Fort Ross was the prairie’s ‘big Mac’

Written by by Max Muhy, CNN

Swapped for the dust of the past, the prairie offers signs of Canada’s diverse past.

The western region of Canada grew from a series of series of settlements and cities, but its landmarks stand in contrast to its stark modern properties.

The Gens de la Saskatchewan, a new exhibition of cars, fabrics and objects at Museum of Civilization, located in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, puts the focus on one such place: Fort Ross.

Alberta’s earliest settlement, Fort Ross began in 1811, creating a 17 mile long highway — the North West Route — and eventually sprouting a city center. In its heyday, Fort Ross lasted until 1975, with its inhabitants, or Gens, gathering and meeting for feasts of omelettes, pancakes and roast deer, which they roasted on a wood-burning pit.

Textiles in the exhibition show that the prairie’s residents were socially connected to one another.

In the exhibition “The Spirit of Fort Ross,” interior design researchers Annie Kinnaird and Christian Krivoshein weave a complex picture of the daily lives of the Gens.

Starting with a single line of pained penmanship on a notebook (a quick glimpse of the daily schedule of the Fort Rossers), Kinnaird’s research reveals the gradual changes and patterns of the workplace. Drawing on a databank of these notebooks, Kinnaird and Krivoshein graph the evolution of women’s work patterns and uniforms, telling the story of the evolution of a citizens’ identity from the prairie to the big city.

Elsewhere, they expand on the idea of a strong community: Since 1840, the number of dwellings in Sault Ste. Marie has doubled, but the residents still maintained strong relationships and encouraged local businesses to come into operation, lending them a continuity that developed as business took off.

A leather lamp, circa 1885, shown in the exhibition, is one of over 100 curios from a private collection. Credit: Jean Hanscomb

Kinnaird worked with designers, antique and modern curators to make Fort Ross into the carcentric environment of the exhibition, as well as incorporate the artefacts that the people left behind. The Gens’s stoneware calandria, or after dinner lights, were eliminated, allowing the exhibition space to expand into the barns, shops and workshops, and the narrow, winding streets that catered to the individuals’ personal needs.

Other examples of connections between the Gens and the city include lamp shades (shown in the exhibition), velour garments and table runners made for the Victoria de Tomasch (a port and accommodation headquarters) and in other pieces, local musicians, which became the soundtrack of the people’s lives.

Fort Ross, the Canadian city: the Big Mac drive-in?

You wouldn’t think an exhibit on the history of Canada’s prairie could look this eye-popping — but here’s a first. Gens de la Saskatchewan director Kamau Felts says that some of the show’s lesser-known items were preserved for the first time, with one piece being an 1885 leather lamp, made by a Calgary company — a piece that will not be seen in Canada’s antiques shops.

“We wanted to have some pieces to give you a feel for what it was like to be in Fort Ross,” Felts says. “Our goal was to give you an idea of what happened on the prairies, give you a sense of where those people came from and how they made their way to the city.”

“Everywhere we turned there was gold. It was incredible to be here and see how much tourism there was, especially in the ’80s and ’90s.”

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