Ladysmith Museum: Many Years in the Making

Ladysmith Museum is entering its fifth year of operation and we are celebrating this milestone with an Open House on Saturday June 18, 2016.  To have a public museum in Ladysmith was a long standing dream of many local citizens over a great number of years.  It was developed and is run by volunteers of the Ladysmith & District Historical Society (LDHS).  The Society’s roots can be traced back to the late 1970’s when a group of local history buffs rallied behind the efforts of local author Viola Cull whose nephew is well-known Town historian Rob Johnson.  Viola wrote two books about early Ladysmith history and its people for posterity and the dream for a museum was born.  However, the enthusiasm fizzled out over the years.

Through most of the 90’s, the late Kit Willmot, who remained LDHS’s only active member, carried the torch for Ladysmith history.  Things changed when Marina Sacht from Take5 teamed up with Willmot to produce a history column. This revitalized LDHS and the inaugural meeting with a Board of Directors was held in January 1999.  One of the most exciting long-term goals to come out of this meeting was the establishment and finding of a suitable location for a public LDHS Museum.

Some may claim that the roots of the museum go back much further. Ray Knight, well-known businessman and life-long collector of Ladysmith history made the first public display of historical photographs in the front window of Knight’s Hardware Store in 1954.  This grew over time into historical displays in all nine windows of his store.  People started to go to Ray when they uncovered old photographs, documents or items of historic significance, and he catalogued and stored the items to be one day displayed in the Town’s Museum.

Others may say that the idea of a public museum goes back even further to the year 1904 when J.A. Knight opened Knight’s Stationary store.  Mr. Knight senior also worked as a professional photographer.  We owe the majority of historic photographs of Ladysmith buildings, streets, events and its people to him. Knight’s store remained a landmark in Town, changing into Knight’s Hardware with his son Ray, and becoming Ladysmith’s department store until it burnt down in 1981.  Only its clock remains on the block.  Ray Knight was “a packrat with a purpose”, who spent years building, collecting, compiling and ultimately protecting a comprehensive assortment of local heritage artifacts, documents and photographs.

When the number of donations kept growing in 1999, without a permanent place, the Historical Society stored larger items all over town.  Kit Willmot renewed putting up historical displays in windows downtown.  Over the years LDHS presidents like Susan Jones, Brian Williams and Dr. Tom Wickham attended Council meetings and lobbied for a Ladysmith Museum.  After Ray Knight died in 2003, much of his collection was purchased by LDHS through a generous donation from Dr. Wickham and his wife Wilma, who remains a volunteer for the society to this day.

In 2008, some items were displayed at the Archive office, under Tim Hortons, but space was limited. The dream for a ‘real’ museum continued, gaining support from the Chamber of Commerce, then Mayor Rob Hutchins and Town Council.  In the meantime, LDHS teamed up with Kurt Guilbride, a private collector and operator of the Black Nugget Museum at the time for some special events and displays.  It was in the Summer of 2011, when Maureen Martin was President of LDHS, that the dream finally came true.  The Resources Center moved to their new location and the Ladysmith & District Credit Union, who owned the building, offered it to LDHS “free to use” to develop it into their long-desired museum.

Over the winter much work was done by a small group of dedicated volunteers, backed by another group of volunteers who located and provided necessary information and artifacts.  The official Opening of Ladysmith Museum was on May 18, 2012.  The museum features a storytelling timeline dating back to 1890 when the area was known as Oyster Harbour.  Great care has been taken in the layout of the exhibits that reveal details about the people, industries and events that made Ladysmith what it is today. Named by coal baron James Dunsmuir in 1900 after a Town in South Africa, the museum used the name to focus on the contribution of women to the Town’s development. A number of “Ladies of Ladysmith” are featured on its walls.  Although the Town bought the property in 2015 and the Mayor and Council remain LDHS’s main supporters, we are still in a temporary location.

Besides local residents, our volunteers host about 1000 visitors a year from literally all over the world.  We have had positive reviews in magazines and travel sites. Exhibits have grown and have become more professional looking over the years as our resources increased.  Temporary exhibits have gone up and our current one is on the Revitalization of Downtown Ladysmith, now 30 years ago.

Check out our events planned for Saturday, June 18, 2016 on our website www.ladysmithhistoricalsociety.ca. We encourage anyone to become a member of LDHS and volunteer to preserve local history.

Submitted by: Bernardien Knol, LDHS Museum Curator