August 17th, 2018

Eye on the Esplanade: Measuring success

By Medicine Hat News on February 9, 2018.

We all have a to-do list, with items that keep getting pushed forward to the following week. It may be a “someday project,” one that has been on the back burner for some time, but one that you have the good intention of finishing “someday.” Many of these projects start out with a great idea, spawning excitement, only to give way to anxiety as the task becomes overwhelming. Perhaps we consign the unfinished work to the failure pile and move on, but what if they weren’t failures at all? What if they just need to be viewed from a different angle?

Ruth Daw (née Hulland), teacher, wife, mother of three, and history enthusiast, had one such “someday project,”to pen a community history book. When Ruth was a child, she lived with her parents on what became known as the British Block, an area of land north west of Medicine Hat. Like other settlers’ children, she spent summer days playing barefoot on the family homestead, something for which parents were grateful, as clothing for winter was difficult enough to find. In 1941, under the War Measures Act, the Hulland family land, along with that of 125 other families, was expropriated by the government. The land was well within the dry area known as Palliser’s Triangle and had seen years of drought and crop failure. It was decided that the military could put it to better use. Today, it is a part of the Suffield Military Reserve.

Canada’s centennial year arrived in 1967. With it came a renewed interest in Canadian history and in the living memory of what remained of our aging pioneers. It was against this backdrop that Ruth attended the Centennial Conference in Banff where she learned about local efforts to preserve community history. Spurred into action by a lack of available information on her childhood settlement and what she described as its many “colourful and eventful happenings,” Ruth commenced her journey to compile the history of the British Block before all memory was lost. She sought to preserve this history in the pages of a book.

Ruth tracked down any contacts she could find and searched for others through newspaper postings. She wrote countless letters, made phone calls and visited relocated pioneers. She collected family histories, reminiscences, oral histories, documents and photos. Her intended five-year project instead spanned decades. She amassed information on events, daily life, education, individuals and families. She captured a sense of time and place and the people that lived there, but she did not complete her book.

Ruth donated all of the research material that she had collected to the Esplanade Archives. I documented these records and added them to our holdings. The trove of information within this collection is more extensive than the contents of a single book. It is after all, uncompressed and unedited. The stories of the British Block were particularly at risk of being lost, given the dispersal of its residents, but thanks to Ruth and her sources, they are now kept safe and are available to be shared with all members of the public.

Isn’t that exactly what she set out to do?

Candace Loder is archives technician at the Esplanade.

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