An overnight fire that destroyed a rural museum and the pioneer history of the Winnipeg River is under investigation this weekend.
"It’s a blow and it’s very disheartening, particularly for our seniors, some of whom were the founders — and they were there today," said Le Musée St.-Georges secretary-treasurer Diane Dube.
She said the Office of the Manitoba Fire Commissioner is probing the cause of the blaze at Le Musée St.-Georges.
Witnesses reported flames shooting six metres or more into the air shortly after 3 a.m. Saturday morning. There was speculation yesterday it may have been deliberately set, but officials have yet to issue a statement on the fire or its cause.
The museum is located in St. Georges, a small francophone community of about 500 people, off Highway 11 near Pine Falls. It is about 140 kilometres north-east of Winnipeg.
Dube said she was notified of the fire at 3:30 a.m., and spent the day saving artifacts that weren’t destroyed and discussing their preservation with a Manitoba Museum official who drove up from Winnipeg.
RCMP had cordoned off the premises for most of the day, Dube said.
"The museum also housed the history of other communities along the Winnipeg River, not just St. Georges," Dube said. Descendents of pioneers who settled the area in the 1880s donated photographs, household implements, memorabilia and farm tools when the museum was founded. It officially opened on Manitoba’s centenary in 1970.
A separate steel building that houses a ferry that used to cross the Winnipeg River as well as various pioneer machinery is intact. Also intact are artifacts that were stored in a part of the building that sustained smoke damage but were spared the flames.
The midsection of the museum’s main building was described as gutted.
One man whose family counts among the museum’s founders said yesterday the loss was devastating.
"When I went and took a look at it, I had a big lump in my stomach," said Jacques Dupont. "There is my great grandfather’s and my grandfather’s stuff that burnt completely. My family donated all kinds of stuff we’d used on the farm: butter churns, milk separators, tools for threshing..."
Dube confirmed the fire caused at least $500,000 in damage and the museum board has yet to meet and discuss whether to rebuild or not. The loss of the history, however, is irreplaceable and its value has yet to be fully assessed.
"That’s difficult when you’re dealing with antiques, family treasurers and community heirlooms," she said. "I’d say of the permanent exhibits, about 90 per cent of it is gone," Dube said.
A website about St. Georges puts the origins of the town at 1882.