I have to confess to being a museum junkie so I tend to stop at small community museums that most others speed by. However, like a junkie I seldom get a good fix from these visits. One can only tolerate so many displays of chipped china or poorly sewn samplers. Therefore it's always a very pleasant surprise to come across a small museum that really has things worth seeing and learning about. In the case of the Albert County Museum there are many, but two that stand out. The stories of R.B.Bennett and Tom Collins could not contrast more - one became Prime Minister and the other was hanged.
We were on a tour of sites associated with the UNESCO Fundy Biosphere Reserve which features natural and not historical locations, headed for Hopewell Rocks when we passed the entrance the museum. What caught my eye was the name R.B.Bennett. Hey, this guy was Prime Minister of Canada for five years and one of the most misunderstood political figures in Canadian history. What does he have to do with Hopewell Cape? I immediately turned around to find out.
It always amazes me how little reverence Canadians have for their former Prime Ministers in comparison to how Americans view their Presidents. Despised or not Presidents get a library, statues and in the long run veneration and respect. In Canada we just forget about them.
Turns out Hopewell Cape was R.B.Bennett's hometown and the people in charge of the museum were determined to let the world know that. When we went into the small building that is the admissions office and gift shop we met Donald Alward, the curator of the museum and a relative of current New Brunswick premier, David Alward. His enthusiasm for all things Albert County was immediately apparent and thanks to him we spent over two hours learning about Albert County and its famous and infamous denizens.
We first learned that Hopewell Cape was the county seat for Albert County and as such all matters related to tax collection, land records and judicial proceedings were centered here. Someone came up with the brilliant idea of putting the buildings for same all in one spot, exactly where they are today. Unlike many other multi-building historical museums none had been relocated to the site. The only thing not original was the exhibition hall. So there is a tax office, land registry office, community hall, courthouse and gaol and we visited them in that order.
Before embarking on a tour of the buildings we were treated to the story of the R.B,Bennett monument that has recently been erected at the entrance way to the museum. It is composed of three granite slabs, two gray ones with writing flanking a black one that contains an etching of R.B.Bennett. To say this is a bit strange is an understatement. Try photographing an etching.
There has been an effort afoot to get a statue of Bennett erected on Parliament Hill in Ottawa for some time that has met with resistance. Why - because Bennett is still associated with the suffering of the Great Depression. He had the misfortune of being elected in 1930 just as it got underway. Like Herbert Hoover in the US who got tagged with Hooverville as the name for shantytowns of displaced people, Bennett got "Bennett buggies" for horseless carriages drawn by horses because people couldn't afford the gas.
The reality, as portrayed very well in the exhibit in the Records Office, is that Bennett was responsible for establishing some of the most iconic Canadian institutions including the Bank of Canada and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Photographs of Bennett come to life as actor Bill Carr explains his difficult decisions in a time of no right answers, Let's just say we came away with a new appreciation of R.B.Bennett and why he deserves a statue on Parliament Hill.
The courthouse at the museum is a striking rectilinear gray, white and black structure that sits high above the other buildings, emphasizing I guess that no one was above the law. What is truly amazing is the courtroom inside - it is octagonal with a rose and pink tin ceiling with gold accents. Visually it is unlike any courtroom I have ever seen, and as a litigation lawyer, I've seen a lot.
The courthouse was designed and constructed by local resident Watson Reid who worked for his two brothers on the Hotel del Coronado Hotel in San Diego which has a famous octagonal rotunda. They started the famous Reid and Reid architecture firm in San Francisco while Watson returned home to Albert County.
The gaol is equally intriguing. There are three cells - one for holding suspects which is not bad, a debtor's cell which is better and what is called the dungeon where convicted prisoners were put. It is pretty bleak. As others have noted the most interesting aspect of the gaol is the graffiti and drawings on the walls which was revealed during renovations. Some of the prisoners were very good artists and others good poets. Some even resorted to the cliched marking of the days using Roman numerals. I thought that only happened in the movies.
The most interesting thing in the dungeon is a two headed axe and two doors which have large holes in them that look like they could have been made by, you guessed it, an axe.
Also there are four buttons to push to get the story of Tom Collins who allegedly used this very axe to stave in the head of one Mary Stephens and then the two doors – talk about a moment right out of The Shining. Representing a witness, prosecuting attorney, judge and reporter four actors tell a gripping story of the three trials of Tom Collins and his eventual execution. We were joined in the watching of these vignettes by Donald who has studied the transcripts of the trials and is probably as well versed as anyone on the subject. We asked if he thought Tom was guilty and he said “No”. Well then who did it? You heard it hear first – it was the Duffy brothers.
Find me a small museum that can come up with these type of stories and I’ll be the first to visit.