Commentary – Speaking of local history…

Joe McWilliams

Question: Who is constantly slipping on and off pairs of comfy white cotton gloves to handle brittle old pieces of paper, and gets paid to do it?

Answer: Lyndsey Carmichael, the archivist at the Rotary Club of Slave Lake Library.

“I’m excited about my job!” she told me last week, when I was visiting for a story I wanted to do on a recent archival discovery.

Archiving is painstaking stuff. It involves not only carefully handling old papers, cataloguing and properly storing them, but also scanning and digitizing. That’s a lot of repetitive work, but for the person who likes that sort of thing it can also be loads of fun.

And if somebody doesn’t do it, our history gradually slips away from us.

What is history, by the way? Largely, it consists of stories handed down. Most of them belong to the winners of the various conflicts that shaped the march of human civilization. Or uncivil civilization, if you will.

The Romans and Greeks dominate our impressions of the ‘classical period’ of Western history. Why? Two reasons: one is they had the will and the means to take over much of the known world [known to them, that is]. The other is they had people writing it down. That’s why, for example, pretty much all we know about Britain of that period is tainted by the Roman view. Julius Caesar not only was a highly successful general, he wrote about how highly successful he was. Because he did, we have a glimpse of what Gaul and Britain looked like 2,000 years ago.

So here we are, in 2020, and we’re still trying to get this history business figured out. Until last week, for example, it was believed that no record survived of the occupants of the Sawridge cemetery! Municipal governments had lost track. The Catholic Diocese of McLennan couldn’t help. We asked. Documents didn’t exist. Whatever might have been stored in a box somewhere in the new town office went up in smoke in the big fire of 2011.

Or so it seemed.

The M.D. took some pains a few years ago to fence off and clean up the cemetery in Old Town Slave Lake [aka Sawridge]. But only two or three readable grave markers remained. Nobody had any idea what happened to the records.

Well … it turned out they were there all along, in a box of other Slave Lake stuff. Somebody turned it over to Carmichael at the library and I got to go through it the other day. There are documents running all the way from the early 1950s up into the 1990s that somebody thought worth hanging onto. So now we know who was buried there [or at least some of them] and where to find the information if we need it.

That’s a win for the community and a win for history. These things are worth preserving and it’s good that such services [the library’s archive] are valued enough to be funded.

Speaking of local history being lost – or almost lost – the recent demolition of the old daycare in Slave Lake turned up a 52-year-old time capsule that nobody knew was there. Well, maybe somebody did, but nobody said anything about it. It has to be considered a minor miracle that the thing was found at all. It could so easily have ended up as just one more bit of junk in a pile of rubble, hauled off to the landfill.

“It was meant to happen,”

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One thought on “Commentary – Speaking of local history…

  1. Good evening, have you ever been to Societe historique et Généalogique de Smoky River (Historical and genealogical research center). We have been located in Donnelly since 1983. Come for a visit

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