Of the many really great museums I’ve been lucky enough to visit over the years, one of my favourites is the Reynolds Alberta Museum which is about two and half hours north of Calgary in a place called Wetaskiwin (which among other things is known for its water tower which reputedly is the oldest one in Canada !). On the same site is also Canada’s Aviation Hall of Fame which is also well worth a look see. This weekend was the annual Wetaskiwin Air show and so we took my father-in-law up to take in both the air show, as well as to take a look around the Reynolds Alberta Museum (or as it is often referred to – RAM) which I always find fascinating. The museum focuses on mechanical equipment used in Alberta prior to probably the late 1950’s with many of the finer pieces on exhibit clustered around the early 1920’s through the 1940’s – cars, trucks, planes, motorcycles, tractors, combines etc., as well as the more basic sorts of mechanical household items from the early days, such as milk separators. There is lots to see, but for me personally, I find I tend to spend a lot of time in the area of the restoration shop where you can watch restorers slowly rebuilding the equipment to be put on display – currently they are working on an old 1955 Chevy Nomad. This is quite literally a full ground up restoration effort, with many of the body panels having to be recreated by hand. Beautiful work.
Hidden away in one of the buildings on the museum grounds, is a warehouse stuffed with aircraft and vehicles awaiting restoration, and the one I particularly wanted to see was the full scale replica of the Avro Arrow, built by Allan Jackson also of Wetaskiwin, which was used in the CBC film called simply The Arrow. The folks at the RAM were kind enough to let us take my father-in-law behind the scenes to take a quick look at it, and in doing so made him a very happy man for which we are very grateful. The photo at the right was taken by Chris Gainor who has written several articles about RAM and the Avro Arrow.
The family connection is that both my father-in-law, and also my father worked for Avro on the Arrow back in the 1954 through 1959 time frame till the Arrow project was canceled in 1959 by Conservative Prime Mister John Diefenbaker. While the reasons for the cancellation were many and varied, doing so had a huge impact on high tech employment in Canada, which lasted well into the 1960’s – some would argue even longer. In the immediate aftermath of the project cancellation, roughly 14,000 direct employees became un-employed, together with several thousand indirect employees – or roughly the same number as the total population of the city of Prince Albert in Saskatchewan (about 24,000 in 1961) that Diefenbaker was elected to represent ! However you look at it the negative impact on the high tech segment of the Canadian economy in 1959 was huge. The fact that it has now been almost 50 years since the cancellation, and that people are still talking about it is probably the best indication of just how big an impact that was.
To cut a long story short, as we rolled my father-in-law, who is in his 80’s, up to the full size Arrow replica in his wheel chair, the look on his face was a study in both joy and grief all at the same time. Joy at seeing something that meant a lot to him personally, and grief over its cancellation and all that it might have been. While it isn’t the ‘real thing’, it sure looks real, and it was a very special moment.
The air show was great – but seeing the Arrow was definitely the high point, and more than reason enough to justify a visit to Wetaskiwin again in the future.