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After the deluge, High River’s museum thaws out Alberta’s history

Textile conservator Gail Niinimaa holds a 1950s-era Boy Scouts stetson, part of the Museum of the Highwood's collection damaged during last year's floods in southern Alberta.


Every Monday at 8 a.m., Gail Niinimaa drives to an industrial park and tells a man at the front gate to come looking for her frozen corpse if she's not out within an hour. She rolls up to a cold-storage trailer and opens the metal door. Just before stepping into the trailer's frigid embrace, she ties the open door to her car as extra insurance against a frosty demise.

Inside, the textile specialist roots among boxes containing mysterious frozen masses of untold historical value and pulls a few outside, relieved to escape the trailer's wrath.

"It's minus 15 or so in there, nobody can hear you outside – not a place you want to be stuck for a long time," said Ms. Niinimaa after hauling a load of boxes back to the sun-drenched loft where she's undertaking a groundbreaking project to reanimate part of Alberta's history that was nearly wiped out by last summer's floods.

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The floods wreaked such a massive emotional (three deaths, immeasurable trauma) and financial ($6-billion by some estimates) toll on southern Alberta, few but a coterie of history buffs noticed the rich cultural heritage that was lost.

Nowhere was that loss more severe than High River, the storied town south of Calgary that's been home to former prime minister Joe Clark, writer W.O. Mitchell and Wild West trick-roper Guy Weadick, founder of the Calgary Stampede. Fully three-quarters of the artifacts at the Museum of the Highwood – the small but impressive museum housed in an old CPR station that has come to symbolize the town's resilience – were destroyed.

Everything that could be salvaged was thrown in boxes and frozen in the trailer. Each item Ms. Niinimaa pulls from the trailer is a mystery. "Not sure what this one is," she said, dropping a frozen ball of mud and black fabric into a basin of warm water. "It was such a panic in June that none of it was labelled all that well."

For Irene Kerr, the museum's director and curator, there is no dissolving the memories of that day – June 20 – when the river kept coming. She arrived at work around 7 a.m., taking little notice of the puddle growing outside. By 9:30 it had covered car tires in the parking lot; at 10:30, the staff left for higher ground.

Ms. Kerr wasn't worried. In black-and-white photographs of floods gone by, the train station remained dry, its sandstone foundation perched just above the swollen river. "I thought we'd be back at work the next day," she said.

Eleven days later, the RCMP let her return. "We had no idea what was going on," she said. "People were angry. I was thinking of our collection, but nobody would give us an exception. We were told in essence that it was a police state." She rushed to the museum to find the main floor virtually untouched. "But the basement, oh the basement," she recalled.

The water had reached the ceiling, tossing artifacts, caking every surface with several inches of Highwood River silt. Over in the basement of the Highwood Memorial Centre, where the museum stored 10,000 artifacts, including its prized Guy Weadick hat, the muck was knee deep. "It was like a bomb went off down there," she said. "We had old Eaton's beauty dolls and I would find the head, or eyes. It stunk, it was dirty, moldy."

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For the next week, staff and volunteers donned hazmat suits and logged 12-hour days sorting the sodden artifacts. Some needed a rinse; others, such as a birdseye maple bedroom set and the town tax rolls from 1905 to 1949, had to be trashed, just like thousands of other keepsakes in thousands of soaked homes across the province. One after the other, the mud-caked items were packed into 200 boxes, hastily labelled and loaded in the freezer trailer.

Ms. Kerr was heartsick. "People give us these precious items as a public trust," she said. "As museum curator, that was the hardest thing. You feel you've failed."

Back in the loft, Ms. Niinimaa stirred the black fabric until the water bloomed with river silt. She transferred it among basins of clean water several times, then added Orvus paste, a neutral soap better known in these parts as cattle shampoo."You just never know what some of this stuff is," she said.

When she started this remediation job, she sought guidance in textbooks and academic journals. "But I couldn't find anything," said the one-time textile conservator for Calgary's Glenbow Museum. "As far as I can tell, this is new ground, to have so many museum items so wet and so dirty. They don't teach this in school."

The work of hiring a conservator, operating a freezer truck and preserving thousands of artifacts comes at a cost, and many have wondered why a small museum like Highwood bothers. The collection dates back no further than the 1870s, when the town was founded on the site of a Blackfoot camp, a low spot along the riverbank known as The Crossing.

The town mayor is happy to field that criticism. "From my standpoint as someone who was born and raised here, that flood made us all a serious part of the history of this town, and that makes us a serious part of that museum," he said. "When you have an event like this, you feel you might lose a bit of the town. The museum is there to prevent that."

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High River is bracing for more high water in the spring. The town hums with several huge construction projects focused on raising berms, lifting roadways and repairing the hard-hit downtown, making way for the new but without forgetting the past.

"Oh look," Ms. Niinimaa said, holding up the water-logged cloth, "it's a wool tux and tails, maybe 80 years old. There must have been a real high society in High River."

In recent weeks, she's been surprised to hoist from her wash basin a Joe Clark campaign T-shirt ("Joe Clark, That's Who!") and a Technicolor tangle of cloth that turned out to be four flapper-era cocktail dresses.

"Think of all the history that was lost or thrown out after the floods," she said, hanging the tux. "This could be all that's left."

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