Calgary at a Crossroads

It's just a shack.

The oldest Calgary building still on its original site, it's one you might have walked past a hundred times without giving a second glance.

To many it was a dingy, grey building behind the bushes near the better known Deane House. But now the Hunt House has been reborn. 

The historic heart of Calgary

The Hunt House is a tiny log cabin built sometime between 1876 and 1881. It's part of the historic heart of Calgary and is a rare heritage holdout in one of the fastest growing cities in the country.

Hunt House

Hunt House was contstructed as a residence for employees at a Hudson's Bay Post near Fort Calgary sometime after 1875. (Dave Gilson/CBC)

The house was constructed while the last of the wild bison roamed the grasslands and settlers were carving out communities across the west. As old buildings go, it's no grand palace.

You'd even have to call it a historic newcomer compared to the teepee rings that dot the Alberta Prairie.

The frail wooden building beat tough odds — surviving fires, floods, development and time — albeit more than a little worse for wear, sagging and on the verge of collapse.

Now the cabin has been restored, and it's a rare physical connection with the city's beginnings.

Little details reveal the history of the home

Dave Chalmers knows every inch of the Hunt House. He was part of the restoration crew hired by Fort Calgary to save it.

Dave Chalmers Hunt House

Hunt House restoration crew member Dave Chalmers. (Dave Gilson/CBC)

Crew members spent the last year carefully removing, restoring and replacing the hundreds of pieces that make up the cabin — pine log walls, rough plank boards and a tar-covered roof.

Along the way, they uncovered small reminders of the people who lived here, including an eastern Canadian newspaper from 1890 stuffed into the roof and a small bottle from London in the 1920s buried under the floor.

Chalmers says he isn't much of a history buff, but his face still lights up when he points at the wooden floor and the subtle signs of our history.

"You can see where the stove was. You can see burn marks in the floor — where he put his iron down, where he put the lid of the stove down," he said.

Métis interpreter first to call it home

A carpenter himself, Chalmers says he feels a connection with the men who built the cabin more than 140 years ago.

Hunt House stove burns

Hunt House restoration crew member Dave Chalmers shows a circular mark in the pine floor that's believed to have been created by a hot woodstove lid at some point in the building's history. (Dave Gilson/CBC)

"They did a great job. It wasn't built by a carpenter. It was built by somebody who was probably proficient in a lot of things," he said.

The names of the builders are lost, but their work remains.

It's believed the cabin was built as a home for a Hudson's Bay Company employee, right next to a company store.

It's likely the first person to live there was a Métis interpreter for the HBC. We know the last resident was William Hunt, a local rail worker who lived there for decades until his death in the mid-1970s.  

Fort Calgary restoration

In recent years, the sagging, unkept building was used as a storage shed for bottles from a neighbouring restaurant.

Carlisle Journal

A rolled up newspaper was uncovered in the roof of Hunt House. (Kyle Bakx/CBC)

It later passed into city hands and is now owned by Fort Calgary.

Fort Calgary found the $400,000 needed to research it, and preserve Hunt House with fire-resistant whitewash, a sprinkler system and a series of steel pylons to protect it from nearby traffic.

Fort Calgary CEO and president Sara-Jane Gruetzner says it's a miracle Hunt House survived, considering all the environmental and human threats over the years.  

"Personally, I felt that there was an obligation for the people who had been put in charge of looking after it to keep it in a condition where it continued to be there and continued to tell a story," Gruetzner says.

Recognition that our history matters

Our city, as a young city, struggles with how it identifies and understands its origins, says Rebecca Sullivan, who teaches cultural studies at the University of Calgary.

"I think that the whole Prairie culture is coming to terms with that sense of where we're making a cultural shift from a celebration of constant newness to a recognition that our history does still matter."

And there are big plans for the little shack. Soon it will be part of Fort Calgary's interpretive program, and give Calgarians a chance to see where all those glass and steel towers that make up our city got their start.

Cynthia Klassen, with the Calgary Heritage Initiative, says telling those tales is a critical part of saving old buildings.

"Once you tell the story of an object or an artifact or a place then people are able to connect with it, so it's more than just a thing," she says.

Relationship with past complicated

Yet making that connection isn't always easy.

'Our memory is very, very short' - Aritha Van Herk, Calgary author

Calgary has a complicated relationship with its own past. Many early buildings are long gone, too dilapidated or too expensive to save. Others simply disappear under the tide of towers that have marked Calgary's economic progress over time.

Calgary author Aritha Van Herk describes our city as generous and self aware, but also one that lives in the moment.

"Our memory is very, very short and we look forward all the time, and I'm not critical of that attitude on the part of the city, but I lament what is missed, and the little shack like this is actually a perfect emblem of what we miss," she says.

In a way, our historic preservation philosophy mirrors the nature of our building materials, Van Herk says. Most wooden and sandstone buildings were never built for survival.

A good reminder

"I do think that it speaks to the ephemerality of history in the west," she said. "It's a very different space and site than it is in places like Toronto, where they've got solid brick buildings that people built to last. It's much different here."

Hunt House

Here is a look at the Hunt House in 1968. Built on the east side of the Elbow river, the building is located at 890 Ninth Avenue S.E. (Glenbow Musuem photo archives)

She says places like Hunt House remind us of the people who built Calgary.

"They came out west and they committed to the place, and they committed to the opportunities and the vision of this new place. They were obviously risk takers, ready to take on almost anything. And their buildings reflect their willingness to make do with what was available," she said.

All things have origins. All cities beginnings. Calgary is now a vast collection of towers, warehouses, homes and roads. Standing and looking towards the future, even in the dark days of recession, there can be a collective sense of accomplishment in turning, just however briefly, and looking back at just how far we've come.

Hunt House

A look at the inside of a restored Hunt House. (Dave Gilson/CBC)

Calgary at a Crossroads is CBC Calgary's special focus on life in our city during the downturn. A look at Calgary's culture, identity and what it means to be Calgarian. Read more stories from the series at Calgary at a Crossroads.