Hold your horses

There is more to Calgary than Stampede and cowboys.

Written by Joel Ralph

November 12, 2015

Brewmaster Alan Yule checks his watch and drops the last of his Centennial hops into the bubbling brewing process. Together with twelve other participants, we are crafting beer from scratch. The aroma of caramel malt and cascade hops fills the room.

It’s all part of the Big Rock interpretive brewing course at Heritage Park Historical Village in Calgary. This hands-on experience is typical of Heritage Park and was a great way to start a few days of exploring the history of Calgary.

The morning after our beer-making lesson, we headed back to Heritage Park for a full tour of this exceptional historic site. We entered through Gasoline Alley, a tribute to the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s. The halls are filled with a remarkable collection of automobiles that have been perfectly restored to working condition.

The collection of cars and gas pumps was amassed by local businessman Ron Carey. It’s easy to get lost in the collection before heading into Heritage Park. Our four-year-old son, Jack, spent more than two hours roaming the halls.

Walk up to the historic village, and you will find about 180 buildings and exhibits brought to life by more than five hundred staff and volunteers. The history stretches from First Nations and the fur trade to early settlement and the arrival of the railway.

In fact, Heritage Park has two fully restored locomotives that provide visitors with transportation around the park. Bill Jones is our conductor on this day, and he guides us through the brilliant collection of refurbished railcars.

“It’s a passion for me,” Jones explained.

“I’ve been a rail fan for most of my life. Just over the hill here I used to ride down here to watch the steam trains.”

He describes how, during one of his tours, one woman went missing. He found her sitting in the railcar staring out the window with a little smile on her face. “She said, ‘when I was a little girl I used to ride in a car exactly like this from Winnipeg to Winnipeg Beach,’” Jones recounted.

“I had to ask her: ‘What was it like?’ She said, ‘It was marvelous. We all were going on holidays for the week, and everybody wore white, and everybody was well-behaved.’” It’s a great example of how living-history sites can bring out memories and family stories.

Heritage Park has also opened a Famous Five interpretive centre honouring Canadian women. Step inside, and you will find a statue of Nellie McClung to greet you as you enter the door. The home was reconstructed based on her own home, which can be found in downtown Calgary at the corner of 7th Street and 15th Avenue.

From Heritage Park we headed downtown to the National Music Centre. A hidden gem, the National Music Centre is about to become better-known. An extensive new building is under construction in Calgary’s East Village, part of a massive neighbourhood redevelopment that is scheduled to open in 2016.

Almost every instrument on display is in working order. In fact, it’s part of the mandate of the National Music Centre to keep all the instruments in playing condition and musicians regularly stop by to record on instruments they can’t play anywhere else.

The collection includes everything from an eighteenth-century piano to the colossal TONTO, an electronic synthesizer that has featured in musical works by Stevie Wonder.

All the guides at the centre are musicians. Our tour guide, Nathan, plays some of the original work of Canadian composer Violet Archer on Archer’s own piano. “She was one of the first Canadian composers that actually tried to consciously create a Canadian style of music,” he explained.

Situated against a full wall is the Kimball theatre organ, a full orchestra’s worth of instruments that was used in the late 1920s to provide the soundtracks to silent black-and-white films. Using the piano-like controls, Nathan is able to simulate the orchestra experience using percussion and wind instruments.

“These would have been found in theatres across North America. This particular one was built in 1924,” Nathan explained, “We ended up finding it in a basement in St. Albert, near Edmonton.”

The sound is easily recognizable, whether it’s old fashioned film music or a few bars of the theme from Star Wars. It was all music to our ears as we enjoyed a great getaway to Calgary.

Joel Ralph is the Director of Programs at Canada’s History Society.

This article originally appeared in the December 2015-January 2016 issue of Canada's History.

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