This charming little exhibit, which features 18 impressive and beautifully restored horse-drawn carriages from Paul Bienvenu’s private collection, highlights an interesting piece of Canadian heritage. Did you know that from about 1770 to 1950, Quebec’s carriage makers were among the best carriage craftsmen in the world? Most of the carriages on display at the Museum of History were actually made in nearby Montreal, Que. The 18 horse-drawn carriages on display are only a small part of Bienvenu’s larger 213 vehicle collection.
According to the exhibit’s curator, Dr. Olivier Côté, many of the carriages on display were considered to be the Lamborghinis and Rolls-Royces of their time. During a guided tour of the exhibit, Dr. Côté noted that much like the luxury cars of today, carriages were a way for wealthy people to show off their status in the 1700s, 1800s and into the 1900s. He added that the best carriages were also accompanied by the best horses a family could buy.
“This is the most important [carriage] collection in North America,” Dr. Côté said during the special tour. According to the museum, the collection is also recognized by the Canadian Cultural Property Export Review Board as “a Canadian cultural treasure of outstanding national interest and importance.”
Among the exhibit’s more impressive Canadian artifacts is a burgundy Landau. According to the museum, this ceremonial carriage was commissioned by the Archbishop of Quebec for Cardinal Elzéar-Alexandre Taschereau (1820-1898). It was built by the Ledoux Carriage Co. in Montreal and is considered to be one of the “most sophisticated” Canadian carriages ever made.
According to Dr. Côté, this carriage offered one of the first sophisticated suspension systems and would’ve taken about 30 people six months to make. “It was first used in 1871,” Dr. Côté said, “and it’s a testimony to the Quebec carriage makers of the time because they specialized in luxury vehicles.” He noted that the roof of this carriage also comes off, allowing the vehicle to be used year-round. When compared to luxury vehicles of today, Dr. Côté added that the landau would be on the same level as a Lamborghini. “This is mostly handmade by craftsmen,” he said.
Along with several lovely wheeled vehicles, Dr. Côté noted that Horse Power also showcases a unique French Canadian winter activity; sleigh riding! Did you know that in comparison to riding in a carriage, which was done for various reasons, riding in a sleigh was considered to be a more social activity?
According to Dr. Côté, in this time period, people would bundle up in warm furs and head out in an open sleigh in order to be seen. “It was a moving living room,” he said. Dr. Côté noted that in Quebec City, it was a social tradition for young men and women to sleigh ride from the downtown area to Montmorency Falls. Once they got there, Dr. Côté said, they would put the fur blankets on the ground and use the sleigh as a type of table to have a picnic. “They just enjoyed the day by picnicking during the winter,” he said. “This is a foregone tradition in Canada.”
There are about eight sleighs on display in the exhibit, but one that Dr. Côté wouldn’t want you to miss is the Carriole. He admitted to Ottawa Tourism during the special tour that this solid vehicle is actually his favourite artifact in the entire exhibit. “I would say this is the most Canadian or Québécois vehicle of the exhibit,” he said.
Built by a single person – Wilbrod Jacob – in the 1930’s in Saint-Denis-sur-Richelieu, Que., this carriole is set on solid runners and is richly decorated. According to the museum, the decoration of such a vehicle – right down to the curl of the steel blades at the back – is typical of Quebec’s Richelieu Valley region. “The phenomenon of richly decorated sleighs associated with a specific region had no parallel elsewhere in North America,” the museum noted in a media kit prepared for the exhibit.
Dr. Côté added that as the one-horse carriole is associated with a specific Quebec region as well as a unique style and type of winter vehicle, the French word of “carriole” cannot be properly translated to English. “It’s not quite a sleigh,” he said.
Dr. Côté also noted that this particular artifact was acquired in a unique way. According to Dr. Côté, many years ago, Bienvenu approached Jacob about the best carriole he had ever made. Bienvenu then tracked down the owner, knocked on his door in the Richelieu Valley region and bought it from him, Dr. Côté said. “So because of Mr. Bienvenu, we’re able to have a prime example of a carriole type of vehicle.” This charming exhibit is running at the Museum of History until January 7, 2018.
But if you’re visiting Ottawa this July, why not opt to see this exhibit as well as some real equine power in action? Just a short drive west of Ottawa’s downtown core, Wesley Clover Parks will host the Ottawa Equestrian Tournaments from July 13-24, 2016. Over two weeks, see the art of world-class show jumping in Canada’s Capital. Discover the other wonderful things that horses do in the modern era!