Elora’s David Boyle founded archaeology in Ontario

The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015.
Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.

This is the conclusion of an article on David Boyle, the Elora school principal who went on to establish archaeology as a science in Ontario.

For several months following his resignation as principal, David Boyle remained a resident of Elora, using the village as his base while traveling across the province as a textbook salesman and promoter.

Boyle’s major contributions to the school and to the village as a whole received recognition in 1881, first in a ceremony organized by his students, and later by the village as a whole, when he was presented with a silver tea service. The Mechanics Institute made him a life member for his work in building the Elora Library.

David Boyle’s teaching methods and practices quickly became a part of local folklore, through the impressions he had made on his students, and aided by teachers who adopted his approach to education.

Elora natives, many of whom were not old enough to have been his students, recalled Boyle’s name with deep admiration for decades.

Some former students, though, had found Boyle to be too demanding as a teacher. He expected his students to apply the same devotion and energy to study that he did. As well, Boyle could not stand idleness. He believed people should put all their waking hours to useful purposes.

The seriousness and intensity in Boyle’s character disguised his sense of humour. A skilled and entertaining raconteur, he could with ease entertain a roomful of people for hours. He also possessed a weakness for elaborate practical jokes that was rarely displayed in the classroom.

David Boyle’s career in the textbook business ended in 1883, when the Canadian series he had been promoting failed to gain recommendation from the Department of Education, which continued to favour imported texts.

From 1883, Boyle operated Ye Olde Book Shoppe, a specialty store on Yonge Street in Toronto, which stocked scientific and non-fiction books. Located only a couple of blocks from the University of Toronto, the bookstore quickly became a gathering place for a group of scientists and intellectuals.

It was an informal version of the old Elora Natural History Society. Many of Boyle’s customers were libraries across the province. The store provided a stimulating atmosphere, but it was not a prosperous business, and was failing when Boyle closed it in 1888.

For a couple of years, Boyle had been neglecting business to pursue his new passion: archaeology. He had become interested in the subject while a teacher at Middlebrook school, when he found a few Indigenous relics in his explorations along the Grand and Irvine rivers, and he had collected more systematically in the 1870s, though he was more interested in minerals and fossils at that time.

One of the tales in Elora folklore is the finding of Indigenous wampum in a cave on the Grand River by a couple of schoolboys, who presented the items to Boyle, arousing his interest in Indigenous history. The story is substantially true; the students were in Boyle’s class, and the date was 1880. The discovery led Boyle to look more closely at the Indigenous heritage in the Elora area, though he had already been collecting Indigenous artifacts for 15 years.

Indigenous archaeology came to dominate David Boyle’s life in the 1880s, particularly after he joined the Canadian Institute, one of the country’s leading scientific organizations, in 1884. Boyle went on field trips whenever he could get away from his bookstore; he spent much of the spring and summer of 1887 examining Indigenous sites in various parts of the province.

Boyle became the first curator of the Institute’s museum in 1884, modelling it on the Elora Museum he had founded a decade before. The curator’s position became full time in 1888.

Boyle continued as curator-archaeologist with the Canadian Institute until 1896, when he was appointed to a similar position at the Ontario Provincial Museum, a position he held until 1911.

Through these years, Boyle continued his field work. In one summer, he collected more than 3,500 new specimens. As provincial archaeologist and curator of the museum, Boyle established archaeology in Ontario as a scientific discipline. Until the end of his life, he continued to view himself as a teacher, considering anyone who entered the museum to be his student.

The Indigenous artifacts and relics collected by Boyle in the Elora area, and which were originally displayed in the Elora Museum, were taken by him to Toronto. He eventually placed them in the Provincial Museum, and in 1933 they were transferred to the David Boyle Room at the Royal Ontario Museum.

During his years of intensive fieldwork, Boyle managed to find time to serve for nine years as the secretary of the Ontario Historical Society, and to write a history of Scarborough.

The University of Toronto honoured Boyle in 1909 with an honorary degree for his contributions to archaeology and scientific education in Ontario.

David Boyle died at his Toronto home in 1911, at the age of 69. His last two years were filled with frustration; he had suffered a paralyzing stroke in 1909, and could not leave the house.

After he moved to Toronto, Boyle managed to return occasionally to Elora. He particularly enjoyed his visits to old friends in Middlebrook to share old stories and a glass of whiskey.

As a former working man, Boyle always felt most comfortable among farmers and artisans; until the end of his life he felt he was something of an outsider among scientists with advanced university degrees and higher social origins.

Boyle’s major legacy in Elora proved to be the Elora library. When he left Elora, it was the third largest in the province, second only to Toronto and Hamilton. Bolstered by the reading habits of Boyle’s former students, the Elora library continued to rank high well into the 20th century. The Ontario Heritage Foundation recognized David Boyle’s contributions to Elora and Ontario when it erected a plaque in his honour in front of the library in 1976.

The Elora Museum continued to be supported by the schools after Boyle left Elora, though it declined without Boyle’s leadership and guidance. It was moved from the school to Mill Street in 1896, and as late as 1912 it was still regarded as one of the outstanding facilities of its type in the province.

Boyle’s influence can be seen clearly in the work of John Connon, the Elora historian, who began his research into the history of the Elora area on the urging of his former teacher, who remained a lifelong friend.

Connon devoted the first part of his book to the geological and Indigenous histories of the region; he considered the careful and accurate recording of dates and facts, rather than narrative style, to be most important in historical writing.

Readers interested in learning more about David Boyle should read Gerald Killan’s biography, David Boyle: From Artisan to Archaeologist, published in 1983.

*This column was originally published in the Elora Sentinel on Sept. 1, 1992.

Thorning Revisited