The Pelee Island Heritage Centre on Pelee Island has been closed to the public since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in April 2020. The keeper of near and distant island history reopened its doors to visitors on August 9, 2021.
The HC, as it is commonly called, sits directly across from the West dock, nestled between The Westview Tavern and Westview Motel. The centre was incorporated as a registered non-profit charity in 1988. Housed in the original Town Hall constructed in 1911, today the HC contributes to a different kind of community building.
With a mandate to collect and preserve the evidence of the islands history, the HC not only shows creative displays of years gone by, but continues to contribute to building and celebrating the culture of the island by directing its resources and organizational status to support heritage projects.
The Heritage Centre lead the charge to raise funds for “Relight the Lighthouse” (2000). It was instrumental in bringing the Tall Ships Festival into Scudder Bay (2013).
The HC hosts the annual celebration of birds during Springsong Weekend on Pelee Island (established in 2001). It has also invested in arts and culture through a collaboration with Pelee Island Community Arts to bring The Island Unplugged Music Festival (established in 2014) to life.
Exhibits range from a glimpse into Middle Devonian Setting with an authentic jawbone from the fish Onychodos — only one of two ever found on Pelee — to a tableau of European settler life, and on to a look at life over the lake in the Prohibition Era.
Curator at Pelee Island Heritage Centre Kim Gardner says her favourite exhibit is “Crossing the Ice.”
“It always amazes me to think that ice was the highway to all social and economic connections. Stone was quarried on the island and hauled over the ice to many places across Ontario including Toronto, Welland, Sarnia, Colchester, just to name a few,” she said.
“Residents looked forward to winter so they could go over the ice to our American islands for tea! Our doctor travelled across the ice, our mail travelled across the ice (and sometimes water) … It was another world apart from what we know today.”
Now, winter is generally regarded as a somewhat isolated time on Pelee island. Before ferry or air travel connected the island to the mainland, it was the solid ice-covered lake in winter that provided a lifeline.
The Heritage Centre doubles as The Tourist Information Centre welcoming visitors from all over the world and sharing accurate information and often answering random and sometimes amusing questions. Gardner notes that most have the same basic questions:
“Where is the bathroom?”
“Where is the Winery?”
“Do people actually live here?”
Kim recalls her favourite question from a young woman inquiring if she was still in Canada or was she somehow now in the United States?
The Heritage Centre is open daily from 11:30 a.m. – 4 p.m. and offers self-guided tours for a nominal fee of $5.00. Guided tours can be scheduled as well. A collection of historical maps, photo books and self-published accounts of island life are available for sale.
To learn more about the Pelee Island Heritage Centre visit peleeislandmuseum.ca
Take notice of lovingly restored grape vine detail in the original exposed cement work of the building in the interior of the front entrance. The relief work is a nod to the rich history of grape growing on Pelee Island.
Photos by Cathy Miller