Home Doll industry From Coal Gophers to Weird Dolls: Check Out These Rural Museums Near Calgary

From Coal Gophers to Weird Dolls: Check Out These Rural Museums Near Calgary


Imagine, if you will, wandering through a dark human-sized gopher burrow.

Illuminated along the sides of the wall are small dioramas containing taxidermy ground squirrels dressed in clothing, mimicking the activities of their human neighbors. One is fishing. One is hunting. We look at a butterfly sitting on his nose.

These exhibits spawned the World Famous Gopher Hole Museum in Torrington, Alberta, and it was a place that changed Lianne McTavish’s life.

“I started thinking how interesting it was because it was basically created by the people of the town to attract people, to bring people in, to keep Torrington on the map,” said the professor of art and design at the University of Alberta.

“It changed my research plan and motivated me to come up with a plan that would focus on small museums, community museums, instead of the large urban museums I had been working on before.”

McTavish is the author of Voluntary Detours: Small Town and Country Museums in Alberta.

She spent much of her career studying museums from France to the East Coast, but when she moved to Alberta, someone suggested she stop by the Gopher Hole Museum.

“Loved it… Then I started trying to get funding and came up with a larger project to study the Gopher Hole museum, but also the widest range of rural and small town museums in Alberta .”

The Gopher Hole museum is housed in a former grain elevator office, according to Laural Kurta. (McKinna Elliott)

In total, McTavish and his team uncovered about 315 rural museums in the province, which they define as exhibition space open to the public and educational.

For several weeks, McTavish joined The last straight line to talk about the 20s she chronicles in her book, including a few found just outside of Calgary.

Gopher Hole Museum

Of course, one of his selections is clear.

The Gopher Hole Museum is located in a small white building in the town of Torrington, which has a population of around 200. Around the area there are gopher statues, fire hydrants decorated to look like gophers, and giant gopher signs.

The museum opened in 1996 and Laural Kurta’s parents helped get it started. She is the acting director of the museum – reluctantly.

“I struggle with the idea of ​​these gophers…it’s really an interesting connection that a lot of people have with them,” she said.

But the pandemic forced his hand.

“The ladies running it at the time, they’re all seniors. And of course COVID was targeting seniors initially…So they were terrified like everyone else. They were going to shut it down. My hours were reduced, so I offered to do it just because I’m a really good girl.”

Inside the museum, taxidermy ground squirrels mimic scenes of small-town life. (McKinna Elliott)

As a native of Torrington, Kurta knows the town’s history.

She says it was once a bustling place, an agricultural center, with all kinds of restaurants, shops and things to do. But in the early 1990s things started falling apart, she said. The Government of Alberta has started offering grants to communities that have an idea to attract tourists to their area.

“A whole bunch of people got together to try to save what was left of their rapidly disappearing town,” Kurta said.

“A lady, and she was really cheeky, she yelled, ‘Well, why don’t you stuff some gophers? We’ve had enough.’ Everyone laughed, then they stopped laughing and they said, ‘You know, why not us?’ So that’s exactly what they did.”

She says the museum was not very well designed. It was meant to be a short-term project to help support local businesses, but after 27 years the museum is still standing. Most businesses have disappeared.

Kurta has her own thoughts on gophers, but says she understands why the museum has endured.

“Rural Alberta is a stronghold, it’s the footprint of all of Alberta. It’s basically the cornerstone and it’s been decimated for several decades now, but that’s where the whole province started,” she said.

“We are resilient. We are that kind of people.”

Atlas Coal Mine

The tipple of the Atlas coal mine. This is the last wooden pot in Canada. (Evelyne Asselin/Radio-Canada)

Another staple of rural Alberta is its natural resources, and there are at least 11 places in the province that commemorate that history, McTavish says.

“They are dedicated to extracting, modifying and transporting natural resources,” she said.

“Some of them are in buildings like traditional museums. They have exhibits. They tell the story of an industry. And some of them are the industrial sites themselves that are no longer working.”

An example is the Atlas Coal Mine National Historic Site at East Coulee, near Drumheller.

It is famous for its large wooden coal dumpster – one of the largest still in existence – which was used to put coal on trains. You can also go underground to get a sense of what the miners went through, McTavish says.

The Atlas Coal Mine is just south of Drumheller. This is where coal was sorted and stored and is one of the few artifacts from a time in Drumheller’s history when the area had over 130 mines and a population nearly three times its current size. (Evelyne Asselin/Radio-Canada)

If you’re willing to drive a little further, one of his favorite natural resource spots is the Brooks Aqueduct National and Provincial Historic Site.

“I call it a glorious ruin. It was built between 1912 and 1914, and it’s basically a two-mile-long raised concrete canal,” she said.

“Why I like it is that it was a failure almost straight away. It didn’t work well. … It’s not the usual standard narrative of progress, the industry can fix all the problems , and if there are environmental issues, we can address them.”

Blackfoot Crossing Historical Park

McTavish says her book would be incomplete without the stories of the province’s Indigenous cultural centers.

There are about 150 different pioneer museums — most of any type — that feature settler stories and artifacts, but McTavish says some of them position Indigenous stories in the past.

Indigenous cultural centers continue this narrative, she says.

Blackfoot Crossing Historical Park is located approximately 120 km southeast of Calgary. According to its website, the building is designed to represent a wide range of Blackfoot culture. (Blackfoot Crossing Historic Site)

Take Blackfoot Crossing Historical Park on Siksika Nation, about an hour and a half east of Calgary. The national heritage site opened in 2007 and includes references to the stories, culture and traditions of the Blackfoot people.

“When you first walk into the exhibition spaces, you see this lit curvilinear wall moving through the space, and there’s text on it,” McTavish said.

“It was the entire text of the Indian Act of 1876. So one of the first things I did when I was there was I read the Indian Act , and I had never read it all before. And it was kind of horrifying.”

Exhibits continue to detail the consequences of these policies, McTavish said, but primarily, the museum presents stories of resilience and survival.

Blackfoot Crossing Historical Park features exhibits on the language, culture and traditions of the peoples of the Siksika Nation. (Blackfoot Crossing Historical Park)

“When the government made cultural practices and religious practices illegal, [they] would seize material items…there have been a lot of repatriation efforts recently to get these items back to the communities where they belong,” McTavish said.

“So they can be sites where these objects can be kept and respected.”

The Museum of Fear and Wonder

A sign directs visitors to the Museum of Fear and Wonder, located on a rural property near Bergen, Alberta, about 105 km northwest of Calgary. (Museum of Fear and Wonder)

For those intrigued by anatomy, there’s the Museum of Fear and Wonder on a farm near Bergen, Alberta, which opened in 2017.

You need an appointment to pass, and you only receive a set of instructions leading you to the site when you have booked. The museum is open three months a year and is already full for 2022.

Brothers Jude and Brendan Griebel co-founded the museum. Jude is a sculptor and visual artist, and Brendan is an anthropologist who often curates museum exhibits.

Some examples of the types of displays seen at the Museum of Fear and Wonder. (Museum of Fear and Wonder)

Among the exhibits are various sculptures, dolls and masks. Each item is a work of art or craft representing the human body or the human experience in some way.

Jude Griebel says they’ve been collecting the items since they were teenagers and can only show about a quarter of their collection at a time.

“Things…that were made for carnivals and fairs that were held long ago, for the theater, things like puppets and ventriloquist dolls, and bodies that were made for a purpose more didactic or functional, such as various drug anatomy and mannequins.”

Each of the rooms is exceptionally well documented, Griebel said, and visitors are given a guided tour that includes the background of many items. Visitors come from all over the country to see the collection, some even from all over the world.

“Everyone is going to have a different response to these objects,” McTavish said. “It’s a very visceral museum.”

A dented ventriloquist doll is in the Museum of Fear and Wonder. It was created by Oscar Oswald for the Supreme Magic Company of Bideford, England in 1960, the Griebels say. (Museum of Fear and Wonder)

Part of the reason the brothers created the museum is to pay homage to the rural museum tradition.

All items are displayed in antique prairie cabinets. When other small museums close, they often accept sections of objects that match their exhibit.

“I grew up visiting a lot of small town museums, especially quirky museums, most of which were small private museums,” Griebel said.

“There are so many interesting museum spaces and views of the world that they kind of tell, if you go out into these small communities. So I would encourage a lot of city dwellers to venture out of their comfort zone to countryside and see some of these spaces.”