Take a Walk Down 1905 Street With Me: A Love Letter to Fort Edmonton Park
Happy summer, Musings readers! It’s been a while since we last spoke and I missed you (and I know you missed me too), so to kick off our happy reunion, we’re going to talk about one of my favourite museums: Fort Edmonton Park.
Allow me to get nostalgic for a moment. Growing up in Edmonton meant that my summers were punctuated by visits to the living history museum nestled in the River Valley. Besides seeing my dog again (who is sitting on me as I write this), going to Fort Edmonton is what I'm looking forward to most about being back home.
And how can I not when their collection includes the 1919 Baldwin Locomotive 107, a plethora of vintage cars, and a mix of replica and original houses and buildings that chart Edmonton’s history from the sprawling fur trade fort in 1846 to the bustling 1920s midway (1905 Street has the best houses, in my humble opinion). The attention to detail throughout and the costumed interpreters that roam the park make it feel as though you’re in a lower-stakes version of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (and you also won’t be asked to make a presentation, so it's a win-win).
The park has been around since the 1960s, though it underwent major enhancements in recent years before finally reopening in 2021. Perhaps the most important addition was the creation of the Indigenous Peoples Experience. Housed amongst lush greenery a little ways from the fort, the Indigenous Peoples Experience explores different facets of multiple Indigenous cultures through their immersive programming and exhibits featuring clothing, art, and tools. A Métis cabin plays the Red River Jig, encouraging guests to come and discover Alberta’s Métis history. To their credit, the park doesn’t shy away from showing the harm Indigenous peoples suffered at the hands of the government and church, including making unfair contracts and the horror of the Residential Schools via a video. Local Indigenous leaders were consulted during its creation, and on my last visit, I got to talk to two interpreters who were beading in the cabin about their craft and what this means to them. In this way, the park’s collection is constantly being built upon and isn’t limited to artefacts; arguably, the interpreters are the most valuable part of the park’s “collection”.
As much as I gush over historic detailing (the Capitol Theatre’s washroom is decorated with photos of silent film stars, and you know I have to say hi to Clara Bow every time), it is the interpreters who make Fort Edmonton so special. Where else can you dance with a flapper, talk to a nurse and soldier who just returned from the First World War, or unwittingly end up in a fur trading dispute?
Fort Edmonton Park is still my favourite place in Edmonton, and, if I’m being completely honest, it's one of the reasons I’m in this program. While we commonly think of collections as objects behind a glass case, this is not always true. Arguably, the old Masonic Hall and the Rutherford house are also "objects" used to tell the story of Edmonton, with the interpreters creating a more intimate and interactive experience for guests. Instead of reading a text panel, visitors can directly engage with history through activities and conversations, creating a collection that's constantly in flux. And judging by the smiles and sense of awe in the eyes of inquisitive children throughout the park, it works. While some question if living history museums veer more towards education or entertainment, I say, why can't we have both? Sometimes, we just need that little nudge to get us interested in history, and if that comes from listening to an 1800s blacksmith explaining their job, then so be it.
So, if you need me this summer, you can find me at the fort.