A museum of particular interest to history buffs is tucked away in the Canadian city of Saskatoon. Its fantastic, newly-opened and highly-acclaimed, modern art museum, is attracting all the attention, but Saskatoon’s Western Development Museum is a work of art in itself, recreating a typical village during the Canadian push westward and documenting the life of its pioneering settlers, many of whom also settled in the northwestern US.
As you enter the museum, you are at the corner of a typical prairie town main street lined with its businesses and services. Most interesting among the shops is the clock shop, post office, and general store. But there are also a typical bank, blacksmith, and dentist’s office, among twenty others. A one-room schoolhouse now doubles as a café.
Old car enthusiasts will love the restored vehicles that line the street. You also find a firetruck and horse-drawn vehicles.
Various exhibits on either side of the main street delve into details of history. One is particularly noteworthy: “Winning the Prairie Gamble,” explains how immigrants from Europe were offered a chance to make it rich in Canada, and how many lost this wager. In 1905 (not that long ago), settlers were offered 160 acres of land if they came to Saskatchewan Province to settle. Upon arrival the settlers usually lived in houses made of sod until eventually many would be able to afford a pre-fabricated house bought from a catalog from Eaton’s, the Canadian equivalent of Sears. The house came in boxes to be assembled by the pioneer. One stands on the reconstructed street. Men typically arrived first, then sent for the family later.
Indigenous people were also given 160 acres of land and, being experienced farmers, taught the new arrivals their agricultural know-how. But as the prairie grew the government concocted a system, called “script,” used to deceitfully buy back the land granted to the indigenous population. When indigenous folks ended up having their land taken, many ended up in reservations.
The prairie boomed until around 1914 when the depression hit. Many pioneers did not make it through the depression, losing their pre-fabricated homes when the banks foreclosed. Those that did, however, found the years following the depression to be very profitable and prosperous once again.
Eventually, the prairie grew to what it is today. The museum documents innovation through the 1970’s. Exhibits about the later years include things that were in my childhood home. Between settlement and the 1970’s you are taken through the introduction of electricity and the new appliances that made life easier to bear. From hand washing on a washboard to washing machines, and from irons heated on the stove to electric irons, it’s amazing how products improved in so short a time.
Scattered throughout the museum are video explanations of the pioneer experience. I could feel the anxiety the pioneer families felt, moving to a life in an entirely new world, surviving the harsh climate, and learning how to grow their food or run one of the retail shops on display.
A section of the exhibit takes you through a typical fair, akin to our State Fair, with exhibits of what would have been the latest new products on display. A Fun House with distorting mirrors and lighted floors, and costumed manikins to scare children, gives you a glimpse into how people had fun before computers and smart phones.
Visit during Christmas season to see how a main street enhanced with lighted Christmas trees. Whenever you go, don’t skip this museum.