St. Thomas opened its doors on Saturday, October 13, 2018 as part of a province-wide event designed to showcase the buildings and natural spaces that shape and define our communities. Twelve sites participated in the event, giving tours and facilitating activities for both kids and adults.
Railway City Tourism, the host of Doors Open St. Thomas, provided free train rides on the Port Stanley Terminal Rail from the London & Port Stanley Railway Station to the Elgin County Archives and Elgin County Heritage Centre on Sunset Drive. Throughout the day, between 200 and 300 people rode the rails and then discovered a display of Elgin County’s rich history at the Heritage Centre.
The centre, which opened in January, features a series of changing exhibits and a permanent space, complete with artefacts and a recreation of Col. Talbot’s ancestral castle. On Saturday, it had much more than usual going on, with activities for kids like brass rubbing, corn shelling, and bean bag baseball. Visitors were also invited to take their picture in front of a green screen and have themselves placed in a historic scene from an Elgin County Archives photo.
It was an especially memorable day for the STEAM Centre, which celebrated its grand re-opening at 168 Curtis Street as well as its second anniversary. Elizabeth Nagy, Welcome Desk and Program Coordinator, said they had never seen so many people in one day – about 150 just for Doors Open, before their official grand re-opening event. “We had a lot of people come in who had maybe heard about STEAM Centre but don’t really know what it is, and they’ve come through and been really happy with their experience here.” Activities included wind tunnels where you could fly paper airplanes and displays with Ozobots, pocket-sized coding robots. These are just some of the activities that go on during workshops at the STEAM Centre.
One of St. Thomas’s newest attractions, the St. Thomas Elevated Park, also had an exceptional turnout. Roughly 600 people wandered Canada’s first elevated park throughout the day and in the evening for stargazing. The fall colours and views of the moon, Mars, and Saturn through telescopes were definitely a highlight of Doors Open this year. A close second to all the natural beauty was the gourmet mac and cheese provided by My Big Fat Food Truck, which served its specialty for three hours over lunchtime.
One of the best parts of Doors Open is discovering all the hidden gems St. Thomas holds. According to Sarah Noble, Tourism Manager at Railway City Tourism, “It’s a great excuse for people who have lived here all their lives to get out and see some of the spaces that we have in the community…. Sometimes people need that opportunity to push them to try something different.”
The Princess Ave Playhouse is a great example of one such hidden gem. This enchanting church-turned-theatre is being painstakingly restored on an ongoing basis as funds come in. It is cared for by the Elgin Theatre Guild, which is made up of volunteers and produces four shows a year, with productions ranging from comedic to dramatic. The same volunteers showed up the weekend of Doors Open to clean the playhouse and give tours all day. When asked about the return on her work, Lesley Chapman, President of the Elgin Theatre Guild, replied, “It’s when someone comes in and they’ve never been here and they’ve lived in town for years. It gives me a lot of pleasure to be able to say hey, this is yours. We just look after it – this is yours. This is the community theatre and you’re the community.”
Chapman moved here from England ten years ago and soon noticed how connected the community is, which she didn’t experience living in a small town in England. “Maybe that surprises the people that live here, but for an outsider, I thought there’s a lot of community support. If you help someone, they’ll help you. And I’ve found that time after time.”
The playhouse, along with the other Doors Open sites, has a lot more to offer than one day of tours in October. The Elgin Theatre Guild’s production of Sleeping Beauty runs from Nov. 29–Dec. 2 and Dec. 6–9, and general admission is only $20. The Dowler Karn museum, another highlight of Doors Open this year, is open to the public every Wednesday for free. You can visit the STEAM Centre four days a week, and the Heritage Centre five. Doors Open St. Thomas was a great opportunity to experience our city’s history and culture, but if you live in St. Thomas, you can enjoy these incredible spaces all the time. The volunteers and employees will be more than happy to share their passion with you.