Calgary

This grocery store manager lives a double life as an amateur historian

A Calgary man is sharing his love of local history through a popular Facebook group. The Historic Calgary group aims to tell the story of southern Alberta by sharing historical photos, advertisements and even menus.

Irwin Poon shares snippets of the past in the Historic Calgary Facebook group

Irwin Poon often shares archival photos, like this one of Ninth Avenue in 1886, in the Historic Calgary group. This image comes from the Glenbow archives, via the University of Calgary, and the photographer is unknown. (Irwin Poon, Libraries and Cultural Resources Digital Collections/University of Calgary)

Irwin Poon leads a double life. 

By day, he manages the meat department at a northwest Calgary Sobeys. By night, he's an amateur public historian who uses a fast-growing Facebook group to share snippets of the city's past. 

"I love history," said Poon, 57, administrator of Historic Calgary. "I think of something that interests me, whether it be a picture of a building, a postcard … and then I use that and I try to put a story to it."

Poon's posts range from archival photos and newspaper clippings to advertisements and even menus, often paired with a short caption describing the date and source of the material.

The group is open to anyone and has grown to more than 6,500 members since Poon took over as administrator roughly two years ago. 

One post in the Historic Calgary group featured this photo of the West End Heating Company building in 1915, from an unknown photographer. (Courtesy of Libraries and Cultural Resources Digital Collections/University of Calgary )

Edmonton-born Poon grew up in the 1970s and developed a passion for history while reading his parents' encyclopedias.

As an adult, Poon studied Chinese, first in Beijing, then at the University of Alberta. He left university before finishing his degree, in part, he said, because of campus tensions in the wake of the Tiananmen Square massacre.

"There was a backlash against anything that was with China," said Poon, who said he occasionally regrets not finishing his studies.

"I'm a person with a lot of information in my head, but I don't have the degree or the diploma."

Day job offers inspiration

Still, Poon said working in retail offers plenty of opportunities for informal research. His grocery store attracts a lot of seniors from nearby retirement communities who are happy to chat and share their memories of living in Calgary. 

Harry Sanders is a freelance writer and historical consultant. (Harry Sanders)

"It inspires me," he said.

Social media pages like Poon's have the approval of historian Harry Sanders, who said these pages can help stoke a wider interest in local history.

"It gets people talking, gets people sharing photographs and stories from the past," said Sanders, a freelance writer and historical consultant. 

"I think that can only be helpful." 

Poon now hopes to grow the group and encourage even more people to learn about the city he loves. 

"What makes me so happy to live in Calgary is not just the old buildings and pictures and history," he said. "It's the people."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Paula Duhatschek

Reporter/Editor

Paula Duhatschek is a reporter with CBC Calgary who previously worked for CBC News in Kitchener and in London, Ont. You can reach her at paula.duhatschek@cbc.ca.

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