The Last Baron

Editor’s note: The Last Baron debuts on CBC Gem on Sept. 17. It will be shown on CBC-TV in Alberta and B.C. at 7 p.m. on Sept. 18. If you want to support the filmmakers, they are currently crowdfunding to help finance a feature-length version of The Last Baron. Photos in this story courtesy of Amber Bracken/Back Road Productions, unless otherwise noted.

Written by: Jared Majeski, Historic Resources Management Branch

Spend enough time driving down the highways and range roads in Alberta, chances are you’ll pass an old grain elevator. Hulking wooden structures stretching to the sky, weathered by decades of neglect. These prairie cathedrals are a ubiquitous tribute to how things used to work, before the inevitable march of technology pushed them aside. Drive down those same roads, through the villages and towns dotting Alberta, and you’ll find another symbol of how things used to work. This time, in the form of a structure you or I may take for granted: the humble diner. Specifically, the once-omnipresent eatery of so many small Alberta towns. Before Alberta had McDonald’s, it had the Burger Baron.

Premiering this Friday on CBC Gem is The Last Baron, a uniquely Albertan documentary about the history of the Burger Baron. Written, directed and co-produced by local writer and filmmaker Omar Mouallem, The Last Baron tells the story of how a community of Lebanese immigrants, through ownership of Burger Baron franchises across Alberta, supported their families, friends and communities by slinging fries, burgers and shakes to hungry Albertans. The film touches on the murky history of the original Burger Baron intellectual property, relationships between franchisees and the future of the Burger Baron business model.

Mouallem is also in an ideal position to tell this story: his family opened a Burger Baron restaurant in High Prairie in 1987. He remembers: “Originally, my dad planned on calling it Prairie Pizza.  It wasn’t the plan to call it a Burger Baron. It was a last minute idea suggested to my Dad by his uncle in Slave Lake, who also owned a burger Baron. He said, ‘Look, you’re on Main Street. You’re on a main highway, and the main street of town. Burger Baron is a good name. It has done great things for us. You should just go ahead and use it to.’ And he did.”

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UFOs over Alberta

Written by: Jared Majeski, Historic Resources Management Branch

One thing that never gets old living in the Prairies is the sky: big, expansive, endless. Exactly the kind of place (and space) for aircraft of all shapes and sizes to explore. We can learn about a specific kind of aircraft, the alien type, from a digitized production from ACCESS TV below.

Unidentified Flying Objects, or UFOs as the kids like to say, have been part of lore and science fiction for centuries. There are thousands of sightings around the world, but solid proof or admission has continued to elude us. Produced sometime in the early 80s, this short documentary combines first-hand accounts from local Albertans with scientific explanation — all set to surprisingly evocative synthesizer soundscapes. You’ll also learn about Project Magnet, a program developed by Transport Canada to study UFOs in the 1950s.

So, put down those episodes of X-Files and learn about potential alien life right in your own backyard. And while you’re at it, go explore the rest of the film and video on the Provincial Archives of Alberta Youtube channel.

Did volcanic eruptions in Canada’s deep past affect Indigenous people?

Written by: By Dr. Todd Kristensen, Archaeological Survey of Alberta

Archaeologists compare records before and after ancient volcanic eruptions to understand how the lives of people changed. Impacts of ecological disasters on humans can be detected along local and broad scales: how did Indigenous people cope at a specific site and how did human relationships change across vast regions? A massive eruption 1,200 years ago, called White River Ash East, changed the way that people in northern Canada hunted and gathered in areas affected by volcanic ash, which fell in beds up to 1 m thick. Beyond the ash footprint, human networks were forever altered, with ripple effects that spread through Alberta and North America.

A volcano in Alaska sent ash east across southern Yukon, southwest NWT, and into northwest Alberta. Geologists study beds of ash (tephra) to reconstruct the size of eruptions. The shaded colours are rough estimates of how thick the volcanic ash is. Source: Todd Kristensen.
Ash depth relative to people (top). When the ash originally fell, it was loose and deep but would’ve compressed over time (top right inset). Based on other eruptions, the White River Ash East tephra may have shrunk up to 50% in the following decades after it fell. At bottom is an estimate of ash thickness in current sediments with the original ash thickness in brackets. Source: Todd Kristensen.
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“Sour grapes”: The Banff Winter Carnival Queen Scandal of 1955

Written by: Michael Gourlie, Government Records Archivist, Provincial Archives of Alberta

One of the stereotypes of beauty pageants is the behind-the-scenes rivalry among contestants. Typically, these are just plot devices in film or TV designed to create degrees of drama, comedy or controversy. But apparently there is beauty pageant drama in real life, and one of the rare times when these battles spilled out into the public is the controversy surrounding the Banff Winter Carnival Queen competition of 1955.

The idea for a winter carnival in Banff originated with Norman Luxton, the man known as “Mr. Banff.” A strong booster of the community, he was a prominent local entrepreneur who owned, among other ventures, the Crag and Canyon newspaper, the King Edward Hotel (Banff’s first all-season hotel), the Lux Theatre, the King Edward Horse and Auto Livery and the Sign of the Goat Curio Shop.  According to a 1939 Calgary Herald article, the idea came up during a brainstorming session between Luxton and his friend B. W. Collison in December 1916 regarding the best way to attract more tourists to Banff during the winter season, which was not a consistently busy time in the town. Given Luxton’s extensive local business investments, having the town bustling with tourists year-round was definitely in his interest.

Ice Palace built for Banff Winter Carnival, featuring Brewster’s Hall in the background, 1917. PAA Photo A4837.

A local committee led by Luxton persuaded the town to host a festival that would run from February 5-17, 1917.  The list of events featured at the first carnival was impressive – it included a curling bonspiel, tobogganing, snowshoe races, men’s and ladies’ hockey matches, speed skating, “art skating,” trap shooting, pony ski races and swimming competitions in the hot springs. A large ice castle maze, built by internees and reputedly the first such castle built in Western Canada, was the centrepiece of the celebrations, especially during the fireworks on two evenings of the carnival.  Brewster Hall hosted a grand ball on February 9 and a fancy dress ball on February 15, and this second event featured a crown awarded, “to the most popular lady attending the carnival.” The Carnival was such a success that it became an annual community event.

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Opponents and Neighbours: Decades in the making

Editor’s note: After years of research and writing and working in conjunction with the Friends of the Forts Society, it is with great pleasure and pride that we announce the publication of Opponents and Neighbours: Fort George and Buckingham House and the Early Fur Trade on the North Saskatchewan River 1792 to 1800. Below you can read about the journey it took to publish the book, as well as some excerpts from the publication. Opponents and Neighbours is available for purchase through the Provincial Archives of Alberta store. Proceeds from book sales go to the Friends of the Forts Society whose mission is to support and enhance the Fort George & Buckingham House Provincial Historic Site.

Written by: Suzanna Wagner, Program Coordinator, Fort George and Buckingham House and Victoria Settlement

BETWEEN 1792 AND 1800, the North West Company’s Fort George and the Hudson’s Bay Company’s Buckingham House operated on the North Saskatchewan River, attracting trade from the parklands in which they were located, the grasslands to the south, and the woodlands to the north. Indigenous nations interacted with a varied group of traders. The trade was conducted with respect and offered reciprocal benefits to all parties as befits transactions between friends, allies and eventual kinship groups. Trade protocols involved ceremonies, speeches, ritual gift exchanges, sharing of the calumet peace pipe and mutual professions of friendship and brotherhood. The posts were more than venues of commerce; they were a common meeting ground for people of diverse cultures. There were numerous country marriages or marriages a la façon du pays between company men and Indigenous women. Many children were conceived, born and raised into adulthood by stable, supportive and nurturing families. Children, whose mothers were of this continent and whose fathers travelled half the world would themselves have offspring whose descendants inhabit the land till the present time.

Opponents and Neighbours had its start as part of the research done to support the building of the Fort George & Buckingham House Provincial Historic Site in 1992. This large research project was undertaken by Douglas Babcock, a historian with the Government of Alberta’s Heritage Division. The manuscript was eagerly devoured by interpreters at the historic site for many years.

Several years after the initial manuscript was written, another historian with the Heritage Division, Michael Payne, reviewed the manuscript. He took all the fur trade research and history that had been published after Babcock’s manuscript was written and used it to better understand his research. Payne updated the manuscript to reflect the latest historical writing and research.

And in the last few years, a third Alberta Heritage historian, Peter Melnycky, also reviewed the manuscript and updated it based on yet more newly published historical research and scholarship.

With support from the Friends of the Forts Society and graphic design work from Alberta Heritage graphic designer Denise Ahlefeldt, publication is now complete.

This book, much like the fur trade it discusses, took many years and a great many people to successfully bring it up the long road to publication: writers, researchers, historians of the fur trade who work with Alberta Heritage and those who don’t, archivists, distribution and marketing people, a graphic designer, and of course, our funders. Thank you so much to everyone who directly or indirectly, made this book possible.

We hope you enjoy a few excerpts from Opponents and Neighbours:

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Métis Crossing and the historic Victoria Trail

Editor’s note: Alberta announced that museums and historic sites can reopen as part of Stage 2 of Alberta’s Open for Summer Plan. However, for some seasonal and smaller sites, given how short the season would be as well as the close quarters at some of these sites, the decision was made for Victoria Settlement Provincial Historic Site to stay closed for 2021. Go to Victoria Settlement social media for online content, along with details about reopening in 2022. All photos below taken by Bri Vos unless otherwise indicated. Banner image courtesy of the Victoria Home Guard Historical Association.

Written by: Suzanna Wagner, Program Coordinator for Victoria Settlement and Fort George and Buckingham House and Krista Leddy, Métis Crossing Experience Development Coordinator

Métis Crossing is a gathering place for all people to learn about Métis culture and people. Sitting along the historic Victoria Trail and the North Saskatchewan River, the stories of the Métis families who thrived here are shared through original river lot homes and buildings, recreations of seasonal harvesting camps, and Métis interpreters inviting visitors to experience elements of culture through arts, skills, cuisine, and stories.

Victoria settlement 1862-1922. Source: Leslie Hurt, Occasional Paper Series No. 7.

Victoria National Historic District is 15 minutes south of Smoky Lake (or 1.5 hours northeast of Edmonton) along the North Saskatchewan River. The river lot communities that once stretched along the banks of rivers were common in Alberta. The long narrow land divisions gave the community a different feel than today’s towns and villages, with their overlapping criss cross of streets.

In 2017, Victoria Settlement Provincial Historic Site (river lot 6) and Métis Crossing (river lots 10-14), piloted Paddle Into the Past, an immersive 3 hour fur-trade program which invites visitors to explore the history and culture of the river lot community and the river which connects them. What better way to experience one of Alberta’s most prominent river lot communities than through a collaboration between two river lot neighbours?

Métis Crossing is a cultural gathering centre run by the Métis Nation of Alberta. Here visitors are invited to experience elements of Métis culture, including finger weaving techniques and stories about buffalo hunts. The many Métis residents of Victoria Settlement river lot community often went south for the buffalo hunt. Buffalo hunts were communal affairs, but also very dangerous.

When was the last time you travelled to the neighbours’ place by paddling down the river? Once you’ve explored Métis Crossing, you’ll get to travel to Victoria Settlement… by canoe!

Once you step off the canoe at Victoria Settlement, you’ll find yourself back in 1896: one of the last years of the fur trade at Fort Victoria. You can explore the fort through ground markings which outline where each building was, and see what the home of the man in charge of the post (“The Clerk’s Quarters”) was like.

It wasn’t all fun and games at Fort Victoria on river lot 6. There were heavy bales of fur trade goods to be hauled to the Fort. You’ll be able to lend a hand (or a forehead) and discover what was in all of those mysterious packages.

At one time, all those dishes and ingredients for medicinal (but very tasty) historical licorice were neatly packed into bales of trade goods which made their way from the east to Fort Victoria. Before you can appreciate the yummy treats, you need to learn to haul the bales of fur trade goods using a tumpline around your forehead.

At the end of your time at Victoria Settlement, you will travel the historic Victoria Trail to return to Métis Crossing. Historic experiences in an historically significant place; what better way to get to know Alberta?

Archaeological discoveries and syntheses in Western Canada

Written by: Todd Kristensen, Archaeological Survey of Alberta and Jack W. Brink, Royal Alberta Museum

The Archaeological Survey of Alberta is proud to release the complete volume of Occasional Paper Series No. 40, available for free download:

Archaeological discoveries and syntheses in Western Canada: the Occasional Paper Series in 2020

In addition to two articles published earlier this year, this blog announces the release of four new articles to complete the volume:

Microblades in northwest North America

Skilled flintknapper Eugene Gryba discusses a specific stone tool technology called microblades in northwest North America. He draws on decades of first-hand experience creating stone tools to argue for a free-hand pressure technique to explain archaeological occurrences of microblades across the continent.

Napi effigies

Trevor Peck presents an updated synthesis of unusual and intriguing archaeological features called petroforms (boulder outlines), in this case, Napi effigies on the Plains. These large arrangements of boulders depict an important Siksikaitsitapi (Blackfoot) entity who figures prominently in stories and belief systems. The paper discusses their style and distribution and argues for a subdivision of different groups of Napi effigies that may be linked to different phases of Siksikaitsitapi history.

Porcellanite

A team of archaeologists is studying the raw materials used in Alberta to make stone tools over the past 12,000 years. The fifth paper in the current volume discusses a material called porcellanite that was fused over millions of years through natural coal combustion. Indigenous people used porcellanite from Montana, North Dakota, and from local outcrops in Alberta to make stone tools. The paper presents photographs and several laboratory results to help archaeologists accurately identify porcellanite.

Surface collection of artifacts

The final paper in the volume presents an interesting surface collection of artifacts from northern Alberta. The collection from the Fort Vermilion area includes stone projectile points, scrapers, knives, cores, and flakes made out of a variety of raw materials. Heinz Pyszczyk and colleagues from the Royal Alberta Museum and the University of Lethbridge argue that tool styles and affinities to the south suggest that the collection represents 9000 years of human occupation in the region.

Previous volumes can be downloaded for free here. Thank you to all the authors. If you are an archaeologist interested in contributing to the 2021 issue, dedicated to heritage in Canada’s boreal forest, please contact the Archaeological Survey of Alberta

How Do Alberta’s Archivists Work During a Pandemic?

Editor’s note: On June 10, 2021, the Provincial Archives of Alberta reopened to the public. Once again, the larger team will be safely assisting researchers with reference queries and research visits. If you have found yourself with a question about Alberta’s heritage or your own family history, please visit the Reading Room or contact us. PAA archivists are ready to assist.

Written by: Natalia Pietrzykowski, Reference Archivist

Social distancing, PPE, flattening the curve. These phrases became commonplace as the world adapted to the COVID-19 pandemic, which was declared in March 2020. Another word that will resonate with most professions during this last year is “pivot.” In many cases, public safety needs resulted in “pivoting” business operations to contactless or even remote services. Due to COVID-19, most staff at the Provincial Archives of Alberta (PAA) spent part of 2020-21 working from home. This presented us with a challenge: how do we take archival work home? The search for a solution was also an opportunity to develop new ways of providing access to information and focusing on making improvements to future service. In the last year, PAA staff continued to work on projects that support the mission of preserving and making available records of enduring value. Here, we will share a few highlights of heritage work during a pandemic year, pivots and all.

Virtual Reference

On March 17, 2020, the PAA closed to the public as Albertans were prohibited from attending public recreational facilities. The PAA Reading Room remained closed for 14 weeks, during which time reference archivists answered more than 500 public queries by email.  The public response to “virtual” service was overwhelmingly positive.

On June 23, the PAA Reading reopened to in-person researchers, by appointment and with a reduced capacity. This new model of reference service required a much higher degree of up-front coordination than our previous walk-in availability. Only staff were allowed to handle the finding aids (primarily printed binders and card catalogues) that are available in the reading room. Relevant records had to be identified and pulled prior to appointments, after which they entered a 72-hour quarantine period. Additionally, archivists continued to provide virtual reference services for those unable to visit, sharing electronic finding aids and research copies of records to help answer questions.

The average time spent addressing public and government queries was adjusted from approximately 15 minutes per request to 1.5 hours per request, whether for an appointment or to answer a complex research question. We needed many hands on deck to provide additional research services; 10 archivists, two managers and two Young Canada Works interns all contributed to rotating reference coverage. This work was also supported by a retrieval aide, archival technicians and PAA administrative staff. Three-hundred and seventy-two researchers visited the PAA between the June and December 2020.  On top of that, the team answered almost 1,350 reference emails and phone calls. In late 2020, the reading room was required to close again.

In total, from April 2020 to March 2021, PAA archivists responded to 3,936 public reference inquiries. Source: Provincial Archives of Alberta
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The Alberta Register of Historic Places: Questions and Answers

Editor’s note: For our next instalment recognizing National Historic Places Days, we look at the Register of Historic Places, what information it contains and how to use the database to search for historic resources. It’s recommended that while you read this article, you follow along on the Heritage Resources Management Information System. This database works best using Internet Explorer.

Written by: Dorothy Field, Heritage Survey Program Coordinator

Alberta’s provincial and municipal governments have recognized and protected over 800 historic resources. Did you know that information about all of these significant sites is available to the public? Read on to find out all about where this information is located, and how you can learn more about Alberta’s historic places.

What is the Alberta Register of Historic Places?

The Alberta Register of Historic Places is a searchable database of legally protected historic places in Alberta, including sites designated by the province and by municipalities.

Where can I access the Alberta Register of Historic Places?

The register is available to the public on the HeRMIS (Heritage Resources Management Information System) website. Here it is possible to find information about the location, significance and level of designation for designated historic resources. In addition to this data, the website also includes photographs and an interactive map.

What sorts of things are listed on the Alberta Register of Historic Places?

A wide variety of historic resources have been designated in Alberta, reflecting the range of resources that are significant to Albertans. In fact, if it’s not a small moveable object, human remains, or no longer in its historic context, just about anything that’s provincially or municipally significant could be designated and listed on the register. There are things on the register you might expect, like the Legislature Building in Edmonton and the Rowley Grain Elevator Row, near Big Valley. There are also unexpected things, like significant geological features such as the Whitecourt / Woodlands Meteorite Impact Crater, or important biological sites like the Wood’s Douglas Fir Tree Sanctuary in Calgary. There are all kinds of other designated historic resources, including industrial sites and machinery, palaeontological sites, engineering structures, homes, commercial buildings, churches and more – all of them illustrating some significant aspect of Alberta’s history.

What can I do with the Alberta Register of Historic Places?

You can search the register to learn about a wide variety of topics relating to Alberta’s history – from archaeology to architecture to astronomy, from the prairies to the Rockies and the 49th to the 60th parallel. You can use the Map Search function to plan a tour to view historic resources within a community or along a route between communities.

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This summer, enjoy some of Alberta’s historic parks, green spaces and recreational areas

Written by: Ron Kelland, Geographical Names Program Coordinator

In July 2021, Canada is marking Historic Places Day, or Days as the case may be. First declared in 2017, Historic Places Day is an initiative of The National Trust of Canada as an opportunity to highlight historic places across Canada, to tell their stories and encourage Canadians to learn about, experience and interact with them to foster a better appreciation of the important role these places have in the lives of Canadians and how they impact the quality of life in our communities.

Historic places take many forms, from old and grand public buildings and monuments to small and homey bungalows and farmhouses, to workers cottages, archaeological and paleontological sites, museums and cenotaphs. With summer now here and people looking for opportunities to enjoy the outdoors, we thought it opportune this year to feature some of Alberta’s parks and outdoor public spaces that have been designated as historic resources. So, grab your walking shoes or hiking boots, bring your camera and lots of water, and let’s explore some these historic parks across the province. 

Reader Rock Garden – Provincial and Municipal Historic Resource

Located adjacent to Calgary’s Union Cemetery, the Reader Rock Garden is an early twentieth-century naturalistic garden composed of rocks, primarily local sandstone; trees; water features; and paths.  The garden was designed by William Roland Reader, superintendent of parks and cemeteries for the City of Calgary from 1913 to 1942. Reader was heavily influenced by the City Beautiful movement, which advocated for the inclusion of well-designed green spaces in urban environments. Under Reader’s leadership, Calgary saw the establishment of many parks, playgrounds, golf courses and tennis courts around the city and the planting of trees along city streets. Reader created the Rock Garden as a semi-private park, it was located around the superintendent’s cottage, now a reconstructed elements in the park, and as a living, laboratory where he experimented with thousands of varieties of plants. Reader’s botanical experiments and meticulous observations influenced horticulture across North America through his writings and the distribution of seeds.  

The Reader Rock Garden was designated a Provincial Historic Resource in November 2006 and a Municipal Historic Resource in January 2017

The Reader Rock Garden early in the season, showing bedding plants and green spaces
Source: Historic Resources Management Branch.
The Reader Rock Garden in bloom, 2008. Source: City of Calgary
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