June 21st, 2018

Eye on the Esplanade: The inner workings: Small stories and big exhibits

By Medicine Hat News on December 29, 2017.

Once upon a time, many years ago, on a snowy day in mid-November I went hunting with my dad and grandfather. It was a wonderful day out, and we took a few grouse and partridge home for supper. As often happens on a hunting trip, stories are told of hunts past, the good shots made and the bad shots missed, the fun and the hard work that follows. Some stories are told and re-told, becoming part of family memory.

I remember one story that my dad told me, likely for the first time on that snowy November hunt. It was about a famous singer and a shotgun, but the story begins with a different gun. My grandfather was quite old and could no longer hunt and had given me his shotgun, a Browning that he had purchased shortly after the Second World War. My dad remembered another person who had hunted in southern Alberta who used a very similar shotgun, and that person was famous. Quite famous indeed; it was Bing Crosby.

Bing Crosby, perhaps the best-selling recording artist of all time, made Irving Berlin’s song “White Christmas” so famous it sold more than 50 million copies. He was an avid hunter, travelling all over the world to hunt. He hunted big game in Alberta in 1947, and upland birds in 1970 and 1973 with Jack Morton on the Milk River Ridge. The 1973 trip was featured in an episode of the “American Sportsman” television show. Crosby was featured in several episodes of the series as well as in promotional films for Ducks Unlimited in which he encouraged wetlands conservation. At some time in the mid-1970s Bing gave his shotgun to Jack.

Alberta has a long history of hunting, from the first peoples more than 12,000 years ago to the present day. Several years ago we began developing a museum exhibit on the topic which will open next summer. It is titled The Hunt and it looks at the history of hunting and wildlife conservation in southern Alberta. During the research I realized that I needed to look at how important Alberta was as a hunting destination.

When the CPR railway was built in the 1880s there came a great push to colonize the west, and some of the first tourists were hunters, encouraged by the CPR itself. Alberta has been a popular hunting destination ever since. From commoners to kings, tourists and locals alike have hunted in Alberta. Some hunt for sport, some out of necessity, and some for both reasons. King Edward VIII hunted near Calgary while he was still heir to the throne. The famous outdoors writer Jack O’Connor hunted here in the 1940s and 1950s. Of course, so did Bing Crosby.

While researching the exhibit I remembered my Dad’s story and wondered whatever became of Bing’s shotgun. Through a good bit of research and no small number of emails, I tracked down the current owner, and he happened to be hunting pheasants in Brooks this past October. I met with him there and he very generously loaned the shotgun to the Museum. It will feature prominently in the exhibit, which is scheduled to open June 9 and run until Nov. 3, 2018.

Everyone has stories about their family’s history, their own history, or the history of the community in which they live. At the museum, we bring up stories from history not just to inform people, but to make them think about their own stories and how they are connected. Sometimes they complement each other. Sometimes a small story helps illustrate a bigger one. When you hear the Crooner himself sing White Christmas, which you certainly must have this past holiday season, remember that he knew Alberta well, both the towns and the countryside.

Thomas Hulit is a museum technician/researcher at the Esplanade.

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