Following the death of founder David Willson in 1866, the Children of Peace began to decline in number. After the 1880s, the Temple was abandoned and became virtually derelict. Other buildings, such as their Meeting House and schools, were demolished. Recognizing the Temple’s significance as an historic and architectural treasure, the Toronto-based York Pioneer and Historical Society raised funds to purchase the Temple and its grounds in 1917 and opened the Temple as a museum in 1918. Shortly afterwards, the York Pioneers moved David Willson’s study to the site.
The York Pioneers collected artifacts from throughout York County (now the Region of York) and created a county museum and park, with many hundreds of items displayed in the Temple, and a baseball diamond, recreation area and refreshment stand on the surrounding grounds. The site also was used for school fairs in which students from across the County would compete. Easily accessible from Toronto by the nearby radial railway line, the museum and park achieved considerable success and became a focal point for life in the village of Sharon and the surrounding township of East Gwillimbury.
In the 1950s, the site’s focus began to change, emphasizing the story of the Children of Peace, rather than the broader history of York County. To make this change, the York Pioneers restored and moved to the site the 1819 home of Ebenezer Doan, master builder of the Temple. They also acquired and moved a log house associated with Jesse Doan, bandmaster of the Children of Peace. These acquisitions were followed in 1967, Canada’s centennial year, by the construction of an exhibit building which also contained an office, work area, artifact storage area, and washrooms. Gradually, artifacts which had no association with the Children of Peace were taken out of the Temple and placed in the other buildings. The baseball diamond and other remnants of the park’s early days were removed. Access to the site was provided by a Gatehouse, a building moved from Queensville and relocated by the parking lot to the north of the Temple.
Another change in direction took place in the 1980s with the beginnings of “Music at Sharon,” a concert series which would run for ten years, culminating in the presentation of Serinette, an opera by Harry Somers and James Reaney. The series was broadcast on CBC Radio and brought the Temple fame across Canada.
By 1991, however, it became evident that a new, locally based organization was needed to run the site and plan its future development. This coincided with the recognition of the Temple as a National Historic Site because of its architectural significance and its history as one of Canada’s first examples of historic preservation. Ownership and operation of the site passed to the newly formed Sharon Temple Museum Society.
The STMS continued to add buildings to the site: the Cookhouse, and the Doan drive shed and granary. During the 1990s and the first decade of the 21st century, the site benefited from new research made possible, in part, by the discovery of a large collection of original documents hidden in the altar at the center of the Temple. This also was a time when traditions such as the annual Illumination and Music at Sharon were revived and the site increasingly came to be used as a venue for weddings and other special occasions.
Today, Sharon National Historic Site appears to be at another turning point in its history as a major restoration of the Temple itself was completed in 2011. To help make the site more economically viable,The Sharon Temple Museum Society must consider new strategies and look for new ways to attract the interest and support of our rapidly growing and increasingly multicultural, technically savvy community.