Significant piece of Lethbridge history found in pile of costumes during theatre renovation

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Major A.B. Stafford's military jacket was found in a pile of costumes discovered during a 2017 theatre renovation in Lethbridge, Alta. In the 1880s, his father chose the site for a drift mine, which is where modern-day Lethbridge now sits. (Submitted by Kevin MacLean/Galt Museum and Archives - image credit)
Major A.B. Stafford's military jacket was found in a pile of costumes discovered during a 2017 theatre renovation in Lethbridge, Alta. In the 1880s, his father chose the site for a drift mine, which is where modern-day Lethbridge now sits. (Submitted by Kevin MacLean/Galt Museum and Archives - image credit)

It took three years to understand the significance of it, but a military jacket linked to the land that Lethbridge, Alta., sits on today is now safely in the hands of a museum in the southern Alberta city.

Picture it: the year is 2017 and a major renovation at Yates Theatre in Lethbridge required the relocation of a huge trove of costumes.

"The basement was very labyrinth-like, lots of rooms, chockablock full of clothes," Kevin MacLean of the Galt Museum told the Calgary Eyeopener on Thursday.

Submitted by Kevin MacLean/Galt Museum and Archives
Submitted by Kevin MacLean/Galt Museum and Archives

A local theatre group, Playgoers of Lethbridge, asked for the museum's help. They pulled 107 items for review by the museum, including 10 pieces of clothing.

In 2020, the museum did a thorough inventory of the artifacts. During that process one of MacLean's colleagues, Kirstan Schamuhn, stumbled across a military jacket.

When she pulled back a piece of fabric sewn over the original inside label, she found something written by hand: Maj. A.B. Stafford.

Submitted by Kevin MacLean/Galt Museum and Archives
Submitted by Kevin MacLean/Galt Museum and Archives

"The hair on the back of my neck stood up. It was very exciting," MacLean said when the significance of the jacket became apparent.

Allen Gibson, a former Playgoers of Lethbridge board member and military history buff, says such a direct personal connection to the First World War is rare and remarkable.

"There's a wound mark on the sleeve, which suggests he had already been to France and been wounded," Gibson told CBC News in an interview on Thursday.

"And somehow that uniform made its way all the way back to Lethbridge before he was ultimately killed."

Submitted by Kevin MacLean/Galt Museum and Archives
Submitted by Kevin MacLean/Galt Museum and Archives

Playgoers is just shy of 100 years old, making it one of Canada's longest continuously running theatre groups.

"It's very likely the jacket was actually used in a play at some point along the way by Playgoers. We know that because it had a different name over top of major Stafford's name."

MacLean says the Staffords are a major part of the city's history.

"Major Stafford was in Lethbridge as a six-year-old child, in 1882 or 1883. His parents came from Nova Scotia and his dad was hired by the Galts to select the main drift mine, which later became the site of Lethbridge. His parents would be credited with the site for where Lethbridge is today."

Ninth Street, which borders Lethbridge's downtown area, is called Stafford Drive.

Major Stafford was a commander of the Lethbridge-based 39th Battery in 1915. Two years later, he fought in the Battle of Vimy Ridge, and died later that year in June of 1917.

Gibson says there is another interesting nugget that stands out to him today.

"It's such a small uniform; people were so much smaller back then. Nobody could fit into it these days."

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener

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