Buxton settlement cabin

Badass Black History in Chatham-Kent

It’s black history month, making this the perfect time to talk about the epic historical attractions in Chatham-Kent, Ontario.

A Coloured Man’s Paris

Chatham was a terminus of the Underground Railroad and became known as “A Coloured Man’s Paris” and “Black Mecca.” African-Americans flocked here not only to escape to freedom, but also for the tremendous educational opportunities available. Blacks could receive a high-quality, classical education and many who studied there went on to prominent careers in medicine, law, politics, and other esteemed fields in both Canada and the United States. This also fostered a thriving community that played a role in the campaign to abolish slavery.

Chatham-Kent is only a few hours’ drive from both Toronto and Detroit/Windsor, putting it within easy reach for hundreds of thousands of travellers.

Black Mecca Museum

Chatham Kent Black history museum Blair Newby
Blair Newby, Executive Director of the Chatham-Kent Black Historical Society

The Chatham-Kent Black Historical Society has created a small museum to showcase the area’s black heritage and it is well worth a visit to help fit all of the pieces together and put everything into context. In addition to profiling prominent figures such as Mary Ann Shadd Cary, the museum has also dramatized the slave narratives of several ordinary people who came to Chatham, which I found especially fascinating.

Chatham Kent Black history museum slave narrative
Push the button to hear this woman’s slave narrative

While you’re in Chatham town centre, be sure to stop by the BME Freedom Park which has lots of historical markers and is situated on the site where the first BME Church in Canada once stood.

 Uncle Tom’s Cabin Historic Site

Bust of Josiah Henson at Uncle Tom's Cabin
Bust of Josiah Henson at Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Originally known as The Dawn Settlement, this historic site was renamed Uncle Tom’s Cabin after former slave Rev. Josiah Henson who helped establish the settlement and whose memoirs served as inspiration for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s classic novel of the same name. The interpretive centre at Uncle Tom’s Cabin has exhibits about the history of the site and demonstrating different ways that slaves escaped to freedom and our tour started with an engaging talk by Curator Steven Cook.

Uncle Toms Cabin Steven Cook
Curator Steven Cook talks about slaves escaping to freedom in shipping crates

The rest of the exhibits are outdoors, ripe for exploring. An interesting factoid is that the site would have qualified for designation as a National Historic Site but for the fact that the cabin had been moved from its original location on a different part of the property. The two houses on the settlement contain period furnishings and household goods that show what life was like at that time.

Uncle Toms Cabin Dresden Ontario
Uncle Tom’s Cabin — ripe for exploring

Buxton National Historic Site and Museum

The Elgin Settlement was established in 1849 and gave black settlers the opportunity to buy 50-acre farms on an instalment plan. The community had all of the key infrastructure a pioneer needed, including a blacksmith shop, a mill, a cobbler’s workshop, churches, and the all-important school.

Buxton settlement cabin
Cabin from the original Elgin Settlement at North Buxton

Today most of the buildings are gone from the site, but the school and a typical cabin remain, and a new museum was constructed on the property to tell the story of life at that time. The schoolhouse was restored in 2002 and is a great place to visit and learn about the difference educational opportunities made to black settlers and former slaves. The school taught both children and adults, and of the first graduating class of six men, one became a politician, two became lawyers, and three went on to become doctors.

Buxton settlement spelling lesson
Typical spelling lesson at the Elgin Settlement. For the record, “panegyrics” has an E in it.

The one-room schoolhouse provided pupils a classical education, including lessons in logic, philosophy, and rhetoric. Curator Shannon Prince gave us a taste of what that was like by putting us through a spelling drill in which she dictated a passage for us to write down in chalk on our slates. I flunked because I spelled “panegyrics” wrong.

In front of the Buxton Museum stands a historic bell. It was rung every time a new person reached the settlement and attained their freedom. Nowadays visitors are encouraged to ring the bell and heed the words of Josiah Henson “I will use my freedom well.”

Buxton settlement freedom bell
Museum curator Shannon Prince with the historic bell at the Buxton Historic site and Museum

 Disclosure and acknowledgements: On this trip I was a guest of Ontario Tourism. Many thanks to Joy Sim and her colleagues in Chatham-Kent for being terrific hosts.

Niagara Butterfly Conservatory black orange butterfly on purple flowers

The Niagara Butterfly Conservatory Experiment

Niagara Butterfly Conservatory black orange butterfly on purple flowers

The Niagara Butterfly Conservatory is one of those attractions in my own backyard that I have been intending to visit for years. I almost took my nieces and nephew there are few years ago, but an ill-fated encounter with a horribly congested highway, a punctured tire, and an obstinate husband kept us from reaching the conservatory in Niagara Falls, Ontario that day. So when Rob suggested that we go take a photographic expedition there, I leapt at the chance.

Niagara Butterfly Conservatory yellow butterfly on flower

Getting off Auto

When I finally decided to upgrade to a DSLR, I was determined that I would learn how to use its features properly, and move beyond going around with it on Auto all the time. Luckily my friend Rob knows a thing or two about photography, so we combined our desire to be surrounded by beautiful butterflies with the drive to push our photographic boundaries. Niagara Butterfly Conservatory is a terrific venue for practicing photography.

Niagara Butterfly Conservatory butterfly on tree

I still only had the 18-55mm kit lens that came with the camera, so my ability to zoom in was very limited. I often had the camera, and my face, stuck in things to get closer, which seemed to amuse people, but by and large it was effective enough. We focused mainly on working with Aperture Priority and taking shots where the subject is in focus but the background is pleasantly blurred.

Niagara Butterfly Conservatory

Rock Beats Butterfly: An Experiment

On top of our photographic endeavors, we staged an impromptu experiment. Rob had been to the butterfly conservatory before so this wasn’t his first butterfly rodeo. He dressed like a rock, wearing a light grey heather long-sleeved t-shirt. Coincidentally, I was dressed a bit like a butterfly, wearing a dark black hoodie with blazing turquoise satin accents and lining the inside of the hood. We wanted to see what the butterflies would be more attracted to.

Experiment at Butterfly Conservatory

The result? Rock wins! Butterflies were constantly landing on Rob and I think they truly did mistake him for a rock at times. Our methodology was somewhat compromised by the fact that I didn’t wear my hoodie the whole time. A word to the wise: it’s really hot inside the Niagara Butterfly Conservatory! It stands to reason, as the butterflies need those conditions and the conservatory is a lot like a greenhouse. I just didn’t think about it beforehand. The butterflies didn’t take much interest in me, aside from my Converse sneakers for some reason.

Niagara Butterfly Conservatory butterfly on mans hand

No One Said There Would Be Snakes

Niagara Butterfly Conservatory snake free routeThe butterfly conservatory is laid out so that you start by watching an introductory video, and then you’re started along a meandering path that winds through a greenhouse-like structure filled with all sorts of different kinds of plants and trees, and of course thousands of butterflies. Maybe it’s because we were too impatient to sit through the whole video, but it came as a huge surprise to me when I encountered a sign saying “Snake-Free Route” with an arrow pointing in a specific direction. Nobody said anything to me about snakes!

Afraid of missing out on something, we forged ahead on the snake-laden path. Luckily the snakes are in enclosures, and it’s not as though you’re going to randomly encounter one when you least expect it — such as the scenario that ran through my mind where a snake would fall on me from above leading to a hysterical freakout on my part. That’s not going to happen.

Niagara Butterfly Conservatory worlds most poisonous toadIt also came as a surprise to me that once you exit the butterfly conservatory part of the building, you are let out into an exhibit space that currently houses a bonus exhibit called VENOM! featuring venomous and poisonous creatures (in sealed enclosures thankfully!) There was a guide walking around with a snake that you could hold, but I was gracious and let the kiddies who were queueing up have at it instead of taking up valuable time with it.

Finally there’s the gift shop which is almost as large as the conservatory itself and filled with every sort of butterfly product imaginable from rainbow butterfly lollipops to butterfly encyclopaedias to butterfly garden regalia and more. Being a colour junkie it was enormously energizing to be surrounded by so many colourful, pretty things.

More pictures from this adventure are in the slideshow below, or you can check out my Flickr stream and Rob’s blog post.

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