Searching for the past in old newspapers

Sean Feagan, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
·2 min read

While the way of life in Wheatland County is changing, some are keeping connected to its history by examining old newspapers providing snapshots of the past.

Tom MacPhail, a resident of Bassano, has been working to shed light on the past by posting old newspaper articles and other media online via Facebook. MacPhail sources the articles from physical papers of which he has become the caretaker, as well as an online database, Peel’s Prairie Provinces, a resource provided by the University of Alberta Libraries.

MacPhail mainly focuses on The Bassano Times, as well as four earlier newspapers: The Bassano News, Bassano Mail, Bassano Recorder and Bassano Herald. Additionally, he examines the Brooks Bulletin (since 1910) and the Gleichen Call, which operated under a variety of names from 1907 to 1956.

MacPhail started diving into old newspapers while he was residing in Gem, a hamlet in the County of Newell. Once he accumulated enough material from early newspapers, he created two volumes of its history together. Then his efforts moved to examining Bassano and the surrounding County of Newell but later evolved to include Wheatland County.

“Not so many short months ago, I realized we have an amazing relationship between Wheatland to our west and north,” he said. “The Bassano papers mostly cover Cluny, Gleichen and Hussar, but now and again something shows up from Standard and beyond.”

Many of the articles provide accounts of the highs and lows of life in these communities, frozen in time, including recent births and deaths, well wishes, wedding announcements, and even individual travel plans and family visits.

The endeavour has provided MacPhail a new outlook on the region.

“Looking at the past, I have learned to appreciate what it took to make a town at the time when they were all just newborns,” he said. “It has kept our history alive and important.”

MacPhail now shares posts to Wheatland County Pics and Posts, a Facebook group he moderates. There are often requests by people looking for particular articles, which sends MacPhail down rabbit holes in search of the past.

One of his recent forays followed a request by a current Bassano resident who, during the 1988 Winter Olympics, had an Olympic executive member stop by the old restaurant in which she used to work. Being impressed with the service, he returned with an official document.

“She told me about this, so I said I’m going to go find the article in the paper,” said MacPhail. “Lo and behold, there it was.”

MacPhail receives many such requests, and he is happy to oblige. “With over 100 years of written history, we have families spanning several generations that lived it,” he said. “Through the newspapers, we can learn about those lives.”

Sean Feagan, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Strathmore Times