Oxford County Archives: Beyond the Vault

Archives Blog

The Original Oxford County Courthouse

Did you know, the current County Courthouse is not the original Courthouse building? Read on to learn about the current Courthouse's predecessor.

By Liz Dommasch, Archivist

For the month of May, we thought it might be fun to take a tour of the County Courthouse Square and highlight some of the lesser known monuments and buildings that stand or once stood at this location.

Located on Hunter Street, in Woodstock, the Oxford County Courthouse (and former County Administration Building) was built in the 1890s. However, few realize that this is actually the second courthouse that was built in the County, and another stood immediately in front of this location in the 1800s.

The first meeting held to discuss the erection of a courthouse in the County was held at the Royal Oak Inn on March 22nd, 1837, with Captain, Andrew Drew Esquire acting as Chair. At this meeting it was resolved to convene a public meeting the following month, in order to receive approval to begin construction on such a building. John Arnold, Peter Carroll, Captain Andrew Drew, Graham Whitehead and G.W. Whitehead were appointed as the building committee and immediately authorized raising a loan of £3,000 for such a purpose.

An architectural plan prepared by a Mr. Leighton was adopted and the construction of the building was carried out by contractors Henry Bishop and John Harrison for the sum of £3,700. The Courthouse was pronounced fit to be occupied on November 11th, 1839 and an application was made to the Governor to issue the requisite Proclamation, which was done on December 23rd, 1939 which set apart the County of Oxford as a distinct District by the name of the District of Brock.

A photograph of the original Counrt Courthouse building with a crowd of people standing in front of the building.

The original County Courthouse building.

The Courthouse served as the District’s Judiciary and Administrative building for over forty years, before concerns were expressed over its dilapidated state. In April 1882, the Grand Jury of the Spring Assizes stated that the building provided inadequate accommodation for the Jury and, in fact, did not contain a room large enough for twenty-four men to sit in without sitting on a pile of wood in one corner of the room. That same year, Architect, T.H. Goff, submitted a report to County Council stating that the building in its present condition was liable to collapse at any minute due to the partly decaying walls and the weight of the roof. He also noted that the air in many of the chambers was charged with "foul and poisonous gases" and that the County Clerk did not have adequate space to store the papers pertaining to his office, and in fact was compelled to store a majority of his records in the County Attorney’s office. Needless to say by the end of the year, the building was condemned by the Government Inspector and the County Architect.

However, it wasn’t until 1888 that the County begin to seriously consider the need for a new Court House. In December of that year, a committee was appointed with instructions to advertise for plans and specifications for a new Courthouse that was to be fire proof, as far as possible, and did not exceed a total cost of $75,000. Ultimately the tender of W.C. Smith and Company of Detroit was accepted and construction of the new Court House was completed in 1891 with the help of well-known Architects, Cuthbertson and Fowler.

County Council concluded that in order to secure the best possible site for the new building, that the original Courthouse would be sold by public tender or auction, to be taken down and removed from the grounds on or before February 20th, 1890.

The Colonial and Indian Exhibition

In 1886, Oxford County contributed photogaphs of Ingersoll and Woodstock to the Colonial and Indian Exhibition in England.

By Liz Dommasch, Archivist, Oxford County Archives


Opening on May 4th 1886 in South Kensington England, the Colonial and Indian Exhibition was intended to stimulate commerce and strengthen the bonds of union now existing in every portion of her Majesty's Empire. The exhibition was officially opened by Queen Victoria and featured extravagant displays from British colonial holdings including a Māori tomb from New Zealand, a ceremonial sword from the colony of Lagos, as well as a grasshopper swatter from the Straits Settlements.


The exhibition also included an extensive display from India which took up roughly one third of the exhibition space and included art, architecture, economic goods, silks and anthropological studies. The exhibition featured a display of “native artisans” – thirty-four men from Agra (region of India located south of New Delhi) demonstrating various crafts and professions, from sweetmeat makers to potters to carpet weavers. In reality, these men were actually inmates from the Agra jail who were brought to England by Dr. J.W. Tyler, who was the superintendent of the jail, and put on show for the British public.


The exhibition was open for a total of 164 days and welcomed over 5.5 million visitors.


Sketch of the opening of the Colonial and Indian Exhibition in London, England. A procession of people are walking by a makeshift Indian palace.


Although interesting, you may be wondering what this has to do with Oxford County. At the end of 1885, Oxford County Council received a circular seeking contributions of paintings, drawings, of photographs of public buildings, scenery, etc. for the exhibition. Council felt that some contribution towards the success of the exhibition should be sent from the County and they decided that photographs of some buildings, and scenery in the neighbourhood should be taken (though the expenses were not to exceed fifty dollars). A committee consisting of Councillors John Peers, A.W. Francis and W. Harrington were appointed to carry out the project and they hired local photographer C.E. Perry to produce a number of local images. Mr. Perry completed the task by taking photographs of the Ingersoll Town Hall; Sacred Heart Roman Catholic Church, Ingersoll; New St. Paul’s Church, Woodstock; Methodist Church, Woodstock; Imperial Bank Block, Woodstock, and the County Court House, as well as street views of Ingersoll and Woodstock. These were all executed in “first class style”, framed and forwarded to London where they were put on display. Following the exhibit the photographs were to be returned to the County and the committee had suggested that they could then be hung in the Council Chamber. Sadly, archives staff don’t know if the photographs were ever returned, and if so, what became of them. However, it’s nice to think that 5.5 million visitors had a glimpse of what life was like in Oxford County following Confederation.


Image credit: “The Queen Opening the Colonial and Indian Exhibition: Procession passing the principal entrance to the Indian Palace” The Illustrated London News, Saturday, May 8, 18886, page 478, Issue 2455.

Conservation of the Forests of Ontario

Celebrating the history of forest conservation in Ontario and Oxford County.

By Liz Dommasch, Archivist

In honour of Earth Day (April 22nd) I thought I would share the following correspondence Oxford County Council sent to the Ontario Legislative Assembly in 1873:

To the Honourable the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Ontario in Parliament Assemble.

The Memorial of the Municipal Council of the Corporation of the County of Oxford humble showeth:

That among the most enlightened nations of Europe, the conservation of their forests has been carefully maintained by wise and wholesome laws to the manifest benefit of their climatic conditions, as well as their agricultural mechanical and general economic interests:

That the destruction of the forests over a wide extent of the central and northern portions of this Continent has been, and continues to be so rapid extensive and indiscriminate as seriously to create alarm in the minds of thoughtful men, on account of the consequent deterioration of climate, and its attendant injurious effect upon so important a national interest as agriculture; also on account of the rapid increase in price, and at no remote period the scarcity of many economic enterprises of importance:

And whereas, the Legislature of States of the neighbouring Republic have already passed laws with reference to the conservation of forests, and of planting of forest trees, and it is desirable that this Province should pursue a similar course of action.

Your memorialist therefore pray that you will take this matter into serious consideration, and enact such laws as in your wisdom seem calculated to arrest and prevent the evils complained of in their memorial.

And your memorialists shall be duty bound,

Ever pray,




County Clerk

County Council Chamber,

Woodstock, January 31st, 1873A map of Algonquin National Park.

Although the County sent their memorial in 1873, the Ontario parks system didn’t begin until 1893 with the creation of Algonquin Park, which was originally designed to protect loggers’ interests from settlement. In 1914 the Parks Act was passed that set aside land not suitable for agriculture or settlement, though by 1954, there were only eight provincial parks in existence (Algonquin, Quetico, Long Point, Rondeau, Presqu’ile, Ipperwash, Lake Superior, and what is now known as Sleeping Giant). That same year, the management and creation of provincial parks came under the Department of Lands and Forests. They formed a Division of Parks that herald a new and aggressive program to create more parks, primarily along the Great Lakes and northern tourism highways. By 1960, the Province had a total of 72 provincial parks and as of 2001 that number had jumped to 280, with 9 million visitors annually visiting. These parks now encompass 7.1 million hectares, which is about 9 percent of the province’s area.

In Oxford County, there are a number of tracts set aside for preservation and conservation purposes. One such area, is the W. Leslie Dickson Arboretum located between Woodstock and Innerkip which was the product of a group called “The Men of Trees” and named after former County Warden, Les Dickson, who was committed to woodlot management and the preservation of native Canadian trees. The arboretum includes many species of Carolinian trees and well over 150 native trees and shrubs have been labeled.

County Warden Leslie Dickson portrait

Portrait of Oxford County Warden W. Leslie Dickson, 1973

Beginning in 1970, Earth Day is an international event celebrated around the world to pledge support for environmental protection. This year’s theme is “Restore our Earth” and focuses on ways that we can restore the world’s ecosystems and forests, conserve and rebuild soils, improve farming practices, restore wildlife populations and rid the world’s oceans of plastics. This April 22nd, I hope you have an opportunity to visit some of the nature tracts and conservation areas in the County and surrounding areas and are able to reflect on ways that we can all protect our planet.

Image credit: 1893 Survey of Park Lands prepared by the Department of Crown Lands and Resources. This image is available from the Archives of Ontario under the item reference code RG 1, B-43-06.

A Day as an Archives Technician

Find out what a typical day looks like for our Archives Technician.

By Megan Lockhart, Archives Technician

I’m Megan, the Archives Technician at the Oxford County Archives. I’ve held my role at the Archives for three years, and I’m a self-professed history geek with a professional background in museums, archives, and education. I wear many hats in my role as the Archives Technician (figurative hats, I typically don’t wear hats at work). I work alongside the County Archivist and help with the day to day operations of the Archives. A typical day at my job looks different depending on the day or week.

We are currently working from home in response to COVID-19, but normally when I am in the office I start off my day checking emails for research requests or program bookings. Despite working from home, archives staff are still responding to research inquiries remotely, check out our website for more information on how to get in contact with us while we are temporarily closed to the public. I also help with responding to research requests from walk-in patrons throughout the day (when we are open) but we prefer researchers make an appointment with us so we have enough time to pull and prepare the records and information they are looking for.

Responding to research inquiries can sometimes take up a large part of my day, depending on the amount of information the researchers are looking for, but I take on many other tasks as well. I aid the Archivist in archival record acquisition, and arrange and describe records in collections and fonds. This process includes creating finding aids for the collections, descriptive inventories, and contributing the descriptions to the online archival database Archeion. As I process a collection, I also make note of the condition of the records. If records within a collection are in need of basic conservation work, such as cleaning or repair, I will apply the required conservation work to the records first before I have completely processed them and placed them in storage. If records are in need of more advanced conservation, they are typically set aside in our conservation lab to be further assessed by the Archivist, sometimes we may consult a conservator who specializes in specific types of conservation – such as art conservators or book binders.

Outside of research, and arrangement and description of records, I work on the coordination of our digital engagement, public outreach and educational programming. Public outreach and community engagement is essential for archives and other heritage institutions. We work to raise awareness of the importance of historical records and narratives, and promote our archival holdings to the public. We also provide educational services to the local community and work to interpret our community’s heritage. I work to promote our archival holdings and local heritage through social media (follow us on Instagram: @OxfordCountyArchives), and YouTube videos. I help design and promote our public exhibitions, online exhibits, and maintain and update our website. I also develop and coordinate public and educational programming including virtual and in-person workshops and presentations, school programming, and programming for long-term care centres and other community groups. Part of my role within digital engagement is the digitization of our archival collections. I often spend time scanning and making digital copies of our document and photograph collections for preservation purposes, and to expand the accessibility of our records by making them available online.

As you can probably tell, my position and role at the Archives cannot easily be summed up by one or two tasks. Working in archives, and the heritage/cultural field in general, provides a wide range of experiences and is a dynamic work environment. For more information on the Oxford County Archives visit our website.

The Role of an Archivist

County Archivist Liz breaks down her role as Archivist and clears up some misconceptions about the field!

By Liz Dommasch, County Archivist

I can say without a doubt, I absolutely love my job! However, often when I tell people I’m an archivist, it’s met with a blank stare. In one case, I had someone ask me if I dug up artefacts for a living (archaeologist) and my predecessor once had someone ask her if she set things on fire (arsonist)! However, most times people equate it to working in a library or museum, which in some ways it is. An archives contains primary source historical records, which can be paper based (such as letters, diaries, and photographs), audio/video formats (such as film, discs, and tapes), and now even digital content (such as emails and even web pages). These records often relate to an individual, business, or organization and helps tell their story or function over time.

Similar to an archaeologist, my job is to dig through the records in order to find information for researchers and the general public. It’s also my job to arrange and describe the records and/or collections (in the archives we refer to a collection as a fonds) that are transferred or donated to the archives so that they are accessible to those wishing to access them. In doing so, it’s my responsibility to ensure that those records are stored safely, using acid free materials, and to complete any conservation/preservation work required on them. One of the most satisfying tasks I perform at the archives is assisting the public with their research requests and helping to preserve their own family’s history and records through conservation work.

I’m also extremely fortunate to get the opportunity to be creative by formulating physical exhibits at the archives and the County’s Administration building as well as expanding the type and amount of online content we produce on our website and social media platforms. It’s always exciting to see the public interacting with our online exhibits, programmes, and activity pages and we love receiving feedback from those using our services!

Often times I’m asked how I ended up working in the archival field. As someone who always has had a passion for history I completed my undergraduate degree in history prior to receiving my masters in library information science. I was lucky enough to start working at the Oxford County Archives, back in 2003, covering a mat leave and have been here ever since! The County has such a rich and fascinating history and I love being able to share it with others.

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