#FlashbackFriday

Photos: This abandoned 2-story log house, age undetermined, is still standing upright on the north side of the Yellowhead Highway, just west of Vegreville, AB.

The Yellowhead stretches through BC, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba, and is named after the Yellowhead Pass that crosses the Rockies. The pass and the highway are both named after an Iroquois-Métis trapper, fur-trader, and explorer who worked for the North West Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company during the 18th and 19th centuries.

Pierre Bostonais was nicknamed Yellow Head, or Tête Jaune in French, because of his blond hair. The name Bostonais refers to his probable American origin as American traders were often identified as Boston men in French. Bostonais died 1828.

What About a Shelf Life?

Fossils, guns, antique tractors, stone tools, quilts and clothing items, memorabilia, regalia… The private collections that have launched local museums across the prairies are as unique as the people who created them and the towns that now house them. While many artifacts require little more than a dusting and a Do Not Touch sign, special care and handling are a requirement for others. Some items age well, while others? Not so much.

Take a taxidermy collection. Almost all museums have a mounted bison, elk, moose, deer, or antelope head, and many others have multiple examples of local wildlife and birds. Some even have collections known far and wide for their variety, their excellence, or their humour (see the Madhatters’ Ball photo below). If the taxidermist was a professional, or even a skilled amateur, and the mounts have been taken care of, the odds of a collection still looking impressive are pretty good.

Fuchs Taxidermy Exhibit, Lloydminster SK

Fuchs Wildlife Gallery, Lloydminster Culture and Science Centre, Lloydminster, SK | Photo by Mike Beauregard for Atlas Obscura

But, when a mount has begun to deteriorate – and there is much that can go wrong – it can be unnerving, or spooky, even stomach-churning for the visitor. The lynx pictured at the top is housed in the Frenchman Butte Museum. The eyes might look a little wonky, but the fur is still beautiful, and the overall shape of the mount remains realistic. It’s not an uncomfortable experience to view it. One collection I visited this past winter though, which will remain nameless, made me wonder why an exhibit would remain on display, when it had obviously passed its ‘best before’ date.

The Wabasca Canoe

Many of the pioneer village museums I’ve visited have outdoor exhibit spaces that display their vintage farm equipment and wagons, and their earliest vehicles. The Frenchman Butte Museum is no exception. Their collection is similar to the others, but also includes an interesting item captioned The Wabasca Canoe. And, what I especially liked about it was that its early history of ownership had been recorded, and was now on display.

Constructed by First Nations canoe builders at Wabasca, AB in the 1920s, the canoe was purchased by Wilfred Hunt, a trapper, and possible fur-trader working in the Liard River watershed. It was subsequently sold to Loren Cornell of Kinuso, AB who eventually passed it on to Erven Fester, who donated the canoe to the Frenchman Butte Museum in Saskatchewan.

More from the artifact description:

Hand-made, these lightweight canoes were 12 to 14 feet long. The ribs were hand-carved and steam bent over a frame. Before fur trade days they were covered with birch bark or moose hide… They were used for muskrat trapping, fishing and hunting.

Birchbark Canoe, Journey of Learning 2016
Photo submitted by Josie Cox

Wabasca is from the Cree word wapuskau, which means white water, and refers to the Wabasca River. Today, the majority of the residents of the hamlet of Wabasca are still Indigenous, and bands of the Bigstone Cree Nation occupy 6 reserves on Treaty 8 territory in northern Alberta. Although, the practice of building traditional birchbark canoes in Canada today can still be a for-profit enterprise, many Indigenous canoe builders are re-learning the craft as part of their journey towards cultural reclamation.

God’s Half Acre at Fort Pitt

In 1829, the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) built Fort Pitt on the north bank of the North Saskatchewan River approximately half way between Fort Carlton and Fort Edmonton. The fort was originally designed to serve as a pemmican production centre for the company’s boatmen and traders, and to operate as a local trading post within the HBC’s extensive fur trade network. The original fort burned to the ground, not an uncommon fate for the wooden buildings of the time, but was rebuilt in the mid-1870s.

However, by the mid-1870s, these were different times. Fort Pitt had become a regular stop for North Saskatchewan River steamboats, and for overland travelers and traders on the Carlton Trail to Fort Edmonton. The new fort was constructed further back from the river, and was larger than its predecessor. In addition, it became the headquarters of the North-West Mounted Police at Fort Pitt, played a role in the negotiations for Treaty 6, and was the location of one of the battles of the North-West Resistance.

Battle of Fort Pitt
By The Illustrated London News – Online at Canadian Military Heritage, Department of Defence., Public Domain, Link

It was also no longer a part of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s trading monopoly since the HBC had relinquished those rights to the Dominion of Canada in 1870. Although the HBC no longer received special trading privileges, it did retain ownership of its trading posts, and a certain amount of reserve lands surrounding each of them. Fort Pitt was destined to burn once again during the North-West Resistance, only to be partially rebuilt, and then, eventually, to be sold by the HBC in 1945 as farm land.

When I visited Fort Pitt Provincial Historic Park last weekend, it was for the role it played in the fur trade and the North-West Resistance. I already knew the fort had not been reconstructed, but that paths, interpretive signage, and the footprint of the former buildings for both forts did exist – and, there was a picnic area, which is where I planned to eat my lunch. What I didn’t know anything about was the gated and palisaded monument to God’s Half Acre.

… As the shadows lengthened into a purple wave,
I gently closed that lonely grave at old Fort Pitt,
And there resolved that these first-comers
Shall have title to that scarce half-acre of sod,
For I will deed it back to God. – R.H. Hougham

In 1945, Robert Henry Hougham (1889-1960) purchased the old HBC reserve lands unaware, until he began to break ground, that the original Fort Pitt cemetery lie just below the sod. The shallow, unmarked graves had had their markers either burned, or removed during the battle in 1885. Hougham set aside half an acre, and erected a cairn to pay his respects. In 1960, he was buried there, as well. With the river on one side, and surrounded on the others by a farm and its fields, this half acre offers the visitor an unexpectedly poetic pause.

God's Half Acre w/ R.H. Hougham