Stories, people of Fort Smith at heart of Christmas exhibit

Stories, people of Fort Smith at heart of Christmas exhibit
PWK students in Jodi McMahon’s Grade 7 and 8 English classes were integral in putting A Very Fort Smith Christmas together, collecting items for the display, setting it up, and hosting the launch. Photos courtesy of the Northern Life Museum and Cultural Centre

The best Christmas movies always include some kind of lesson at the end.

George Bailey learns how much he is needed by his community after experiencing a universe where he doesn’t exist in the beloved Christmas classic film, It’s a Wonderful Life. “All of the other reindeer” learn that differently-abled beings like red-nosed Rudolph have just as much to offer as the brown-nosed variety. Even Charlie Brown and his fellow Peanutians learn the true meaning of Christmas in the seasonal special.

Much like those timeless classics, youth in Fort Smith learned about the importance of spending time and taking in the lessons of their elders while helping to build the Northern Life Museum and Cultural Centre’s wintertime exhibit, A Very Fort Smith Christmas.

In the weeks leading to its bustling launch on Dec. 6, teens in Jodi McMahon’s Grade 7 and 8 classes from PWK High School interviewed members of the community, digging for the best holiday stories Fort Smith has to offer.

Megan and Matthew Walsh test out a rocking horse during the holiday season in 2000.  Families were encouraged to share their best Christmas snaps with the museum.

Photo: Photo courtesy of NLMCC

Megan and Matthew Walsh test out a rocking horse during the holiday season in 2000. Families were encouraged to share their best Christmas snaps with the museum.

“We were working with her from start to finish including, almost a week spent going over there, helping, learning how to choose photos and how to set up exhibits. It was awesome,” said McMahon. “We got to delve fairly deeply into some of those questions of how to create and tailor things, which I thought was really beneficial for them.”

Joel Rhymer, Grade 7, interviewed wise woman and life-long trapper Jane Dragon, who spoke of her childhood Christmases in Fond du Lac, Sask.

“She said her family would go to midnight mass and then afterward they’d have a big feast with all the children’s friends and a couple of elders,” Rhymer said. “Then, as bedtime got closer, they’d all pick names out of a hat and whoever’s name you picked, you got to open a gift. Then once you opened your gift, go to sleep, then sleep in Christmas morning and open the rest of your gifts.”

His finished story can be found at the museum, titled One Special Gift.

Joe Sturgeon, also in Grade 7, heard about Fort Smith’s Christmas past not from a ghost, but from Marnie Villeneuve.

“There’s just so many things around Christmas here that you wouldn’t really see anywhere else in the world, like the Santa sleigh, the Schaefer Tree, just everybody coming together and doing Christmas parties and things like that,” Sturgeon said. “The actual interview itself would be my favourite part of the project because I learned a lot from that and I think it would help a lot of other people learn too, with my text. It definitely made me curious about different things that go on in Fort Smith and I’d like to learn more.”

Once the stories, photos and even holiday props had been collected with care, the students spent a week visiting the museum and putting up elements of the exhibit.

Elsie, Patricia and Marylan Yanick, Marlow, Anita, and Marnie D’haust, and Delores Yanick gather on a cold winter’s morning in 1946.

Photo: Photo courtesy of NLMCC

Elsie, Patricia and Marylan Yanick, Marlow, Anita, and Marnie D’haust, and Delores Yanick gather on a cold winter’s morning in 1946.

“They became very proud of the exhibit, it was interesting to watch them become engaged,” said museum manager Diane Seals.

“It was an amazing experience because it just engaged the community on a whole new level for creating an exhibition, so it was a really rewarding experience,” said NLMCC’s curator, Rachel Dell. “It also gave us an opportunity to get out so many artifacts that aren’t normally on display. (Longtime volunteer) Ray (Currie) was saying some of these instruments that we brought out to put on display with the choir and music and performance section probably hasn’t been on display for 30 or 40 years, if ever. They’re so beautiful, they deserve to be brought out and shown.”

A Very Fort Smith Christmas will be on display in the museum until Jan. 8.

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