Abigail Edwards

Abigail Edwards

Exhibit showcases Red Deer’s official history

The story of Red Deer’s founder Rev. Leonard Gaetz can be discovered at the Red Deer Museum and Art Gallery — and so can the tale of Peanut, the Club Cafe’s parrot mascot.



The story of Red Deer’s founder Rev. Leonard Gaetz can be discovered at the Red Deer Museum and Art Gallery — and so can the tale of Peanut, the Club Cafe’s parrot mascot.

There’s a description of local farming advocate Jim Bower and — for those piqued by quirkier folklore — there are photos of actress Olive de Wilton, the common-law life of Boris Karloff, who grew up in Red Deer and is buried in Lacombe.

Both the official and homespun local histories of our city can be found in the Red Deer Museum and Art Gallery’s new permanent exhibit that displays more local artifacts than ever — from a 6,000-year-old stone bowl created by unknown aboriginals, to early city maps, to Canada’s only existing full uniform for German prisoners who laboured on local farms during the Second World War.

The $1.5 million exhibit that’s been five years in the making from conception to construction, is now open at the museum and ready to take visitors on a tour of the city’s earliest days to the present.

The museum’s executive-director Lorna Johnson is very excited about Remarkable Red Deer: Stories from the Heart of the Parkland, a 4,800 square-foot exhibit paid for by the municipality, province and ongoing fundraising.

The idea was to pull together the stories that make Red Deer unique, said Johnson.

Various tales from the city’s past were selected by an “internal team” of six local history experts, including former city archivist Michael Dawe. They enlisted the help of a Red Deer interpretive firm, then designers and audio experts from Ontario, Quebec and the U.S. to help bring these stories to life for museum goers.

A Toronto firm came up with the exhibit’s streetscape visuals, including a focal wall-sized photo of the old train station, as well as storefronts depicting the old Capitol Theatre, the Club Cafe, and W.E. Lord Co. department store, which was later taken over by Eatons. (The storefronts were constructed in Quebec and shipped here).

Audio exhibits were created by Washington, D.C. sound engineers — including a haunting one of a young girl singing at a local school run by the Daughters of Wisdom order of French nuns. “It was taken from a wax recording” said Johnson, in the earliest part of the last century.

Visitors can also gather around a 1940s radio and heard Second World War propaganda that called the raid on German-occupied Dieppe a great success even though it was largely a failure. Johnson said 29 Red Deer soldiers were among those captured by the Germans.

Uniforms, gas masks and medals from the Boer War to the Cold War are also displayed, as is equipment used by Canadian peacekeepers.

Personal histories are often used to give these wider events a Red Deer focus. This includes the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918. A photograph of Ella Parsons, the young wife of Dr. Richard Parsons, accompanies a description of how worried she was that her husband or sons would catch the deadly flu bug.

But it was Ella who died of it at age 36.

Her black and ecru lace dress is one of the costumes exhibited in a glass case that Johnson said can be changed periodically for new displays of clothing throughout the decades.

There are other sad stories in the exhibit, including one of Red Deer’s tragic Indian residential school, run by the Methodist church. It was closed by 1919, in part for having the highest mortality rate of all such schools in Canada. Johnson said “harsh” conditions led to deaths from typhus, small pox and influenza.

The controversial history of Michener Centre and its eugenics program is also told. But lighter aspects of Red Deer’s history are displayed as well — including the stuffed green-feathered carcass of Peanut the Parrot, looking moulted and worn while perched in a glass case.

There are old toys, vaudeville photos, and a display of local theatre costumes. And young visitors can play with jigsaw puzzles and board games that features local entrepreneurs and political leaders within the Club Cafe storefront. The local restaurant, opened by Chinese immigrants George Moon and Charlie Chuck, became a city institution.

There are also puppets beneath the Castle School front, depicting Peanuts, Mickey the Beaver, Red Deer author and environmentalist Kerry Wood’s MacOwl character, and Rosalind, the real-life cow that yielded the most milk in Canada early in the 1900s.

A small movie theatre runs short films under the Capitol Theatre sign. Johnson said the space with century-old seats from Innisfail, can be used as a teaching resource during school field trips. On Monday, it was showing a cartoon lumberjack spinning his heels to The Log Driver Song — a nod to past logging activities on what’s now Bower Ponds.

The last audiovisual display tells the sometimes emotional emigration stories of the most recent Red Deer residents.

Area resident Lisa Clark visited the museum’s new permanent exhibit on Monday and “loved it.”

“It was a bit of a nostalgia trip . . . I really enjoyed sitting down and listening to the old radio. It was like being transported back into the past,” said Clark, who feels the displays provides a good overview of local history.

Johnson maintains, “I’m very happy with it. There are more artifacts on display than ever, and they are in a historical context. And there are 400 photographs from our archives . . .

“They all tell the story of ways that Red Deer is unique, and are not just referencing (how we are not) Calgary or Edmonton.”

The official opening for the permanent exhibit is on Sunday, April 14, with music, poetry readings, arts and crafts and celebratory cake.

lmichelin@bprda.wpengine.com

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