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Belleville's history prepares to move downtown

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(BELLEVILLE, Ont. 05/26/11) Canadian journalist and author Peter C. Newman, presents Orland French, the President of the Hastings County Historical Society, with one of three keys to Belleville's historical archives. The Historical Society is raising money to move the archives to downtown Belleville. Photo by Jennifer Bowman

By Jennifer Bowman

Belleville’s history is one step closer to airing out and spreading out in downtown Belleville.

The Hastings County Historical Society has been working toward getting a different building for Belleville’s archives for a decade. They’ve purchased a building downtown and are now on the final leg.

They have raised more than $600,000 of the $1 million they need, and are reaching out to the community for the rest. The historical society announced the grand opening of its capital campaign project on Thursday.

“Belleville is a growing city so there is a lot of history, and it’s an older city, being in Eastern Ontario, so history is very important,” said Mayor Neil Ellis.

The building currently housing the archives is in Cannifton.  It’s not easily accessible, the basement floods and the archives cohabit with mice and bats. But that will change.

The new site will be an old Irish club at 315 Church Street. The two-storey building will provide more space for thousands of documents, more than 50,000 photographs, and one million photo negatives, some of which date back to the 1840s.

The building has already been purchased with money from the City of Belleville and the County of Hastings. Some of the money that will be raised from the community will be used to prepare the building for the archives. That includes new heating and climate control, and reinforcing the floor for a heavier load.

They’re hoping to have the building ready by this time next year, maybe earlier, said Orland French, president of the Hastings County Historical Society and chair of the Unlock the archives campaign.

Canadian journalist and author Peter C. Newman and his wife recently moved to Belleville to get out of a Toronto high rise and closer to the roots of a historical book he is writing on the Empire Loyalists. The former editor of the Toronto Star and McLean’s Magazine has written 26 books, most of them focusing on history.  Preserving the archives is important to him as a writer.

“I’ve got to be factual,” said Newman. “How do you be factual? You go to the archives and you check factual documents. Documents don’t lie.”

Having the archives downtown will make them accessible to more people. There will also be a focus on educating youth and children.

“It’s part of a growing up of a community,” said French. “When a community grows up, some of that comes and you develop a cultural centre in various ways, and archives is one of them.”

In Belleville’s case, its history touches all of Canada.

“People say our history is dull,” said Newman. “It’s not. Not at all, especially the Loyalists. They created Canada.”

French is hoping to turn 208 Front Street into a historical centre as well.

He hopes it will become a heritage centre in downtown Belleville for people going by, said French. It’s a prime location to help promote the archives centre and hold interesting events. He is also planning services such as being able to scan historic photos on site so people don’t need to part with their heritage while it’s being duplicated.

The cost of preserving Belleville’s history will be about $14,000 a year. That will be split between the City of Belleville and Hastings County.

“If you don’t know where you’re coming from or where you’ve been, you don’t know where you’re going,” said French.

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