The sunlight greeted us on the other side and we experienced an authentic “Wigwam”. The smoke inside was too much for me and Gary talked a “long time” inside. I had time to sit with an interpreter at a “craft area”. Back in the day, they made stones to represent spirits and good luck. I carved a turtle and image on my piece of clay and it dried in the car window by the time we got home. As I sat there I could hear noise from the other side of the fence. A few huge black pot-belly pigs were wondering around.
One of the most unique buildings was the “Five-Sided Bastion”. The reconstructed five sided building shows visitors an example of European angular fortification. To us, it showed just how ingenious there folks were.
Sainte-Marie among the Hurons strives, at all times, to provide its historical, education and event programming and goods and services to visitors, in a way that respects the dignity and independence of people with disabilities. From accessible washrooms, power assisted doors and access ramps to all historic buildings it is really accessible to all. You can check their website for all the details. On our walk about, I even noticed stations in shady areas for dogs to get a cool drink of water. I laughed when I saw these cleverly designed stations, but after really came to appreciate just how accommodating this facility is. As we walked to the exit we noticed a beautiful outdoor terrace and pavilion with shady trees offering visitors a place to relax and enjoy the Restaurant Sainte-Marie, the air conditioning was welcomed as was a cool beverage.
Our final stop today was at the “Images of Sainte-Marie” Gift Shop. The themed Gift Shop features locally made Native crafts, leather goods, pottery, unique jewellery, clothing, books, videos, postcards, and more. My treasure to take home was a package of seeds to plant. The package came with a story about “The Three Sisters Indian Legend”. A unique story for another day, but in the end “The life cycle was complete”, the Three Sisters were united. We were off to the future once again!