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Family connects us to far-flung places

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PRINCE ALBERT, Sask. -- A new sign has been added to the plethora of highway signs that surround many Prairie small towns. "Local museum," it says.

My daughter, Jen, has never met a museum she didn't like. Years of poking around dusty, stodgy rooms have blunted my keenness. Many of the museums seem to have more ancient, electric stoves than is absolutely necessary. That may be because the people of this big, cold country are infatuated with heat.

A common problem is many of the museums seem to be more interested in heritage -- the possessions we inherited from the pioneers -- than in researching social history -- the stories of the workers and entrepreneurs who developed the Prairies. Heritage, of course, is interesting to tourists. And the goal of many communities is to attract tourist dollars.

Jen and I were looking forward to our trip to Prince Albert, a vivacious city of 6,000 on the banks of the North Saskatchewan River.

The Prince Albert Historical Society has a good reputation. It has four sites including its main building on the riverbank in an old fire hall and the stately home of John Diefenbaker, a former MP and prime minister.

The city has been the seat for three prime ministers -- Diefenbaker, a much-loved homeboy, Sir Wilfrid Laurier and W.L. Mackenzie King, who slid into PA after being defeated elsewhere.

The three floors of displays at the museum were interesting. They could hardly be otherwise. PA is the community that gets gobsmacked, then gets right back up. It was supposed to get the CPR, the first transcontinental railway. It was going to go through Selkirk, then northwest to PA, the region's oldest community, Battleford and on to the Yellowhead Pass. But Winnipeg's businessmen threw money at the railway, and at the last minute, the route was changed to include Winnipeg and more southerly communities.

Looking at the museum's displays, you can almost feel the fear set off by the 1885 North West Resistance. At nearby Duck Lake, the Métis killed nine members of the Prince Albert Volunteer Militia. Not far away, at Fish Creek, the Métis, despite being outnumbered, held off a military advance. Worried PA citizens erected a fort with walls made of cordwood that, fortunately, never had to be used.

PA was a lumber town. A museum publication says the Prince Albert Lumber Company, which started in 1905, had Canada's largest planing mill; hired 400 men during the spring drive; operated tugboats; had a stable for 100 horses and a boarding house and 50 houses for family men. It was shut down in 1918 when the wood gave out. In typical Prairie "waste not" fashion, the mill's machinery was dismantled and shipped by barge to The Pas.

PA's Prairie feistiness was seen in 1909, when during a real estate boom, it decided to build a $1.3-million hydro dam on the North Saskatchewan, 45 kilometres east of the city. PA was going to be the "white coal city." An ornate building with miniature turrets was built in 1912 to showcase the benefits of cheap power.

Sadly, the lights went out in 1914 when it was discovered the North Saskatchewan didn't have enough current to support the project. Much later, my grandpa took me to the site. It looked as though the 300 men on the project had just walked away after the closure. Construction material was scattered around. Piles of cement in bags had been left to harden. A half a dam stretched out into the river.

Right after the closing of the dam project, a recession hit the city. But through the recession and the Great Depression, PA kept paying its dam debt, finally getting a discharge after 52 years.

As in other Prairie towns, entrepreneurs are turning heritage homes into B&Bs. We stayed at the solemn, brick, 1911 house of Samuel McLeod, a lawyer and "investor in bonds." Every room in the house gleamed with shining wood. McLeod must have had some sleepless nights after the dam story broke.

I was interested in PA because many in my family had wandered through there. A great-grandfather was an executive with the Prince Albert Lumber Co. Lumber towns can get wild, so his wife slept with a small, nickel-plated revolver under her pillow. My mother was born on River Avenue, not far from the museum. And a great-uncle, Dr. T.C. Spence, was a mayor.

The museum didn't have any information on T.C., but it can't keep track of everyone. T.C. moved to Melfort after getting involved in a PA fight over waterworks costs. He lived in big farm house with a wide veranda overlooking the Carrot River Valley (really just a dip in the prairie). He was Melfort's mayor from 1912 to 1913. My mother said T.C., a bear of a man with a bushy mustache, used to go out in a one-horse sleigh during wild winter nights to look after the sick.

I once gave a speech to PA's Canadian Club. In an effort to ingratiate myself with the audience, I mentioned my grandparents and mother had lived there.

After the speech, a frail, elderly woman came up and asked me if my grandpa was Tom Fenton. The very one, I said. She looked at me for a while. "He was a scamp," she said.

Perhaps, it was just as well that the museum hadn't researched my family.

Tom Ford is editor of the Issues Network.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 3, 2011 A14

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