BLOG | High River history lost, discovered in flood

Eighty per cent of the Museum of the Highwood's collection was destroyed after floodwaters ravaged the southern Alberta town of High River, but new artifacts were also unearthed.

80% of the Museum of the Highwood's collection was destroyed, but new artifacts were unearthed

The Station, as the Museum of the Highwood is known, reopened in May 2012 after a fire destroyed much of the building in July 2010. Eighty per cent of the museum’s remaining collection was destroyed in recent flooding. (Amanda Pawlitzki/CBC )

High River residents Angela Piovesana and Amanda Pawlitzki will be blogging over the summer about their experiences during and after the floods hit southern Alberta.

They'll tell stories of the recovery through the eyes of people who live there.

During the first few days after the flood there was a lot of uncertainty as to how much actual damage was done in High River.

So many posts and pictures updated almost by the minute on Facebook, and every time you turned on the TV you would see how high the water got and how it was still rising in some places.

Once my family and I were evacuated and safe, my first thoughts were not of our house but of our town, and the history that was being washed away.

When I worked for the High River Times, my favourite columns to wrote was Pioneer Profiles. Every other week I got to go to the museum and look up pioneers that helped build, shape and influence High River. 

Irene Kerr is the museum director for the Museum of the Highwood in High River. Kerr and her family suffered severe damage to their basement and garage, but there was massive damage to the museum — referred to as The Station as it is located in the old Canadian Pacific Rail station — and collection.

"After the flood happened the worst part was not knowing," says Kerr.

"Having to spend the first 10 days without any idea what was going on, and seeing photos of The Station on Facebook, I was trying to figure out the status of The Station itself because it is over 100 years old, and we also had over 10,000 photographs on the main floor, those show our history."

Once allowed back in to inspect The Station, Kerr was relieved to find the main floor in good shape. A quick inspection revealed just a bit of silt around the doors.

The museum's beautiful wrap-around deck was not so lucky and its basement — as well as the basement of the Memorial Centre, which houses the majority of the museum’s collection — was ruined.

The estimate to date is that 80 per cent of the collection was destroyed.

History found

But, surprisingly says Kerr, there have been some upsides to the flood.

The set of Maggie's Diner for the TV show Heartland. Most High River residents know it best as Bradley's Western Wear. (Amanda Pawlitzki/CBC )

"While we were working to save pieces of history, history was being uncovered," she says.

The museum director was invited to different sites as they did recovery to unearth what was underneath now damaged sites.

While Wales Theatre, a town landmark, was doing demolition, they uncovered dressing rooms underneath the stage along with original tile work.

And on the Heartland set of Maggie’s Diner, better known to residents as Bradley’s Western Wear, old boot making supplies were discovered underneath the floors as well as original iron grates.

"Artifacts may have been damaged or washed away, but the stories are still there and now the flood becomes part of the story," said Kerr.

Another surprising discovery is a painting of the Northwest Mounted Police post at O.H. Ranch.

The painting, by Bert Smith, was badly damaged in a fire at the museum in 2010. It’s still burnt in places, but the new water damage has washed away most of the soot, making the painting visible again.

Though the museum lost a great deal, and it was a long seven-day process to sort and organize what was left, Kerr says she’s thankful for what remains, including all of their research files, their heritage homes directory, photos and archives.

"We were also lucky, although damaged a bit, to save Guy Weadick’s hat and Florence LaDue’s boots, as well as other artifacts," says Kerr.

"We are not the only ones who lost pieces of High River history. Lots of people had items in their basements and lost so much and it is just as sad as what we lost, but history is being made right now."

Calgary Stampede founder Guy Weadick’s hat and his partner Florence LaDue’s boots are two artifacts the Museum of the Highwood managed to save in the June flooding. (Irene Kerr/Museum of the Highwood)