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Coaldale’s Gem of the West Museum strives to preserve local history

Posted on January 4, 2024 by Sunny South News
Sunny South News Photo Submitted

By Heather Cameron
Southern Alberta Newspapers
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Coaldale’s Gem of the West Museum is truly a gem of Coaldale.

Craig Day, the Museum Manager and member of the Gem of the West Museum Society, says that the Museum is located at 1306 – 20 Street in Coaldale, the old Mennonite Brethren Church, and operates on regular summer hours from the beginning of May to the end of September. In the off-season months, Day says, the museum works on fundraising events and exhibit redesigns but also advertises that visitors can contact them and schedule a visit during these months.  

The Gem of the West Museum Society, Day says, was formed in 1995 by the first president, local Erna Goertzen, who worked with the Town of Coaldale to have them purchase the building, allowing the society to operate the museum within it and it took six years of building restorations and artifact accessioning before the museum could officially open the doors to the public in 2001. 

Day says that the building’s actual history began in 1929 when the first church was built on the former sugar beet field. The church congregation outgrew it rapidly, Day says, requiring an addition a year later and again in 1932. The congregation continued to grow, and by 1939, they tore most of it down and built the current building. The only part that survived was the last addition, which they turned into a cookhouse. Day says that it wasn’t until 1971, when there was a new church further in town, that the building was sold to a local company that made some changes to operate a masonry company within it.

Day says that the main building is 15,000 sq/ft with over 15 unique exhibit spaces, and the addition on the north side of the building has the Scotiabank Art Gallery, focused on displaying local Coaldale artists. Outside, Day says, the museum has their blacksmith exhibit, which is displayed in the restored second addition of the original building and it is a fully functioning blacksmith shop where they get volunteers to operate when they have school tours or special events at the museum. On the far north part of the lot, Day says, is where the museum displays their historical farming equipment.  

“We are continually working to provide the best historical learning experience for visitors. Over the years, this has involved improving and changing exhibits,” said Day. “Our collection management has also improved to ensure every artifact in our care is properly displayed, stored and catalogued.” 

Day states that Gem of the West Museum has increased their efforts to promote the Museum over the last couple of years by participating in as many town events as possible, including Mass registration day, SummerFest, Candy Parade and Light Display at the Kinsman Shelter. The Museum, Day says, has also collaborated with Coaldale Public Library to have Storytime at the Museum and the Historic Ghost Walk Tour. This past May, Day says, the Museum also hosted a free event called Circus at the Museum and saw hundreds of people in attendance.

“One of our current projects we hope to complete by next spring is to have two new large signs along Highway three advertising the museum,” said Day. 

The exhibits that Gem of the West Museum offers, Day says, includes exhibits representing a butcher shop, general store, cafe, school room, kitchen, parlour and CP Rail. A while back, Day says, the Skiba Family donated a 1938 Farmall tractor to the museum, and they had CSN Kustom do all the restoration work on that tractor and a 1928 Studebaker from the Goertzen family. 

“All artifacts are great at telling stories, but to highlight a couple of them, like the B.B. Janz’s typewriter, which he used to help over 21,000 Mennonites fleeing religious persecution in the Soviet Union during the 20s and 30s,” said Day.

Day says that the Gem of the West Museum also features one of the largest Indigenous collections of artifacts in southern Alberta on loan from the Royal Alberta Museum in Edmonton and within the exhibit is the Armin Dyck collection, with a 12,000 B.P. Clovis point on display.  There are also video and audio displays set up in a couple of exhibits, Day says.

“Unlike most museums, our exhibit allows visitors to walk in and experience them, but we do instruct them not to touch any of the artifacts to ensure their ongoing preservation,” said Day.   

Day says that on the museum’s website, http://www.gemofthewest.ca, there is also the Historical Walk page, where people can click on and see the history of some of the buildings on Coaldale’s main street. 

“We began our archival material database, and our hope is at one point in the future to have this material available for researchers to access,” said Day. “It is important for the museum to continually find ways to engage visitors by having new exhibits, hosting events and participating in the community. It is this that helps showcase the museum individually and promote everything the town of Coaldale has to offer.”

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