When Trienda Hillier picked up two pieces of luggage at a yard sale in her hometown of Timmins, she thought “Cool. Vintage.”
But she never stopped to figure out how “vintage” they were until recently. Now the yardsaler turned amateur researcher wants to make sure the trunk and suitcase – which were used as an end table in her home – are returned to the family of the original owner, an International Driller from Petrolia named John T. Blackwell.
“I bought them probably about 2016 and I never really thought anything of them,” Hillier tells The Independent. “They had some cool stickers and they were older. The lady was just like ‘Take them, I don’t want them.’” Hillier eventually convinced her to take $40 for the pair – a large steamer trunk and a suitcase with stickers all over them.
“When I first brought them home, we use them as a side table. I had them both laying flat, the smaller one on top of the other one. And then I had a lamp on it with like a Kleenex box, just next to our couch.”
The suitcases moved with them a couple of times and Hillier “hates to admit” their last use was for her dogs.
“Together they were a perfect height under my front window, so that my dogs could sit on them to look outside.”
The trunk and suitcase had been in storage and Hillier was about to sell them. “I was taking pictures of them to sell them … and I was just like, ‘wait a minute’ something caught my eye and I saw Ontario.”
Hillier started examining the stickers on the trunk and found the names John T. Blackwell, Petrolia and the SS Minnedosa; enough to begin an internet search to see what she could find.
After finding the ship which sailed from 1913 to approximately 1930, she found immigration records from the Canadian government and tracked Blackwell from there.
She found passenger declarations which reveal some details of the foreign driller’s travels. He’d been to Egypt, the docket says, and he was heading back to Petrolia. One of the papers says he was going home to his wife. Another showed he wouldn’t be staying in Petrolia. All said he was in good health.
Hillier says “it took forever” to find the information” but she was determined.
And after finding the information, Hillier wanted to return the items to the driller’s family.
So, she posted the information on a Petrolia social media site where people alerted her to the life of International Drillers.
The Independent contacted the Oil Museum of Canada about Hillier’s find. Erin Dee-Richards, the museum supervisor, confirms John T. Blackwell is one of five members of the Blackwell family listed in the museum’s records as a foreign driller.
“I was surprised there was so many of them,” she says.
Dee-Richards says the museum does have a number of trunks, but because of the ties to a known international driller and the unique stickers on the trunk showing his travels, she would like to take a look at the items, if and when they make their way back to the Oil Heritage District.
Hillier says there has already been offers to purchase the bags and bring them back to Petrolia for historic purposes. But she’s not interested in the money for them.
“I’d rather get it home if it has sentimental value to a family or anything cool like that.”
Hillier says it has been an eye opening experience researching where the luggage came from. Her mother is from Sarnia and knew about Petrolia, but Hillier wasn’t aware of the rich oil history of the region.
And she’s open to donating the items to a local museum if members of the family can’t be found.
Anyone who knows family related to John T. Blackwell can contact Hillier at [email protected]
And now that Hillier knows the trunk’s history, she’s likely to apologize to the family, should she find them.
“I kind of feel bad for like letting the dog sit on it.”