On excursions while camping….misconception #2 debunked.

I’ve always held a dim view of camping. In my mind I associated it with people sitting silently and morosely in lawn chairs around a smoldering campfire during the day, only to come alive at nightfall, when the campfire flares up, the beer starts flowing, the out-of-tune guitars come out and the silent people become loud, boisterous and obnoxious.

I suppose there are campgrounds where this is the case, but Stephen doesn’t frequent them. He prefers provincial parks, where the showers are clean, the campsites are more private, radio-free zones exist, and park patrols drive by on a regular basis. Both times we’ve been camping, our neighbours have been quiet, courteous, and even quite friendly. And while yes, we do see people sitting around in lawn chairs all day, that’s certainly not what we do! We go exploring! We make a point of reading the visitor information available from the main office in order to see if there’s anything interesting in the area. And that was how we found out about “Behind the Bars” at the Goderich Historic Gaol.

According to their website, you can “Go “Behind the Bars” and meet some of our “Faces of the Gaol”. Experience the history as you explore and learn about life at the Gaol between 1841 and 1911. This interactive event provides visitors with the opportunity to explore this National Historic Site while meeting historical figures from the Gaol’s past. Tour the Gaol and Governor’s House to learn more about the men, women & children who lived and worked behind the bars.”  This tour runs Tues and Thurs evenings from 7-9 during July and August, and if you are in the Goderich area, Stephen and I both think you really should check it out!

Essentially, volunteers dress in period costumes and are stationed in various rooms throughout the gaol pretending to be specific prisoners from different eras in the gaol’s history. I have to say, I was so impressed with how well every one of the volunteers stayed in character. Stephen was asking one young man if this was a summer job for him, and the boy stayed in character and acted totally puzzled, as if he had no clue what Stephen was getting at. He kept insisting that being in jail wasn’t a job and he was just waiting for his trial. Every volunteer was well informed regarding their character and era, and could easily carry on conversation and answer questions. Exceptionally well done!

We learned that the gaol served not only as a place of punishment or detention, but also as a preliminary form of social services. This was a novelty for the era, but developed as Goderich had no other means to care for the insane, destitute, unwed mothers, vagrants, etc. We went in one room and encountered a woman named ‘Helen’ who told us she was there because ‘they’ said she was a lunatic. She had been sent to the asylum in London, escaped,  but was re-captured and was now waiting to be sent back to London. In the middle of her chat with us, she totally zoned out, stared off into space and began softly singing, “Mares eat oats and does eat oats and little lambs eat ivy…..” then, just as suddenly, she re-focused and carried on from where she had left off in the conversation! Well done!
In the courtyard we met ‘John’, who was plotting his escape. He thought he would climb over the wall. Having some experience with rock climbing, Stephen began examining the walls with John, helping him plan a route up the wall that might actually work! John was one of the only ones to step out of character, however briefly, as when Stephen asked if John would be successful in his escape, he winked and said yes, indeed he was. Records show that John did escape from prison, and there is no further mention of him, so we assume he went a long way away to start a new life. I guess Stephen’s advice helped…..
Even children were residents of the gaol. A young lady named ‘Mary’, only nine years old, told us that her dad had been put in jail for forgery, and since her mother didn’t have a job, they couldn’t make ends meet, and the whole family had been brought in for ‘vagrancy’. Remember what I said about social services?
I think the funniest inmate was a 12 year old boy who had forged his father’s signature on a letter to a judge requesting money. The judge fell for it and gave the boy $4, which he and his buddies used to go in to town and buy beer and cigars! Unfortunately our young forger was caught, and when we met him he was awaiting trial. When we asked if he had learned anything from his experience, he gave a saucy grin and said, “Yep! I learned not to get caught the next time!”

It was just after nine when we left the gaol, and we drove back to the campground in darkness. Making our way to our campsite, we could see the flicker of campfires from some of the sites, and the soft glow of lanterns or decorative lighting from others. We could hear laughter, chatter, and the shouts of children winding down for the night. What we didn’t hear was loud music, profanity or excessive noise in general. I have no doubt some of the campers were enjoying a cold beer by their campfire but there’s nothing wrong with that.

And so, my misconception number two about camping was put to bed.

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