Oxford County Archives: Beyond the Vault

Archives Blog

National Cook a Sweet Potato Day

Ever wondered about the history of the sweet potato? Looking for some recipe inspiration? Read on for more!

By Liz Dommasch, County Archivist

In this day in age, it is not surprising that we can literally celebrate anything and it’s definitely fascinating to delve into some of these unusual and quirky so called national holidays we see popping up on social media and various websites. For example, did you know that February 22 is affectionately known as “National Cook a Sweet Potato Day”?

The origin and domestication of the sweet potato can be traced back to Central or South America over 5,000 years ago. It comes in a variety of sizes and colours, including pale to bright orange, white and purple, and is an excellent source of vitamin A, Vitamin B-6, Vitamin C and Magnesium.

A sketch of a sweet potato plant. Text reads: "Potatus, or Potato"

Sweet potatoes can be prepared in a variety of forms and how you cook your sweet potato is completely up to you. However, if by chance you are in in need of some inspiration or looking to try something new, I’ve included a few recipes from our cookbook collection:

Sweet Potatoes, Southern Style – Bake six medium-sized sweet potatoes, remove from oven, cut in halves lengthwise, and scoop out inside, mash, add two tablespoons butter, and cream to moisten. Season with salt and Sherry wine. Refill skins and bake five minutes in a hot oven. – The Boston Cooking- School Cookbook, 1928.

Sweet Potato Croquettes – Bake the potatoes, remove skins and mash for each 2 cups sweet potatoes use 2 tablespoons butter, ¾ teaspoon celery ¼ teaspoon pepper, ¼ teaspoon celery salt, ¼ teaspoon onion juice*, 1 teaspoon chopped parsley, 1 egg or 2 yolks, mix all ingredients and when cold form into croquettes any desired shape; beat an egg and add to it 1 tablespoon water; dip the croquettes in the egg roll them in fine bread crumbs, and fry in deep fat or oil. – Mrs. Albert Schultz, Woodstock Cook Book, 1917.

*Note: I had never heard of cooking with onion juice, but upon doing some research I discovered that not only is it used in cooking, but historically it’s been used to help cure everything from the whooping cough to hair loss, was rubbed on the muscles of Greek athletes and gladiators before entering the arena, and was even used to treat gunshot wounds during the American Civil War!

Onion juice can be made my either juicing, blending or grating a peeled onion and then squeezing the juice out of it. It can be stored in the refrigerator for about two weeks in a sealed container.

Candied Sweet Potatoes – Wash and cook six medium-sized sweet potatoes in boiling salted water to cover. Drain, peel, and cut in halves, lengthwise, arrange in butter baking dish, sprinkling each layer with brown sugar, using three-fourths cup in all. Pour over one-half cup melted butter and sprinkle with salt. Cook in a slow oven two hours. – The Boston Cooking-School Cookbook, 1928.

Whether you have it for breakfast, lunch, dinner or even dessert, the sweet potato is one delicious root vegetable! For those that are looking to pair a beverage with their meal, February 22 has also been declared as National Margarita Day.

Happy Eating!

Image Credit: Sweet Potato from John Gerard’s Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes (1597) https://blogs.loc.gov/inside_adams/files/2010/11/gerard0001.jpg*

*If you are wishing to learn more about the history of the Sweet Potato, The United States Library of Congress has a great blog post that delves not only into the history of its cultivation but the emergence of candied yams and even it’s pairing with marshmallows!

Exploring Archives: The Quirky, Creepy, and Mystifying - Death Masks

Have you ever seen a death mask? Read about the history of this fascinatingly dark tradition.

By Megan Lockhart, Archives Technician

Local students and teachers who have been on a tour of the Oxford County Archives with their class will be familiar with one of the more unsettling items in our collection, the copy of Thomas Cook’s death mask. Thomas Cook was a labourer from Innerkip who was charged and convicted for the murder of his wife, Bridget Morin, on July 22, 1862. He was convicted (mostly based on character statements by his neighbours) and executed on December 16, 1862. Much to the shock and horror of onlookers, Cook was accidentally decapitated during his execution due to an issue with the setup of the gallows. It was decided that a death mask be made of his likeness after the execution. The death mask of executed criminal Thomas Cook.

The mask was mounted at the entrance to the jail, where it can still be seen today (the Oxford County Gaol building now houses the Woodstock site of Southwestern Public Health). The mask stood as an example to citizens and would-be criminals that one must obey the law or you could end up like Thomas Cook. The Archives has a replica of the mask in our collection so a copy is available in the event that the original is ever damaged.

Death mask creation has a very long history. The Ancient Egyptians would take casts of a dead person’s face as part of a spiritual ritual and funeral rite. The Egyptians were not the only people to create death masks historically. Many other people and cultures took part in the practice of immortalizing a person’s face before or after death, masks taken of a person’s face while still alive are known as life masks. Death mask creation was practiced in Greece and Rome, Africa, and by the indigenous peoples of the Americas, among others.

Similar to the gruesome practice of displaying a head on a spike, which we commonly associate with the Middle Ages in Europe, death masks of hanged and executed criminals were sometimes created in Victorian England and publicly displayed to instill fear and discourage citizens from breaking the law or committing treasonous acts. There are stories of jail officials holding public lectures with these death masks to teach lessons on morality.

Occasionally, death masks of executed criminals were given to physicians for study purposes – often for the study of phrenology, which is a pseudoscience that involved the examination and measurements of the bumps on a person’s skull. The belief was that the personality traits of a person could be predicted by measuring the contours of the skull. Similar theories were developed during this period, and some physicians and academics believed that people with certain physical features of the face were predisposed to criminality. However, there is no sound empirical evidence to support this theory and it is often associated with classist, prejudiced, and racist perceptions.

Black Doctors vs. the Medical Profession

Black healers and physicians in Oxford County faced racial discrimination and many obstacles, including persecution by others in the medical profession.

By Megan Lockhart, Archives Technician

For any Oxford County resident reading this who has not yet read Joyce A. Pettigrew’s book “A Safe Haven: The Story of the Black Settlers of Oxford County” I highly recommend you do so. The book is a treasure trove of local Black history information and short biographies of the many significant Black residents of Oxford County are also featured. Any person interested in local history and wanting to become educated in the history of the Black community in Oxford County should consider giving the book a read.

The book also contains many fascinating stories. One example of such stories is the tragically lesser-known history of Black doctors and healers in Oxford County, and the obstacles and opposition they faced from other members of the medical profession. One such person I came across while conducting research for our new Black history of Oxford resource on our website, was Susan LeBurtis.

Susan LeBurtis was born in Grey County in 1857. In 1895, she and her husband William moved to Woodstock. Her husband was the minister of the British Methodist Episcopal Church and Susan worked as a milliner, a person who makes women’s hats. Susan was well known for her herbal remedies, which she gave to friends and neighbours when they were ill. Her remedies became so well known that she and William opened the LeBurtis Medicine Company at 331 Dundas Street in Woodstock. However, the company was only advertised under her husband’s name. After her husband passed in 1910, she continued to help people with her medicines. She was eventually prosecuted by the Ontario Medical Association for practicing without a license. Luckily, the case was dismissed as it was found that she did not prescribe medicines for illnesses that she diagnosed herself; she was simply selling her remedies to customers based on whatever was ailing them. She died in 1926, after many years of helping people from all over Canada, the United States, and even individuals from other parts of the world.

Susan was not the only Black healer or doctor in Oxford County. Dr. John Taylor was a respected physician in Innerkip and also faced opposition from the medical community. John Taylor was born in 1803 and escaped from slavery in the 1850s. He lived briefly in Tillsonburg in the early 1860s but lived the rest of his life in Innerkip until his death in 1884. During his time in Innerkip he became known for his skill with creating effective cures for all sorts of health ailments. Dr. Taylor had learned some of these cures from his father, who had been a doctor in Africa. Similar to Susan, he was eventually charged with practicing without a license by the medical profession. Dr. Taylor believed he was targeted and charged because he had cured a man who other medical professionals had stated was incurable; Dr. Taylor saved the man’s leg even though it was believed it must be amputated. He fought back at the physicians who were laying the charges stating that they were causing deaths by prescribing chemicals such as mercury and arsenic to their patients, and that their lack of pharmaceutical knowledge led to the accidental death of many people. Dr. Taylor instead used remedies found in nature, like herbs, bark, and roots. A book of his medical cures was published after his death by the Woodstock Sentinel Review Steam Publishing House.

Both Susan LeBurtis and Dr. John Taylor were able to provide their patients with proven and effective medical cures during a time when some physicians were sadly doing more harm than good. It is very unfortunate that other medical professionals chose to attack and create obstacles for Taylor and LeBurtis, instead of taking their medical knowledge seriously and learning from them. Perhaps if other BIPOC healers and physicians were more welcome in the medical community during that time, the greater diversity of minds may have led to advancements in medical knowledge being made earlier on in the field. However, this was during an era where Black students and students of colour were banned from applying to medical programs and universities in Ontario and Canada, with some universities not welcoming students of colour until the 1960s. Thankfully, both Dr. Taylor and Susan LeBurtis were able to help people despite the persecution they faced.

Source: Pettigrew, Joyce A. A Safe Haven: The Story of the Black Settlers of Oxford County. The South Norwich Historical Society, 2006, pp. 100-101, 111-113.

For more information on the racial segregation of Black people in Canada visit: https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/racial-segregation-of-black-people-in-canada

General Butler

A short biography on Woodstock resident and confectioner General Butler.

By Liz Dommasch, County Archivist

Born in 1923 in Dorcan County, Pennsylvannia, on the banks of the Susquehanna River, between the cities of Philadelphia and Harrisburg, William “General” Butler arrived in Woodstock with his family sometime before 1861. Over the next thirty plus years, he held many different occupations from labourer to cook to that of a white-washer (a person who whitewashes buildings to improve their appearance and repel rot). In 1861 he was a confectioner and operated a confectionary store and ice cream parlor on the site of the old Opera House, though later, his chief claim to fame came through the manufacturing of taffy of all kinds. In 1881, he placed the following advertisement in the Woodstock paper highlighting his services:

De ole hen am chirpin’

De robin am singin’

De voice of de rooster is heard in the land.

De pidgeons am flyin’

De ganders am sighin’

An the big Town Constable

Am showin his hand.

De md’s growin’ depper

De sewers a diggin’

De rats am comin’ out of the cellar to see.

De lambs am a callin:

De spring calf am bawlin’

An the white-wash season is open for me.

Wheneber you’re feeling’

It’s time for house-cleanin’

Jes send round your boy

For the General, that’s me

May office is down below

De Port Dover Railrow

On the fust street, turn norf come and see.

The General.

The General was also considered a great story-teller, as well as a well-known weather prophet. When he passed away in February 1899 the newspaper noted that “The General’s figure will be greatly missed upon the streets of Woodstock and citizens of all ages will note with regret the passing of another familiar character, one who in his long life had made himself popular by his good nature and quaint humor.”

Although both his passing and his funeral made the front page of the Woodstock Sentinel-Review, it would be remiss of me to not mention the tone and language used in describing him. General Butler was a person of colour and even though he was a successful businessman and a well-known figure in the community, his character was considered within the confines of the colour of his skin. In fact, the article contained racial discrimination by stating that “It is seldom that one meets with one of the coloured race as bright as the late General Butler, especially considering his age”. The newspaper article also appears to romanticize the idea that he served as a slave while in the South until an opportunity presented itself to escape to Canada. However, research conducted years later by Joyce Pettigrew and published in her book A Safe Haven: The Story of the Black Settlers of Oxford County (2006) notes that he was born in Pennsylvania and in his youth his family moved to Milfern County where Butler’s father owned 75 acres of mountain land. She also notes that following his teenaged years he worked on numerous boats at the headwaters of the Susquehanna River before eventually making his way to Canada and Woodstock.

One cannot delve into the history of Canada without noting that racism and inequality did and still does exist and as archivists and historians it is important that we acknowledge the good and the bad that comes with the past. As archivists, we make decisions that affect what gets collected, cataloged, exhibited and even researched. Because of that, our choices hold power to both include and exclude people, cultures and memories from the historical records we are responsible to preserve.

Events in 2020 were an important reminder of our responsibilities as archives to rethink past narratives in order to ensure that our collections represent the contributions, lives, work and memory of individuals of all races, ethnicities, and cultures that systemically have been missing in the history books or altered to fit a particular perspective. Moving forward it is important that we continue to educate ourselves and adapt our responses and practices accordingly. As February is Black History Month, we encourage others to read about the histories of local people of colour in Oxford County and to learn more about their contributions and achievements.

Valuable Resource: Women's Institute Tweedsmuirs

An overview of a valuable local history resource, Women's Institute Tweedsmuir scrapbooks.

By Megan Lockhart, Archives Technician

Our Archives is filled with many community records that are invaluable resources for researchers in search of local history information. One such resource that may sometimes be overlooked by the average researcher are the Women’s Institute Community Tweedsmuirs. For those who do not know, a Women’s Institute is a community-based organization for women. It is an organization for women to join together, socialize, learn new skills, contribute to local charities and philanthropic work, and aid in the development of children’s education and community safety and health. In the past, Oxford County had several Women’s Institutes, it was common for a Women’s Institute to exist for each community or geographical area such as a Township. Over the years, Women’s Institutes have slowly been dissolving due to wanArchival boxes storing Brooksdale Women's Institute scrapbooksing membership.

Another important task that Women’s Institute members take on is the preservation of community history, often rural history in particular. The Tweedsmuir Community History Books in our collection are primarily scrapbooks, compiled into a series of volumes and contained with a binder, or bound in leather, wood, or a gold and blue cover. Some of the scrapbooks are organized by theme or are organized chronologically by year. Often one of the scrapbooks in the series will contain a history of the local Women’s Institute branch that compiled the history. The other scrapbooks will focus more on community history. These community history books contain valuable information including a history of the early settlers of the area, local farm history, history of businesses and industry, church and school histories, biographies of war veterans, village and town histories, and information on local events. The types of records included in the scrapbooks are written histories, maps, photographs, newspaper articles, letters, obituaries, birth and marriage announcement, anniversary and memorials programmes and more.

So how did this community history scrapbook initiative begin? Women’s Institutes in Canada began taking on the task of recording the history of communities, farms, and buildings in the 1920s. The Committee for Historical Research and Current Events was established in 1925. Susan Buchan, Baroness of Tweedsmuir, also known as Lady Tweedsmuir, was the wife of John Buchan, Baron Tweedsmuir, and Governor General of Canada from 1935 to 1940. By the 1930s, Lady Tweedsmuir took an interest in the Women’s Institutes of Canada. She was also an adamant supporter of the Women’s Institutes preserving community history, and she encouraged Ontario Women’s Institute branches to compile local histories into books similar to the projects undertaken by Women’s Institutes in England at the time. In 1940, Lady Tweedsmuir was widowed and the Women’s Institute community history books were named after her husband, which led to the creation of the “Tweedsmuir Community History Books” that we know today.

Portrait of Lady Tweedsmuir

Susan Buchan, Lady Tweedsmuir

Lady Tweesmuir Image Source: https://fwio.on.ca/tweedsmuir-history-books

About this Blog

Welcome! Our blog provides a perspective on the Oxford County Archives beyond the vault and delves into the fascinating stories found within our collection. Get to know our staff, discover what we do at the archives and learn more about Oxford County's cultural heritage. Updates on our services, programs and events will also be shared right here on this blog! 

Recent posts

Oxford County is taking steps to support our community's response to COVID-19 (coronavirus disease) and measures taken by Southwestern Public Health. We are monitoring our operations daily to ensure we are taking the right actions to protect our residents, employees and visitors. Get updates at www.oxfordcounty.ca/COVID-19