Okotoks museum exhibits close to home

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Thousands of visitors step into Okotoks’ museum each year to learn about the town’s history, but few know much about the building itself.

A new exhibit called Home is Where the Heart Is at the Okotoks Museum & Archives informs visitors that the two-storey house was home to many past residents, served as the Royal Northwest Mounted Police headquarters in the early part of last century and played host to community Easter teas, according to museum manager Kathy Coutts.

“Often visitors who come to the museum want to know the history of the house – who lived here, whose house it is,” said Coutts. “This is what prompted the exhibit.”

Built on the northwest corner of Elizabeth Street and what is now Northridge Drive in 1905, the house has had 16 owners and was rented out for several decades.

The museum has periodically displayed panels describing some history of the house, including the move to its current location on North Railway Street and its transformation into the museum, but in this exhibit historians have dug deeper.

The exhibit reveals that William Livingston and Josiah Pugh built the house on several lots owned by five gentlemen.

Renovation work in 2009 uncovered wooden boards above the front door and one window with Livingston’s name written on them, in what Coutts believes was a grease pencil.

The exhibit shares interesting stories about the house, including that widow Sanny Spencer rented it to a Royal Northwest Mounted Police corporal the early part of last century when it became the headquarters for the mounted police.

The exhibit also includes recollections of Mrs. Alice-Marie Miller hosting community Easter teas in the home.

To make the museum look more like the home it was for almost a century, museum staff and volunteers transformed the living and dining rooms into a living room and kitchen, Coutts said.

When the house became a public building in 2000 under the ownership of the Town of Okotoks, Coutts said the kitchen was replaced with a bathroom and wheelchair ramp.

“In the old days they were the heart of the home,” she said of the living room and dining room. “It’s where people gathered. They gathered around the radio and listened to radio shows or the news. They gathered in the kitchen to bake as a family, to eat as a family.”

An old radio broadcasts excerpts from radio shows that would have been playing when some of the early occupants lived here and the living room piano has a gallery of photographs of some of the home’s previous occupants.

Another new exhibit in the museum this month features Okotoks’ early doctors and druggists called Just What the Doctor Ordered, located in a room on the second floor.

While several doctors are mentioned, the exhibit features Dr. A.E. Ardiel and Dr. Morris and Janet Gibson because they served the community the longest, Coutts said.

The exhibit includes medical instruments, books and a medical bag that were donated by the Ardiel family.

“Some of the equipment is quite scary looking,” Coutts said. “There are suture needles, forceps, syringes, IV tubes and just a variety of instruments.”

Coutts said the Gibsons immigrated to Canada from England, originally from Scotland, after the Second World War. They were given an option to move to one of three communities in Alberta by the immigration department and selected Okotoks.

Coutts said Morris explains in one of his three books that Janet picked Okotoks because it has two ‘ok’s’ in it.

Husband and wife often practiced side by side and served important roles in the community, Coutts said. Morris was a school board trustee and Janet the president of the local Red Cross Association and parent teacher association.

Just What the Doctor Ordered also contains historical information on midwifery in the community, said Coutts.

“Midwives had a very important role in the early days, especially in remote areas where only one doctor or no doctor existed,” she said. “They had a very important role in the early years.”

There is also information on diseases and epidemics, like the Spanish flu and polio, and medical emergencies early doctors contended with like farming, vehicle and oil and gas industry accidents, Coutts said.

“We’ve got so much history and I like to change the exhibits often in order to tell as many stories as possible,” she said.

Both exhibits will remain on display until April 28.

The museum is open Tuesdays to Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is by donation.

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