Discovering surprises and hidden gems in small town museums
World-famous museums are often on our list of things to see when we travel, even if museum-going isn’t otherwise a regular event for us. We may also visit respected but lesser-known museums in cities along our way. But we often drive by the museums in villages and small towns without a second glance or even knowing they are there.
You might think small-town museums hold appeal mostly for those with family or personal connections in the area. It is true some content may mean more to locals than strangers. I enjoyed exhibits in the museum of the small town I grew up in, Morris, Manitoba, that others might not be as interested in: my uncle’s curling sweater, an article about my brother, and my own name in an old school register. But much of what I saw held a broader appeal. Entire room layouts, photographs, articles, and other exhibits provided glimpses into the history and personality of the area. (By the way Morris is about half-way between Winnipeg and the U.S. border along the main highway.)
My experience at the Morris Museum prompted curiosity and interest in other small town museums. St. Joseph is a small Francophone community of approximately two hundred people located in southern Manitoba. It seems an unlikely spot to find a reconstructed heritage village with restored buildings and an agricultural museum with exhibits of tractors and other agricultural machinery, one of the largest collections of stationary machinery in the Canadian West. The museum had its beginnings with Jean-Louis and Marie-Laure Perron, who collected artifacts representing the history and lives of the pioneers of the Red River Valley. Due to museum construction and my own time constraints, I did not tour the agricultural portion of this museum, but was impressed with the rest of what I saw.
A variety of exhibits are contained within a large, new timber-frame museum building. Murals by Manitoba artist Hubert Théroux depict historical scenes from the area.
There is no school in St. Joseph anymore, but when the guide took me inside the restored one-room school house, she told me there are still people in town who recall school days when teaching in French was not allowed in public schools. However, schools in many rural Francophone communities did offer instruction in French, telling students to put away their French books when inspectors were coming. This started to change in the 1970s. Today, there is a Français school division providing instruction entirely in French to Franco-Manitobans and many French Immersion schools offering instruction in French to students whose mother tongue is not French.
When the Plankey Plains Ukrainian Catholic Church closed, the wood-stove heated church, built in 1938, was moved to the St. Joseph Heritage Village. The museum board felt it was appropriate to sit alongside the Francophone history as it reflected the nature of the broader community.
Sometimes the museum building itself is part of the history and display. The museum in Miami, Manitoba is in a an old railway station. The museum in Plum Coulee, Manitoba, a town of about 850 people, is located inside an old wood grain elevator. Elevators such as this one, designed to receive, store, and ship grain, were once a prairie icon. The traditional elevators have been disappearing since the 1990s, replaced with concrete high-capacity terminals. I’ve not had opportunity yet to visit the inside of either the Miami or Plum Coulee Museums. I did tour a museum in Okotoks, Alberta housed in a stately home built in 1905. Over the years, it was home to several prominent families.
Okotoks is a growing community of around twenty-eight thousand people. It is eighteen kilometres south of Calgary. Today’s population includes a number of people who commute to Calgary for work. The town dates back to the late 1800s. A community built up around a sawmill. The surrounding area was largely agricultural. A significant part of the Okotoks Museum highlights that agricultural history.
Small-town museums are often managed and run by volunteers. The guides, paid or volunteer, are usually passionate about their town’s history and provide fascinating tidbits of information. Admission is generally low, sometimes free. The next time you are about to pass by a small town, you might want to consider stopping in and checking out its museum. However, be advised there may be limited open hours, due to reliance on volunteers and limited funds. Some are seasonal. Most museums in small towns in Manitoba, for example, are only open during summer months.
Have you come across interesting (and perhaps surprising) small-town museums?