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.

Cemeteries and Family Histories

(Originally published on the Clayton McLain Memorial Museum blog.)

The Cut Knife Cemetery, like so many others in Saskatchewan, is over one hundred years old and, meandering through on a Sunday afternoon, it’s easy to recognize the older graves. Lettering has eroded on many of the softer marble stones, and names and dates on others have filled with mosses and lichens, both of which make the inscriptions difficult to read, and the graves to identify. A few headstones have broken, a few plots have remained unmarked for reasons unknown. Perhaps, there are records that can fill in the gaps, perhaps not.

Cemetery records everywhere, especially the older ones, are notorious for having been lost, or damaged, or destroyed in fire and flood. This makes it especially difficult for families who are searching, at a distance, for an ancestor. A grave connects a person to a place, and provides a context; a grave marker records vital statistics. Sometimes, a marker can also shed light on a personality through the choice of epitaph, the presence of religious or association symbols, nicknames, etc. When both records are no longer accessible, a vital piece of family history is lost.

Many rural cemeteries are cared for by volunteers, and are just not in a position, financially, to undertake large restoration projects. In addition, the volunteer hours required to clean, photograph, and annotate a whole cemetery of headstones is probably not realistic, either. Maybe, a simpler approach would work . . . providing online accessibility to researchers. . . 24/7?

Grave markers in disrepair

CanadianHeadstones.com is a volunteer-driven, not-for-profit organization that archives photos and text of cemetery grave markers submitted by individuals, or cemetery committees. The Clayton McLain Memorial Museum has listed it on their Family History | Canada page as a genealogy resource. The Cut Knife Cemetery, and the Carruthers Cemetery are already represented online with a number of photos to view for each.

The next time you’re wandering through your local cemetery with your phone or digital camera, consider digitizing your family’s headstones, and sharing them online with those who may be searching for them. In all probability, if any part of the headstone is illegible, you or a family member would have the knowledge needed to record the correct information.

Bert Martin’s Cabin

(Originally published on the Clayton McLain Memorial Museum blog.)

Homesteading in the early 20th century, on the wind-whipped stretches of prairie was no easy task for new immigrants. Often, they knew little about farming and, even if they had experience working the land, surviving a Saskatchewan winter would still be a bitter struggle. Much of their success would depend upon how well they were able to make preparations before the cold weather hit.

Bert Martin's Cabin-front

First shelters were often considered temporary, constructed quickly with whatever materials a settler could afford, or could find on the land. Tents and caves, sod, or tarpaper shacks were common, replaced by log, frame, or stone houses as the homesteader’s fortunes improved. Severe weather events like droughts, floods, and cyclones were widespread as were their consequences – fire, insects, mud, and hailstones.

Bert Martin's Cabin-sideWinter would be the worst. Blizzards with extreme temperatures and wind chills, little visibility, and drifting snow could shut down an entire area. A settler needed a supply of food, and firewood to survive until the roads were passable, again. He would need wool blankets and quilts, lamp fuel, and something to occupy the long days of solitude and isolation.

Bert Martin's Cabin-rearImagine living in a shelter like Bert Martin’s: A log cabin, plastered with mud to keep out the wind, a small wood stove for heat, and a few small windows to let in the weak winter sun. There’s a dirt floor, a single bed, a table and chair, a few pictures to decorate the walls but it’s a simple dwelling. Could you imagine living like that for a year or two? It’s humbling to think about how many homesteaders did.

[For more details and some great pictures, visit the Saskatchewan Settlement Experience at the Saskatchewan Archives Board website.]