Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Museums keep tiny towns' homes alive

Curator preserves rural heritage

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ISABELLA -- Three homes, four residents, five museums.

But authors Helen Mulligan and Wanda Ryder couldn't wait. They included the hamlet of Isabella, located in western Manitoba between Virden and Russell, in their book, Ghost Towns of Manitoba.

Don't rush it, says Bernice Still, who represents 25 per cent of Isabella's population.

Still is the museum curator but also the chronicler of the old houses in western Manitoba. She has photographed and documented more than 400 heritage houses in this region.

One example is the Nickel House, named after Jack Nickel, who became engaged and arrived by himself to build a three-storey fieldstone manor, complete with built-in dining room and kitchen cupboards. Then one day, he got a letter from his fiancée breaking off their engagement.

She should have waited to see the house. That was 1916. He never married and died of a heart attack a few years later.

Still takes a photo from each side of a house, draws up the floor plans, and chronicles what she can about the people who lived there. Many of the old homes on the prairie were two and three storeys. "If you built up, it was easier to heat because heat rises. And people had larger families back then," she said.

She began her hobby half a century ago "because the houses were falling down and I like old houses." Many of the homes were abandoned by the time she photographed them -- "ghost houses," you might say -- but not all. About 70 per cent of the houses have now either collapsed or been torn down. It's her private collection, but many of her photos have appeared in publications like farm newspaper the Manitoba Co-operator.

The homes were often made from fieldstone and had wraparound front porches with Romanesque colunms and balustrade railings. One old fieldstone home served as a booze still until the owner got far into debt and ran away. Another home looks like three houses attached, like a townhouse, and had its own dance floor. An English lord built it in 1882 and it measured 3,000 square feet. Another home built south of Isabella in 1886 had seven gables.

Her passion for historic houses continued when in 1982, for Isabella's centennial -- the village is named after Isabella Taylor because she was the oldest woman in the community when she left Scotland to look after her two sons here -- she drafted an exact replica of town in the 1930s. She cut it out and set it onto a wood platform and members of the Manitoba Women's Institute hand-sewed the colourful little buildings.

It looks like a giant sweater with hand-knit buildings, including three grain elevators, a church and manse, a blacksmith shop, a general store, a North and South Railway Avenue and many gabled houses.

"It's exactly the way it was" when it had about 80 residents, said Still.

Her collections go beyond houses. It started when she was young and collected Classics Illustrated comic books, those abridged versions of novels such as Tale of Two Cities, Ivanhoe, Tom Sawyer, and even Shakespeare plays such as Macbeth.

That's how the five museums grew. She's a collector of plates, cookie tins, local history books, souvenir cups, sewing machines, erasers and 1,100 Lions Clubs pins, to name a few. She has an old telephone switchboard from Oak Lake kids can use to talk to each other between museum houses. She has a collection of men's razor strops. She has a hectograph, an early photocopying machine she used as a school teacher up to the 1950s. It has a jelly-type composition paper was compressed onto.

Another treasure among many is a pinball-type game from the 1800s called The Fort that requires a cue stick and clay balls. She assumed three empty houses in Isabella, a barn, and a general store she and her late husband once ran, to store her collector's items. A nine-person committee oversees the museums, which can be viewed by appointment by phoning 1-204-568-4573. The museums live on donations.

The museum committee also has succession plans. The RM of Miniota has agreed to take it over when Still, who is 77, can no longer manage. If the RM can't manage it, items will be auctioned off with proceeds use to fund maintenance of the local cemetery.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 13, 2012 A11

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