Article by Stephen Robbins, MA
Stephen holds a MA in Anthropology from the University of British Columbia. He has worked as a professional researcher-writer since 2008. Stephen lives in Peterborough, Ontario with his partner Sara, and border collie Glenn.
The COVID-19 pandemic has profoundly impacted the museum and tourism industry. This includes many, if not all, cultural heritage sites. Often, these important places are safeguarded by small groups of dedicated people. These spaces, the objects contained within, and the stories that bring them to life strongly depend on this dedication and community support.
Closed doors and cancelled events due to the pandemic meant significant revenue losses for heritage groups in Canada. To learn more about these challenges and the path ahead, HPOC spoke to the management team behind Hutchison House Museum in Peterborough, Ontario. They have survived COVID-19 despite multiple bumps in the road. How did they accomplish this? Well, it was largely through the same spirit that brought the Hutchison House into existence over 185 years ago.
Hutchison House circa 1870s.
Photo: Hutchison House Museum
A Monument to Citizens’ Co-operation
By the mid-1830s, Peterborough, Ontario was a newly formed town, not even two decades old. Unlike in Europe, at this time, the area was largely forested and there were few doctors over large regions. One of those was Scottish immigrant, Dr. John Hutchison, who rented a cabin nearby. While he was highly valued due to physician scarcity, Hutchison was also highly regarded due to his skill and dedication. To illustrate, in 1830, Frances Stewart, a noted letter writer/diarist and patient of Dr. Hutchison, wrote:
There is a most skilful doctor who lives about fourteen miles off. He visits every family in the neighborhood once a fortnight, and appoints places where he can receive messages. Our names are down on his list; every one he visits in this manner pays him three dollars a year! He is a Scotchman, young but clever.
Despite serving the area for many years, Dr. Hutchison, his wife Martha, growing family were considering relocating to Toronto. This was due to the lack of suitable housing in the Peterborough area. As this would have been a great loss to the small community, local volunteers acted. They donated considerable time and supplies to construct a house for the Doctor just on the outskirts of town. Instead of building the home from wood, which was typical of the time, the house was constructed from limestone from a nearby quarry. The result was an impressive home for Hutchison’s family, with thick stone walls providing comfort and beauty.
Portrait of Dr. Hutchison
Photo: Hutchison House Museum
The home was completed in 1836, with the Hutchisons moving in during the following year. Its low gabled roof, simplicity, and symmetry were common features of 1800s Neoclassical style, which drew inspiration from ancient Greek and Roman architecture. Within a few decades, Ontario Gothic elements were added to the home, as they became popular. These included the centre gable and bargeboard trim with elaborate finials. When the home was sold to a local businessman in 1851, a two-story brick Victorian addition was added to the rear sometime after.
Erin Panepinto, Hutchison House Curator/Manager, told HPOC that “it was one of the first five stone houses built here in Peterborough and it is the only one of those, to my knowledge, that is still open to the public”. Panepinto and Peterborough historian/Historical Society Vice-President Don Willcock both highlighted the importance of Hutchison House in relation to Dr. Hutchison. Willcock mentioned that:
The doctor was one of the few professionals in town. Therefore, he was a community leader, he was a justice of the peace, he was the surgeon for the local militia unit. He was a government appointed doctor for the Hiawatha and Curve Lake First Nations. But, you know, he was also a family man, and he was appreciated by the community.
Willcock also highlighted that Dr. Hutchison offered his own medical insurance to faithful subscribers. This was alluded to by Frances Stewart in her writings. His Patient Ledger also showed, that despite being a prominent local figure, he would not have been overly wealthy. He often took non-monetary forms (goods or services) of payment as people did not have much money for payment. Hutchison would continue to serve the community until 1847, when the Doctor unfortunately died from typhus. He contracted the disease treating Irish immigrants attempting to escape the Irish Potato Famine.
The Doctor's study
Photos: Stephen Robbins
A Fleming Connection
In addition to Frances Stewart, Dr. Hutchison’s patients also included Catharine Parr Traill and Susanna Moodie, two noteworthy Canadian authors. However, arguably the most significant connection Hutchison had was to Sir Sandford Fleming, his second cousin. At the age of 18, Fleming emigrated to Canada in 1845, and Hutchison House became his first Canadian home. While there, he designed his first building and began his career in surveying. He even drew the first map of Peterborough in 1846. Later, Fleming would go on to become the designer of Canada’s first postal stamp, the inventor of Universal Standard Time, and Canada’s foremost railway engineer.
While Fleming only lived in Hutchison House for two years, he married Ann Jean (Jeanie) Hall from Peterborough and “never forgot about it here”, as Panepinto pointed out. Today, visitors to the Hutchison House Museum can view Fleming’s bedroom, complete with many remarkable artifacts on permanent loan from nearby Fleming College. If visitors are lucky, they will be treated with several related stories including a love story that began with an unfortunate, or perhaps very fortunate, sleigh ride accident.
Young Sanford Fleming 1845
Photo: Hutchison House Museum
Hutchison House Over the Years and Today
After the death of Dr. John Hutchison, Martha would sell the home in 1851 to James Harvey, head of a prominent local family and business. It would remain in the Harvey/Connall family until 1969, when it was bequeathed to the Peterborough Historical Society. Established in 1897, the organization is one of the oldest historical societies in Ontario.
The Historical Society embraced the idea of using the home as a museum to promote local history. As it was in the home’s beginning, the cooperation of local citizens was needed. Utilizing considerable fund-raising and volunteer hours, the Hutchison House was carefully restored in the 1970s. During that restoration, the old kitchen’s stone hearth was rediscovered. That original kitchen/keeping room, along with the main floor’s Victorian parlour, doctor’s study, and two bedrooms were restored to the 1840s. The upper floor, originally an open bare attic for the Hutchison boys was styled after the 1860s renovations made by the Harveys. It features a stairway landing and three bedrooms, each decorated today as they might have been at that time.
1840s Open-Hearth Kitchen
Photo: Stephen Robbins
Once restored, the Peterborough Historical Society formally opened the Hutchison House Museum in 1978. Through the years they have sought to preserve and promote public awareness of its pioneering history. They have done so through a variety of public programming including tours, event hosting, summer Scottish tea visits, or pioneering cooking or craft workshops. They also invite the public to participate in several special events throughout the year. Most popular is their Hogmanay event, a traditional Scottish New Year’s Day party. As expected, this celebration is complete with Scottish customs including the practice of first-footing (the first person to cross the threshold of the house in the New Year, thought to bring good-fortune). The Museum and their volunteers further treat Hogmanay participants with pipers, dancing, and traditional Scottish foods.
Photos: Hutchison House Museum
When the coronavirus pandemic hit the region in March 2020, Hutchison House was forced to close its doors to the public. During the next two years, the Museum was only able to open for brief periods if local infection rates allowed. For the times that they were able to open, they needed to carefully negotiate health guidelines. Panepinto remarked that “it is a small house and the hallways are narrow, so we did have a space challenge to be able to comply with COVID restrictions”. This significant challenge rendered day camp programming unfeasible, as the people health officials allowed in the building were so few.
Fortunately, the team at Hutchison House managed to find solutions to pandemic restrictions. For one, Panepinto mentioned that they assembled and sold day camp kits and “made YouTube instructional videos on how to put them together…and they did really well for the first year. A lot of people would buy them and send them to their grandchildren”.
Another adaption made by the Museum was to make some of their events virtual or take home. For example, their St. Patrick’s Day take-home meals were evidentially a great success. “I have since learned that we do need a cut off because we could have sold over 300…the entire keeping room was full of takeout containers, it was so much” Panepinto explained.
Virtual adaptability would also become a necessary tool during this period and moving forward. Panepinto remarked that they had to increase their digital abilities “and creativeness of trying to find other ways that we could engage online”. For their Hogmanay event, the Museum virtually recorded the first footing. They also expanded their Facebook page and “had volunteers and former staff write in their favorite Hogmanay memories” Panepinto said. They also adapted to offer virtual tours of the museum and assisted in the creation of virtual school programs. This included a virtual escape room completed with the nearby community college. Also, several related video series were created such as their Cross Stitch Workshop and the Untold Stories of Hutchison House. The goal of all these adaptations, was to continue their long-established connections to the local community.
Photo: Stephen Robbins
It takes a community…
In addition to constantly negotiating the public health response, Hutchison House faced other pandemic and non-pandemic related challenges. These included a seemingly never-ending city construction project, resulting in road closures, noise, dust, and a lack of parking. A loss of volunteer availability. A lack of bus visitors due to high fuel costs and financial constraints in the education system. Also, the spike in cost of building supplies made necessary building maintenance repairs nearly impossible, and there was no guarantee that the supply chain would cooperate. To top matters off, Panepinto explained that “when the pricing for lumber skyrocketed, a lot of insurance companies decided they no longer wanted to insure heritage buildings because it would be too much to replace our parts if things went wrong”. As such, Hutchison House only received three weeks’ notice that their insurance company was unwilling to continue coverage.
To help with the many challenges faced during these times Covid and other project-based grants did help tremendously. As did loyal local supporters. However, the museum community also banded together. Panepinto highlighted the camaraderie provided by several online groups, many facing the same issues and learning curve. “You could post questions and get 20 different responses, it was great to be able to pick and choose, [saying] oh, that could work for us”. There were also a wide variety of free webinars provided by organizations such as the Ontario Museum Association, Canadian Museums Association, and the Ontario National Trust. Panepinto remarked that “the sheer volume of support that was available helped me learn to do different things…and it’s not something that we’ll stop doing”.
Photo: Hutchison House Museum
To summarize their COVID experience, Panepinto told HPOC that:
We came out on top, which is more than some. We didn’t have to lay anyone off and were still able to run 75% of our programming in one way or another. Whether it was our smaller numbers, virtual adaptability, or curbside pickup…we’re mostly back to “normal”. Now, we’re very grateful for all the resources and the support.
To add, Willcock mentioned that “the community has been good”. For example, he commented that if they could not volunteer or attend an event, they would send a donation in lieu of their admission. “They care about the site, and they care what happens to it, and they help out that way too.”
Hutchison House has been described as a monument to citizens’ co-operation for the benefit of the community. Upon visiting the site and hearing its stories, it quickly became apparent that this spirit guided them through a one-hundred-year pandemic. Hopefully, other heritage organizations witnessed a similar guiding force. If nothing more, the vital importance of continuous community support is highlighted here. Without it, we are in danger of losing these meaningful connections to our past.
HPOC and this author would like to thank Erin Panepinto and Don Willcock for their time and for providing a memorable visit. While Hutchison House may appear small in scale from a street view, its atmosphere, artifacts, and stories contained within are anything but. These elements are well beyond the ability of this article to explore. This is a highly recommended stop for anyone who makes their way to the Peterborough area. To learn more, visit https://phs-hutchisonhouse.ca.
Photo: Hutchison House Museum
 Trent University Archives, 78-008/2/14 #244. Reviewed online at https://www.communitystories.ca/v1/pm_v2.php?id=story_line&lg=English&fl=0&ex=00000758&sl=7534&pos=1&pf=1#5. Accessed 20 September, 2023.
 The Peterborough Historical Society. (n.d.). Home Page. Retrieved September 20, 2023, from https://phs-hutchisonhouse.ca.
 Kidd, M.A. (1977). Hutchison House Designation Brief. The Peterborough Historical Society. Retrieved September 20, 2023 from https://www.peterborough.ca/en/explore-and-play/resources/Documents/270-Brock-St-Hutchison-House-Designation-Brief.pdf