By Cal Braid
Sunny South News
The Gem of the West Museum is located in an 83-year-old building in Coaldale full of hundreds of pristine artifacts. The artifacts that aren’t pristine are rugged and sturdy in a way that is strikingly at odds with today’s plastic junk culture.
Craig Day has been the museum’s manager since January 2021, and it’s apparent that in his tenure so far, he has acquired significant knowledge and respect for the house of history that is in his keeping. He explained how the museum came to be.
“The (museum) society formed in 1995. It was a group of Coaldale people, and the first president of the society was Erna Goertzen. The society approached the Town of Coaldale at the time because this building was vacant. The Town purchased the building and allowed the society to operate out of it. Before they opened the museum in 2001, it took about six years to restore it and to get it back to a level where they could house artifacts in it.”
The building was originally a Mennonite Brethren (MB) church, but in 1971, the MB built a new church right in town. The building was eventually converted into a concrete masonry factory, and the former sanctuary has a huge railed-off opening in the hardwood floor that was an adaption made by the factory owner.
Day said, “The gentleman who owned the factory became a part of the society for a while as well, so they eventually transitioned the building into a heritage site.” Storyboards on the museum wall depict the history and transitional phases of the site as it changed over the years, going from a sugar beet field to a church in the 1920s, then a bigger building in the 1930s, and evolving from there over the decades.
“I’m still learning the story as it goes,” Day said. “People come in and tell stories about how they used to come here when it was a church — that’s the joy of a museum. Even working here, I get to learn.”
“Every artifact here has been donated or loaned by a member of the community, with the exception of our Indigenous (display). That collection is on loan from the Royal Alberta Museum (RAB) in Edmonton. We have one of the largest collections in southern Alberta.”
“It was the (work of the) board members and their devotion to the museum to be able to get artifacts in here to represent different areas that reflected Coaldale,” Day said, giving credit where it’s due. “It evolved over time; the exhibits and displays have all grown and become more fleshed out in detail. It’s a growing thing. As far as adhering to museum policies, when it first started it was a society, items just kind of came in.”
However, as it progressed into a museum, Day said there was more documentation involved. He’s given himself a five-year project to see that every item in the place is catalogued and documented properly. The museum houses both what’s on display and many more items in its storage rooms.
On a guided tour, Day pointed out details that were well-served by a deeper description. Down in the basement, there were more exhibits to see. He flipped a light switch and said, “Usually if there are no visitors, we try to leave the lights off. Darkness is good for the artifacts.”
“I know when I give tours to kids, I love the Japanese and the Dutch rooms; the mixing pot of cultures that came to Coaldale.” The rooms are small former Sunday school rooms, and inside one of them is a table covered in a rug.
“When the Dutch were in Holland, they used to get these carpets from Turkey and Hungary that were detailed and elaborate. They loved them and didn’t want to wreck them by walking on them, so they started using them as tablecloths.”
“We get to tell the story of the Japanese and the Chinese,” he said. “A lot of them made it out to Coaldale because farmhands were needed around this area. With that, Coaldale developed this cultural identity, having a Buddhist temple in town.” Origami, kimonos, and artwork are on display.
One of the highlights in the basement is the Indigenous exhibit, beautified by a wall-length mural that was painted by local artist Judith Nickol. One display case, on loan from the RAM, has an exhibit that “shows the complete chronology of the development of projectile points in the plains area, up to the point of European contact when the introduction of metals brought musket balls and bullets,” Day said. “The Indigenous artifact projectile points date back to around 10,000 years.” So, while many of the Coaldale-related artifacts in the collection are around 50 to 110 years old, other items required some serious archaeology to uncover.
The Gem of the West is a fascinating place, hiding in plain sight on Highway 845 at the north edge of Coaldale. You can catch sight of them in the Summer Fest Parade on Aug. 6. Look for Frank and Erna Goertzen’s 1928 Studebaker cruising down the road.