Embracing Eccentricity -- Museum Exhibit Musings
I was reading a blog and someone listed a museum’s ability to embrace eccentricity as a reason she liked museums (one among a long list of reasons she liked museums). I like that concept and I think that not only is this a reason I like some museums (though I don’t think as many embrace eccentricity as they used to) but it’s also why I like southern Alberta history – because there’s a lot of eccentricity sprinkled throughout our history (and, no, I’m not talking about me).
In the years 1906-1913 Lethbridge and southern Alberta had more than their fair share of “interesting” people and their stories give a different perspective of that time period.
George “Steamboat Bill” Messmer was one of those people. Born in Sun River, Pennsylvania in 1848, Steamboat Bill came first to Montana and then up to southern Alberta in the 1880s working as a bull whacker for the I.G. Baker Company. It is said that he could easily handle a team of 10 span of oxen. He later worked as a miner in Lethbridge and then went into sheepherding, spending his off seasons in Lethbridge.
To get to his sheepherding camp, which was in the Warner/Milk River area, Steamboat Bill would hitch a free ride on the train. Engineers were usually kind enough to stop (or at least slow down) when George got to the area around his camp. One time the engineer, Robert O’Hagan, would not give Bill a free ride. Bill said nothing but when the train left Lethbridge, he was riding on the cow catcher. This time, though, the train didn’t slow down for him to jump off. The train fireman reported that Bill rolled a long way but then got up, dusted himself off, and walked to his camp.
When he was in town, Steamboat Bill became known for his frequent altercations with the police. He also got into frequent fights. His remedy for cuts and bruises? Axle grease. He passed away in 1927 and his grave was purchased by the Lethbridge Old Timers’ Association.
Another such person was James “Coyote” Henry, who lived in the Chin Coulee area prior to moving into Lethbridge. Out there, he raised Clydesdales, which seem to have been quite well known throughout the area, and trained race horses. When he moved into Lethbridge he first lived in a dugout in the coulee just north of the Galt Hospital but was asked to move and relocated to a dug-out/shanty in a coulee just north of the railway tracks.
Not much is known about him before his arrival in southern Alberta. He was reported to be well-spoken and well-read and could quote chapter and verse from the Bible but he never talked of his past. No one knows how he acquired the nickname “Coyote” Henry but what is well known is that he bitterly resented the name “Coyote” and threatened physical harm to anyone who used it in his presence.
Also well known was his fear and obsession with mountain lions, who he thought were out to get him. Reports are that the least noise would have him grabbing for his shotgun and he often fired through the walls and roof of his house at the imaginary lions.
Following an incident where he threatened and shot at a neighbour, James Henry was committed to the asylum at Ponoka in 1911 where he died a few years later.
Include these stories in the exhibit or not? Are they case studies for how the area was changing? Or are the stories themselves just too eccentric?