Opening the door to the Charleswood Museum, little did I know I was opening the door to a veritable swirl of ideas, imagery and memories all of their own colour, form and time.
Over the course of the afternoon, the swirl strengthened into more of a vortex, and the Charleswood Musuem was something I would not soon forget.
The museum is operated by the Charleswood Historical Society and is only open to the public on Saturday afternoons between 2 and 4 p.m., although there is school programming and a historical lecture series throughout the year.
Warmly greeting museum guests at 5006 Roblin Blvd. is Len Van Roon Sr., past president and co-founder of the museum, and Gwen Jamieson, a director of the Charleswood Historical Society.
A journey back in time
Van Roon Sr. quickly ushers me into 1875 with a Hudson Bay Company Survey map that details area trails and Metis river lots that fronted the gently winding Assiniboine River. The lots look like rectangular keys on a keyboard.
A trail upon another map is labelled “Route of the Half Breed June 19 1816”. This trail shoots away from the Assiniboine river at the Charleswood area like a spoke from a bicycle wheel. Its date marks the Battle of Seven Oaks, when Metis of the North West Company and the Selkirk Settlers of the rival Hudson Bay Company clashed, with resultant loss of life.
Another trail running parallel to the river reads: “Carts Might Pass Without Difficulty in this Direction”.
Van Roon Sr. explains how, very early on, the Metis would winter along the Assiniboine River in between buffalo hunts that took place in spring and fall. But by 1850, adds Jamieson, the buffalo had all but disappeared. The Metis then settled along the river lots. They were uninterested in being close to the Forks, says Van Roon Sr., because of the terrible cyclic floods there.
Van Roon Sr. seems to have map reading – or tracking – in his blood. He served for four years during World War II as a map reader. This he did within a Sherman Tank, the very kind now on dramatic display at the Charleswood Legion on Roblin Blvd.
But as a child (after moving from Winterton Ave. in East Kildonan and attending grade 1 at Prince Edward School), his family moved to Charleswood where he would set rabbit traps. He says it was easier to go “where the trail was” – a cleared path parallel to Charleswood Road on its west side.
He set traps where rabbits would cross the path, and always noticed its deep ruts. A great discovery came when he measured the trail and visited the St. Boniface museum, asking for the dimensions of the axle width of a Red River Cart. The measure fit to the ruts.
Further consulting with professors and academics, today this section of the Pembina Trail (that went south to Pembina, North Dakota) can be seen on a historical map within the museum. Ms. Jamieson explains the trail was largely never preserved. In Charleswood, housing development in the 1960’s obliterated the trail, although a small portion still exists on Van Roon Sr.’s property as well as on a small portion along the Harte Trail.
When the Pembina Trails School Division was created in 2002 from combining two other school divisions, the name “Pembina Trails” was recommended because of the historical significance of the many trails in the Charlewood area, including a massive buffalo path that crossed the river near the end of Berkley Ave. The name was accepted based on the recognition of the historic Metis trails and paths.
“I was 10 years old and (the trails) intrigued me,” says Van Roon Sr.
A snapshot of life long ago
Stepping into the main room of the Museum, one is greeted by the original Charleswood Post Office – an intriguing construct retrieved from Charleswood’s first store. Craig’s General Store was located where the Sherman Tank is now displayed in front of the Charleswood Legion on Roblin Blvd.
The post office works much like the post boxes at a local 7-11, but it was an actual office staffed by a post mistress who dealt with the public through a wicket. The front wall was made up of numbered mail boxes of glass. Postal customers could see if there was any mail for them.
Just how many people stood with quickened heart – as they waited for the post mistress to retrieve a precious letter from its numbered receptacle – is anyone’s guess. Just how many letters went though this store, especially during the World Wars, is another mystery.
Van Roon Sr. knows that he wrote 1,100 letters home during his four years of military service, with only two of them receiving security black outs (sections blanked out that contained what authorities considered to be sensitive war information. This was done in case the letters fell into enemy hands). A whole sophisticated system of letter mail reproduction and transport was developed for the tons of mail shipped during the war.
Many of Van Roon Sr.’s letters have all been kept, documented and dated. Around Remembrance Day, he brings some to the museum to share the experiences of the times (and to show how small he wrote).
The young soldier also waited out his four years of service before returning to marry his bride, Verna, who in 1970 was chairwoman of the Charleswood Centennial Committee. The group’s Centennial project was the start of a local historical society that today runs the museum. Verna co-founded the museum along with husband Len, among an unequaled career of community service that won her many awards before her passing in 2011.
In 2006 the museum received cost-free space, including custodial service and utilities covered by the City of Winnipeg, when area councillor Bill Clement advocated for the value of accessible local history and the community connection it fosters.
Above the historic postal outlet is a painting of the general store. Beside it is a beautiful bronze coloured pressed tin tile that was part of the beautiful ceiling of the shop. Delightfully animating the curation is a 1938 photo of neighbourhood youth congregating happily outside “Craig’s” doors, much like a neighbourhood 7-11 of today (albeit with some significant societal change).
The store was also at the end of the street car line into Charleswood from Winnipeg. Van Roon Sr. describes a practical joke in which explosives used by the streetcar service as a warning system were stolen and set on the tracks, exploding as the streetcar neared. Nevermore would the line driver take the streetcar to its end near the store in Charleswood, stopping well before the terminus.
Remembering those who fell
An interesting curation uses a corner area of the museum. At its centre is a sheaf of papers. Each page is a geographic map of Manitoba, each with a different lake coloured in red. These special lakes were named after a fallen Charleswood soldier. “Every one,” says Van Roon Sr. with sorrowful pride in his voice.
In local communities like Charleswood, war tragedies were felt deeply not only on a personal level but by the entire community.
Above the sheaf of papers is a water colour of a hilltop lion standing upon a British flag. It is an honour roll with a calligraphic title that reads: “Roll of Honor of All Men who Went Overseas from the Municipality of Charleswood During the Great War of 1914 to 19”.
Underlying the alphabetically ordered names is written, “Presented by the WA of St. Mary’s Mission”. The plaque was retrieved from a church.
A photo collection of fallen Charlewsood soldiers from both wars is part of the curation. It holds a touchingly personal flourish. In the spot where the photo of WWI soldier Alexander Sansagret should be, a note reads, “Regretably, no photograph available”.
A museum by and for the community
Above all, the Charleswood Museum is a museum of the community.
For example, the Beauchemin Family, who owned River lot 59, have artifacts on display in the museum. Closeby is a photo of Beauchemin family members in fur – perhaps buffalo – coats.
A beautiful 1845 decorative blanket that was woven on a loom is folded to showcase its uniqueness. It was woven to include its 1845 date and the name “Susan Bunn”, for whom it was made. The family heirloom was bequeathed to the late Gladys Bunn, a Charleswood resident and it was donated to the museum for all to enjoy.
Suddenly, a man walks into the museum carrying an oak chair. The chair looks old fashioned. It is ergonometrically carved and adjusts with two knobs that turn. The man seems busy, and he sits down in the chair for a seemingly welcome break. He explains he would like to make a donation to the museum.
“It belonged to my mother”, he explains. Her name is Frances Hutmacher, and she is 103 years old. They are in the midst of moving her into a local care facility, and the man is her youngest son, Myron.
The Hutmachers arrived in Charleswood in 1954 fom Bruno, Saskatchewn when Myron’s father was transferred to manage the Searle grain elevator located nearby. Frances was a schoolteacher and taught at Loudoun School. She took the chair with her when the school closed.
Loudoun School was a two room school house that taught grades 1 to 4, with these students seated in one row and the grades 5 to 8 students seated in the next row, explains Myron who attended the school.
Hutmacher offers to place a plaque on the chair at his own cost. A lively discussion ensues when Deanne Coombs, the education program co-ordinator, graciously refuses his offer and instead says the museum will pick up the cost.
Myron Hutmacher soon leaves the Museum with apologies and explains there is much to do. After all, this day his 103 year old mother was moving to a new residence.
The chair is a rare find; museum staff are delighted with its donation.
Many school groups visit the museum, where, unlike most museums, visitors can touch all artifacts – excluding one very important piece.
“We didn’t know we belonged to Charlie”, said Ms. Jamieson, who describes a curious story.
Years ago, the museum stored many of their artifacts in a local barn. The owner had other plans for the space and he called the Charleswood Historical Society to tell them their goods must be moved.
Once the move was completed, however, the owner called again to remind the Society that everything had to be cleared out. Puzzled, they arrived to the barn where they discovered Charlie.
Charlie has no history; it is unknown how Charlie got there, so the society claimed him for the museum. It is unknown how old he was, or how old the artifact is, but he is stuffed with straw which is an old taxidermy method. “He is at least over 100 years old now,” says Jamieson.
The artifact is displayed at the Charleswood Museum in an interesting manner. A old style suitcase sits next to him and an old style wodden egg crate rests in front. His hoof leads to a painting of lot 73 homestead of Earnest Campion. Nearby is Cyril Campion’s coffee pot. If only Charlie could tell us about the family’s story over a good cup of coffee!
There is also a wooden pulley wheel from the ferry crossing that once traversed the Assiniboia river at what is now the end of Berkley Street. Here the banks were tramped low by buffalo, who crossed the river in their migrations for many thousands of years.
It was also a fording site for Aboriginals and early pioneers, and today is a Provincial Heritage site marked by three interpretive panels. The story of the evolution of the buffalo is depicted in this original and particular curation at the Charleswood Museum.
Strolling more deeply into the main museum area, I suddenly notice movement at the back of the room. I turn to see Mr. Ken Morrissette sitting at a table with numerous chairs around it.
Morrissette is a Charleswood Historical Society director, whose family arrived in Charleswood in the 1880’s. He still holds the original tax receipt to the land dated 1894.
A teapot is brought to the table. It must be tea time for the volunteer staff, and they graciously invite this writer for a spot as they each make their way to tea.
“They say we shouldn’t forget,” says Van Roon Sr. “But we do. Those guys didn’t get to live the wonderful life we have,” he says, referring to those who fell during the wars as we sip tea and eat pie and ice cream.
At this Charleswood table I also learn it is possible to dismantle triple accordion barbed wire, and how a best friendship was formed through the many military line ups that placed, in alphabetical order, a young Frank Walden consistently beside a young Len Van Roon Sr.
“He was brilliant,” says Van Roon Sr. of Walden.
He details stories of someone who I feel I begin to know, at least a little bit. He’s the one who led Van Roon Sr. through the triple barbed wire, then past a warning sign of a skull and cross bones on the other side. Yet so sadly, Frank Walden himself never survived the war.
I also learn how one might begin talk to children about how such sacrifices were made. In visits to local schools (in just one topic of the museum’s heritage programming) a turning point that changed the course of the world history is introduced this way:
“If you touch these boots, you will be touching the boots that made it to France for a special occasion.”
Len Van Roon Sr. is a rare survivor of the first wave of men who stormed Juno beach. (The Royal Winnipeg Rifles were among the first to land on the open beach against enemy assault).
Also at tea is Peg White, the museum’s archivist who has recorded every slip of paper, photograph or artifact received by the society, including all of Chapman School documents and so much more.
The Chapman School collection includes bills for supplies like coloured chalk, a school wash basin and soap, as well as student records, letters from teachers applying for jobs and endlessly more, such as receipts for cord wood that was sold and delivered to the school by the Bauchemin family.
So extensive is the school collection that an entire room is devoted to it.
After tea, I drop into the school room. At just a glance, the room holds a school piano, texts from years back, photographs, desks from years gone by, and soon Mrs. Hutmacher’s storied oak chair.
Today Myron Hutmacher’s brother continues to collect the oral history of their mother’s fascinating time as a school teacher in an era that simply no longer exists. Frances has also written some memoirs in a book.
This room is a pleasant place. It can only be guessed how many young lives were reached by all the artifacts represented.
Soon it is 4 p.m. and closing time for the museum. The hour seems to have come so very soon after I had arrived. I bid everyone goodbye.
Closing the museum door, I retreat from its swirl of lives, loves, friendships, and stories. I don’t think I will every forget my visit there, nor the sense I now have of this community – and its dynamic whirl of how it came to be.