Monday, 13 July 2009

Museum Exhibit Musings -- Object Lessons

I was spending some time looking again at objects we have in the museum from the 1906-1913 time period. A few sort of jumped out at me as part of this story. These are objects that at first glance seem simple but have much to tell.

The first is a steel and leather riding spur. The collected information on this spur, which is described in the records as a “rather crude spur,” is that it was one of a pair made for Thomas F. Smith, the first farm manager of the Lethbridge Provincial Jail. The spur was made by a prisoner; one of the first horse thieves convicted after the jail was completed in July 1911.
Gets me thinking. I knew the jail had a farm and, according to stories I’ve been told, it was later forced to close it because local farmers complained it had an unfair advantage (cheap labour) and the farmers couldn’t compete with it. I should learn more about the farm. What were the reasons given for the farm when they first built the jail? What was is supposed to achieve? Does it reflect an understanding of rehabilitation of that time period? Or was it a chance to get some free labour?
The spur also highlights how times have changed. Today would anyone be legally or ethically able to accept a “gift” from a prisoner under his supervision?

The second is a hydrant thawing kit from the fire department. It may seem simply a technical piece of equipment but this highlights how the fire department moved from a volunteer to a professional organization during this time period.
In the early part of the 20th century, water hauling contractors would regularly obtain their water from the water hydrants. As a result, some hydrants were broken and others became frozen during cold temperatures. This greatly increased dangers when fighting fires in winter. In January 1911 the Fire Department fought 2 fires in minute 40 degree weather. Since the hydrant was frozen shut, the fire department could not use the closest hydrant and had to run a hose to one about a block away. The weather already made fighting this fire incredibly dangerous (the newspaper described the firefighters as frozen statues) and not being able to access water greatly added to the problem. A by-law was passed making it illegal for anyone but the fire and waterworks departments to touch or operate fire hydrants.

The third is a fare box from the street car. The street car system was built as part of the feelings of expansion, prosperity and boundless optimism of the early 20th century. Since they believed Lethbridge would soon have a population of 25,000 and, eager to impress delegates of the Dry Farming Congress, a great deal of money was invested in this new public transportation system. The first 11 miles (17 km) of track was opened by Mayor Hatch in August 1912, coinciding with the annual fair being held at the Exhibition Grounds. The grand dream was not to be. The downtown line was discontinued soon after it was built. A few years later the street car staff was let go and re-hired at reduced wages. And a few years after that one of the south-side residential lines was closed.

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