From gophers to coal to eerie dolls: Check out these rural museums near Calgary

·8 min read
References to gophers can be found all over Torrington, Alta., a hamlet about 160 km northeast of Calgary. (McKinna Elliott - image credit)
References to gophers can be found all over Torrington, Alta., a hamlet about 160 km northeast of Calgary. (McKinna Elliott - image credit)

Picture, if you will, wandering into a dark, human-sized gopher burrow.

Lit up along the sides of the wall are small dioramas containing taxidermy gophers dressed in clothes, mimicking the activities of their human neighbours. One is fishing. One is hunting. One is watching a butterfly sitting on its nose.

These displays are what make up the World Famous Gopher Hole Museum in Torrington, Alta., and it's a place that changed Lianne McTavish's life.

"I started thinking about how interesting it was because it was basically created by the people in the town to draw people back, to bring people in, to keep Torrington on the map," the art and design professor with the University of Alberta said.

"It changed my research plan, and it motivated me to come up with a plan that would focus on small museums, community museums, instead of the large urban ones that I'd been working on previously."

McTavish is the author of Voluntary Detours: Small-Town and Rural Museums in Alberta.

She spent much of her career studying museums from France to the East Coast, but when she moved to Alberta, someone suggested she stop at the Gopher Hole Museum.

"I loved it … Then I started to try to get funding and come up with a bigger project to study the Gopher Hole Museum, but also the wider array of small-town and rural museums in Alberta."

McKinna Elliott
McKinna Elliott

In total, McTavish and her team have discovered about 315 rural museums around the province, which they define as a display space that's open to the public and educational.

For several weeks, McTavish joined The Homestretch to talk about the 20 or so she chronicles in her book, including a few found just outside Calgary.

Gopher Hole Museum

Of course, one of her selections is clear.

The Gopher Hole Museum is situated in a small, white building in the town of Torrington, which has a population of about 200. Around the area, there are gopher statues, fire hydrants decorated to look like gophers and giant gopher signs.

The museum opened in 1996, and Laural Kurta's parents helped to get it going. She's the interim director of the museum — begrudgingly.

"I struggle with the idea of these gophers ... it's really an interesting bond that a lot of people have with them," she said.

But the pandemic forced her hand.

"The ladies running it at the time, they're all seniors. And of course COVID was targeting seniors initially ... So they were terrified just like everyone else. They were going to close it. My hours were cut, so I offered to do it just because I'm a really good daughter."

McKinna Elliott
McKinna Elliott

As a Torrington native, Kurta knows the town's history.

She says it used to be a bustling place, an agricultural hub, with all sorts of restaurants and stores and things to do. But in the early 1990s, things started to fall apart, she said. The Alberta government began to offer grants to communities that could come up with an idea to bring tourists to their area.

"A whole bunch of people got together trying to save what was left of their rapidly disappearing town," Kurta said.

"One lady, and she was just being cheeky really, she shouted out, 'Well, why don't we stuff gophers? We've got enough of them.' Everybody laughed and then they stopped laughing and they said, 'You know, why don't we?' So that's exactly what they did."

She says the museum wasn't very well designed. It was meant to be a short-term project to help support local businesses, but after 27 years, the museum is still standing. Most of the businesses are gone.

Kurta has her own thoughts about the gophers, but says she understands why the museum has endured.

"Rural Alberta is a stronghold, it's the footprint of all of Alberta. It's basically the building block and it has been decimated for several decades now, but this is where the whole province got started," she said.

"We're resilient. We're that kind of people."

Atlas Coal Mine

Evelyne Asselin/CBC
Evelyne Asselin/CBC

Another staple of rural Alberta is its natural resources, and there are at least 11 spots around the province that commemorate that history, McTavish says.

"They are dedicated to the extraction, modification and transportation of natural resources," she said.

"Some of them are in buildings like traditional museums. They have displays. They tell the history of an industry. And some of them are the industrial sites themselves that are no longer operating."

One example of that is the Atlas Coal Mine National Historic Site in East Coulee, near Drumheller.

It's famous for its large wooden coal tipple — one of the largest still surviving — that was used to put coal on trains. You can also go underground to get a sense of what the miners experienced, McTavish says.

Evelyne Asselin/CBC
Evelyne Asselin/CBC

If you're willing to drive a bit further, one of her favourite spots dedicated to natural resources is the Brooks Aqueduct National and Provincial Historic Site.

"I call it a glorious ruin. It was built between 1912 and 1914, and it's basically a three kilometre-long, elevated flume made of concrete," she said.

"Why I love it is that it was a failure almost right away. It didn't work well. … It's not the usual standard narrative of progress, industry can solve all problems, and if there are environmental issues, we can solve them."

Blackfoot Crossing Historical Park

McTavish says her book would be incomplete without the stories of the Indigenous cultural centres around the province.

There are about 150 different pioneer museums — the most of any type — which feature the stories and items of settlers, but McTavish says some of them position Indigenous stories in the past.

Indigenous cultural centres continue that narrative, she says.

Blackfoot Crossing Historical Site
Blackfoot Crossing Historical Site

Take Blackfoot Crossing Historical Park on Siksika Nation, about an hour and a half east of Calgary. The national heritage site opened in 2007 and includes references to the stories, culture and traditions of the Blackfoot people.

"When you first enter the exhibition spaces, you see this lit curvilinear wall that moves throughout the space, and there's text on it," McTavish said.

"It was the entire text of the Indian Act of 1876. So one of the first things I did when I was there is I read the Indian Act, and I had never read it in full before. And it was kind of horrifying."

The displays continue to detail the consequences of those policies, McTavish said, but mainly, the museum features stories of resilience and survival.

Blackfoot Crossing Historical Park
Blackfoot Crossing Historical Park

"When the government made cultural practices and religious practices illegal, [they] would seize material items …  there's been lately a lot of repatriation efforts to get those items back to the communities where they belong," McTavish said.

"So they can be sites where those items can be kept and respected."

The Museum of Fear and Wonder

Museum of Fear and Wonder
Museum of Fear and Wonder

For people who are anatomically intrigued, there's the Museum of Fear and Wonder on a farm near Bergen, Alta., which opened in 2017.

You need an appointment to go through, and you only get a set of instructions leading you to the site when you've booked. The museum is open for three months each year and is already sold out for 2022.

Brothers Jude and Brendan Griebel co-founded the museum. Jude is a sculptor and visual artist, and Brendan is an anthropologist who often curates museum exhibits.

Museum of Fear and Wonder
Museum of Fear and Wonder

Among the items displayed are different sculptures, dolls and masks. Each item is a piece of art or a craft portraying the human body or the human experience in some way.

Jude Griebel says they've been collecting the items since they were teens, and they're only able to show about a quarter of their collection at a time.

"Things ... that were crafted for carnivals and fairs that once happened a long time ago, for theatre, things like puppets and ventriloquist dolls, as well as bodies that were crafted having a more sort of didactic or functional purpose, like various medical anatomies and mannequins."

Each of the pieces is exceptionally well researched, Griebel said, and visitors receive a guided tour including the background of many items. Visitors come from all over the country to see the collection, some even globally.

"Everyone's going to have a different response to these objects," McTavish said. "It's a very visceral museum."

Museum of Fear and Wonder
Museum of Fear and Wonder

Part of the reason the brothers started the museum is to pay homage to the tradition of the rural museum.

All of the items are displayed in antique cabinetry from the prairies. When other small museums close, they often take on sections of items that fit within their exhibit.

"I grew up visiting a lot of small-town museums, especially sort of eccentric museums, most of them small, private museums," Griebel said.

"There are just so many interesting museum spaces and views of the world that they sort of narrate, if you get out to these smaller communities. So I would encourage a lot of city folk to venture out of their comfort zone into the countryside and see some of these spaces."