An Elora resident is taking it upon herself to document the history of small towns in Canada, with the goal of eventually travelling across the country to tell the story of what makes communities unique from coast to coast.
Shandi Pace originally got the idea for her website, Small Town Canada, when she was looking into her family history and making videos about her ancestors. From there she started learning more about the communities where her family made their mark, including Bell Island, Newfoundland and Vienna, Ontario.
“I loved learning about the history because Bell Island has a mining past, and then Vienna has a Thomas Edison connection. It was really interesting learning that these two small towns had such an interesting and important history that I kind of wanted to start learning more, which is why I started the project so I could go around to other small towns and learn more about their history,” Pace said.
Pace is from Guysborough, a hamlet of 60 residents in Norfolk County, but spent several years in Toronto before returning when the pandemic hit. Returning home also inspired her to make the website.
“I missed it so much. I didn’t realize it until [I] moved back, which gave me the jumpstart to kind of think more about this project.”
Pace writes about and does a video on each town she visits. Although she said there is no rhyme or reason as to why she chooses to highlight a particular community, there are generally two criteria: the town is still in existence and it has a museum.
“I then obviously get local history that way. I try to find resources online. I also check books out from the library if I can….If there’s a historical society, I try to reach out to them because usually there are people there as well that have information about the town,” she said explaining her process.
“If the township or the county has an archive that’s online, it’s really helpful because then I can easily find pictures that way. Obviously, not a lot of video exists of small towns, but for the most part I can usually find enough pictures and stuff I need by just looking online.”
While each community has a uniqueness to it, Pace highlighted two different communities – Beachville and St. Marys in southern Ontario – that both have a connection to baseball.
“Beachville was kind of cool because it’s a really small town. They don’t have a lot of businesses there but they do have a museum and [that is] where the first recorded baseball game in North America was played, which was kind of cool – I don’t think a lot of people know about that. And St Marys has the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame, which, again, I don’t think many people realize,” she said.
She also highlighted another Ontario community, Otterville, and its connection to the underground railroad.
“They had a really big Black settlement there as well in the 1800s, which was really cool to learn about and so all these small towns, they have their own unique histories,” she explained.
Pace plans on visiting St. Jacobs in the coming weeks. Although she was originally drawn to it because of the farmers’ market, there is more to the community’s history than that, she said.
“After some research and discovering about the Old Order Mennonites coming from Pennsylvania to settle there, and then also learning about Home Hardware, which is a small town staple, I had absolutely no idea, so those were two things that were super interesting, [when] I literally just kind of thought of it because of the farmers’ market,”
Although the focus right now is on towns close to where she lives, Pace is hoping to turn the project into a full-time job in order to visit communities all over Canada.
“I’ve always wanted to see more of my own country, so I think this would be a super cool way to be able to explore the backbone of the country, which I think is small towns and rural regions,” she said.
She is also hoping more people take an interest in learning about their communities, and learning from the past.
“Especially if you live in a small town, why wouldn’t you want to learn more about the people that came before you and settled the area? I’ve always loved [history] and I think more people should care about it because it’s something that we shouldn’t forget.”
Pace’s work can be found online at www.smalltowncanada.ca.