These walls, and floors, can talk

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I believe our 118-year-old building talks to me.

I love staying after everyone goes home to just sit quietly and listen. These little chats always give me ideas and inspiration.

Usually this is about ways the Heritage Museum Centre can tell the story of our community of Wetaskiwin City, County, and Maskwacis at large, but last week I learned the building likes to talk about itself too.

For several years, I have had this dream of a coffee shop where on a typical day you will find our Star Store Gifts and Wool. If you have been to any of our events over the past few years, however, you will know that we also use this space as a coffee station [picture 1].

What you may not have noticed is a narrow room behind it. This is directly under a flight of stairs that leads to our second floor from street level. We use the stairwell as a fire exit, but it was built to provide access to offices of the original building that were separated from the general store below.

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Last Monday we started to ‘break ground’ to fulfill this dream of having a formal coffee bar that will allow us to better fulfill our vision of being a friendly gathering place for the local community [picture 2].

It is important to me that any renovations we do are true to the history of the building and our contractor, Ken Schubert of KelKenny Contracting, has been very patient with the archaeologist in me as I watch him uncover each element of the building’s history. On Thursday his task was to show me what the original floors were.

As you can see in pictures three to five, we have evidence for several layers. At the bottom is a hardwood floor. This floor is part of the original construction by John West, who had to rebuild after a fire devastated his Pioneer Store, along with the rest of the bustling business district of Wetaskiwin, on June 23, 1903. The Star Trading Co. General Store opened five months later and these are the floors the first patrons walked on.

On top of the hardwood is another wood floor constructed with tongue and groove planks that is laid perpendicular to the first. We are estimating that this is from around the 1940s, when Jim Montgomery, a great nephew of Mr. West, was operating Montgomery’s Department store.

Immediately obvious over the tongue and groove is a plywood subfloor and then our familiar orange carpet throughout the main floor, except for a small section of sheet linoleum in the small room directly under the stairs.

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This layer of a subfloor with carpet or linoleum on top was installed by Don Montgomery, who took over the family business and eventually sold the building to our Wetaskiwin & District Museum Society at a very reasonable price.

Look closely, however, because there is evidence for a different layer directly on top of yet another wooden tongue and groove floor in the narrow section between the carpet and sheet linoleum.

Unlike the tongue and groove that we believe dates to Jim Montgomery, this other one runs parallel to the original hardwood. On top of this second tongue and groove is an older plywood subfloor and cream coloured linoleum tiles (note the power cord coming through the first tile).

If we pan back again to look at the walls around the area [picture 2], we start to see yet another story.

Once the slat walls of the store were removed we found ship-lap, but there are two different kinds. At the far end the ship-lap boards are darker grey and thinner than those closer to the camera (and now mostly removed). By colour alone, it is obvious that this lighter and wider ship-lap is a newer construction. It was placed directly on top of the cream coloured tiles.

Returning to the flooring, notice that the edge of Don’s carpet lays on top of the edge of the tile. What you cannot see in the photos is that there is no further evidence for the tile under the rest of the carpet, just a subfloor. This suggests that the walls of the room under the stairs were constructed at a date later than the tile, but before the carpet.

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The sheet linoleum is also interesting. It does not touch the tiles at all, instead there is a small gap between the two types of linoleum. I am excited to see if the floors under the carpet, which we have not removed yet, are the same as that under the older tiles, or the newer looking plywood under the sheet linoleum.

All of this was not the only story to be revealed on Thursday, however. After the floors were first exposed, and I had spent about half an hour wooing over them, I noticed that Linda Montgomery (Don’s wife) was in the gift shop. I went over to say hi and asked if she wanted to see what we had uncovered in her family’s building. We chatted for a bit and then she said something that caught my breath… She remembers taking staff coffee breaks in that little room where the sheet linoleum is and the new coffee bar will be.

I may not have known at the time, but years ago I heard the building’s story. Last week, that story became a little clearer. As lovers and protectors of Heritage we need to trust our connection to the objects and keep on listening.

We are excited for the renovations to be completed so we can welcome you all in to share a coffee and your stories with us and each other, or just have a quiet conversation with the building and its artifacts and hear their stories for yourself.

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Dr Karen Aberle is the Executive Director and Chief Curator of the Wetaskiwin District Heritage Museum Centre. She can be reached at wdhm@persona.ca.

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