Stories from pioneers provide village time capsule

Alberta town project collects oral records from senior citizens about the challenges and triumphs of settling on the Prairies

Talk to a senior and the hidden gems tumble out. 


Those conversations can often hold the missing details that make up a community.


For example, Lana Black casually mentioned that her husband’s grandmother was late for a ship when she travelled to join her family in Canada. She missed the Titanic.


The story of the family’s journey to Canada is now recorded and part of the oral history of Holden, Alta.


With a $3,500 provincial grant, the village hired Janet Nahirniak to record the oral histories of 10 seniors as part of the community’s heritage preserve plan.


By recording seniors’ stories, the village hopes to gain an understanding of what the community was like in the boom times.


“We want to capture some of their stories. What was it like in the previous era? We want to capture the stories of life in a small town before they are all gone,” said Katherine Whiteside, the village’s chief administration officer.


Built in 1909, Holden was once a vibrant rural community on Highway 14, east of Edmonton. Over the years businesses along Main Street have changed, buildings burned and rebuilt, children born, raised and married. Some stayed to make Holden their home.


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Now, like many rural communities, Holden is struggling to survive. However, Holden does have a surprising amount of older buildings in various stages of disrepair and neglect. The village used previous government programs to create an inventory of the historic buildings and their uses and now wants to use seniors’ stories to bring those buildings back to life.


“There are very few people left who were alive and know how the heritage came about and when it was a booming centre,” said Whiteside.


Preserving the community’s heritage is also part of a long-term economic development program. Whiteside said it’s surprising how many people return to Holden seeking their roots. Recently, a couple from Greece toured the village and a nearby farm where the man’s father and grandfather lived.


“There is part of the community that looks similar to when their family was here. That is both sad and interesting,” she said.


“The heritage is a draw for visitors who enjoy a glimpse of the past.”


The village recently gave historic designation to a church built in 1915 by Norwegian immigrants.


It’s the stories behind those buildings that the oral history project is trying to capture.


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Nahirniak said it is crucial for communities to record the stories. 


“The seniors are dying and their stories and memories and what was important to that generation is dying with them,” said Nahirniak.


“We’re a province of immigrants. The stories are about perseverance and conquering adversity. This is where we come from.”


Nahirniak’s first round of interviews asked questions based on what the community is hoping to record, but in subsequent visits the seniors were eager to talk about something they have remembered that was triggered by the first visit.


“You get a richness to this. They become engaged.”


The interviews are recorded digitally, and the village will use them for further historical research. 


The seniors will also receive a copy for their family’s records.


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