Michael Evans is Archiving Images
and Video of Life in Windsor
Story by Matthew St. Amand
Photography by Scotty Hughes
There was something about the onset of the COVID-19 global pandemic that roused a deep streak of nostalgia in people. In his latest Netflix comedy concert, comedian Bill Burr, speaks of spending whole days watching TV shows from his youth online. The spirit certainly gripped this writer, turning YouTube into a refuge for reliving the less-complicated past, in the form of 1980s NBA games, vintage 1970s Movie of the Week TV movies and even retro commercials.
Long before the world heard of COVID-19, Windsor historian, filmmaker, and archivist, Michael Evans, took nostalgia to the next level with his YouTube channel “It Happened in Windsor.” There, Michael has compiled a dizzying and heart-warming array of old home movie footage of Windsor “back in the day.”
Do you remember when a British ship, the M.V. Montrose, sank beneath the Ambassador Bridge in 1962? Or when the Queen of England visited in 1959? Or when the largest neon sign in the world—the Canadian Club sign at the Hiram Walker distillery—was installed in 1966?
“It Happened in Windsor” has videos about these occurrences, and nearly 80 others, which range in length from two to twelve minutes. The eras and subject matter vary greatly.
After first discovering “It Happened in Windsor” and spending a few hours lost in its tantalizing library of the past, the question arose: Where did all of this irreplaceable footage come from?
“My interest in personal history comes from having a lot of old family photos,” Michael explains, “some going back a hundred years.”
He continues: “While working on a documentary Suede Productions was making about Willistead Manor, I went around to every old antique shop in Essex County, buying whatever old films they had. Often, the proprietors had no idea what was on the film reels. Their interest lay in the canisters.”
Along the way, Michael obtained two 16 mm, 8 mm and Super 8 mm film projectors.
It was while teaching a course “History of Windsor on Film” at ElderCollege, he was approached by a mature student who said: “I have old film of a war-time house being built in the 1940s.”
From that point, Michael was hooked, and the search was on for any and all old film footage and photographs of Windsor.
“I found old family films with Winston Churchill in them,” Michael continues. “And just like today, people decades ago liked to film cats! For every gem that I find, there is half an hour of someone playing with a cat.”
One person in particular who proved an invaluable resource was a man Michael never even met.
“A man named Charlie Fox, who passed away in the nineties while in his nineties, worked for Catholic School Board as AV guy,” Michael says. “He had piles of old film which he brought home with him. He apparently had no family when he died and all that film went to antique stores around Windsor.”
Among the local history Charlie Fox captured with his camera are shots of the first Art in the Park, from 1973.
Another video Michael made is titled “Breaking Into Jail,” where he displays numerous photos taken within the defunct Windsor Jail, while interviewing a man who had once been an inmate. For decades, the Windsor Jail was a locus of mystery and rumour, which continue to this day. The video is filled with interesting history about the old gaol. The accompanying images are haunting.
Even some of Michael’s personal history made it into the trove. His father, James Evans, was a Windsor Police constable beginning in 1974 until his retirement in 2006. The video tells the story of the day Michael’s father and his WPS partner found $100,000 in counterfeit U.S. money on side of Highway 401, in the early 1980s.
“There was some guy who was arrested in Tennessee,” Michael explains. “The police there interviewed him and he said he wanted to offer information to the Windsor Police, thinking it might get him a lighter sentence.”
The man confessed to hiding the counterfeit money in a tree stump at one of the mile markers along Highway 401, heading into Chatham. An initial search by Windsor Police turned up nothing, but Michael’s father and partner went back to the area, on their own time one Saturday and located it. The video reveals photos from the time showing raw, printed, uncut sheets of counterfeit money stuffed into a hollow tree stump. There is no word if the man who stashed the money there benefited from his confession or where the counterfeit money ended up. Michael surmises in the video that it was probably burned in an incinerator behind Hôtel-Dieu Hospital.
Other videos have no narration, simply musical accompaniment. The old images, however, tell their own story, such as the video titled “Detroit River Parks (1970),” which shows the waterfront from the Ambassador Bridge to Dieppe Gardens. Or “Last Day of School, 1971,” which shows the final days at Holy Rosary school on Drouillard Road, students and teachers cleaning out their lockers and classrooms because the school was scheduled for demolition.
Every viewer will have their favourite videos, but two that really stood out to this writer. The first is “Meeting Nirvana Backstage,” recounting the story of two CJAM radio DJs hanging out with the Seattle band, Nirvana, one night in Detroit in 1991. The second tells the story of the Coronation Tavern at Curry Avenue and Riverside Drive, where the bar’s sign contained a typo: Coronation Tavens, after being painted by one of the tavern’s ardent patrons.
Another noteworthy video is “Windsor Sculpture Garden Mysteries,” which examines a few mysteries associated with the riverfront Sculpture Garden that most residents may not be aware of.
Michael Evans’ “It Happened in Windsor” is one of the few benign rabbit holes one will encounter on the Internet, but it is a rabbit hole, nonetheless. Find it on YouTube by entering “It Happened in Windsor” in the search box. Then get ready to do some time travel.