Chris E wrote:Historical gems: The heritage of Calgary and Alberta is a deep vein that will never be mined out
David Bly, Calgary Herald
Published: Sunday, April 23, 2006
It's about the stories.
Say what you want about the meaning and importance of history, how key incidents affected the course of events, how today's achievements are built on foundations of the past . . .
Without stories, it's just so much dusty information.
But no problem -- the history of Calgary and Alberta just oozes with the essence of story.
Five years ago, Peter Menzies, the Herald's editor-in-chief (now the publisher), created the position of heritage writer, and I was the fortunate journalist who got the assignment to tell those stories.
Now another lucky soul will get that privilege as I am retiring from the Herald to pursue a new adventure in a new place.
I started this beat with a long list of potential stories, checking off ideas as the stories were completed, adding to the list with ideas gleaned along the way.
Each story, it seemed, led to five or six more. The list I bequeath to my successor is longer than ever. Our history is a rich vein in no danger of being mined out.
Here, in no particular order of importance or chronology, are some favourite gems discovered in my fascinating journey over the past five years:
- Cappy Smart, Calgary's celebrated fire chief, lies in Union Cemetery, not far from the grave of Lucille Francis Morey. At Fire Hall No. 1, Smart kept a menagerie that included two bears. According to Harry Sanders' Calgary's Historic Union Cemetery: A Walking Guide, the chief had repeatedly warned neighbourhood children to stay away from the bears. But Lucille ventured too close and was killed by one of the bears. She was one year and eight months old.
- David Peyto, out walking one day in Crescent Heights, spied a sidewalk inscription that read "Linclon Avenue." Wondering if there were other typographical errors set in concrete, he walked miles and miles of old Calgary sidewalks. He found a Twelvth Avenue and Thireenth East, Macleod Trail spelled McLeod Trail, Alexander Crescent designated as Alexandra Crescent.
"It changed things," he said of his quest. "I can no longer take a walk without looking down at the sidewalk."
- It's often said that our schools don't teach enough of our history, but the students at Stanley Jones School annually celebrate the history of their school, named after the first Calgarian to enlist when war started in 1914. He died of his wounds in Belgium in 1916.
One of the artifacts kept in the central hallway of the old school is the record of corporal punishment, which kept track of who got the strap and why for about 30 years. A little digging uncovered several Calgarians who did not hesitate to confess to their school days transgressions, and willingly shared their experiences in the old sandstone school.
Gordon Blow doesn't remember specifically being strapped two strokes on each hand on Oct. 23, 1936 for "continued disobedience," but he's not surprised his name appears on several occasions.
"They must have forgotten to write down the other 50 times," he said. "I had the strap lots of times. I was just an ordinary guy in the wrong place at the right time."
- Thousands of airmen came to Calgary during the Second World War as part of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan. Gordon Jones was an instructor at the Elementary Flying Training School at High River, teaching would-be pilots the rudiments of flying in a Tiger Moth. When he bought a restored Tiger Moth several years ago, he found it was one he had flown during the war. Plane and pilot are still in great shape, and still flying.
- Out on the bald prairie west of Medicine Hat stands a small shack, the only building left standing in what was once Alderson, Alta. In 1913, when settlement of Alberta's dry southeast corner peaked, Alderson boasted 17 blocks of homes and businesses, two hotels, a farm implements dealer, a school, lumberyards, two general stores and a post office. It dwindled rapidly after the First World War. It's fascinating to go there now and, guided by the town map in David Jones' book, Empire of Dust, trace out the roadways still visible in the prairie grass.
The remnants of Alderson stand as a symbol for Alberta's most dramatic boom-and-bust era, when hundreds of thousands of settlers rushed in to take up lands offered by the CPR and the government. In the southeast, dreams turned to dust when it was soon evident the land and the climate could not support the kind of farms they had dreamed about.
Many, especially those from the U.S., returned to their homelands, but many others stayed on, and their legacy endures today in descendants who learned the value of sacrifice and hard work.
- Bonar Bain was substituting for his ailing twin brother when he and several of his friends in Calgary got jobs as extras in The 49th Parallel, a movie being filmed in Banff in 1941, and starring Leslie Howard, Laurence Olivier and Raymond Massey. That was the extent of Bonar's film career, but his twin brother, Conrad Bain, recovered and built a career that included major roles in the TV sitcoms, Diff'rent Strokes and Maude.
- Don Palmer started playing the cello when he was eight, and became part of the Mount Royal College "baby symphony." He was nurtured on music -- his father, Leonard, was known as the singing plumber. Leonard loved the opera, and would sing Italian arias while he worked. The moneyed people of Mount Royal would call the plumber, then invite their friends over for tea to listen to the free concert Leonard provided while he worked. Don remembers being sent out to the truck for tools or equipment, and having to negotiate his way past enraptured women sitting on the stairway.
- While many early Chinese residents endured hostility and racism, one became quite popular in Calgary. He was known as Jimmy Smith, a name he had assumed. He was a popular chef and friends with many prominent Calgarians. When he died of tuberculosis in 1890, he left his estate to fund Calgary's first public hospital, and thus is known as the father of the Calgary General Hospital.
For years, his grave in the Union Cemetery was unmarked, until Calgary's retired nurses took it upon themselves to have a stone made for the grave, which was dedicated in 2003.
Earl Salterio showed up at that dedication with a pleasant surprise -- a portrait of the Chinese-born chef. Until that moment, historians and other researchers were not aware any photographs of Jimmy Smith existed.
- Calgary has nearly 900 traffic lights now, but when the first automatic signals were installed 75 years ago, people would stand and stare as the led lighting changed from red to green. Bob Price was a student in 1942 when he got a job maintaining the city's traffic lights -- all four of them.
- Rotary International would not be international if it hadn't been for the efforts of a Calgarian.
James Wheeler Davidson, an early member of Calgary's first Rotary club, formed in 1914, believed so firmly in Rotary ideals, he travelled more than 240,000 kilometres, mostly at his own expense, to establish clubs from Prague to Shanghai.
Because of his efforts, he was dubbed "the Marco Polo of Rotary" by Paul Harris, the organization's founder.
- Alf Webb was four years old when his family arrived in Calgary from England in 1914. Times were tough, and the family lived in a succession of rented houses of varying quality. After one move, Alf and his brother, John, set out to explore their new home. In the dark reaches of the basement, they came upon a closed hinged box. They opened and found a woman's head. Their screams brought their mother, who took one look and called the police.
"Woman's Head Found in Cellar" said the headlines in the Calgary Herald the next day. But the story went on to explain that the owner of the house was a milliner, and used a lifelike wax head and torso to display the high-fashion hats she created.
- George B. Elliott, Calgary's first returning officer, was hired on the basis of his experience with municipal elections in Winnipeg.
That experience, discovered historian Frederick Hunter, consisted of Elliott and his colleagues stealing the poll books so they could overturn the results of the election.
- In 1793, Peter Fidler, a surveyor for the Hudson's Bay Company travelling with a group of Piikani (Peigan) Indians, found seams of coal in the banks of Kneehills Creek not far from the present-day town of Carbon, about 100 kilometres east of Calgary.
Fidler put some of the coal on the fire in the tent of the chief with whom he was travelling.
The chief didn't like it -- burning coal, especially in a teepee, was taboo.
"Just as he was stepping into the Tent his women told him what a heinous offence I had been doing by putting coal on the fire," Fidler wrote in his diary. "He immediately returned without entering his own tent & remained out in another all night, very much affronted."
It's the first written record of coal in Alberta, a province that sits atop massive coal deposits.
- Dorothy, Alta., isn't much of a town, as far as size goes. At its peak, it had about 150 residents, three elevators, three stores and three gas stations.
But it became internationally famous briefly in the early 1950s when the Toronto Star published a story by Richard Harrington in 1951 about all the lonely rancher bachelors of Dinosaur Valley.
The story was picked up by Parade magazine in New York, and by European publications. The small Dorothy post office was flooded with cards and letters from interested women, and the postmistress passed them out to any male who was remotely interested.
Parade magazine even flew one of the women out to meet one of the allegedly lonely ranchers. A friendship was established, but no marriages resulted from the furor.
"It put Dorothy on the map, and it was a lot of fun," said Blanche Hodgson, whose brother-in-law was one of the bachelors. "We still laugh about it."
- Sam McGee wasn't from Tennessee, as told in the Cremation of Sam McGee by Robert W. Service, the bard of the Yukon. William Samuel McGee was born in Ontario and went to the Yukon where he became acquainted with Service, who used McGee's name in his famous poem.
McGee took some ribbing, but also had a sense of humour -- he once bought a vial of what was claimed to be the real ashes of Sam McGee.
McGee died in 1940 at his daughter's farm near Beiseker, Alta., and is buried in a nearby rural cemetery.
- Tony Santo lied about his age and joined the air force when he was 17. He was assigned to a reconnaissance unit, looking after film and equipment. As the Allies took over Hamburg, Santo decided he wanted to carry a weapon lighter than his Sten gun.
"I went into a police station and asked for pistols. The policeman showed me a whole room full of them, and I took one. He thought I was an official, I guess. We were supposed to protect ourselves and I didn't want to carry around my Sten gun, so I carried that pistol for the rest of the war.
"Just before we went home, I took it into the armoury and asked them to clean it up and oil it. That's when they told me it had no firing pin."'
- Calgarian Bob Smith, a former Cape Town Highlander, told the Herald about a Christmas he spent in North Africa during the war. A copy of the story, with its accompanying photo of Smith as a young soldier, was sent to Walter Brass of Austria. Brass looked at the photo and recognized Smith as the soldier who had captured him in northern Italy toward the end of the war. He decided he wanted to meet his former enemy.
A few months later, two soldiers who had last met when one was pointing a rifle at the other, greeted each other in the Graz, Austria, airport, with a big hug. They have since become close friends.
- Les Card was a young radar operator stationed in Malta where his installation was strafed daily by German fighter planes. Card was playing pool with his friends one day, and had dropped the white ball in the pocket. As he retrieved it, German planes attacked and Card went outside to see the action. One plane strafing the base flew into a ravine, and Card knew it would come up a few metres from where he stood. Thinking he could bring the plane down by hitting the propeller, he wound up and threw the ball at the plane when it emerged from the ravine.
"I didn't hit the propeller, but the ball bounced off the plane," he said. "You should have seen the pilot's face."
- When a Liberator bomber crash-landed near Bill van Niekerk's village in Holland, he rushed to see what was happening. An American airman emerged from the plane and handed van Niekerk his parachute pack before being hustled away to safety by the Dutch underground.
Bill took the parachute home and forgot about it until a few months after the war, when his fiance, Wilhelmina, wondered what to do about a wedding dress when no fabric was available.
When they were married, Wilhelmina, an expert seamstress, wore a nice silk dress made from the parachute. Less obvious was Bill's underwear made from the same material.
The van Niekerks donated the dress to the Calgary Aero Space Museum in gratitude for the liberation of Holland.
- In April and May of 2005, thousands of Canadian veterans were invited to Holland to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the country's liberation, and were greeted with emotion and adulation, even by youngsters who were born long after the end of the war.
In the southern city of Bergen op Zoom, Danny McLeod visited in October 2004 the square where he parked his tank when his South Alberta Regiment liberated the city. As the joyous crowd milled about, a young boy climbing on the tank accidentally bumped the machine gun, and two teenage girls were killed.
McLeod pointed to bullet holes still visible in a brick building. He had seen many people killed, including good friends, but the deaths of the two girls, were for him the saddest deaths of the war.
- War stories alone could take up all of a heritage writer's time. We still have among us hundreds of quiet heroes, men who fought at Dieppe and Juno Beach, mere kids who piloted bombers over Europe, men who endured the bleakness of German and Japanese prison camps. I was able to tell some of their stories, but I could only scratch the surface.
I salute those heroes, and consider it an honour to count many of them as my friends. I stand in awe, not only of their wartime experiences, but also of what they accomplished after the war to build our city, province and country.
Publisher Peter Menzies has promised the Herald will continue its support and exploration of our western heritage.
And there's no danger a heritage writer will run out of topics. The supply of stories still to be told is endless.
Thanks to all those who shared their stories, their research and their insights that have helped make the Herald's heritage coverage a success.
© The Calgary Herald 2006
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