'Old coffin dodgers' in southern Alberta delighted with oral history project

The Coyote Flats Pioneer Village is getting some help from a younger generation to preserve the history of Picture Butte and surrounding communities. A young woman gathering oral histories from some of the area's oldest citizens says: "It just felt like not only an honour, but an obligation to do [their stories] justice."

Project preserves interviews with older citizens at Coyote Flats Pioneer Village and in Picture Butte

Merle Goode, 77, is the man with all of Coyote Flats' stories. He says every one of his tours is different because he'll go with different anecdotes, or tell them differently, every time. (Sarah Lawrynuik/CBC)

Coyote Flats Pioneer Village, just south of Picture Butte, Alta., exists to preserve the history of the southern Alberta town and surrounding area — and now it's getting some help from a younger generation, as well as the federal government. 

It all started more than 30 years ago, with a group of guys who loved their tractors and wanted a place to restore them. 

Since that time, the pioneer village has evolved into a multi-acre facility that is home to more than two dozen historic buildings transplanted from different places in southern Alberta.

But in recent years, the museum has seen a dip in funding and in the number of people willing to give their time to the cause. 

"Us old coffin dodgers are getting few and far between," Merle Goode, 77, said of the museum's volunteers. Goode is the main tour guide for the facility, offering a unique visit and anecdotes for each and every group of visitors. 

'What happens when Merle can't tell the stories anymore?'

Kimberly Lyall is a couple of decades younger than most of the volunteers at the museum, and she grew concerned about what would happen to the museum after its staff was gone or unable to help anymore. 

And so she started her oral history project, inspired by one of the summer students.

"She kept saying, 'I've lived here my whole life and I didn't know this place was out here. I didn't know how great the stories were, or how great the facility was. And Merle, his stories are so great but what happens when Merle can't tell the stories anymore?'" 

Lyall's first step was to apply for grants. 
More than two dozen historical buildings line the "roads" of Coyote Flats Pioneer Village. The buildings were moved to the museum from all over Southern Alberta. (Sarah Lawrynuik/CBC)

"It was something that once it started, I could see so much potential. And I love the people out here so much. I love these old guys that love their tractors and love their old buildings," Lyall said.​

In January 2015, she pushed record on her new video camera and worked together with the local high school and the Centre for Oral History and Tradition at the University of Lethbridge to collect the stories. Then Lyall was hit with a new fear — what if this tape, just gets dusty on the shelf?

"It just felt like, not only an honour, but an obligation to do them justice. To realize that when I sat down with someone and recorded their story, I was now the guardian of that story," she said. 

"And we have lost people that we've interviewed. They're no longer here to tell those stories [so we realized] that we had a time that was short and precious that we could gather these stories."

'If this project wasn't done, there would be nothing'

Lyall started at Coyote Flats, spending hours with Goode and the other volunteers there, but then she branched out and began collecting the stories of other people in the community. 

She didn't even limit herself to Picture Butte, as she started venturing into the surrounding towns with her video camera. 

After hitting the local seniors centre, Lyall met Mae Lewis. 
Mae Lewis, 93, is one of the people who volunteered to have her stories recorded for the Coyote Flats oral history project. (Sarah Lawrynuik/CBC)

"When we asked her if she wanted to do the interview of course it was funny, she was interested, but she was also one of those people, 'Well why would you want to talk to me? I've got nothing important to say,'" Lyall recalled.

But Lewis did have important things to say, Lyall said. Lewis had come to southern Alberta as a child and had vivid memories of the area that spanned more than eight decades. 

In recent years, Lewis has lost two of her three children, and it means she's had to face the idea that maybe no one would be there to pass her stories on to the next generation.

"I've tried to tell the kids what I can, the stories. If this project wasn't done, there would be nothing. Because it would just be what I could tell them. This way, it's going on tape, it's going to be in the archives. It's great," she said.

Memories that span a century

Goode and his family have roots in the Picture Butte area that date back to 1915, and he's got stories that span the full century.

"Right now, we have a lot of people that — well, I call them newcomers — they started coming in the '50s, eh? And yes, they remember some of the history from back then, but I mean, I go back a little further than that with the history and my dad went back further than that," Goode said

"[The stories are] going to be around, and I'm going to be gone. The young people are going to be able to, hopefully, reap something out of them."

Every hour is worth it

Lyall applied for more grant money, to make sure that Merle and Mae's stories didn't one day end up neglected on a dusty old shelf. 

Again, someone else saw the value in her work. Lyall recently got word that her oral history project received a grant for $14,950 from Library and Archives Canada to have hours of interviews transcribed and archived at the University of Lethbridge.

Lyall doesn't know how many hours she's sunk into this project, they're countless. But she said every hour was worth it, if she can show others, how important these people were to building the community. 

"It is such a humbling experience to sit down with someone in their 70s, and have them tell you about their childhood, about coming to this country, about growing up in this community, about watching the barn burn down, about losing siblings, about celebrating birthdays, about watching their parents struggle to give them something special, and the memories," Lyall said.

"And to understand, when you build community, that's what it is."

About the Author

Sarah Lawrynuik is a freelance journalist based in Calgary who has covered news stories in Canada and around the world, including in France, Hungary and Iraq. She has worked for CBC in Halifax, Winnipeg and Calgary and is currently travelling through Central and Eastern Europe on a reporting bursary.


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