SilverShoe Historical Society celebrates milestones

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SilverShoe Historical Society celebrated its 20th anniversary August 19, with a special Memorial Candlelight Service at Bethel-Union Pioneer Cemetery.

It is cause for celebration for the society’s executive director, Janie Cooper-Wilson, and her team of volunteers, who have worked for two decades to restore a maintain the cemetery, which to say had fallen into disrepair is an understatement.

“It was such a beautiful event, in such a lovely location,” said Cooper-Wilson, with community members and representatives of local and provincial government in attendance. Each grave was marked with a lit candle and others were placed around the monument as part of the candlelight service. The monument, a symbolic rock, was placed in the cathedral of birch trees, where hundreds of fugitive slaves who settled in the area after fighting with Loyalists or arriving on the Underground Railroad. The monument is in memory of the original 25 black families that settled in Old Sunnidale. The cemetery also has a mass grave of epidemic victims of the late 1800s and early 1900s. People were so ill and there were so many bodies that they were stored in a building until they could find people well enough to bury them, said Cooper-Wilson.

There is also a portion of the cemetery containing marked graves. The cemetery sustained damage from Hurricane Hazel in 1954, taking out headstones and creating a ravine. During the cleanup the tombstones and unmarked graves were bulldozed into a mound and into the ravine.

This cemetery was established in 1885 and is the final resting place for black, white and aboriginal people. It remained an active cemetery until 1940. Prison inmates were used to clear away the surrounding debris of the site before it fell into disrepair again by the 1970s.

Cooper-Wilson, a descendant of the Morgan family, who are buried in the cemetery, said when volunteers first went in to cleanup the site, the weeds were taller that the highest tombstones that still stood in place and others were in pieces or still in the ravine. She said 75 volunteers went through the growth in rows, hacking with machetes and scythes to get through the worst of it. Vandalism and littering remained an ongoing battle for volunteers trying to maintain the cemetery.

The SilverShoe Historical Society marked the anniversary with a multicultural and multidenominational service.

“Everyone who comes, once they are here they are part of the SilverShoe family. It’s all about community and family,” said Cooper-Wilson. “It’s to show there doesn’t have to be this animosity in this world.”

She said the intention is to get to know people and learn about them because it is fear that results in racism.

“Hopefully it will make a difference, even if it’s a little ripple,” said Cooper-Wilson.

Clearview council last year designated the Bethel Union Pioneer Cemetery for its cultural heritage and historical significance under the Ontario Heritage Act.

According to the Ontario Historical Society, with which the SilverShoe Historical Society is affiliated, the cemetery is perhaps the only totally inter-racial, multicultural, non-denominational cemetery established during the period of history when only individuals of Anglo-European heritage were permitted burial within the boundaries of Caucasian sanctified cemeteries in the Province of Ontario.

Cooper-Wilson said the cemetery has become a template for the Ontario Historical Society, of which she is a board member and co-chair of its cemetery preservation committee. It is being used as a model for others who want to partner to reclaim and refurbish cemeteries that have been neglected.

Contributed photo: The SilverShoe Historical Society, supporters and dignitaries celebrated the organization’s 20th anniversary August 19 with a special anniversary edition of the annual candlelight service at Bethel-Union Pioneer Cemetery near New Lowell with Mrs. Janis Searles (from left), Rt. Rev. Chester A. Searles (General Superintendent of the B.M.E. Church), H.W. Mayor Christopher Vanderkruys (Clearview Township), H.W. Steve Clarke (Orillia), Janie Cooper-Wilson (Executive Director and Founder, SilverShoe Historical Society/Ontario Historical Society Board Member), MPP Jim Wilson (Simcoe -Grey) and Mrs. Brenda Falls (Deputy Clerk – Clearview Township). 

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